Sunday, November 1, 2009

Growth Despite Bloodshed? Intra-state Conflict in South-East Asia

Internal conflict poses one of the greatest obstacles to South-east Asian integration and regional development today. Daljit Singh claims that “for the near future, the main sources of South-East Asia’s insecurities will continue to lie not in its external environment but within South-East Asia itself”.This is demonstrated by the fact that most of the countries within the South-East Asia region are stricken by some form of internal strife. In fact, Singapore and Brunei alone can claim to be free of internal problems. While this article focuses on armed conflict, it is necessary to note that this is not the only form of internal strife affecting South-East Asia. Political instability, environmental hazards and racial divisions are among the many internal problems facing the countries in the region.

Moreover, the absence of armed inter-state conflicts in South-East Asia does not mean that the region is tension free. Territorial disputes and other forms of inter-state rivalry continue to hinder progress towards greater regional integration and development. Terrorism presents a challenge on both the internal and the regional front. While some of the non-state actors described in this article are considered to be terrorist groups, this article will be not be focusing on this label and will concentrate instead on their roles as separatist movements.

Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar and Indonesia are all affected by intra-state conflicts. These conflicts are long-standing and fall into the medium and low-intensity categories. In recent years, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos have witnessed sporadic outbreaks of violence carried out by non-state actors. However, these incidents have not escalated into full-scale conflict. Timor-Leste, the only country in South-East Asia which is not a member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), is still recovering from the 2006 security crisis and the attempted assassination of President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in 2008.

The Impact of Internal Conflict

There can be no doubt that the economic impact of internal conflict is significant. Economic growth is inextricably linked with political stability. This is largely due to the fact that conflict and instability are a drain on national resources but also because they serve as a deterrent to foreign investors as well. Internal instability also hinders development because of the damage to infrastructure that results from armed conflict. An Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) report on the impact of internal conflict and terrorism on economic growth found that internal conflicts have a much greater negative growth influence than transnational terrorist events or external conflicts.The report also found that developing countries in Asia are much more likely to be affected by political violence than developed countries in the region.

Furthermore, intra-state conflict hinders progress towards greater regional integration. Plans for greater connectivity between countries cannot come to fruition when the political environment is destabilised by armed conflict. At the same time, intra-state conflicts can adversely affect integration due to the potential impact of such conflicts. There is an awareness that if countries take steps towards regional integration, such as inter-state transport links and energy grids, then any escalation in conflict could potentially disable an entire region, rather than just one country.

According to Ekaterina Stepanova, armed conflict provides a favourable environment for other forms of violence and may even cause them.This can be attributed to a number of factors. The first is that armed conflict often creates an environment in which institutions cease to function effectively. When this occurs, the rule of law is often the first to suffer.

Lawlessness in conflict stricken areas allows crime and more specifically violence to flourish. Conflicts can put a strain on the resources of the legal system and may create a legal backlog, increasing the time taken to bring criminals to justice. Slow legal processes could potentially lead citizens to seek justice by bypassing the judicial system. Increases in violence can also be ascribed to societal changes brought about by prolonged periods of conflict, especially in societies which have become militarised.

It is also important to bear in mind the humanitarian impact of internal conflict, in terms of death tolls, population displacement and the psychological effects for those affected by conflict. These are all factors which hinder development and pose an obstacle to peaceful conflict resolution.

Intra-state Conflict in South-East Asia

Thailand is beleaguered by a Muslim insurgency in the southern Pattani region. The number of violent incidents in the area escalated drama-tically in 2004. The insurgents are fighting for a Muslim homeland in the south of the country on the basis of their Malay ethnicity. More than 3000 people have been killed since January 2004.5 However, the effects of the conflict in southern Thailand have been overshadowed by the political instability that has prevailed in Bangkok over recent months. The continuing instability caused by supporters of the former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has led to fears that political tensions could escalate into violence. According to The Economist, the Thai economy has been fairly resilient to date. There is, however, a risk of political tensions damaging the economy in future.

There has been fighting in Myanmar’s northeastern Kokang Province over recent weeks. The result has been the displacement of tens of thousands of people, mostly from the Shan tribe. The conflict was initiated by the Myanmar armed forces and signaled the breaking of a twenty-year-long ceasefire. The fighting came to an end when Myanmar fired into Chinese territory. Myanmar was swift to apologise but there can be no doubt that Myanmar-Chinese relations have been damaged. The armed forces also launched an offensive against the Karen National Union (KNU) in June, resulting in the displacement of 3000 people. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), the Kachin Independence Organisation, the Shan State Army (North) and the New Mon State Army retain the status of armed ethnic organisations despite being ceasefire organisations. They have refused to participate in the forthcoming elections in Myanmar and the ICG suggests that there is a risk, albeit a small one, that ceasefire groups may resume fighting if the elections prove to be a failure.

There has been much talk of Myanmar granting transit facilities to India and Bangladesh to improve connectivity between South and South-East Asia. The question has to be raised whether such projects are feasible in light of the ongoing insurgencies in many parts of the country. The wisdom of investing in infra-structure in a country riddled by conflict and which is likely to see an escalation in fighting in the run up to national elections next year, has to be questioned.
Fighting continues in the southern Philippines, with the government pushing hard for a resolution of the insurgency. Last month has seen an intensification of military operations in Mindanao. There are hopes that renewed efforts by the armed forces will end the insurgency but as yet an end to the fighting appears to be far off. The southern Philippines are home to a number of armed groups including the Abu Sayyaf rebels and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The latter have been fighting for independence since the 1960s. Mindanao is also home to a Maoist insurgency which began in 1969 with the formation of the New People’s Army (NPA), the military branch of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The NPA is believed to have around 5000 members. According to Vatikiotis, internal conflict in the Philippines has resulted in the creation of safe havens for international terrorists. Mindanao has almost certainly provided refuge for members of regional terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), although whether these groups have extra-regional links remains the subject of heated debate. This, perhaps, serves as an incentive for the international community to take a significant interest in the resolution of the conflict. American troops are currently deployed in the Philippines in order to support peace talks between the MILF and the Government of the Philippines. There have been reports that the American troops are involved in combat operations; however this has been categorically denied by the US embassy in Manila. While the conflicts have generally been contained within the Mindanao region, there have been a number of violent incidents in other parts of the Philippines, including Manila. Despite this, Malcolm Cook claims that economic growth in the Philippines in 2007 was not adversely affected by the aforementioned conflicts. The Philippines thus appears to be bucking the trend outlined by Gaibulloev and Sandler with regard to the economic impact of internal conflict.

While the conflicts in the Indonesian province of Sulawesi and the Maluku Islands have died down, there continue to be occasional outbreaks of communal violence. Moreover, the Free Papua Movement’s (OPM) battle for independence continues in West Papua. Last year (2008) saw increasing reports of religious tensions in the province. An influx of Muslim migrants from the rest of Indonesia was believed to be the cause of these tensions, which occurred between the Muslim and Christian communities. There has been a sharp increase in the number of violent incidents in the province in 2009. According to the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research’s Conflict Barometer 2008, the Sulawesi and Maluku conflicts are level-two conflicts while the Papua conflict is a level-three conflict. This puts it in the medium-intensity category. The HIIK states that level-three conflicts are crises, which they define as being “a tense situation in which at least one of the parties uses violent force in sporadic incidents.” Level-two conflicts are defined as being manifest conflicts. These are essentially non-violent but involve “the use of measures that are located in the stage preliminary to violent force.”There were also political tensions in Aceh earlier this year, despite the 2005 ceasefire. These tensions arose in the period prior to the 2009 parliamentary and legislative elections. The situation did not escalate into full-scale conflict but there were outbreaks of violence including the shooting of members of the
Aceh Transitional Committee. The situation in the province remains fragile and the possibility of renewed armed conflict persists.

Despite the terrorist attacks in Jakarta in July and the tensions outlined above, the Indonesian economy has also been showing signs of resilience. The Economist predicts the GDP will grow by more than four per cent this year despite the global financial crisis. It therefore appears that the major South-East Asian economies are less affected by internal conflict than what the theory suggests.

Timor-Leste, which is aspiring to become a member of the ASEAN, continues to suffer political instability. Despite the presence of the the United Nations Integrated Mission for Timor-Leste (UNMIT) the risk of a return to violence remains. In June 2009 members of the Timor-Leste Defence Force purportedly turned their weapons on the United Nations Police Force (UNPOL) officers after a disagreement regarding the handling of a clash between two martial arts groups in Maliana.13 Such incidents seriously impede Timor-Leste’s progress towards stability. The regional impact of violence in Timor-Leste is, however, limited as the country is not a major player on the South-East Asian economic and political scenes.


In conclusion, it seems clear that intra-state conflict has had a significant, although not crippling, effect on the South-East Asia region. Interestingly, according to K. Kesavapany of the ISEAS, political instability did not have a major impact on growth rates in the region. However, while the economic repercussions have not been as marked as they have been in other regions plagued by internal strife, there can be no doubt that growth is being restricted by intra-state conflict. Moreover the money spent on combating separatists and rebuilding infrastructure that has been destroyed during fighting could be used for development. The region will fail to fulfil its economic potential until the various manifestations of internal strife are addressed. There can be no doubt that progress towards regional integration within South-East Asia and with the rest of Asia has also been hampered by intra-state conflict. Greater integration and connectivity will only be possible when the region has stabilised.

Vatikiotis argues that armed conflict in South-East Asia has “complicated moves to reform military and civil society institutions” and is “a drag on democratic development”. This is almost certainly the general trend. However, it is worth noting that there are countries which do not suffer internal conflict, which are not strictly democratic; and there are democratic countries which are plagued by civil conflict, such as Indonesia and the Philippines. It must therefore be noted that while internal conflict may serve to hinder democracy in some cases this is not the rule in South-East Asia. Vatikiotis adds that the lawlessness prevailing as a consequence of internal conflict in South-East Asia allows criminal activities, such as smuggling and gun-running, to flourish while permitting corruption and organised crime to continue unchecked.15 This is in keeping with Stepanova’s claim that armed conflict breeds non-conflict related violence.

It is clear that the impact of internal conflict is multi-faceted. South-East Asia, however, seems to be coping relatively well with the challenges that it faces on this front. This does not mean that the countries within the region can become complacent. The dangers posed by intra-state conflict are very real and effective conflict resolution would greatly aid progress towards regional development and economic integration.

By Anna Louise Strachan Visiting Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (South-East Asia Research Programme), New Delhi. Her research interests include internal
conflict, electoral issues, minority politics and the UN approach to peacekeeping.

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