After a Spike in Violence, What Next for Myanmar’s Divided Peace Process?

The government aims to hold a fourth 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference with the ten Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatories in early-2020 (Image Source: A. N. Soe, VOA)

Since the crackdown on the Rohingya in mid-2017, Rakhine State, along the border with Bangladesh in Myanmar’s volatile west, has been the epicentre of violence in a nation where multiple civil wars have raged since the 1940s. While more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have remained encamped in squalid conditions across the border, the military – known as the Tatmadaw – has taken the fight to a band of Arakanese Buddhist militants active the area, known as the Arakan Army (AA), bringing further bloodshed to Rakhine. Yet in August, a spate of insurgent attacks 600km to the northeast re-opened a dormant front on Myanmar’s battlefield, threatening to alter the dynamics of the conflict.

On 15 August, three allied ethnic armed groups – the AA, along with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – launched a series of co-ordinated attacks in the Mandalay and Shan regions. In the township of Naung Cho, the groups’ fighters – collectively known as the Northern Alliance, or Brotherhood Alliance – attacked a railway bridge, killing seven Tatmadaw troops and three policemen. Elsewhere, a military training academy and several toll gates were attacked, while at least four strategic bridges were destroyed with IEDs.

The unexpected attacks drew an immediate response from the army and sparked weeks of intense fighting, triggering the most widespread violence witnessed since the height of the Rohingya crisis.

Yet the sudden deterioration in security pushed the two main perpetrators – the Northern Alliance and the government – to come to the negotiating table. Two rounds of informal talks were held in late-August and mid-September, leading the Northern Alliance to declare a unilateral truce until 31 December. Yet despite the positive rhetoric accompanying the ceasefire, the AA, TNLA and MNDAA have continued to launch attacks, prompting the military to respond furiously and call an end to its own unilateral ceasefire on 21 September, which had been routinely extended throughout the year.

Meanwhile, ten ethnic armed groups who had previously signed the collective Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government, initiated in 2015, met government negotiators in September with the aim of reviving the stalled national-level peace process. After a two-day meeting in Yangon, the signatories reportedly agreed to hold a fourth union-level Panglong Peace Conference early next year. If the summit goes ahead in early-2020 as hoped, it would signal the resumption of formal talks for the first time since 2018 and likely achieve more than was possible in recent informal discussions.

Yet with fighting ongoing and the Tatmadaw’s unilateral ceasefire now called-off, will recent signs of momentum in talks be sustained? And, what chance of formal negotiations being revived next year?

Myanmar’s divided peace process

The election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2015 brought fresh hope of a resolution to the decades-old ethnic conflicts which have raged since Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. The NLD hoped to build on the pre-existing NCA, signed in October of that year, by holding a series of 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences, named after a peace summit held in the mid-20th Century by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San. Yet overall, the situation has worsened.

Little progress has been made through the NCA mechanism; which only a collection of smaller armed organizations have embraced. Most NCA signatories operate only in the less-active southern conflict zones of Kayah, Kayin and Mon. Violence elsewhere has surged. Since a spate of AA attacks on police border guard outposts in January, more than 65,000 civilians have fled their homes in Rakhine State, while hundreds of combatants are thought to have been killed on both sides amid escalating clashes. The townships of Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U and Rathedaung have been particularly hard hit. Paletwa township, in neighbouring Chin State, has also emerged as a conflict flashpoint.

Myanmar PP (2)
Despite Aung San Suu Kyi serving as Myanmar’s de-factor leader, the military retains a dominant influence over politics, particularly on security and defence matters (Image Source: Adam Jones)

While groups in the northeast had been largely quiet over the past year after holding tentative talks with the government, August’s bloodshed rapidly altered the picture. The Northern Alliance attacks – which it must be noted, did not involve insurgents from fourth member of the alliance, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – had a negative impact on the civilian population, trade and the regional economy. The destruction of key bridges and the burning of trucks severely impeded the vital cross-border trade with China, as the strategic border trading town of Muse became virtually inaccessible from the Myanmar side for a week in mid-August. In addition to the financial implications, the raids prompted a large-scale military crackdown, threatening to open up a deadly new front in the north.

Fragile ceasefires and informal talks

On 31 August, and again on 16-17 September, representatives of the government-directed National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NPRC) met Northern Alliance leaders in Shan’s Kengtung township. China – which has influence over the alliance members and an obvious strategic interest in ensuring stability and unimpeded trade along its border – pressured both sides to end the fighting. A Chinese delegation led by a senior official from Yunnan province, Guo Bao, attended the second summit. The meetings resulted a temporary reduction of tensions, as both parties agreed to hold further talks. On 9 September, in what initially appeared to represent a potentially major breakthrough, the Northern Alliance declared a month-long ceasefire to ‘build trust’, and later extended it until the end of 2019.

After the second meeting, there was even talk of a bilateral ceasefire, with local media stating that a seven-point plan had been agreed in principle. Yet nothing was signed, and in retrospect it is unclear if the rebel representatives at the talks were granted authority by their superiors to agree a concrete deal. Despite the positive direction of talks, armed encounters – with both sides accusing each other of initiating violence – have continued to occur on a near-daily basis in Shan and Rakhine. With little sign of restraint, the Tatmadaw has raised doubts over the sincerity of the Northern Alliance groups and opted on 21 September to terminate its own ceasefire, which had covered five army command regions. That ceasefire – which had been in place since late-2018 – had also been routinely violated.

Familiar obstacles to peace

The divided nature of Myanmar’s peace process continues to represent the most obvious barrier to progressive talks. While smaller, weaker and less-active groups are committed to the NCA, the more powerful Northern Alliance groups are intent on negotiating a bilateral ceasefire on their own terms. A third, wider coalition of ethnic armies, led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and united via the UWSA-fronted Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), are also seeking a separate arrangement. The ultimate end result envisioned by most non-state ethnic armed groups is expanded autonomy within a federal system of government. But with so many actors – with varying aims, motives and ideologies – a truly nationwide agreement will be hard to secure. The complexity of Myanmar’s overlapping wars has led to almost inevitable stagnation and deadlock in discussions.

More immediate, short-term obstacles, concern events on the ground in Rakhine and Shan. Both the military and Northern Alliance have accused each other of escalatory tactics. The AA and TNLA claim the Tatmadaw has moved troops into their areas of influence and opened fire on civilians, while the military maintains these groups have launched unprovoked ambushes and planted landmines near villages. An unrelenting cycle of violence since mid-August has eroded trust and fostered suspicion.

The Northern Alliance aside, a fourth Panglong conference in early-2020 with the NCA signatories, if it goes ahead, would represent a positive development. For the first time since July 2018, the parties to the NCA would all be around the same table for meaningful talks to discuss ways to move forward in the political arena. Autonomy and federalism would likely be the key talking-points. Regarding the Northern Alliance, halting clashes would be the priority, and further rounds of informal talks may aid in terms of limiting violence and ensuring communication channels remain open. These groups pose the largest threat at present. If a bilateral ceasefire could be agreed, perhaps with China as the third-party mediator, a more conducive environment for entry into the NCA mechanism may yet develop.

The government looks unlikely to waver from the NCA path, to which the military and NLD appear to be fully committed. Yet as long as the NCA remains ‘Nationwide’ in name only, fighting will continue. Only when the Northern Alliance and FPNCC-tied groups are brought on board – which would entail tough compromises on both sides – will the NCA represent an opportunity for meaningful progress.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Amid Myanmar’s Internal Strife, Landmines are a Hidden Killer

Landmine explosions have led to more than 4,000 recorded casualties in Myanmar since 1999. Owing to reporting difficulties, the total figure is likely to be far higher. (Image Source: pxhere)

On 10 July, a farmer in the rural township of Kutkai, in Myanmar’s northern Shan state, was working in his paddy field when a landmine concealed beneath vegetation exploded, inflicting severe injuries. The victim – a 39-year-old father of three children – was rushed to hospital with shrapnel wounds to his left leg, hand and stomach, but fortunately survived. The area where the blast took place is home to multiple armed groups, who have fought the military – known as the Tatmadaw – for generations.

The story is sadly a familiar one in volatile remote border regions around Myanmar’s long perimeter, which are heavily contaminated with landmines as a result of unrelenting violence since the mid-20th Century. The 2015 election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), after initial reforms introduced by the former ruling military junta in 2011, brought hope that insurgencies would die out and pave the way for landmine removal. Four years on, de-mining has still not started.

Since then, peace talks have stalled while hostilities in Shan state in the northeast, and Rakhine state in the west, have only worsened and made international headlines. Reports of indiscriminate killings, torture, ethnic cleansing and mass displacement have emerged, drawing frequent coverage in global media. Yet landmines have inflicted carnage under the radar. More often linked to former war zones elsewhere in Southeast Asia, mines are also a deadly hidden side-effect of Myanmar’s internal strife.

Myanmar’s landmine problem

Insurgencies have been waged by ethnic armies in Myanmar’s borderlands since the nation secured independence from Britain at the end of the colonial period in 1948. Landmines have been adopted as a vital tool of guerrilla warfare by rebels who have battled Naypyidaw for autonomy and resource rights in the remote, densely-forested and mountainous border regions of the northeast. Landmines are unsophisticated weapons; cheap to produce and easy to conceal along isolated roads and jungle paths, where they are planted to inflict casualties on the military without the risk of incurring losses.

Mines are regularly used by ethnic armies in rural ambushes against the Tatmadaw, and also for the defence of pockets of rebel-controlled territory in the countryside. Myanmar has not acceded to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, and government forces also regularly plant landmines during their offensives. The devices are allegedly used by the army to stoke fear and contain the spread of insurgent groups.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) has recorded at least 4,193 casualties due to landmines in Myanmar since data collection began in 1999, with 537 killed and 3,538 injured. As a result of media restrictions and lack of access to conflict zones in Myanmar, the true figure is likely higher, with one humanitarian group estimating as many as 40,000 victims since the late-1940s. In terms of annual casualties – 202 in 2017 and 276 in 2018 – Myanmar comes first in Southeast Asia and ranks as the third-worst mine-affected nation globally, behind only Colombia and Afghanistan.

Civilians are disproportionately affected by landmines. Explosions most often occur on cropland and on remote forest paths, maiming farmers, villagers and children. (Image Source: ICBL)

Myanmar’s most heavily-contaminated regions are along borders with China, India and Bangladesh, in the active conflict zones of Shan, Kachin, Sagaing, Chin and Rakhine. Further south in Bago, Kayah and Kayin – where conflicts have receded in recent years – areas along the border with Thailand are also heavily minded. In all, nine of Myanmar’s fifteen states and administrative regions are affected.

A disproportionate number of landmine victims are ethnic minority civilians living in rural townships. Villagers and farmers often sustain injuries when tending crops, venturing into the forest in search of food or tending animals; while children are often struck after inadvertently triggering a mine while playing outside. The impact on livelihoods and economic development in the countryside is huge – many blast survivors are blinded or require the amputation of a limb, leaving them unable to work.

Political transition marred by violence

The November 2015 election win for the NLD coincided with the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) the previous month, between the government and eight armed groups. The NCA included a pledge to co-operate on removing mines and boosted hopes that de-mining work would start in areas controlled by the signatories. Yet the ongoing peace process with the NCA parties has since stalled, and hostilities have since reignited in the north and west, where non-signatory groups are based. As yet, no mines have been cleared and fresh mine use has been reported on both sides.

During the Rohingya crackdown of 2017, the Tatmadaw allegedly laid mines in the path of refugees fleeing northern Rakhine for Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch said soldiers planted anti-personnel mines along roads and at border crossing points, citing witness accounts and video footage. Ethnic armed groups including the Arakan Army (AA), Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have also continued to use mines in ambushes against Tatmadaw troops.

Just last month, the AA detonated a mine next to a military patrol in Mrauk-U on 23 July. The next day, KIA rebels ambushed an army convoy with landmines in Muse, killing two Tatmadaw soldiers.

What is preventing landmine clearance?

The halting of further landmine use, and the clearance of existing mines, is closely dependent upon the NCA-centred peace process. Since two more non-state armed groups signed the accord in early-2018, dialogue has broken down amid disagreement over constitutional changes, and rebel groups have split into a network of fractured alliances. A growing coalition of national humanitarian NGOs and international de-mining groups, ready to start work, have had to place clearance plans on hold.

Clashes between army troops and ethnic rebels have intensified across the country in the past year, with the states of Rakhine and Shan worst-affected. (Image Source: Paul Vrieze, VOA)

To survey land and clear mines requires the permission of both the government and ethnic armies, which control territory in many contaminated areas. Yet with the peace process stalled, both sides are reluctant to de-mine. There remains a distinct lack-of-trust and hostility between the opposing parties, solidified by seven decades of fighting. Landmines have long been used by ethnic insurgent groups for defensive purposes; and in the absence of access to powerful conventional weapons to match the Tatmadaw’s firepower, landmines are deeply entrenched in local-level conflict dynamics.

Without the green light to start clearance work, efforts by humanitarian groups so-far have focused on victim assistance and risk education. A limited national-level infrastructure has been put in place to co-ordinate these programmes, with the Mine Risks Working Group (MRWG) being established in 2012. The MRWG is co-chaired by UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Welfare, and comprises several other ministries and around 40 humanitarian groups. Despite the initiative raising public awareness, the ICBL found in its most recent report that there is ‘no systematic effort’ underway to clear mines.

The administration in Naypyidaw has still not signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, as 164 other nations have done, and shows little sign of committing in the near future. And despite nominally-civilian NLD leader and Myanmar’s de-facto ruler Aung San Suu Kyi calling for an end to mine use in the past, the Tatmadaw remains in control of defence and security issues and is unlikely to relinquish its ability to use the weapon. Given Suu Kyi’s failure to restrain the army, even her past words are now tarnished.

Civilians living in fear

Mine clearance on any major scale cannot begin until the nationwide peace process is finalized and a stable security environment prevails in Myanmar’s long-contested border regions. Given the current deadlock in talks and the resurgence of violence in 2019, such a scenario appears a remote prospect.

Hopes for landmine clearance were raised after the election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 2015. Yet four years on, de-mining work has still not started due to a stalled peace process and escalating violence in border regions. (Image Source: A. N. Soe, VOA)

In the absence of unhindered access for international de-mining operators and the resulting lack of a detailed contamination survey, the full extent of the problem and priority areas for clearance remain unknown. Such work can make a difference: on the former battlefields of Vietnam and Laos, detailed surveys have vastly reduced annual fatalities since the mid-1990s despite much ordnance remaining.

Yet unlike in its neighbours, where the guns fell silent decades ago, Myanmar’s internal conflicts are still raging. For as long as the violence continues and for decades after a final peace accord is signed, civilians who have for so long lived in fear of violence between Tatmadaw soldiers and ethnic rebels must also face the explosive legacy of Myanmar’s intractable conflicts buried deep beneath the soil.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Is India’s Nagaland Peace Process Nearing a Breakthrough?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued peace talks with Naga rebels since coming to power in 2014. Modi was elected to serve a second term in May 2019. (Image Source: Al Jazeera).

Since the 1950s in India’s remote northeast, ethnic Naga insurgents along the border with Myanmar have fought the central government in New Delhi for either full independence or greater autonomy. The Naga rebel movement has been characterized by splits, infighting and failed peace agreements, while major outbreaks of violence have been largely contained by a succession of fragile ceasefires.

Now, after two decades of talks between the government and the largest rebel faction, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM), a breakthrough appears to be edging closer. After the re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year, the leader of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Nagaland – state Deputy Chief Minister Y Patton – expressed confidence that Modi would ‘solve the Naga political issue during his time’, adding ‘let us all sincerely pray for him’.

The government is looking to finalize a framework peace accord signed with the NSCN-IM in 2015. At the time, Modi said ending India’s longest-running internal conflict would help bring ‘peace, security and economic transformation to the northeast’; a stated priority of his administration. Yet four years on, the deal has still not been finalized and frustration is rising. Despite the delay, amid concern that the aspirations of the NSCN-IM and other factions may not be satisfied, is a breakthrough imminent?

Tracing the history of Nagaland’s Insurgency

Nagaland is located in India’s restive northeast, and is one of seven states separated from the rest of India by the narrow Siliguri Corridor. Nagas are predominantly Christian and English-speaking, while the group as a whole consists of 17 major tribes and many smaller sub-tribes – many of which retain distinct local customs, dress and languages. Naga tribes were united under Angami Zapu Phizo, who formed the Naga National Council (NNC) in 1947, shortly before India’s independence from Britain.

An initial nine-point agreement was signed in which Naga areas would be governed within the state of Assam for a period of ten years, during which time the Nagas were to be afforded limited powers and land rights. However, Phizo rejected the deal and declared independence for the Nagas, and the idea of Naga sovereignty spread through the tribes. A referendum held in 1951, in which 99% living in Naga areas allegedly voted in favour of Independence, was rejected by the Indian government.

In the early-1950s, guerrilla warfare broke-out and violence escalated, with Naga insurgents raiding army and police outposts. The army launched a crackdown enabled by the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in 1958, which remains in place today. Phizo established a Naga Federal Government (NFG) and Naga Federal Army (NFA) in the mid-1950s, which replaced the NNC as the organizations at the forefront of the Naga uprising. India ceded some ground and allowed Nagaland to become a separate state in December 1963, while the NNC, NFG and NFA were labelled unlawful.

The first peace breakthrough came in 1975, when the Shillong Accord was signed between the NNC, NFG and the government, whereby the armed factions agreed to accept the Indian constitution and drop their demand for full independence, while agreeing to turn in their weapons to the authorities.

However, many Nagas were not satisfied and rejected the agreement. In 1980, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) was formed to resume the armed struggle. The NSCN split into two main factions in 1988 amid a leadership struggle and ideological dispute, with Isak Muivah continuing with the NSCN-IM and SS Khaplang forming the NSCN-K, based across the border in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing region. Inter-factional clashes and rivalry led to bloodshed, while later splits further divided the Naga rebel movement. Such splintering has made the conflict intractable and difficult to resolve.

After the NSCN was formed in 1980, Naga rebels regularly fought the military. Yet since 1997, a ceasefire – accompanied by peace talks – has reduced violence. (Image Source: Antônio Milena).

The two NSCN factions remain dominant forces, with the NSCN-IM campaigning for an autonomous Naga region extended from Nagaland to include Naga-inhabited areas in the neighbouring states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, while the NSCN-K seeks the inclusion of parts of Myanmar.

Twenty-two years of peace talks with the NSCN-IM

Peace talks between the government and the NSCN-IM began in 1997 after a ceasefire was signed. More than 80 rounds of talks have since been held, and the level of violence has gradually receded. Dialogue led to a framework agreement being signed in August 2015 between Modi and NSCN-IM leader Muivah, which was heralded at the time as a major breakthrough and an opportunity to end hostilities. Modi said he hoped the deal would be a ‘signal to smaller groups’ to give up their arms.

Yet four years later, the details of the framework agreement remain sketchy, while little discernible progress has been made toward finalizing and implementing the deal. Talks have continued with the NSCN-IM and six other Naga insurgent groups at the negotiating table, while the NSCN-K has fought on both sides of the border. After a four-year stalemate, Modi’s re-election has given fresh impetus to the peace process amid recent reports – unconfirmed by either side – that a final accord is close.

Could a final accord with the NSCN-IM end fighting?

The 2015 framework agreement has been criticized as vague and is not all-encompassing, while few details or specifics have been made public. What we do know, is that the framework accord aims to enhance recognition and acceptance of Naga history and culture, and is thought to be based on the concept of ‘shared sovereignty’ with some kind of ‘special status’ for Naga areas within the national constitution and administrative system. However, India is opposed to ceding territory or altering the constitution, and is not open to re-drawing the boundaries of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh or Manipur.

This means the core NSCN-IM demand for full sovereignty or political autonomy over all Naga areas in northeast India, including areas in neighbouring states, is very unlikely to be met. Without such a settlement, it is hard to see how rebel leaders will be satisfied with a deal adhering to existing lines.

A second stumbling block to peace, is that the powerful NSCN-K faction commanded by SS Khaplang remains excluded from the peace process and appears certain to reject any final deal signed by the NSCN-IM. Bringing the NSCN-K to the negotiating table is essential if a fuller resolution to the Naga issue is to be found. Even in this event, the fact that the NSCN-K envisions parts of the Sagaing area of northern Myanmar being incorporated in a future cross-border Naga region, further complicates the issue. Myanmar is not prepared to give up any of its territory, and has attempted to engage the NSCN-K through its own state-led peace process, called the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).

The NSCN-IM aims for a Naga region covering all Naga-inhabited areas in northeast India, while the NSCN-K envisions parts of Myanmar also being included. (Image Source: Sharada Prasad).

Myanmar’s NCA process aims to end multiple long-running insurgencies in volatile border regions of the country, which similarly to the conflicts in northeast India, were sparked after Myanmar secured independence from Britain. The government in Myanmar has cracked down on the NSCN-K in recent months, making a peace breakthrough in Sagaing a bleak prospect. Other, smaller Naga armed units on the Indian side of the border, may also reignite their armed campaigns if they are not satisfied by the outcome of the NSCN-IM dialogue. The splintered nature of the movement is a barrier to peace.

Future Forecast: Symbolism vs Sovereignty

If negotiations between the Indian government and the NSCN-IM continue down their current path, any finalized agreement in the coming months looks likely to cover mostly symbolic issues. This may result in greater nationwide recognition of and respect for collective Naga identity, the formation of new cultural bodies and some form of devolution through new administrative structures. The NSCN-IM will also hope that important identity issues, such as the adoption of a Naga flag, can be resolved.

However, the core issue at the heart of the insurgency – the desire for a territorially-expanded Naga region covering areas in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and possibly also in northern Myanmar – will not have been resolved. This means that almost inevitably, some Naga rebels will continue to fight. The non-participation of the NSCN-K places them at the forefront of resistance, and for them to come to the table, a more inclusive and all-encompassing peace process might later be required.

Yet if a deal with the NSCN-IM does get over the line, it could serve as a vital starting point and lay the foundations upon which future peace efforts could be constructed. In a region where violence has persisted since the 1950s, a partial peace deal and an improvement in ties with the NSCN-IM is better than nothing at all. PM Modi may then have the platform to engage with other Naga groups, as he seeks to negotiate a final end to the conflict; a key component in his plan to stem violence in India’s volatile northeast, and open-up the region as a strategic trading gateway to Southeast Asia.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Deciphering the Jihadist Threat to the Philippines’ Moro Peace Process

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR), ratified in a public vote in early-2019, lends greater autonomy to Moro Muslims in western Mindanao (Image Source: Philippine News Agency).

In the impoverished west of the Philippines’ conflict-afflicted southern island of Mindanao, residents voted earlier this year to approve a landmark peace deal which it is hoped will signal an end to one of Southeast Asia’s bloodiest and most intractable insurgencies. Since the early-1970s, separatists have waged a decades-long armed campaign against the central government in Manila in pursuit of either full independence or greater political autonomy for the region’s oppressed Moro Muslim population. After failed peace agreements and false dawns in 1976, 1989 and 1996, the past year has seen major progress.

July 2018 witnessed the signing of an historic peace accord between the government of President Rodrigo Duterte and Mindanao’s largest Muslim insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The deal – known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) – provided the legislation needed to create a new self-governing region to replace the flawed Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was established in 1989. A public vote in all areas set to form part of the new political entity was held across two days in January and February, with a majority needed to ratify the BOL in each jurisdiction. Turnout exceeded 85% as residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed new region, which will be called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

In the five existing ARMM provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, a combined total of 1.54m people voted in favour while just 198,000 voted against. After polling closed in non-ARMM areas, it emerged that Cotabato city had also voted to join the BARMM and will become its seat of government. While Isabela city voted against, more than twenty villages in North Cotabato province voted in favour to ensure the BARMM will be larger and more populous than its predecessor.

Yet despite hopes for peace rising after voters rubber-stamped the creation of the BARMM, Duterte has kept Mindanao under martial law in an attempt to tackle the lingering threat from ISIS-affiliated groups active in the provinces set to form the new region. Martial law has remained in place since the siege of Marawi erupted in May 2017, when jihadists from the Maute Group (MG), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP) joined forces to take-over the city. In spite of ongoing peace efforts, these radical elements have refused to relent.

Moro Muslims have been present in western Mindanao since the arrival of Arab traders in the Sulu islands in the 1300s, and have since fought uprisings against Spanish and US colonialists, and later the modern-day Philippine state. The Moros’ have long suffered cultural and political marginalization, and their communities rank among the poorest in the country, with the poverty rate in the ARMM at 59%.

The 30-000 strong MILF long-ago dropped their demand for full independence in favour of autonomy. The last few decades have seen episodes of violence despite a series of past peace agreements having been signed; none of which have managed to quell the insurgency in its entirety. There is now real optimism on both sides that the proposed Bangsamoro region may represent a genuine path to peace.

The new jurisdiction will have its own 80-member elected parliament able to enact laws, headed by a chief minister. The region will receive 75% of taxes collected within its territory, while benefiting from central government grants and improved access to natural resource revenues. Rebel leaders are also hopeful the new region will be a significant improvement on the ARMM, which has been associated with corruption and criticized for constituting autonomy in name only. The government and the MILF campaigned side-by-side for a ‘yes’ vote and have pledged to work together to implement the BOL.

The new Bangsamoro region is to be led during a three year transition period by Moro Islamic Liberation Front chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim (Image Source: Philippine News Agency).

While the government and the MILF have pursued peace, several ISIS-aligned groups have remained active in Mindanao. The main protagonists of the Marawi siege, the ASG and the Mautes, are still alive despite having suffered heavy losses during the conflict. The ASG has reverted to launching attacks in its remote island lairs of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, while the Mautes are still thought to be recruiting in Lanao del Sur despite the group’s leader, Abu Dar, being killed in a recent army offensive. The BIFF is the strongest jihadi group in the region, with around 400 fighters in the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The AKP operates further south in Sarangani and South Cotabato.

These groups have committed a series of high-profile attacks aimed at disrupting the peace process. Just five days after the BOL was inked last July, a Moroccan suicide bomber with ties to the ASG detonated his device at an army checkpoint near Lamitan city, killing 11 people. Local police said his intended target was a school parade taking place in the city centre. BIFF bombings targeted the Sultan Kudarat town of Isulan on 28 August and 2 September, killing five and injuring 49 civilians. In mid-September a bomb planted by the AKP wounded seven people in General Santos city. A blast blamed on the BIFF struck a shopping mall in Cotabato city on 31 December, leaving another two dead and 34 injured. The post-BOL spike in IED attacks in late-2018 followed a stark warning from BIFF figurehead Abu Misri Mama: ‘we are not in favour of autonomy [and will] continue to fight for independence.’

Attacks have continued into 2019. On 27 January – timed to wreak maximum havoc between the two BOL polling days scheduled for 21 January and 6 February – twin explosions tore through a packed cathedral in Jolo, killing 22 worshippers. The attack, carried out by ISIS-aligned ASG militants, served as a reminder that jihadist groups remain intent on shattering the southern Philippines’ fragile peace.

ISIS-affiliated militants have also regularly clashed with government soldiers on the battlefield, with fighting most intense in rural areas of western Mindanao. Last year witnessed 119 clashes linked to Moro and Islamist groups on mainland Mindanao, with at least 83 involving the BIFF. While the MILF engaged only in small-scale clan disputes between rival factions at the local level, clashes between BIFF factions and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) led to the death of 173 militants and 21 government soldiers. The BIFF is most active in Maguindanao, the site of 70 clashes in 2018, and North Cotabato, which saw 24 encounters. The Mautes have engaged in sporadic fighting with the army in Lanao del Sur, while the AKP has initiated several gun battles in Sarangani and South Cotabato. At least 91,485 people were displaced last year in Mindanao as a result of clashes involving ISIS-linked groups.

The BIFF stronghold of Maguindanao also proved to be the epicentre of a rising IED threat, seeing 19 attacks, which mostly targeted military and Philippine National Police (PNP) vehicles by the roadside.

Meanwhile in its remote island hideouts of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, the ASG engaged in 63 armed clashes with the military during 2018, resulting in 161 fatalities and displacing at least 5,000 civilians.

The 30,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front has pledged to disband and disarm its insurgent force before transitioning into a political party and contesting elections (Image Source: PCOO).

These figures demonstrate that ISIS-aligned groups are still active and pose a threat to stability in the region. Sustained BIFF-AFP clashes continue to take place, while IED blasts have targeted both state security personnel and civilians. However, the threat has reduced since the militants’ attempt to take-over Marawi city was extinguished in October 2017. In the build-up to the siege, the four ISIS-affiliated groups were able to join forces and operate relatively freely in light of alleged AFP intelligence failures. The army was taken aback by the militants’ combined strength and level of co-ordination, and was vastly under-prepared for a prolonged urban siege characterized by street battles and enemy sniper fire.

Post-Marawi, the AFP’s awareness and posture has altered considerably. Remnants of the four ISIS-aligned groups have been weakened by sustained offensives under martial law, while the infiltration of foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia has slowed due to trilateral naval patrols carried-out in the Sulu Sea by the Philippines and its two nearest neighbours. Mindanao’s ISIS-aligned groups are now separated geographically, and will struggle to join ranks to launch a combined assault as they did in Marawi. While a repeat can’t be ruled out, it is unlikely in the current state of heightened vigilance.

With the BARMM ratified, Duterte is now hoping to crush these groups under martial law. Yet despite the progress made in the past year, barriers to peace remain. A lengthy transition awaits as the MILF transforms into a political party ahead of elections to the new regional parliament due by 2022. The demobilisation of the MILF may also prove difficult. The MILF’s 30,000 fighters will likely find it harder to reintegrate back into society than senior MILF leaders who have joined the BARMM’s transitional administration. Political leadership itself will be an arduous task. MILF leaders have sought to prepare early by visiting former rebel chiefs in Indonesia’s Aceh province to learn about the implementation of a similar peace accord there over the past decade. In Aceh, an autonomous settlement addressing grievances of Muslim insurgent groups in exchange for disarmament has largely held firm since 2005.

Authorities hope the peace accord will dent recruitment for ISIS-affiliated groups in Mindanao, who joined forces to occupy Marawi city for five months in 2017 (Image Source: Mark Jhomel).

On Mindanao, the presence of Jihadi groups makes a replication of Aceh’s peace gains more uncertain. Military intelligence reports suggest foreign jihadists from the pre-Marawi influx are still fighting with the BIFF, while the Mautes are alleged to be recruiting in Lanao del Sur to bolster their depleted ranks. Further clashes with the AFP are likely throughout 2019, although under the strain of martial law ISIS-linked groups may further splinter, turn to guerrilla-style tactics and make greater use of explosives.

The key test for a lasting peace in Mindanao will be whether the hearts and minds of Moro Muslims can be won over by the new autonomous region, which promises to reduce poverty and spark more equitable development. Should genuine autonomy prevail and political stability take hold, the brazen attempt by ISIS to hijack the Moros’ five-decade separatist campaign may yet prove to be short-lived.

This article was first published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The statistics in this article are sourced from the institute’s Armed Conflict Database (ACD), which collects data and analyses key trends in all active conflicts worldwide. 

Vietnam’s Struggle to Overcome the Legacy of US Bombs

In an eight-year aerial campaign between 1965-1973, US warplanes dropped 800,000 tonnes of munitions, striking at least 55 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces and cities. (Image Source: US Navy)

The recent Hanoi summit attended by US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un thrust Vietnam into the global spotlight; a rare moment of publicity in the modern era for a country which dominated the world’s attention through the unfolding horrors of war in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet the hosts were left disappointed when the summit collapsed, after failed talks on de-nuclearization prompted the US delegation to depart early for Washington. Five decades earlier the US had been in no rush to leave despite a similar sense of impending mission failure, instead sending thousands more troops and sticking around to bomb Vietnam for eight years from 1965-1973. While the summit leaves no lasting impression, the legacy of unexploded bombs and toxic contamination from the war remains.

Just days after dialogue faltered in Hanoi, a huge 350kg US-made war-era bomb was unearthed 400km further south in the central province of Quang Binh, as a family dug foundations for their new house. The live air-dropped bomb, discovered close to the busy national highway 1A, was one of the largest found in recent years. The area was evacuated and the bomb later safely defused by demining experts. While deaths or injuries were avoided, the find is a stark reminder of the lingering risk from US bombs.

The effects of Agent Orange also persist in central areas of Vietnam, where soil and waterways remain contaminated after toxic defoliants were sprayed by the US to deny forest cover to Viet Cong troops.

With Vietnam back out of the media glare after the Hanoi summit, and with global attention fixed on new conflict hot-spots in the Middle East, there is concern over the future will of foreign governments and international donors to clear unexploded ordnance from former battle zones in Indochina. Given Trump’s isolationist ‘America First’ foreign policy and desire to cut funding overseas, there are also doubts over whether the US commitment to help Vietnam heal from the war is set for the long-term.

The lasting impact of US bombing raids on Vietnam

In an eight-year aerial campaign between 1965-1973, US warplanes dropped around 800,000 tonnes of munitions, striking at least 55 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces and cities in an attempt to turn the tide of the war between the US-backed south and the communist-controlled North. A significant proportion of bombs failed to detonate on impact, and remain buried just beneath the surface in the countryside.

Since hostilities ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975, accidents involving unexploded ordnance (UXO) have claimed more than 105,000 victims across the country, killing at least 38,900 and leaving 66,000 injured. Meanwhile 7% of Vietnamese citizens, or 6.2 million people, have a disability, while 13% live in households with at least one disabled occupant. UXO explosions are a major contributory factor to Vietnam’s high disability rate, in many cases leaving victims with crippling conditions such as lost limbs and blindness. Agent Orange has also been blamed for an unusually high rate of severe birth defects.

UXO survivors often sustain life-changing injuries as a result of shrapnel wounds, including loss of eyesight and loss of limbs. More than 100,000 people have been killed or injured after coming into contact with UXO in Vietnam since the war ended in 1975. (Image Source: James Hathaway)

Farmers and scrap metal collectors most often fall victim to UXO blasts after coming into contact with ordnance in rural areas. Children are also disproportionately affected, with thousands having suffered injuries after mistaking spherical-shaped cluster bomblets for toys. Since the mid-1990s, a number of organizations have run risk education classes to help educate local communities of the hidden danger.

Added to the immediate physical effects on those caught up in accidents, UXO contamination has had a wider socio-economic impact. Tens-of-thousands of victims require long-term physical rehabilitation and psychological support, placing a strain on Vietnam’s healthcare system. In micro-economic terms UXO can have a devastating effect, removing the earning-capacity of the main breadwinner in families and placing a double burden on relatives in the form of providing care and making-up for lost income. The prevailing threat of UXO also restricts agriculture and development in rural areas near the former demilitarized zone in central Vietnam, where fighting was most intense. Quang Tri province, along the old dividing line, is worst-hit: up to 84% of land here is contaminated, compared to 15% nationwide.

Local and international demining efforts since the 1990s

For more than 20 years since the mid-1990s, a collection of experienced international NGOs has been working to rid Vietnam of UXO alongside local state-run agencies and the Vietnamese armed forces. In recent years, Danish Demining Group (DDG), Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) have been among those operating in central areas to clear land and provide risk education.

The Vietnamese government has also been working to improve national-level infrastructure in recent years to better co-ordinate and oversee the demining effort. In 2013, a military-run Vietnam National Mine Action Centre (VNMAC) was established, while last year Hanoi formed Steering Committee 701 on the Settlement of Post-War Unexploded Ordnance and Toxic Chemical Consequences, to propose new solutions and mobilize civil society actors both at home and abroad to confront war legacy issues.

Since the mid-1990s, a network of international de-mining groups has been working to clear UXO in Vietnam alongside state-run agencies and the Vietnamese military. (Image Source: USAID)

The government is hoping to make greater inroads into combatting the harmful legacy of UXO in the coming years, and aims to clear 800,000 hectares of bomb-contaminated land by 2025. However, this only represents a small percentage of the affected area, which totals at least 6.1 million hectares. The true figure may turn out to be even higher once a full survey has been completed. It is estimated that the removal of all UXO items in Vietnam will take up to a century and cost an eye-watering US$10bn.

Speaking at a global mine awareness conference last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said UXO was still holding the country back four decades after the guns fell silent. ‘‘Although the war has been over, the severe consequences of landmines, UXO and toxic chemicals still exist, affecting human health and living environments. Many people have lost their lives or suffered the loss of a part of their body, or lost their loved ones’’. Phuc added the presence of UXO still limits socio-economic progress.

Concerns over future US and global demining support

In the past year, new funding has been announced from the UK, Norway and South Korea to continue demining activities in the worst-affected provinces. In mid-2018, South Korea committed US$20m for survey and clearance in Binh Dinh and Quang Binh, while a deal was signed with the NPA to fund work in Quang Tri until 2022. Late last year, funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) was announced to support the work of MAG in Quang Tri. Yet the US remains the main source of external funding, providing over 90% of total foreign assistance for UXO projects in Vietnam in 2017.

The US is the largest foreign donor supporting de-mining efforts in Vietnam, investing at least US$119.3m from 1993-2017. The UK and Norway are also major donors. (Image Source: USAID)

Between 1993-2017, the US has invested at least US$119.3m for UXO-related programmes in Vietnam. For two decades, the network of in-country demining operators has relied primarily on US finance to expand their vital work. There are now concerns that under the more isolationist and inward-looking administration of President Trump – intent on cost-cutting on projects abroad which are not deemed in the national interest – sustained US help for the UXO clean-up in Vietnam appears more uncertain. And with the Vietnam War fading into distant memory, other foreign funding sources are also fragile.

Will war legacy issues remain central in US-Vietnam ties?

Does the US have a moral obligation to help Vietnam recover from a conflict which is now condemned widely in the west and increasingly viewed as an aggressive act of Cold War-era misadventure? Former president Obama appeared to hold that view, stating his belief on a 2016 visit to Laos that the US had a duty to help Vietnam’s neighbour ‘heal’ from the pain caused by past US actions in the region. It is unclear whether President Trump, and future US presidents, will share such sentiment. There are positive signs: the US recently completed an operation to remove Agent Orange toxins from land near Da Nang airport, and is due to start decontaminating a larger site at Bien Hoa air base later this year.

Since restoring diplomatic ties in 1995, the US and Vietnam have enjoyed a blossoming bilateral relationship centred on defence and security co-operation. (Image Source: US Embassy Vietnam)

In the four decades since the war ended, geopolitical realities have shifted and the rapid rise of China has pushed Vietnam and the US closer together faster than anticipated. Since restoring diplomatic ties in 1995, relations between the two former enemies have blossomed, most ironically in the field of defence. The Hanoi-Washington security relationship has been evidenced since Trump came to power by a rising frequency of high-level visits. Trump has visited twice, while State Secretary Mike Pompeo and former Defence Secretary James Mattis have also made trips to take part in high-level exchanges.

The US has focused mainly on improving Vietnam’s maritime security capabilities in the context of the South China Sea disputes. Vietnam is a major claimant state and is opposed to China’s expansive claim. Last year, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson aircraft carrier docked at Da Nang port for four days, marking the first visit by a US carrier since the war. The US has also transferred a refurbished US Coast Guard cutter to the Vietnamese navy, funded the acquisition of 24 45-ft patrol boats – 12 of which have already been delivered – and granted Vietnam US$26.25m to boost its maritime security capacity during 2017-2018. Once an enemy, Vietnam is now one of the US’ most dependable security partners in Southeast Asia.

Four decades since the war ended, more than 15% of Vietnam’s land area is still contaminated with UXO. In central Quang Tri province, 84% of land is affected. The Vietnamese government predicts the full clean-up will take a century and cost up to US$10bn. (Image Source: USAF)

In this context, a long-term US commitment to fund UXO clearance in the coming decades would not only be in the interests of Vietnam’s prosperity and continued economic development, cementing its recovery from the war. It would also be in the US’ national interest, helping to cement its growing ties with Hanoi as it aims to refocus on the Indo-Pacific, while signalling its recognition of the harm caused in Vietnam. Only when the last bomb is cleared, can the shared horrors of the war be fully lain to rest.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Southern Thailand’s Fractured Peace Process Reaches a Crossroads

Thailand’s ruling military Junta – led by Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha – began peace talks with the Mara Patani rebel grouping in 2015, yet little progress has been made (Image Source: SSG Teddy Wade)

The shock return to power of political veteran Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur last May signalled not only a new dawn for Malaysia, but also fresh hope of a peaceful resolution to a decades-old conflict raging across the border in southern Thailand. The 93-year-old Mahathir, returning for a second stint as Malaysia’s prime minister, has long held an interest in securing peace in Thailand’s troubled Deep South, where separatist Muslim insurgents have fought the military for independence since the 1950s.

After a high-level meeting in Bangkok last October between Mahathir and the head of Thailand’s ruling military Junta, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, both sides appointed new peace envoys and initial talks began in January. The early signs were remarkably positive. Thailand, for the first time, voiced a willingness to consider making concessions on autonomy and political decentralization, while indicating a desire to bring the most powerful rebel group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), back to the negotiating table.

Yet the fleeting peace process hit an unexpected snag earlier this month, when the head of the Thai negotiating team, retired army general Udomchai Thammasarorat, failed to turn up for a scheduled meeting in the Malaysian capital. The no-show left Malaysian mediator Abdul Rahim Noor ‘shocked’, and drew an angry response from rebel groups. Mara Patani, an umbrella organization representing a series of rebel factions, responded by ruling-out further participation until after Thai national elections are held in late-March, while the rogue BRN vowed to continue its armed struggle for independence.

With support from Malaysia assured, can southern Thailand’s fractured peace process overcome this early setback and – with elections looming – navigate the choppy political waters which may lie ahead?

The roots of southern Thailand’s separatist insurgency

For seven decades, ethnic Malay Muslim separatist rebels have battled Thai security forces to establish an independent homeland in the four southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla. The conflict-stricken region borders Muslim-majority Malaysia to the south, and was formerly part of the Islamic Sultanate of Patani, which was formed in 1516 and bordered the ancient kingdom of Siam to the north, which would later become modern-day Thailand. The region was annexed in the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 and incorporated into the Buddhist-majority Thai state, governed by Bangkok.

The region retained its local traditions and largely failed to assimilate with the rest of Thailand, leading to disenfranchisement among many residents and sparking tensions over territorial control of the four southern provinces. By the late-1950s, a political independence campaign had been superseded by an emerging armed insurgency. For decades the conflict remained at a low-level until its intensification in 2004. During the past 15 years more than 7,000 people have been killed amid insurgent bombings, shootings and assassinations, while the military has launched repeated crackdowns on rebel activity.

Peace talks started in 2015, a year after the Prayut-commanded military Junta – formally labelled the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – seized power from the democratically-elected regime of Yingluck Shinawatra in a bloodless coup. Yet negotiations have failed to make meaningful progress. The Junta has initiated dialogue with the Mara Patani umbrella grouping, which represents a network of shadowy rebel units operating in the Deep South. Talks have been restricted because the BRN – the most powerful and influential rebel group, which controls most fighters on the ground – has declined to participate in the peace process due to the government’s refusal to allow international mediation. The Junta views the conflict as an internal and domestic matter which should not be internationalized.

Another, more deeply-ingrained sticking point, concerns the rebels’ demand for independence, while the Junta and all previous Bangkok administrations have maintained a blunt, non-negotiable position, opposed to allowing the south to break away. With secession out of the question, the Junta has also until-recently refused to consider granting autonomy or any kind of political devolution to the south, reflecting the military’s long-term preoccupation with preserving the territorial integrity of the state.

Malaysia’s Mahathir reinvigorates the peace process

Talks remained stalled until the shock election victory of Mahathir in mid-2018. Thailand and Malaysia have long enjoyed strong bilateral ties, while Mahathir’s return – as a respected elder statesman in Southeast Asia with a strong personal interest in regional peace-making – lent fresh impetus to the peace process. Malaysia also has a long-standing interest in helping to resolve the conflict for several vital geo-strategic reasons. Kuala Lumpur feels a sense of duty to ensure an environment of peace and prosperity for ethnic Malay Muslims living in southern Thailand, while also wanting to avoid worsening instability and violence along its northern border, which could result in unmanageable refugee flows. Concerns over the suspected presence of ISIS sympathizers in Malaysia and the potential for weapons to be smuggled via rebels operating in Thailand’s volatile south have also incentivised Malaysia to act.

When Mahathir met Gen. Prayut in late-2018, both leaders were optimistic in tone, and spoke of their shared desire to resolve the conflict. Mahathir pledged to help ‘in whatever way possible to end this violence in the south’, calling for better co-operation on the issue ‘between two friendly neighbours’. Gen. Prayut said although the insurgency is considered a ‘domestic problem’, dialogue would ‘resume immediately with Malaysia as the facilitator’, without giving a specific timeline for fresh negotiations.

After the appointment of representatives for both countries, initial meetings were held at the start of January. Early indications were positive. Malaysian facilitator Abdul Rahim Noor said he was optimistic the conflict could end within two years, while Thai negotiator Udomchai Thammasarorat said Bangkok would consider devolving powers or allowing a ‘special administrative zone’, having taken advice from Mahathir. However, it was stated that independence or separation would remain off the table. On 11 January, Udomchai confirmed ‘low-level’ talks had been held with ‘all groups’ involved in the process.

Thailand’s armed forces seized power in a 2014 coup. The future of the revived army-led peace process is uncertain ahead of elections scheduled for late-March (Image Source: Takeaway)

Yet just weeks later, the peace process stands on the brink of collapse, after Udomchai failed to attend an introductory meeting with Mara Patani representatives scheduled for 4 February in Kuala Lumpur. The move took the Malaysian facilitating team by surprise and drew an angry reaction from the rebel leadership. Udomchai claimed he would only meet Mara Patani chief Sukree Haree one-on-one, and had never agreed to the pre-arranged meeting with a larger rebel delegation. A Mara Patani statement condemned the Thai panel’s ‘unacceptable attitude’ and ‘hidden agenda’, calling for Udomchai to be replaced by someone with ‘more credibility’. Mara Patani has now suspended its participation in talks until after the Thai national election, set for 24 March. The BRN had already rejected involvement and released a video message in early-January, which vowed to ‘fight with all our might’ for independence.

Little over a month in, talks have ended and the revived peace process already stands at a crossroads.

Can the peace process outride upcoming hurdles?

The most immediate obstacle facing the peace process is the upcoming Thai election, set for the end of March. The election has been pushed-back repeatedly since the Junta came to power in 2014, and may bring a return to democratic governance for the first time in five years. A return to democracy would leave things in the south uncertain: talks would likely be re-set and the Thai negotiating team would change, while a new government in Bangkok would have more immediate priorities, such as securing their grip on power after half-a-decade of military rule. Malaysia is also due to undergo a leadership transition, with Mahathir having pledged to give-way to successor Anwar Ibrahim within the next few years. This is likely to be a smooth change and would have only a minimal effect on the peace process. However, the charismatic Mahathir, who has invested much time and energy in the process, would be a big loss.

If the Thai Junta does stay in power, it remains to be seen whether autonomy will remain on the table. The Junta has recently, for the first time, demonstrated a willingness to make concessions and devolve power to some degree, but after the election may revert to its previous policy of initiating a low-key and slow-moving peace dialogue while at the same time hoping to see the insurgency fizzle out on the ground. In this sense, the Junta sees the conflict as a low-level nuisance, isolated and confined to the remote southern provinces, rather than as a conflict representing a major threat to national security.

It would certainly suit the next Thai government – whether civilian-led or military-controlled – for the insurgency to die out without the need for talks. Evidence does suggest violence has declined in recent years, with monitoring group Deep South Watch reporting 218 deaths in 2018, down from 235 in 2017 and 892 at the conflict’s peak in 2007. Yet insurgent groups have been resilient enough to persist for decades, while a spate of attacks in early-2019 suggests the security situation may be deteriorating. Insurgent groups certainly retain the ability to inflict harm. On 21 January, rebels shot dead two monks at a Buddhist temple in Narathiwat, while other attacks have targeted school guards and policemen.

Some have even raised concerns over ISIS infiltration, as has been witnessed in other conflict zones in Southeast Asia. In 2017, ISIS-aligned militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months, and retain a presence in the country after joining-up with local Muslim insurgent groups. However, there has to-date been no documented evidence of ISIS fighters in southern Thailand, while throughout its history the conflict has remained purely separatist and ethno-nationalist in nature. It is unlikely the BRN or Mara Patani would risk accepting ISIS recruits into their ranks, as adopting a violent jihadist ideology would erode local support among moderate Muslims and encourage a firmer military crackdown in the region, supported by global actors. Aside from lingering fears of ISIS infiltration, the prospect of further civilian suffering and impoverishment due to the insurgency lasting in its existing separatist form may yet serve as a strong enough imperative for both sides to seek a political solution.

Future forecast: is autonomy a realistic solution?

If the peace process survives the expected turbulence of the next few months, the process is likely to re-start with only informal talks and trust-building mechanisms, with Malaysia retaining its traditional role as impartial mediator. Both the Thai government and the rebel leadership must demonstrate a genuine willingness to compromise before formal dialogue can begin. The Junta – or a newly-elected civilian administration – will need to show openness to an autonomous political settlement based on some form of decentralized governance. The rebels – including the BRN and all factions represented by Mara Patani – will need to resolve their differences and negotiate on an alternative outcome to full independence. Independence remains unattainable, no matter the type of government in Bangkok.

Two precedents for such a compromise settlement already exist in Southeast Asia. Separatist rebels in Indonesia’s Aceh province signed a peace accord with Jakarta in 2005, while a 30,000-strong Muslim insurgent organization based on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao signed an autonomous settlement with Manila just last year, which it is hoped will eventually bring an end to decades of war. Both conflicts started out as violent struggles for independence by heavily-armed Muslim insurgents. In both instances, violence has significantly de-escalated after compromise settlements were reached.

The history of peace processes in these regions shows that negotiations in southern Thailand are likely to be fraught, arduous and littered with setbacks. Securing an illusive peace in Thailand’s Deep South will require a sustained, long-term effort marked by patience, resolve and compromise on both sides.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Why Aung San Suu Kyi will Struggle to Revive Myanmar’s Stalling Peace Process

Clashes between army troops and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) rebels have intensified over the past year in several mining townships in Myanmar’s north (Image Source: Paul Vrieze, VOA)

When Aung San Suu Kyi was propelled to high office via a landslide election victory in November 2015, she vowed to make ending Myanmar’s decades-old internal strife a top priority of her government. Yet three years on, the initial outpouring of hope and optimism around the world after the ascent to power of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has been replaced with rising condemnation of the brutal Rohingya crackdown and alleged army abuses in the northern states of Kachin and Shan.

While the quasi-civilian administration led by Suu Kyi has failed to condemn the actions of Myanmar’s still-dominant armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, the former global human rights icon has pushed forward with a government peace initiative designed to end a myriad of long-running ethnic conflicts which have blighted the country’s remote borderlands for seventy years. While talks began under the former military regime, Suu Kyi attended the latest rounds of dialogue held in July and October 2018.

Despite repeated sets of negotiations, the peace process has stalled amid escalating violence on the ground. Suu Kyi’s strategy is centred on persuading more rebel groups to join the existing Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), signed by eight groups the month before her election in 2015. A further two signed in February, yet the country’s most powerful militias are refusing to join the accord while talks remain deadlocked over key security matters and the central issue of devolving political powers.

Can Aung San Suu Kyi break the impasse in Myanmar’s fractured peace process? Or will the continued dominance of the military and mis-trust of the army among ethnic leaders stand in the way of peace?

Myanmar’s decades-old internal ethnic conflicts

Myanmar’s raging civil conflicts date back to before the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.  Prior to independence, in February 1947 ethnic leaders from Chin, Kachin and Shan states signed the Panglong Agreement with Myanmar’s leader at the time, General Aung San; Suu Kyi’s father. The deal promised autonomy and self-determination for ethnic groups after the creation of Burma. Aung San was assassinated by political opponents later that year and his commitment was not honoured by the nation’s post-independence rulers, sparking the formation of ethnic armies set on securing autonomy.

Insurgencies have persisted for much of the past seven decades in the states of Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayin and Mon. A wide array of armed insurgent groups have fought government troops, driven by core grievances centred on the political control of territory, rights for ethnic minorities and access to natural resource revenues. Most fighting has occurred in isolated and inaccessible border areas far from the centre of state power in Naypyidaw. The uprisings have proven resistant to resolution, having persisted through the 26-year dictatorship of Ne Win and successive military regimes which followed. Previous ceasefires have been negotiated with individual armed groups; yet all have been broken and peace has rarely held for long. The most enduring was in Kachin state, where a 1994 ceasefire quelled fighting with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) for 17 years until hostilities resumed six years ago.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempt to reboot the peace process

The government’s approach to conflict resolution widened in 2011 when reformist military ruler Thein Sein initiated a national-level peace dialogue for the first time under army rule. Negotiations led to a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed in October 2015, just a month before Suu Kyi’s historic election win. Yet only eight of 15 groups involved in discussions put pen to paper. Some of Myanmar’s largest and most influential insurgent groups – including the 10,000-strong KIA and the 25,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) – refused to sign the deal due to the Tatmadaw’s exclusion of smaller allied rebel organizations, such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), from the peace process.

Suu Kyi has sought to revive the peace process through her 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences, named after a 1940s initiative led by her father (Image Source: A. N. Soe, VOA)

A month later, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD swept to power having secured a high proportion of the ethnic minority vote. Despite being barred from the presidency by a constitutional clause, Suu Kyi, with the title of State Counsellor and as the nation’s de-facto ruler, vowed to pursue a lasting peace settlement.

Under the weight of high expectations, Suu Kyi has since sought to foster continual dialogue through reviving her father’s peace drive of the 1940s through holding a series of 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences. Yet the military – which maintains decision-making control over internal security matters and for which one-third of parliamentary seats are reserved – has maintained its central role in talks, which are designed to build upon the 2015 NCA deal. Despite two more insurgent groups signing-up in February, progress has been slower than hoped and delays have occurred. Suu Kyi planned to hold Panglong conferences every six months, yet to-date only three have taken place since she took power. Loose agreements have been reached on principles covering politics, economics, the environment and social issues, but the agenda has been vague and core drivers of the conflict have yet to be discussed.

A stalling peace process amid escalating violence on the ground

The three rounds of talks hosted by Suu Kyi so-far, in August 2016, May 2017 and July 2018, have been held against a backdrop of rising violence on the ground and unchecked abuses by the Tatmadaw. In Rakhine state, the army has responded to attacks on border posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants by launching a wide-ranging crackdown on Rohingya villages. The UN and a multitude of human rights organizations have accused troops of burning villages, raping women and deliberately killing civilians. Some have even gone so far as to label the military’s campaign as ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’, while Suu Kyi has faced strong criticism from western leaders for her failure to speak out. Suu Kyi insists the army have only targeted ‘terrorists’ in clearing operations. Over 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh since violence erupted in 2017.

Meanwhile in 2018, fighting has intensified in the northeastern states of Kachin and Shan, along the border with China. In Kachin, clashes between the government and ethnic rebels have centred on the townships of Hpakant, Injangyang, Sumprabum, Tanaing and Waingmaw, while in excess of 100,000 people have been displaced in the state since 2011. Human rights groups have accused the Tatmadaw of adopting heavy-handed tactics and employing a ‘scorched earth’ policy in conflict-affected regions.

A UN report in March documented ‘credible reports of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence’ at the hands of the army in Kachin. Human Rights Watch has warned of a ‘dire humanitarian situation’ in the state. The Tatmadaw denies all allegations of abuses, and maintains it only targets armed insurgents.

Why is the peace process failing, and can it be revived?

Amid rising violence, the third round of the Panglong initiative in July made little meaningful progress. A group of four powerful non-signatory rebel groups from the north, including the KIA and TNLA, met with Suu Kyi on the sidelines of the summit, yet there is still little sign they are willing to join the NCA. The peace process, in its current form, appears to be stalling: talks have reached an impasse with NCA signatories, while the non-participation of other groups is blocking the path to a nationwide peace.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since a military crackdown began in 2017 in response to a spate of  attacks on border posts (Image Source: Tasnim News Agency)

It will be hard for Suu Kyi to revive the fortunes of the faltering peace process in the current climate. Rebel demands for genuine autonomy and self-determination appear unlikely to be met, despite the government’s stated desire to turn Myanmar into a federal union. With the Tatmadaw still dominant and primarily concerned with preserving the territorial integrity of the state, any attempt by the NLD to cede too much ground to ethnic rebels would not go down well with the generals, and would risk the removal of Suu Kyi from power. Military leaders effectively hold a veto over all decisions made by democratically-elected politicians. The rhetoric of the generals suggests the rebels’ demands will not be met in full. Despite Tatmadaw chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing calling for a ‘brotherly spirit’ to drive the peace process forward, he has also warned against giving too much away to ethnic minorities or local political parties. In July, Hlaing said ‘armed ethnic groups in some regions cannot represent the entire national people of 52 million, and political parties only represent a particular walk of life’. In contrast, he said ‘the people’s Tatmadaw, born of ethnic people, is an organization representing the state and the people’. In this context, Suu Kyi’s vision for a federal union with devolved powers is restricted. The army sees itself as the unifying force in Myanmar, and is averse to giving up control over defence and security matters. It is hard to imagine the Tatmadaw agreeing to withdraw its troops from ethnic areas.

A second barrier to peace is the long-standing lack of trust between the communities represented by insurgent groups and the Tatmadaw. A history of alleged army abuses in the form of disappearances, extrajudicial killings, sexual abuse and the use of slave labour will be hard to forget for deeply scarred populations, even in the event of a peace deal. Seven decades of conflict has fermented anger on both sides, with each viewing the other as the enemy. This factor serves to make the peace process fragile, and may rear its head if or when more contentious issues are discussed at a later stage of negotiations.

Future forecast: looking beyond Myanmar’s current political climate

Withstanding international criticism over her handling of the Rohingya situation, away from the global media spotlight Aung San Suu Kyi has made considerable efforts to resolve conflicts outside Rakhine state, making internal peace-making elsewhere a political priority. Yet it appears on the battlefield, the army has different ideas, and things have continued much the same as before. In fact, violence on several fronts has worsened since the NLD’s victory, mainly due to conflict dynamics at the local level.

While Suu Kyi’s personal view on the Rohingya is shrouded in mystery, it is clear that her government is not able to act independently of the Tatmadaw, who still maintain a stranglehold over Myanmar’s politics and security. To what extent Suu Kyi is willingly allowing the army’s abuses to go unchecked, or not opting to speak out for fear of losing power, is unclear. In the domestic political context, it may suit Suu Kyi to remain silent, as many in the Bamar ethnic majority support the crackdown in Rakhine.

Yet in other areas where conflicts are raging, the story is different. Suu Kyi rode to power in 2015 with widespread support from ethnic minority voters, hopeful the NLD-led government would be able to reduce violence in their communities. If the stalling peace process cannot be revived, Suu Kyi risks losing a proportion of this vote at the ballot box in 2020, risking the military once again firming up its grip on power. These complex electoral dynamics and the increasingly volatile events of recent years demonstrate how the situation in Myanmar is far more nuanced than outside interpretations suggest.

Even beyond the present political era of quasi-civilian part-democratic governance, Myanmar’s ethnic insurgencies will remain highly resistant to resolution. Rather than vague ceasefires and half-hearted peace initiatives, it will take generational shifts and years of trust-building to lend dialogue a chance.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

What Underlies the Long-Running Dispute in the South China Sea?

China claims all South China Sea waters within its self-imposed ‘nine-dash line’, demarcated in a 1947 map, including the Paracel archipelago and the Spratly Islands (Image Source: US Navy)

The South China Sea is a site of intense geostrategic importance located at the heart of the Asia-Pacific. It is the site of decades-old contestation between rival regional powers over territory, lucrative energy resources and economically-vital sea lanes. Given the sea’s location at the centre of the world’s most densely-populated and fastest-growing region, and considering the above-mentioned convergence of interests, the disputes represent a pressing and complex issue which is highly resistant to resolution.

The disputes first emerged in the aftermath of World War Two, when the six claimant states bordering the sea – China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – scrambled to occupy islands following the withdrawal of colonial powers. In their early stages, the disputes centred primarily over the question of territorial sovereignty. China claimed almost the entire body of water according to its ‘nine-dash line’ map, originally released publicly in 1947. The map was based on historical claims of naval expeditions in the area dating back as far as the Han Dynasty. China views its claim to sovereignty as a major national interest comparable with its desire to incorporate Taiwan into the Chinese state.

Taiwan and Vietnam also stake a claim to large portions of the sea encompassing two island groups: the Paracels and the Spratly islands. Similarly, these claims are based on historical records stretching back centuries. Another three Southeast Asian nations – Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – claim more limited portions of the sea and look to assert their right to a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching from their coastlines. These claims are made in line with the terms of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS, while serving as an important modern-day legal referent and a possible future tool of resolution, has been a primary driver of the disputes in recent decades. This was most evident in 2009, when a UNCLOS deadline for new submissions on the delimitation of continental shelves led to a series of claims from nations bordering the sea, adding to an already-complex picture of overlapping claims and leading to a further raising of regional tensions.

While a full-scale military conflict has so-far been avoided, the South China Sea has witnessed a series of past incidents involving the militaries of the six claimant states. Most of these have taken the form of small-scale encounters or non-violent stand-offs involving coastguard ships and fishing vessels from China, Vietnam and the Philippines. In May 2014, a more high-profile incident occurred when China stationed an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its EEZ, resulting in a stand-off involving more than 30 vessels. The incident damaged bilateral relations and sparked street protests in Hanoi.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has assertively pressed its claims in the disputed region through land reclamation and conducting maritime patrols (Image Source: Russian Govt.)

The two countries had previously clashed in the sea in a notorious incident at Johnson South Reef in 1988, in which two Vietnamese ships were sunk and 64 sailors perished. In more recent years, the US has risked China’s ire by carrying-out ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations in the contested area, sailing military vessels close to islands occupied by China. This policy was a major aspect of former President Obama’s ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific, which many considered a thinly-veiled attempt to counter China’s rising power and support Southeast Asian states in ensuring China met opposition to its activities in the South China Sea. President Trump has taken a softer stance since his shock election win in 2016.

While competing territorial claims over islets, rocks and other land-features have defined the disputes for decades, undersea energy resources have become an increasingly important driver of the disputes in more recent times. The South China Sea is thought to contain up to 213 billion barrels of sub-sea oil in addition to vast quantities of natural gas in rocks deep beneath the waves, leading states to intensify their claims to the region. This is particularly important given the rising populations of the Asia-Pacific in combination with dwindling domestic energy reserves and a need to decrease over-reliance on the volatile Middle East for oil. China’s population is set to reach 1.4 billion by 2020, whilst the population of Southeast Asia is nudging 650 million. Shipping is another important factor, with the South China Sea being a vital transit route for the import of oil and gas, and the export of consumer goods. Up to 90% of energy imports to East Asia pass through the narrow Malacca Strait chokepoint and through the South China Sea, after being shipped first through the Indian Ocean. This provides another major imperative for states to seek a degree of control over the waters, to ensure the free-flow of shipping which is necessary to sustain high rates of economic growth. Analysts in the US have raised concerns that China could block this vital maritime trading route, while China holds the opposite fear that the US and its regional allies could close the Malacca Strait in a future worst-case scenario. Such an event – instigated by any party – would negatively impact all regional nations and dent the global economy.

All attempts to resolve the dispute so-far have failed. In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed-up to a joint Declaration of Conduct on the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), agreeing to pursue peaceful co-operation and exercise self-restraint. However, the DOC has long been criticized as being ineffective due to its non-binding nature, while talks between the two sides on a binding code-of-conduct have made little progress over the years. This has been made more difficult due to division within ASEAN over the dispute in recent times. The claimant states – in particular Vietnam and the Philippines – have maintained a tougher stance, while several of the non-claimant states – including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – have been reluctant to criticize China’s activities too forcefully for fear of losing-out on much-needed Chinese investment. During the current impasse, China has expanded its de-facto control over the South China Sea, asserting its claims through land reclamation, building military installations on islets and conducting regular naval patrols.

The United States conducted regular Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea under President Obama, sailing warships close to disputed islands (Image Source: US Navy)

At present, the disputes have drifted out of international headlines as more immediate concerns have dominated global politics; namely the escalating US-China ‘trade war’, and the North Korea situation. The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and rising Islamist conflict in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao have also held regional attention, forcing the South China Sea issue into the background. The US has largely retreated from Southeast Asia under nationalist President Trump, looking to lessen rather than increase America’s commitments in far-flung parts of the world. Since the final days of the Obama administration, US rhetoric on China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea has softened.

The Philippines’ President Duterte – elected several months before Trump’s unlikely rise in the US – has also adopted a softer stance. ASEAN remains divided on the issue and unable to reach consensus. This has left China to press on with its land reclamation programme and solidify its territorial gains in the South China Sea, with Beijing having previously rejected a 2016 tribunal arbitration ruling which questioned the legitimacy of its claim to sovereignty. Whether China and ASEAN will be able to adapt to the new status-quo and agree upon a binding code-of-conduct in the coming years remains to be seen. Another unknown concerns a potential change of government in the US once Trump’s first term ends in 2021. The election of an Obama-style leader may see the US strive to re-engage on the issue.

For now, at least, China has solidified its position as the dominant player in the South China Sea. Yet despite apocalyptic predictions from some analysts in the West, the disputes look unlikely to result in conflict. China, the US and ASEAN states all have too much to lose. Irrespective of whether the complex territorial claims can be resolved in the coming decades, economic realities and shared interests mean a co-operative environment regarding the sea’s resources and shipping routes may yet develop. This will be the key test as to whether peace can be sustained in the world’s most hotly-contested waters.

A version of this article is also published on Eurasia Review.

Is Abu Sayyaf Making a Comeback in the Philippines?

The Philippine security forces have increased patrols in waters around Abu Sayyaf’s remote island strongholds, following a recent spike in militant activity (Image Source: US Navy)

On 27 July, firebrand Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte mooted the idea of holding peace talks with the notoriously brutal militants of Abu Sayyaf for the first time since he came to office. During a speech in Jolo – the bustling main town at the heart of the militants’ remote maritime stronghold in the Sulu archipelago – Duterte, referencing his own southern roots, declared: ‘now, you have a president with Moro blood…let’s just talk’. Duterte repeated: ‘let’s talk – or what are we going to do; kill each other?’

Four days later, a powerful bomb hidden in a van exploded at an army road checkpoint on the nearby island of Basilan, killing eleven people instantly and leaving at least seven others wounded. Military spokesperson Col. Edgard Arevalo quickly assigned blame to a local faction of Abu Sayyaf affiliated to the Islamic State. The blast – later revealed to be a suicide attack – was followed by a surge in activity by the group during August, including an attempted piracy attack and renewed clashes with the army.

The recent spike in violence indicates a shift away from signs that Abu Sayyaf had entered a steep decline since last year’s Marawi siege, when its most powerful faction – led by now-deceased militant leader Isnilon Hapilon – was wiped-out in a five-month offensive by government forces which ended last October. In the time since, the group has rarely made headlines beyond its remote island hideouts.

Abu Sayyaf is in the headlines once again. And it may be no coincidence that its re-emergence into the public consciousness comes at a time when Duterte has been focused on finalizing a years-old peace deal with the more moderate Islamist rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, based just across the water on the larger southern island of Mindanao. Do the signs of life in Abu Sayyaf indicate a co-ordinated and resurgent campaign aimed at disrupting the peace process? Or are recent attacks a desperate cry for attention as the once-powerful militant group fades into obscurity and irrelevance?

The decades-old roots of Abu Sayyaf’s violence

The modern-day motivations of Abu Sayyaf can be better interpreted through tracing the group’s long history, dating back to its founding by radical Islamist preacher Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in the early 1990s. Janjalani – unhappy with the stalling separatist struggle for a new Muslim homeland in Mindanao, which at the time was fronted by the moderately-minded Moro National Liberation Front – set-up Abu Sayyaf as a radical splinter group with the aim of fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines. The group was initially hierarchical and well-organized, while it fostered close links with Indonesia-based militant group Jemaah Islamiyah and the global Al-Qaeda network.

After Janjalani was killed during a 1998 military raid, the group splintered and during the 2000s ditched its ideological mantra to a large degree, becoming something more akin to a criminal enterprise. The group became motivated more by profit than ideology, and went on to launch a wave of kidnappings and piracy attacks through which it accrued huge wealth. Ransom payments often ran into millions of dollars. The consequences of not paying-up were stark, as Abu Sayyaf gained a gruesome reputation for beheading both western and Filipino hostages within hours of its ransom deadlines not being met. Attacks on vessels in the Sulu Sea led experts to dub Abu Sayyaf-infested waters as the ‘new Somalia’.

President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to crack down hard on Abu Sayyaf while Martial Law remains in place across all of Mindanao until 31 December 2018 (Image Source: PCOO)

By late-2014 the group had a new leader – Isnilon Hapilon – and had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. This signalled a reversion to its early ideological aim of seeking an independent Islamic state in the Philippines’ conflict-plagued south. In its isolated island bases away from the prying eyes of the military the group increased its number of recruits and used funds from piracy operations to purchase weapons and ammunition. In late-May 2017, Hapilon’s powerful Abu Sayyaf faction joined forces with Maute group jihadists on Mindanao and laid siege to the city of Marawi for five months in an attempt to forge an Islamic State-style caliphate in Southeast Asia. The militants were finally flushed-out by the army in October of last year having sustained heavy losses. More than 1,000 jihadists were killed.

The declining strength of Abu Sayyaf post-Marawi

Since being routed in the tight urban battlefields of Marawi late last year, the strength and capabilities of Abu Sayyaf have noticeably declined. Hapilon was killed during the final throes of battle, dealing a significant blow to the revived aim of the group to fight for an Islamic caliphate. Two main factions were left behind in the group’s traditional strongholds, loosely led by Furuji Indama in Basilan and Radullan Sahiron in Sulu. Further factionalization has also occurred, with sub-leaders commanding small pockets of fighters which are often structured along clan or family lines. Since the start of this year the group’s remnants have come under sustained attack from the army under Martial Law, which Duterte has extended across the entirety of Mindanao and its outlying islands until the end of 2018.

In the first six months of the year at least 63 Abu Sayyaf members have been killed by the army, while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recently estimated that only around 100 militants remain in Sulu and just 35 in Basilan. These numbers are hard to verify due to the group’s notoriously shadowy nature and remote areas of operation, however its lack of notable activity until recently backed-up claims that its strength was declining. The year up to July saw few attempted piracy attacks, no mass-casualty bombings and no major attacks on villages – all hallmark tactics of the group in the past. Many small groups of Abu Sayyaf fighters have recently surrendered to the military while the group’s low-profile activities have barely made headlines beyond the remote island provinces where Abu Sayyaf operates.

Abu Sayyaf displays signs of renewed life

The suicide bombing at an army checkpoint on the outskirts Lamitan city, Basilan province, on 31 July thrust the group firmly back into the spotlight. The attack – which left 11 people dead including four civilians, six soldiers and the suspected bomber – took the authorities by surprise. Abu Sayyaf was thought to no-longer possess the capability to pull-off such an attack. Unconfirmed media reports suggested a Moroccan national with links to the Islamic state was the perpetrator, raising worrying questions as to the extent of the link between Abu Sayyaf and the wider global jihadi movement, which was thought to have been severed after the defeat of Hapilon’s faction in Marawi. The suicide attack was just the first in a number of high-profile incidents linked to the group over the next month.

Abu Sayyaf joined forces with the Maute group to lay siege to Marawi in 2017. The militants were defeated by government troops after a gruelling five-month battle (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

On 10 August, a group of around ten heavily-armed Abu Sayyaf militants boarded a Malaysian-owned tugboat off the island of Tawi-Tawi, close to the Malaysian state of Sabah. Authorities suspected the incident to be an attempted hostage-taking or kidnapping-for-ransom, however the crew managed to escape abduction by locking themselves in a secure room onboard the ship before Malaysian troops intervened, causing the militants to flee. Despite the ultimate failure of the operation, the attempted piracy attack demonstrates the willingness of Abu Sayyaf to once again launch ambitious assaults on the high seas. Towards the end of August, clashes with the military also intensified in the group’s island lairs. Several militants were killed, yet fierce battles on 23 August between more than 40 militants and an army battalion left 22 government soldiers wounded, many having sustained gunshot wounds and shrapnel-blast injuries. On 31 August, unidentified gunmen onboard a boat – identified by police as likely Abu Sayyaf members – raided a small coastal town in Zamboanga del Norte, killing four civilians and a government militiaman before taking two people hostage and fleeing back out to sea. The attack serves as just the latest indication that Abu Sayyaf may be trying to reboot their past violent campaign.

Is the threat from Abu Sayyaf really rising?

Do these incidents represent a growing threat from a resurgent Abu Sayyaf? Or are they simply last acts of resistance from a group which is becoming increasingly desperate to gain attention and remind itself of past glories when it was considered the most radical and brutal jihadi group in Southeast Asia?

Despite the spate of attacks, it is clear that Abu Sayyaf remains severely restricted in its reach. It is no longer able to dominate the waters surrounding its maritime strongholds as it once could. Joint naval patrols carried-out on a regular basis by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea have put paid to that. Launching piracy operations on the scale it once did, would now be far more difficult. An atmosphere of increased vigilance by countries in the region has also hampered the movement of jihadi fighters in the remote maritime borderlands between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, which served as a vital transit point for terrorists in the build-up to last year’s assault on Marawi city.

Meanwhile, the Philippine military has permanently deployed 10 battalions to Basilan and Sulu, and continues to launch co-ordinated ground and air assaults on Abu Sayyaf hideouts, aided by President Duterte’s decision to keep Martial Law in place until the end of 2018. In August, the army also set up a new outpost on the remote island of Panguan, located between Tawi-Tawi and the Malaysian state of Sabah, in what senior military spokesman Gen. Custodio Parcon described as an attempt to prevent the area from once again becoming a ‘safe haven’ from which militants could launch attacks. The lawless security environment which allowed Abu Sayyaf to flourish before Marawi now ceases to exist.

Forecast: Abu Sayyaf looking to disrupt Duterte’s peace process

It is no coincidence that the rise in Abu Sayyaf activity in recent months came just as President Duterte finalized a long-in-the-making peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao, aimed at establishing a new autonomous region in Muslim-majority areas of the region – including the island provinces which have long been home to Abu Sayyaf. The deal is expected to deal a huge blow to the recruitment efforts of jihadi groups such as Abu Sayyaf, that have long sought to lure Muslim recruits who felt marginalized and disenfranchised in the Philippines’ impoverished and war-afflicted south. The extremists are now attempting to push back and disrupt the peace process for their own survival.

The Philippine military has deployed 10 battalions to Sulu province in an effort to prevent Abu Sayyaf from relaunching its campaign of terror (Image Source: PIA)

Bombings such as the one perpetrated by Abu Sayyaf in Basilan, and two similar attacks carried-out in August by another radical group – the ISIS-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters – in Sultan Kudarat, now represent the biggest threat going forward. These radical groups may not have the manpower and resources to take the fight to the army in a conventional sense, so will now likely revert to guerrilla tactics such as suicide bombings, kidnappings and ambushes targeting government troops.

In this sense, Abu Sayyaf are attempting a comeback of sorts. Yet under the strain of Martial Law and with Duterte in the mood to crack-down after the Basilan bombing – which prompted him to order his troops to ‘destroy and kill’ the jihadists – Abu Sayyaf will struggle to resurrect its past reign of terror.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Has the Shifting Islamic State Threat Bypassed India?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cracked down on IS suspects at home, but India has opted not to formally join the US-led global anti-IS coalition (Image Source: US DoD)

Since first bursting into global consciousness in mid-2014 as they rampaged through Iraq – and later Syria – the militants of the Islamic State (IS) have looked to extend their reach eastward across Asia. The notorious jihadist group has since gone on to establish some form of presence in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. The group has also tried repeatedly to make inroads into India in recent years – but after a smattering of low-profile attacks and other IS-linked incidents threatened briefly to grow into something larger, this traction appears to have stalled.

India – a melting pot of cultures and religions encircled by terrorist-affected Pakistan and Afghanistan to the west, and Bangladesh to the east – appears at first glance to be in an ideal geographical location for IS to infiltrate, with segments of its population ripe for exploitation with its extremist ideological mantra. Yet India has experienced very little jihadist activity since the emergence of IS four years ago, despite its large population of 1.3 billion, of which an estimated 180 million are Muslims. With the risk so-far averted and as IS weakens further as a global force, is India free from the latest jihadi scourge?

Background: concerns over IS-linked activities in India

The first signs of IS activity in India emerged in May 2014, when four young engineering students from Thane – near Mumbai – were reported by local media to have travelled to Iraq to fight with the group. Since then, two terror attacks in India have been linked to IS, amid sporadic reports of recruitment in some areas of the country. The first of these occurred in December of that year, when an explosion outside a restaurant in central Bangalore killed one person and left four others injured. Several men linked to homegrown militant group Indian Mujahideen were arrested but links between the suspects and IS could not be proven, despite speculation. A second bomb attack however was claimed by IS on 7 March 2017, when a powerful explosion ripped through a passenger train on the Bhopal-Ujjain line near Jabri railway station. The attack left ten civilians injured, and marked the first terrorist attack in India with definite links to IS. Police soon identified the perpetrators as belonging to a local jihadi cell spread across the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, making at least seven arrests in the days which followed. The alleged mastermind of the attack – named in media reports as Saifullah – was killed during a siege at his home with elite police counter-terrorism officers in the city of Lucknow.

These attacks appear minor when compared to the scale of the marauding three-day gun rampage in Mumbai in November 2008, which left at least 174 people dead, including 20 members of the security forces and 26 foreign tourists. More than 300 people were also injured during the assault, which sent shockwaves across the country and is often referred to as India’s 9/11. The onslaught was carried-out by ten Islamist militants from the radical Lashkar-e-Taiba group based next door in Pakistan, harming relations and igniting concern from India over the alleged safe-haven provided to terrorists in Pakistan.

While the threat from across the border has been clearly visible since 2008, the internal risk posed by IS has in India remained largely hidden below the surface. The Brookings Institution went some way to exposing the magnitude of this threat in a report last year, documenting the number of reported IS sympathizers – consisting of recruiters, supporters, propagandists and suspected terrorists – present in the country. The investigation revealed that 142 Indian citizens were affiliated with the jihadi group in some way, with the annual figure increasing during 2013-2016 before levelling-out in 2017. It was revealed that the majority came from relatively prosperous states in the south of the country such as Kerala, Telangana, Maharashtra and Karnataka. The report’s authors concluded that the number of IS-linked individuals was very small in comparison to other countries affected by the group. Based on this evidence, IS appears to have made little progress in swaying Indian citizens to its support its cause.

To what extent does IS pose a threat to India at present?

IS’ initial ambitions were to forge a concrete presence in the world’s largest democracy – the group even included India on a map of its desired caliphate back in 2014, and in some literature considered it part of its ‘Khorasan province’ encompassing the south Asian nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Propaganda efforts also focused on India, with a video released in May 2016 threatening the nation’s leaders and appealing to India’s 180 million Muslims to either travel to the caliphate or launch attacks at home. The slickly-produced video – featuring an Indian ‘foreign fighter’ and allegedly filmed in the Syrian province of Homs – warned IS would come to India to avenge injustices committed against the sizeable Muslim-minority population. The man in the video – named as Abu Salman al-Hindi – referred to sectarian rioting in the western state of Gujarat in 2002 when more than 1,000 Muslims were killed by mobs in response to the burning of a train carrying Hindus. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was accused of inaction as state governor at the time. The independence struggle in Kashmir was also mentioned as justification for targeting India, along with the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992.

Indian security forces dismantled an IS cell active in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh after a train bombing injured 10 civilians in March 2017 (Image Source: US DoD)

Despite these warnings, the lofty ambitions of maintaining a permanent presence on the ground and incorporating India into some kind of imagined IS super-caliphate have not even come close to being realised. Instead, the main threat has turned out to be from online recruitment and self-radicalization. As mentioned earlier, Kerala and other prosperous southwestern states have been worst-affected, with individuals and small groups of citizens becoming radicalized by extremist ideology disseminated online and through mobile platforms. Websites on the so-called ‘dark web’, social media sites and encrypted messaging apps have served as particularly useful mediums of communication for jihadis seeking to reach out to Indians. A single online recruiter – identified by intelligence agencies as Shafi Armar, or Yusuf-al-Hindi – has been linked to the majority of known cases of radicalization, while rogue Islamic centres and schools may also have played a role in providing a platform for extremist ideology. Radical preachers appearing on television and online platforms represent another area of concern for the authorities. The most prominent controversial preacher – Zakir Naik – has been accused by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) of encouraging unlawful activities and promoting religious hatred.

What measures has India taken to combat the threat?

Indian politicians have consistently denied that IS has an established presence in the country but have often warned of the seriousness of the threat posed by the group. In March, Home Minister Rajnath Singh highlighted the ‘radicalization of youth’ as a particular concern; but said India had so-far been successful in dismantling ‘modules that were planning to orchestrate terrorist attacks’ on its soil. Singh added that the ‘shift’ of jihadi networks linked to IS and al-Qaeda ‘from the Middle East to south Asia is a phenomenon which is of serious concern to India’. Singh also expressed confidence in the ability of the Indian authorities to combat the lingering threat, stating: ‘the Indian social fabric has not been affected by the emergence of IS – and I am sure this will not have any further impact in our country’.

This confidence appears to be well-founded, given the authorities’ record of cracking-down effectively on the activities of IS sympathizers. Several years ago, the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IIB) launched Operation Chakravyuh, designed to identify and entrap potential IS recruits online before they could be radicalized fully. Intelligence officers created social media accounts posing as IS recruiters, through which they interacted with more than 3,000 unassuming Indian youths seeking to join the global jihadi movement. The operatives were able to gather information related to the identity of the individuals concerned, which was then used to monitor and impose surveillance on targets and track the activities of emerging terrorist cells. It is thought that this initiative led to the arrest of multiple suspects before they were able to either travel abroad to join IS or carry-out attacks at home. The NIA and local police forces have also played a key role in conducting investigations and launching raids to arrest suspects. The Brookings Institution reported last year that 85 of 142 known IS suspects at the time had been detained. At least 11 others had been confirmed killed either while fighting abroad or during police operations in India, while many of the remaining 43 individuals were also reported to have been killed.

The national police and state intelligence services are also looking to improve their capabilities further, having recently taken part in a new two-day workshop with the EU aimed at countering radicalization online. The NIA has stressed the importance of closer global co-operation in this area, describing the internet and social media as ‘the main vehicles used by extremists and terrorist organizations to incite violence and sow hatred…and allow them to reach a far greater number of people than ever before’.

Future forecast: how might the threat from IS evolve?

Aside from the online sphere, several other areas of concern exist when it comes to IS in India. The decades-old conflict in Kashmir may be a particular weak spot, with IS-claimed attacks in the regional capital Srinagar last November and this February exposing the potential for a worrying new dynamic to the conflict. The attacks left two policemen dead, while a militant killed during the first incident was wrapped in an IS flag for his burial. While the attacks appear to have been isolated incidents, they indicate that a small number of IS sympathizers exist in the region, which some observers say could serve as a potential recruitment pool for extremist groups in the future. However, other analysts in the region argue this is unlikely due to the dominantly separatist nature of the long-running Kashmir independence struggle, while most of the armed groups active in the region are openly opposed to IS.

Secondly, sectarian tensions between Hindus and Muslims could also be a potential flashpoint. IS often looks to stir up such tensions in all countries where it operates, through its production of literature and audio-visual propaganda materials. A previous video aimed at India has disparaged Hindus as ‘worshippers of cows, trees and the sun’, while encouraging Muslims in the country to disassociate themselves from other religious groups. Prime Minister Modi’s alleged failure to take stronger action as state governor in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, along with the Hindu nationalist policies of the current administration, could also increase feelings of marginalization among disenfranchised Muslims and play into the hands of the militants. There also remains the dual risk of low-tech, small-scale lone-wolf attacks along with the threat of larger attacks from militants based across borders in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Such an eventuality has happened before, in Mumbai in 2008.

The need for continued vigilance against IS

India – as one of the world’s most populous and religiously diverse countries, located in the heart of a volatile region long-beset by problems related to Islamist militancy – has so-far been remarkably unscathed by IS. Yet as the group continues to lose territory in its former Middle Eastern strongholds of Syria and Iraq, it may yet attempt to open up new fronts to ensure its survival. This is less likely to be in the form of a fixed caliphate, but more likely something more akin to the loose global terrorist network developed by al-Qaeda in the 1990s and 2000s. As authorities around the world crack-down on the group’s activities, remote and long-volatile regions such as Kashmir may become an attractive option for IS. At first glance this appears unlikely, yet there is an existing precedent for such a scenario. Last year on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, IS was able to infiltrate and manipulate a decades-old insurgent movement that had previously been purely separatist in nature, to the point where it was able to take over and rule parts of a mid-sized city – Marawi – under the black flag of IS for almost six months. A similar scenario in Kashmir is just as unlikely; but can’t entirely be ruled out.

Prime Minister Modi’s government, along with India’s intelligence community and law enforcement agencies, will need to remain vigilant and on high alert even as IS’ global influence continues to wane. Although fading, IS’ ambitions for south Asia are not yet dead. Complacency at this stage from India – or any state around the world which appears to have avoided IS’ scourge – would be very dangerous.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.