Philippines Communist Insurgency: Rhetoric Heats Up as Peace Negotiations Remain Stalled

President Duterte vowed when elected to pursue peace talks with the CPP-NPA, aimed at ending one of the world’s longest-running communist insurgencies (Image Source: PCOO)

This feature was first published on Asian Correspondent.

When Rodrigo Duterte was elected as president of the Philippines in May 2016, hopes were raised for a negotiated end to one of Asia’s longest-running Maoist insurgencies. On the campaign trail Duterte had vowed, if elected, to enter into ‘inclusive talks’ with rebels from the New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the once-outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Peace talks did indeed begin in Norway last August, and got off to a positive start with both sides declaring separate ceasefires and agreeing to further rounds of dialogue, which took place in Oslo in October and Rome in January. At the turn of the year, it appeared steady progress was being made.

Yet the peace process crashed to an abrupt halt in early February after a series of armed clashes led both parties to declare their separate ceasefires at an end. Talks were briefly revived in the Netherlands in April, before a fifth round of dialogue scheduled for May was cancelled by Duterte. Since the collapse of the peace process earlier this year, violence has spiralled and deadly attacks have become a frequent occurrence. September saw several high-profile incidents, with NPA rebels killing four government troops in an ambush in Nueva Vizcaya at the start of the month, whilst on 20 September, nine Maoist rebels were slain in a clash with the Philippine army in Carranglan.

After several attempts to restart negotiations failed, rhetoric on both sides has become increasingly heated in recent months. In August, President Duterte declared ‘war’ against the Maoists, stating ‘Let’s stop talking, start fighting’, before describing peace negotiations as a ‘waste of time’. The CPP responded by labelling Duterte’s administration as a ‘semi-colonial, anti-peasant regime’, whilst claiming ‘the people have no other recourse but to tread the path of militant struggle and collective action’. Amid the escalating war-of-words and with negotiations still stalled, this report examines the reasons why the peace talks faltered and assesses the prospects of future dialogue.

The history of the modern communist movement in the Philippines dates back to 1968 and the founding of the CPP by a former student activist, Jose Maria Sison, who still leads the organization from self-exile in the Netherlands. The party’s armed wing, the NPA, was established a year later with the aim of overthrowing the central government in Manila through a sustained campaign of armed resistance, referred to by the CPP-NPA as a ‘protracted people’s war’. The movement is rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideology and seeks to establish a political system led by the working classes, which would redistribute land to the poor and expel US influence from the Philippines.

The NPA reached the height of its powers in the early-1980s during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when it attracted widespread public support and had more than 25,000 members. In the democratic era, the movement has declined in strength but still retains an operational presence in most provinces across the country, and now has around 4,800 active members. Clashes between NPA rebels and Philippine troops continue to occur sporadically as the insurgency approaches its sixth decade, despite repeated military crackdowns. The NPA remains especially strong in poorer rural areas where it enjoys widespread support and exercises de-facto control through the collection of ‘revolutionary taxes’; payments which Manila describes as extortion.

Peace negotiations have taken place intermittently in past decades between the National Democratic Front (NDF) – a political grouping which represents the CPP-NPA in formal talks – and successive governments led by Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino, yet to no avail. The election of Duterte last year signalled renewed hope for peace, and the first round of talks with the NDF in August 2016 produced a landmark result: the declaration of ceasefires by both sides. The commitment held and the parties convened again in Oslo two months later, before a third meeting in Rome this January. Yet at the beginning of February, months of careful diplomacy unravelled in a matter of days, whilst efforts to rekindle negotiations in the following months made little progress. Both sides blamed each other as clashes resumed between the army and rebels, leaving many wondering: why did the talks falter, and how did the ceasefire collapse so quickly?

Since the breakdown of peace negotiations earlier this year, NPA attacks against government troops have occurred more frequently (Image Source: Philippines Information Agency)

The trigger for the collapse was a result of the peace process reaching a major sticking-point over the release of political prisoners. As the dialogue moved forward, the CPP-NPA had made it clear that the release of imprisoned members was a pre-condition for the continuation of talks, whereas President Duterte maintained he would not release more prisoners until a formal joint ceasefire agreement had been signed. Tensions surrounding the issue were already boiling over before the NPA lifted its unilateral ceasefire on 1 February. Duterte followed-suit two days later after a series of NPA attacks on Philippine troops, immediately terminating the government’s ceasefire and accusing the ‘terrorist’ rebels of ‘wanting another fifty years of war’.

Whilst unsatisfied demands for a prisoner amnesty served as the trigger for the breakdown of talks earlier this year, there are several more deeply-rooted factors which contributed to the failure of dialogue and restrict the chances of ending the insurgency should talks resume.

First, the factional nature of the NPA – with armed units present in almost every province across the Philippines – and a lack of centralized operational leadership, makes it difficult for the largely symbolic figureheads of the CPP and NDF, responsible for negotiating with the government, to control the activities of their fighters. Whilst a ceasefire is imposed from above, realities on the ground make it easy for violent clashes to occur in a local context. This often leads to further attacks and retaliatory violence, dealing a hammer blow to peace talks at the national level.

Second, a lack of trust exists between both sides. This makes progress difficult to sustain as firmly opposed positions have been reinforced over five decades of conflict. For example, as soon as the talks collapsed in February, both the government and CPP-NPA quickly reverted from making careful diplomatic overtures and returned to using divisive language describing each other as the ‘enemy’. As the months have passed, heated rhetoric has replaced the co-operative tones voiced last year, indicating the fragility of progressive dialogue and the difficulty of reversing long-held suspicions.

President Duterte came to power in 2016 promising to negotiate an end to the Philippines’ long-running internal conflicts, yet conditions appear only to have deteriorated. The government is now firefighting on multiple fronts: the army is still battling ISIS-aligned militants in Marawi, whilst at the same time Congress is trying to finalize a long-awaited peace deal with Moro separatist groups. And now, a resurgent communist insurgency is threatening to inflict further bloodshed.

The only way of resolving the conflict without a peace accord being signed is to tackle the root causes of the insurgency, which would undermine recruitment and support for the NPA through improving the livelihoods of the Philippines’ rural poor. This approach alone however would take decades, and without an accompanying peace deal, may not end the violence in its entirety.

To prevent further internal strife, the government and the NPA have a strong imperative to return to the path of negotiation. Duterte is unpredictable, so his declaration that the peace process with the NPA is over does not necessarily signal the end of the road. If there is a lull in rebel attacks and conditions are deemed right, talks may be restarted in the near future.

After five decades of armed resistance, the cycle of conflict will be difficult to break; yet the revival of the peace process represents the only viable path forward. Unless momentum is regained soon, the Philippines’ long-running Maoist insurgency may prove intractable for another generation.

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Four decades on, Laos grapples with Vietnam War’s explosive legacy

The national clearance agency – UXO-Lao – has been working with international NGOs to clear unexploded bombs left behind from the Vietnam War (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

This in-depth feature is an extended version of an article published on Asian Correspondent.

More than four decades after the last bomb fell from the skies above the remote and landlocked Southeast Asian nation of Laos, its countryside remains littered with deadly remnants from a conflict which long-ago faded into distant memory for many in the West. For the people of Laos however, the harmful impacts of the Vietnam War continue to reverberate deep into the 21st Century.

A covert nine-year US bombing campaign resulted in more than two million tonnes of ordnance being dumped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. This campaign was dubbed the ‘Secret War’, as the raids were conducted without the authorization of Congress and without the knowledge of the American public. During the onslaught around 30,000 people were killed or maimed, and an additional 20,000 casualties have been incurred since the campaign ended, as civilians have inadvertently come into contact with unexploded ordnance (UXO) left behind.

In recent years there has been a marked reduction in annual deaths and injuries – from more than 300 in 2008 to less than 50 last year – following an intensification of nationwide clearance efforts. However, this success in reducing the direct physical impacts of UXO must not blur the wider humanitarian legacy of the US bombing campaign in Laos: less than 2% of the total contaminated land area has been cleared, in a country which remains amongst the poorest in the region. In short, UXO serves as a major and debilitating impediment to Laos’ development.

Around 80 million cluster bomblets remain hidden in forests, submerged along river banks and buried in fertile soil. This extensive level of contamination renders large swathes of agricultural land unusable, denting crop production and worsening food insecurity. The presence of UXO also hampers construction: vast areas of land need to be painstakingly cleared before building work can begin, making infrastructure projects more dangerous, costly and time-consuming. The long-term injuries suffered by victims have also created a nationwide disability crisis, placing a huge burden on the country’s overstretched healthcare system and depriving many families of income.

These effects combine to harm social and economic development at both the local and national level, leaving many Laotians unable to escape a life of isolation, poverty and hardship.

Before assessing the impacts of UXO on development in more detail, it is essential to first trace the history of the UXO problem in Laos: from the Vietnam War and subsequent bombing campaign to the more recent clearance efforts of the last two decades.

The US bombing of Laos has long been overshadowed by the wider narrative of the Vietnam War, which began in 1955 and ended when Saigon fell twenty years later. The conflict was often viewed through the lens of the wider struggle between the two global superpowers of the Cold War era, when the US sought to contain the spread of communism through halting the ‘domino effect’ in Southeast Asia. In this context in the early 1960s, large numbers of US troops became engaged in an increasingly bloody and intractable ground war against the communist North Vietnamese.

By 1963, the war had spilled across Vietnam’s long and snaking western border. North Vietnamese troops began smuggling arms and equipment to south Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; an overland supply route carved through the dense forests of neighbouring south-eastern Laos and eastern Cambodia. At the same time, Pathet Lao communist fighters were increasingly engaging in battles with the US-backed Royal Lao Army in northern Laos, further raising US concerns over the ‘domino effect’ in the region.

In December 1964, the US responded to these developments by launching what became the most extensive bombing campaign in history, aimed at disrupting activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Congress had not been consulted and for several years the US government denied the existence of the campaign, referring only to ‘reconnaissance flights’ over Laos. Over the next nine years Laos became the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. In total, US aircraft flew more than 580,000 sorties and dropped more than two million tonnes of ordnance.

Cluster bombs – each containing up to 700 smaller bomblets which are released mid-air and dispersed over a wide area – were the most frequently-used weapon. Around 260 million bomblets in total were dropped during the campaign. Of these, around 80 million failed to detonate and now make up the bulk of UXO remnants littering the countryside. The scale of contamination is in fact so severe that UXO are present in 14 of Laos’ 17 provinces.

During the US bombing campaign from 1964-1973, aircraft flew 580,000 sorties and dropped two million tonnes of ordnance on Laos (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The true extent of the campaign only became public knowledge after a series of US Senate hearings in 1971, which first exposed the ‘Secret War’ in Laos. Over the decades, further details have emerged as state department documents have been declassified and US military strike records have been released. Despite an initial public outrage the suffering inflicted on Laos remained in the headlines for only a relatively short period of time. Four-and-a-half decades on, the affair has drifted from public consciousness and has been largely forgotten.

The impacts on the civilian population have been overwhelming. More than 50,000 people have been killed or maimed since the bombing started in 1964, with 20,000 falling victim since the campaign ended in 1973. Children are disproportionately affected as they often mistake spherical cluster bomb casings for toys, accounting for 40% of UXO casualties.

Most accidents are caused by direct impact. This can occur when agricultural workers dig the soil, when villagers attempt to move or defuse bombs themselves, and when children mistakenly play with cluster bomblets. The burgeoning scrap metal trade in Laos has also exacerbated the problem, leading many impoverished residents to take huge risks for a quick financial return.

In the past twenty years UXO clearance efforts have gathered pace after several decades of inaction. In 1996 the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO-Lao) was established. UXO-Lao works with NGOs and international partners to co-ordinate nationwide clearance efforts on the ground. This was followed ten years later by the establishment of a National Regulatory Authority (NRA) to oversee the management of the UXO sector. International NGOs such as Mines Advisory Group, Handicap International and Legacies of War have played a vital role in raising awareness and undertaking complex removal work.

The direct humanitarian impacts of UXO in Laos are slowly receding. In the past two decades, more than 1.4 million UXO items have been destroyed and more than 3 million people living in the most heavily-contaminated areas have attended risk education classes. UXO-Lao says that since 2010, UXO clearance has made possible the construction of 478 new schools, 78 water systems and 75 new roads. In addition, the rate of death and injury from UXO has been reduced by 86% since 2008, with the government now aiming to limit casualties to less than 40 per year.

These figures are encouraging, yet still more needs to be done to tackle the huge scale of the problem: it is worth remembering that less than 2% of contaminated land has been cleared. Taking time to consider this reality – that 98% of contaminated land remains littered with UXO – allows for further reflection on the potentially hidden, longer-term and more indirect implications of the US bombing campaign. In this sense, it must be asked: to what extent has UXO impacted Laos’ development?

Despite achieving annual GDP growth of above 8% in the last few years, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. In the latest version of the UN Human Development Index, Laos is ranked 138th out of 188 countries, with only Myanmar (145) and Cambodia (143) faring worse in the region. Whilst there are numerous factors determining a country’s level of development, it can be argued that in the case of Laos, UXO contamination plays a unique role in stunting progress.

Around 260 million cluster bomblets were dropped on Laos in just nine years. More than 80 million failed to detonate, and now litter the countryside (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The correlation between UXO and underdevelopment is most visible through the prism of poverty. According to the World Bank, 41.7% of people in Laos earn less than $3.10 per day, whilst 16.7% of the population earn less than $1.90 per day. This represents a higher proportion of people living below the poverty line compared to other Southeast Asian states. In addition to a high poverty rate at the national level, a growing divide is emerging between urban and rural areas. The UNDP reported that the poverty rate was three times higher for the 63% of Laos’ population whom reside in the countryside, where the UXO threat is greatest. In fact, the correlation between poverty and UXO contamination is stark, with 42 of the 46 poorest districts being in areas with widespread UXO presence. This trend is especially pronounced in remote mountainous areas where it is more difficult to conduct clearance operations, and along the border with Vietnam where bombing was heaviest.

The correlation between UXO contamination and poverty is clear, yet explaining exactly why the presence of UXO exacerbates poverty and worsens development outcomes is a more complex undertaking. In this sense, UXO contamination has negative implications in three broad areas which are vitally important to Laos’ development: agriculture, infrastructure and healthcare.

Firstly, UXO hampers agricultural production and worsens food insecurity. Even before the bombing campaign, Laos already found itself disadvantaged due to its rugged mountainous geography. Agricultural land accounts for only 10% of total land area, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). This is amongst the lowest in the region, and far less than neighbours Thailand (43%), Vietnam (36%) and Cambodia (33%). The presence of UXO across half of Laos’ arable land compounds these existing geographical disadvantages, meaning that only a small proportion of fertile land is able to be farmed. UXO has hit food production hard, leaving the country incapable of providing adequately for its burgeoning population, which now stands at 6.9 million.

As a result, rates of malnourishment are amongst the highest in the region. A 2016 study found that 18.5% of the population were undernourished, compared to 14% in Myanmar and Cambodia, and 11% in Vietnam. Laos was also found to have the highest rate in the region of stunting in children under five years of age, which stands at a staggering 43.8%. As the population continues to grow, food insecurity is likely to worsen. This is already pushing villagers to take great risks in attempting to conduct UXO clearance themselves and farm land which may be contaminated.

Whilst it is true that geographical constraints have historically restricted agricultural development in Laos, it is equally undeniable that the widespread presence of UXO – rendering hundreds of square kilometres of farmland unusable – is a decisive factor in explaining the difficulties endured by Laotian farmers and the poor performance of the country’s agricultural economy.

Secondly, UXO acts as an impediment to the provision of critical infrastructure. Laos’ geographical features – notably its mountainous terrain, dense jungles and lack of coastline – unfortunately serve as natural barriers to construction and free-flowing trade, yet the presence of UXO again compounds these problems. As a landlocked nation, Laos depends on overland transportation to move goods around the country, yet UXO contamination makes the construction of transport routes more dangerous and time-consuming than almost anywhere else on the planet. Land must be extensively surveyed and painstakingly cleared before construction work can begin, lessening the incentive for foreign investment in infrastructure projects.

As a result of UXO, Laos is desperately lacking in adequate road and rail links, leaving vast areas of the country isolated and disconnected from the main urban centres of Vientiane and Luang Prabang. This makes it difficult for goods to be transported to and from the countryside, leaving many rural areas to sink deeper into poverty whilst the cities prosper.

Large construction projects also face considerable delays and extra costs as a result of UXO contamination. For example, construction of the 1,075-megawatt, 350-metre tall Nam Theun II Dam, completed in 2010, was only able to get underway after three years of prior UXO removal work costing almost $17 million. The Dam project provides just one example of the many instances where additional costs have been incurred to build on UXO-contaminated land.

Thirdly, UXO has placed a huge burden on the healthcare system in Laos. There are more than 12,000 survivors of UXO accidents across the country, most of whom have some degree of disability and will require support for the rest of their lives. The most common injuries sustained are the loss of a limb, blindness, hearing loss and shrapnel wounds. It is estimated that 40% of survivors require limb amputation, leading Laos to have one of the highest rates of disability globally. In the heavily-contaminated Xieng Khouang province alone, there are more than five-thousand disabled residents. The high amputation rate results from the majority of incidents occurring in remote, inaccessible areas, meaning that professional medical attention is often several hours away.

In the past 20 years, UXO-Lao has made more than 11,000 risk education visits to villages in the most heavily-contaminated areas, warning 3 million Laotians of the dangers of UXO (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The strain placed on Laos’ fragile healthcare system is overbearing. Many facilities are ill-equipped to deal with the severity of injuries in the immediate aftermath of an accident; for example, blood transfusions are often not possible in rural clinics, meaning that blood loss, rather than the injury itself, is a leading cause of death amongst UXO victims. In the longer-term, survivors require years of physical rehabilitation, psychological counselling, and custom-made devices to replace missing limbs.

Survivors face difficulty in resuming their normal lives, and households are plunged into poverty as families become unable to rely on the productivity of the main breadwinner. Relatives are forced to give up work to help care for injured family members, whilst children often stop attending school and instead seek employment to replace lost income.

The poverty-inducing effects of blast injuries and the additional burden placed on health services exacerbates the negative impacts of UXO on development. A high rate of disability means a depleted workforce, whilst families are weighed down under the burden of care, leaving tens-of-thousands of Laotians unable to contribute towards economic growth.

In recent years the UXO problem has been addressed with greater urgency, alongside a growing recognition that UXO poses a threat to development. In September 2016, Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon inaugurated a new sustainable development goal for Laos, entitled Lives Safe from UXO: Remove the UXO Obstacle to National Development. This initiative – known as SDG18 – aims to further reduce casualties, address the needs of victims and clear the highest-risk areas by 2030.

Last year the government also announced plans to carry-out a nationwide UXO survey, aiming to produce a reliable estimate of contamination across the country by 2021. This will enable the most heavily-contaminated areas to be prioritized and facilitate closer co-ordination between UXO-Lao, international NGOs and private sector firms.

The most significant boost to clearance efforts however came last September, when then-US president Barack Obama announced a $90million funding package to be spread over the next three years, dwarfing previous US commitments. In a speech in Vientiane – during his historic first visit to Laos by a sitting US leader – President Obama acknowledged the harm inflicted by the bombing campaign, stating: ‘‘I believe the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal.’’

President Obama visited Laos in September 2016, pledging $90 million in funding to aid clearance efforts over the next three years (Image Source: White House Archives)

The successful visit followed a period of sustained engagement with Laos as part of the previous administration’s ‘pivot’ towards Asia, in which the US sought closer alliances with ASEAN member states as a counter to China’s growing influence in the region. However, Donald Trump does not appear to view Southeast Asia as such a high priority, prompting concerns over future UXO funding and raising questions over whether the US commitment to ‘‘help Laos heal’’ will be a long-term one.

Over the last two decades, steady progress has been made in tackling the UXO threat in Laos. The US has finally recognized the harmful legacy of the covert bombing campaign it conducted during the Vietnam War, which was overwhelmingly disproportionate in terms of its devastating long-term impact on civilians. In the last few years, greater engagement and funding has enabled clearance operations to move forward at a faster pace. In humanitarian terms, the recent intensification of clearance work has brought dramatic improvements: casualty numbers have reduced to an all-time low, and the majority of the rural population are now aware of the dangers posed by UXO.

Yet there remains an awfully long way to go. Four decades on from the US’ ‘Secret War’, its humanitarian legacy may be fading; but its developmental legacy persists. Despite recent economic growth, Laos still lags behind its neighbours and remains amongst the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. Given the painfully slow and careful nature of the work required to clear even the smallest area of land, UXO contamination will continue to pose a severe impediment to Laos’ development for decades to come. The widespread presence of UXO compounds the natural constraints imposed by Laos’ mountainous geography, denying it the opportunity to lift itself out of poverty and join Southeast Asia’s growing band of middle-income countries.

The ongoing experience of Laos serves as a painful reminder of the potential for conflicts to kill, maim and hold back development long after they have been consigned to the history books. Given the fact that only 2% of contaminated land has been made safe since clearance activities began more than 20 years ago, further international engagement and funding reassurances will be needed if there is to be a sustained, long-term effort to tackle the crippling legacy of UXO in Laos.

Indonesia unmoved by West Papua independence struggle

Indonesia has exercised sovereignty over West Papua since a disputed 1969 UN-backed referendum. President Joko Widodo’s position is supported by neighbouring Australia (Image Source: DFAT, Timothy Tobing)

In the Indonesian province of West Papua, a movement for independence has existed since the early 1960s. Located at the country’s easternmost point, West Papua came under Indonesian control in a disputed UN-backed referendum in 1969, sparking an independence struggle which has taken place far from the gaze of the outside world.

Over the past five decades this seemingly intractable conflict – and its competing narratives – have been largely forgotten by those outside the region. In recent years however, the dispute has gained greater international attention as a result of more organized efforts on the part of independence activists, alongside a growing network of concerned politicians around the globe.

Yet despite this upturn in media coverage, civil society action and political manoeuvring, the call for a new referendum on West Papua’s future remains unlikely to be granted.

The origins of the dispute date back to the mid-20th Century, when the area was under Dutch colonial control. Indonesia became an independent state in 1949, yet West Papua remained under Dutch control throughout the 1950s. As calls for West Papua’s own independence grew throughout the decade, leaders in the area held a Congress in 1961 and for the first time raised their own flag – known as the ‘Morning Star’.

Conflict over the territory soon broke-out between Indonesia, West Papua and the Dutch colonisers, until a UN-sponsored treaty – known as the New York Agreement – was brokered in 1962. The agreement initially gave control of West Papua to the United Nations, before transferring control to Indonesia with the promise that a referendum would be held on the future of the territory.

When the ballot – known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’ – was finally held in 1969, it did not resemble a referendum as had been promised by the UN. The Indonesian military selected just over one-thousand West Papuan leaders to vote on behalf of the entire population. All of those eligible to take part voted in favour of the territory being incorporated into Indonesia – yet reportedly did so within an atmosphere of intimidation and under the threat of violence.

In a much-criticized move, the decision was later authorized by the UN, and West Papua was officially incorporated into Indonesia. Local resentment against the decision was strong, with many labelling the referendum as an ‘Act of No Choice’. The perceived injustice following the referendum result gave rise to the independence movement which has spawned in the decades since, and this injustice remains a key motivating factor amongst those still seeking independence today.

West Papua is located in eastern Indonesia. It borders Papua New Guinea to the west, and is separated from northern Australia by the Arafura Sea (Image Source: US Library of Congress)

Resistance has taken several forms. An armed guerrilla group – called the OPM (Free Papua Movement) – was formed in 1970, and has carried out a number of attacks on Indonesian security forces and against multinational corporations operating in the area, particularly in the mining and resource sector. In recent decades, the independence movement has become more peaceful and political in nature, particularly since the fall of Indonesia’s former military dictator, General Suharto, in the late 1990s. In 2000, a public congress was held, and the Papuan Presidium Council (PDP) was formed in an attempt to gain recognition for the independence struggle; yet this project eventually failed after crackdowns by the Indonesian security forces and internal divisions within the group. More recently, several campaign groups have formed and have become better organized, holding demonstrations in the region and in other countries, to raise awareness of the situation.

Over the last five decades, information on the situation in West Papua has been difficult to obtain and verify, as foreign journalists and non-governmental organizations have largely been banned from the province. However, numerous human rights violations have reportedly been carried-out by the Indonesian security forces, including accusations of torture, murder, intimidation and arbitrary arrests. In addition, many people from other parts of Indonesia have been moved into the province, in what could be viewed as an attempt to lessen the influence of West Papuan culture.

The conflict long-ago reached a point of stalemate, with the dispute refusing to recede despite the fact that almost 50 years have passed since the original referendum took place. There are multiple reasons why the dispute has become so intractable, not to mention the firmly-ingrained competing interpretations of the situation, which prevail on each side of the debate.

From the perspective of the West Papuan independence movement, the grievances felt in the 1960s have not subsided over time, and continue to drive the struggle today. First and foremost, the perceived historical injustice at the way the referendum was conducted remains strong. Other secondary factors have added to this feeling of injustice in the years since, including reports of human rights violations, cultural marginalization and economic disadvantages.

From the perspective of the Indonesian government, the territory was always rightfully obtained under a legal referendum, with the result sanctioned by the UN, thus resulting in legitimacy to govern and support from the international community. Many of Indonesia’s allies and closest neighbours – notably Australia – have long supported Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua. The province has come to occupy a central location in Indonesia’s national imagination, and is of huge economic importance due to its rich mineral resources. As a result, Indonesia has gone great lengths to secure control over the area, through maintaining a strong military presence and effectively closing the region off to international observers.

The campaign for West Papua’s independence has gathered pace in recent years, with an increasing number of demonstrations being held. (Image Source: Nichollas Harrison)

In recent years, Indonesia has been accused of carrying-out large-scale arrests of demonstrators and members of the independence movement, whilst the government has repeatedly urged other nations to respect Indonesia’s sovereignty. In this sense, the status-quo has undergone little change.

Yet last year, the independence campaign appeared to pick up pace, with a global conference on West Papua held in London in May 2016. Members of the ‘Free West Papua’ movement were in attendance, along with members of the ‘International Parliamentarians for West Papua’ (IPWP) group, including the current UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. At the meeting, prominent pro-independence leader Benny Wenda urged the UN to initiate and supervise a new vote for independence in West Papua, to make up for the perceived failings of the 1969 UN-backed vote.

The reinvigorated pro-independence campaign serves as evidence that despite Indonesia’s tight control of the province, and despite doubts over whether West Papua would be able to survive as an independent nation, calls for a new referendum are unlikely to subside. In fact, the independence movement appears to be more resilient and better-organized than at any time in recent history.

The involved parties are aware that persuading Indonesia to hold a new referendum is an unlikely prospect. Yet irrespective of the campaign’s long-term success or failure in terms of achieving an independence vote, it serves an important purpose in raising awareness of the human rights situation faced by civilians in West Papua.

Since being elected in 2014, Indonesian president Joko Widodo has visited the region and shown greater interest in its development than his predecessors, raising hopes of an improved economic and human rights situation for the local population. If President Widodo is serious about his pledge to improve livelihoods and repair Indonesia’s damaged reputation in West Papua, then opening-up the region to foreign journalists and human rights organizations would be a positive first step.

Challenges to sustainable democracy in Myanmar: internal conflicts and human rights abuses

When Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide election victory in November 2015, the international community celebrated with a sense of optimism. The election of Myanmar’s first civilian-led government in decades signalled the end of authoritarian rule, and ushered in a hopeful new era of democracy. However, with the new parliament still in its infancy, there is a growing realisation of the huge challenges which face Myanmar’s leaders. They must now turn their attention to tackling a legacy of complex ethnic conflicts and human rights abuses, which have harmed the country’s population, economy and international reputation for decades.

Myanmar’s multiple, complex and on-going internal conflicts remain a significant barrier to achieving national unity, and pose a serious threat to the stability of the democratization process. Parts of the country have endured war-like conditions for over 50 years as several regions have experienced fierce fighting between an array of ethnic armed groups and the military. These conflicts have centred on issues such as the control of territory, the desire for extended political rights and greater autonomy, along with gaining access to natural resources.

Prior to last year’s elections, the military-backed government announced a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as a means to end the fighting. However, this was viewed as a largely symbolic and superficial agreement which achieved only limited success. After almost two years of negotiations, only 8 out of more than 25 active armed groups signed the accord. Whilst one of Myanmar’s oldest rebel groups, the Karen National Union (KNU) did sign, many other powerful and influential groups refused. These include the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA). In the last four years, the UN estimates that over 100,000 people have been internally displaced within the conflict-troubled regions as fighting has intensified, adding to thousands more refugees who have crossed the borders into neighbouring Laos, Thailand and China.

Article 10 (1) Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide majority in November’s parliamentary elections (Image Source: Claude Truong-Ngoc)

Whilst the violence has largely centred on ethnic tensions, there are also significant economic factors. Lack of access to Myanmar’s natural resources in poverty-stricken regions has fuelled inequalities and increased resentment against the ruling elite. For example, in Kachin state, large companies and government officials have reaped the benefits of huge profits from the multi-billion dollar jade trade, whilst the local population remains impoverished. In the last few years fighting has worsened in Kachin and Shan states, with reports of widespread killings, disappearances, rape and forced labour; whilst the government has continued to deny access to humanitarian groups and international observers.

Over the decades, regional tensions have routinely escalated into armed clashes between rebel groups and the military, culminating in a long-standing lack of trust between local populations and the government. This will make any future negotiation attempts more difficult. However, in light of the recent power shift, the NLD government has an opportunity to push-forward a renewed dialogue with disenfranchised groups. In particular, it is important for the NLD to engage with ethnic political parties which lost-out in November’s election, in order to show that minority groups will play an essential part in a more inclusive democratic process going forward.

Another long-standing issue is the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority, which has suffered systematic persecution and discrimination for decades. In November’s elections, the Rohingya were denied voting rights after former military ruler Thein Sein revoked their ID cards, whilst most Muslim candidates were barred from standing for election to parliament. These strict measures highlight a concern that ethnic and religious minorities are deliberately being denied a voice in shaping Myanmar’s future, never mind representation in high office. These exclusionary measures followed years of violence after military operations began in 2012 in Rakhine state – home to an estimated 1 million Rohingya Muslims. More than 150,000 Rohingyas have fled the country over the last four years, whilst approximately 143,000 others are confined to refugee camps along the border with Thailand.

The latest wave of violence has occurred alongside a worrying rise in religious intolerance, Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiments which have appeared to be on the increase in recent years. This marks a further deterioration in the situation of the Rohingya, who have been formally deprived of citizenship since 1982, and continue to face severe restrictions on freedom of movement and access to healthcare, whilst experiencing limited education and employment opportunities. Whilst total figures are impossible to verify, there have been numerous reports of arbitrary arrests, torture and killings at the hands of the security forces.

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An estimated 150,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since 2012, where they have faced decades of discrimination and denial of full citizenship rights (Image Source: FCO)

A recent report by UK-based human rights group Amnesty International highlights numerous other areas of concern. Firstly, Myanmar still has thousands of political prisoners, after the military authorities have routinely arrested and imprisoned activists for peacefully exercising their rights. In March 2015, police violently dispersed a large student protest in the town of Letpadan, in the Bago region, resulting in more than 100 students being charged with criminal offences. In addition to the threat of imprisonment, activists also claim to have experienced continual harassment and intimidation from the security forces.

Secondly, freedom of expression has been under attack, with the previous government enacting a range of laws aimed at stifling dissent and preventing criticism. Many of the laws are vaguely-worded and open to interpretation, and have often been used to apprehend those intending to protest, through criminalizing activities such as ‘unlawful assembly’ and ‘incitement’. Human rights groups and journalists have also been subject to continual surveillance, intimidation and harassment by the authorities.

Thirdly, the report concludes that members of the security forces continue to violate human rights, with almost total impunity for their actions. Official investigations into abuses or corruption are extremely rare and have lacked basic levels of transparency; whilst victims continue to be denied the right to justice, truth and reparations. As a result of the continuing instability there are now around 230,000 internally displaced people in Myanmar, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). In addition, hundreds of thousands of refugees now reside outside of the country, reluctant to return in light of continuing militarization, persistent impunity, and the lack of economic prospects.

Despite the on-going conflicts and human rights abuses, it is clear that Myanmar has made huge strides in recent years – largely due to the efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, in addition to a gradual willingness from the military to introduce reforms. Yet it must be recognized that the country’s problems are decades-old and will not be resolved quickly or easily, despite growing international pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi to take a tougher stance against human rights abuses. However, the new era of democracy does offer a renewed chance for engagement and dialogue between all parties, which could increase the chances of peace and reconciliation in a fractured society. The social and economic benefits of a lasting-peace would be huge, allowing the country to make significant progress in terms of development and economic growth. However, from a political perspective the rewards may be even greater: resolving Myanmar’s complex internal conflicts and ending decades of human rights abuses, could be the key to ensuring that a lasting, sustainable and inclusive democracy takes hold.