Beyond the Narrative of Progress in Myanmar’s Panglong Peace Initiative

Myanmar’s government met with the ten signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement for the 4th Panglong summit in Naypyidaw from 19-21 August. (Image Source: A. N. Soe, VOA)

From 19-21 August, Aung San Suu Kyi convened in Naypyidaw alongside army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and representatives of ten ethnic armed groups for Myanmar’s fourth Union Peace Conference. The event – initially scheduled for April but pushed-back amid the COVID19 pandemic – marked the latest effort to revive the Panglong peace initiative, tasked with ending 70 years of conflict in Myanmar’s border regions.

The delayed summit – which took place after two years of frozen negotiations – offered a final chance for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) to claim that progress had been made in resolving ethnic strife – a key policy objective – since it came to power in October 2015. With the next general election set for November, does Naypyidaw’s positive rhetoric after the latest Panglong meeting stand up to scrutiny?

Myanmar’s Panglong Initiative

The 21st Century Panglong initiative takes its name from a peace agreement signed in 1947 by Myanmar’s independence hero, and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San, promising autonomy for ethnic minorities.

The concept was revived after a dialogue process was initiated by the former military regime of Thein Sein in 2011, which resulted in the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with eight ethnic armies in October 2015. The NLD secured a landslide election win the following month, joining the army in power.

Upon assuming power, the NLD government pledged to hold a Union Peace Conference every six months, yet only four have been held during its five-year term. Progress has been slower than hoped, and only two additional ethnic armies have joined the accord since 2015, raising the total number of signatories to ten.

The process stalled in mid-2018, after the third summit was held. Yet informal talks gathered pace in early-2020 and the fourth summit was planned for April, before being moved to August due to the pandemic.

FPNCC alliance refuses to attend

The build-up to the rearranged conference was beset by problems. Organizers had hoped to persuade six non-signatory armed groups, all members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), to attend as observers. Yet they refused to attend after a seventh member of the FPNCC alliance, the Arakan Army (AA), was snubbed after being declared a ‘terrorist organization’ by Naypyidaw in March.

The FPNCC announced its members would not attend just six days before the summit began, after meeting on 13 August at the headquarters of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Panghsang. The 30,000-strong UWSA is Myanmar’s most powerful and best-equipped armed group, while the alliance also contains the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and several other groups operating out of Shan state along the border with China.

Many of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed groups, including the United Wa State Army and Kachin Independence Army, declined to attend August’s summit. (Image Source: pxhere)

Despite this setback, the Union Peace Conference went ahead as planned. Owing to COVID19 restrictions, the meeting took place over three days instead of the usual five, while delegates were limited to just 230. No major decisions were at stake, but negotiators looked to add to 51 previously-agreed basic principles with the aim of setting-the-stage for post-2020 dialogue and charting a path to forge a democratic federal union encompassing all ethnic nationalities; the envisioned end point of the NCA-centred Panglong talks.

What did the summit achieve?

The conference went smoothly. In all, 20 new principles were adopted, mostly related to implementation of the NCA and ambitions for future dialogue. In her closing remarks, Aung San Suu Kyi hailed ‘a new plan for building a democratic federal union beyond 2020’, adding that discussions were back-on-track and had ‘more substance’ than previous years. A senior military delegate, Lieut. Gen. Yar Pyae, praised the process for ‘reducing mistrust that has been deep-rooted on both sides’, and urged groups to stick with the NCA.

Among the new principles, it was agreed that the future federal system would be based on power-sharing between the Union and states. However, talks on allowing states to draft separate constitutions faltered amid a dispute over wording. Even among agreements inked, the language used was vague. For example, the forging of a single ‘union identity’ which respects the histories, traditions and cultures of minorities is open to interpretation, and minorities will likely be skeptical given their past treatment by the Bamar elite.

Aung San Suu Kyi strives to make a collective identity central to future talks, whilst presidential spokesman Zaw Htay recently voiced the need for a careful step-by-step process toward ‘national reconciliation’. Yet such inclusive language seems hollow given the mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims; denied citizenship for decades and forced to flee to Bangladesh after repeated army crackdowns since 2017. If talks go awry and violence ensues, other ethnic minorities fear the same scorched-earth tactics could be applied to them.

Longer-term barriers to peace

Many of the principles decided so-far are procedural, laying out approximate positions. Turning these into a final text, agreeable to all parties, will be difficult due to the scale and complexity of Myanmar’s conflicts.

Implementing a federal structure and drafting state constitutions may be relatively simple in states where just one or two armed groups are the dominant actors, such as in the southern states of Kayah, Kayin and Mon. In the larger Shan state to the north, home to multiple ethnic armies, often in competition with each other, such an outcome may be unworkable. This reflects a broader geographical divide in the peace talks.

The majority of the ten NCA signatories are based in Myanmar’s southern conflict zones where fighting is at a low level. The groups here are small and poorly-armed, accounting for less than 20% of rebel fighters in the country. The formation of a democratic federal union would likely boost the power of these groups, thus making it attractive for them to reach some kind of devolved settlement with the government.

Peace talks are set to continue in 2021 after November’s election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw will hope to retain their dominant influence. (Image Source: Adam Jones)

In contrast, Myanmar’s northeastern conflict zones of Shan and Kachin are home to well-resourced ethnic armies, outside of the NCA process. Several groups, including the UWSA, already run their own relatively prosperous self-administered zones, while others control territories in which they are the main economic and security actor. If they join the NCA and accept state-based autonomy, they may stand to lose-out. 

Even before weighing-up such outcomes, the nature of the peace process itself is unpredictable in a nation where a broader civilian-military power contest still has a long way to run. The NLD has failed in its efforts to revise the 2008 constitution, which affords sweeping political powers to the Tatmadaw, via parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi suggested in her opening speech at August’s Panglong event that the constitution might yet need to be ‘amended’ to facilitate any future agreement that emerges out of the peace process.

In an apparent rebuttal, military chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing warned-off approaching the peace talks with ‘ulterior motives’ and stated the NCA must be solely focused on Myanmar’s ‘national interests’. For now, the NLD and Tatmadaw have achieved a workable balance. Aung San Suu Kyi is satisfied with compromise and political maneuvering, rather than seeking radical reform. In the current system, 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for the Tatmadaw, while it controls the defence and home affairs ministries. Aung San Suu Kyi meanwhile wields strong influence as State Counsellor and the NLD has remained broadly popular.

Whatever the outcome of November’s election, the quasi-civilian structure is likely to remain in place; yet the lingering potential of future political upheaval could derail or shift the direction of the Panglong talks.

A ‘one size fits all’ solution?

The central impediment to the Panglong process remains that Myanmar has so many active armed groups, each with distinct ambitions and varied levels of power, resources and degrees of leverage for bargaining. The peace process is already split in half: between the weaker signatories, and stronger non-signatories.

Yet even if more ethnic armies were to sign the NCA and partake in Union-level talks, division in non-state alliances, some with more to lose than others, may be inevitable as more contentious issues are discussed. The imagined end point, a democratic federal union, might not be enough to satisfy the strongest groups.

Yet what is the alternative? Bilateral talks between the government and non-signatories remain a possible path forward; yet at present, Naypyidaw insists such discussions would only be a pre-cursor to joining the NCA. After November’s election, giving the Panglong initiative another chance appears the safest option.

A version of this article was first published on Geopolitical Monitor.

In Laos, Survivors of US Bombs Rebuild their Lives – and Limbs

US bombers flew 580,000 sorties over Laos in a nine-year aerial campaign. Here, two US aircraft are pictured in a wartime mission over Vietnam in December 1968. (Image Source: US Navy)

On March 22, a teenage boy was tending dry-season rice fields with his father on a quiet Sunday in the southern Lao province of Savannakhet when a bomb concealed beneath vegetation exploded. The 15-year-old did not survive the blast. Just days earlier, in a nearby district of Savannakhet, three men suffered the same fate after venturing into the forest in the heat of the afternoon in search of wild plants and food. The men died almost instantly, succumbing to devastating wounds inflicted by hidden ordnance.

They are among the latest victims of the 1964-1973 US bombing campaign, when at the height of the Vietnam War, more ordnance was dropped on Laos in the space of nine years than during the entirety of World War II in Europe. The onslaught resulted in over 30,000 casualties.

Yet since the last bomb fell from the skies, another 20,000, mostly civilians, have been killed or maimed by unexploded bombs left behind.

The number of blasts each year is falling, and with the help of modern medicine a higher proportion of victims are surviving. Out of 1,660 casualties since 1996, more than two-thirds were wounded, but lived. That presents a new challenge to modern-day Laos: how to provide the long-term care and assistance needed to help victims rebuild their lives.

Laos is thought to have 15,000 living survivors of accidents involving war remnants, with 13,500 having lost a limb since the air attacks ended. In the early decades after the war, amputees often fashioned their own artificial limb from wood, rubber and metal – even making use of discarded bomb casings. Although a badge of resilience, makeshift limbs might soon become a relic of the past.

“Prosthetics and assistive devices help victims move more freely, enable them to enjoy their daily lives and go back to participating in community activities,” explains Paphavady Keomeuangsene. Paphavady works for COPE, a non-profit organization based in Vientiane, that works alongside the Lao Ministry of Health to rehabilitate Laotians with physical disabilities.

COPE provides over 1,200 prosthetic and orthotic devices – designed to either replace or support a damaged limb – every year, with around one-third of the recipients having survived an accident related to unexploded ordnance.

Most accidents occur in Savannakhet, the site of the two fatal explosions in March, and Xieng Khouang further north. Both provinces are heavily-contaminated with unexploded ordnance and sit along what was once the Ho Chi Minh trail. In the mid-1960s, then-US president Lyndon Johnson grew concerned as American ground forces failed to halt the southward advance of the North Vietnamese Army down the trail, who had been using the jungles of neighbouring Laos, officially a neutral country, as an overland supply route to avoid US air power.

In response, the US began striking targets on the Laotian side of the border, aiming to weaken the country’s Pathet Lao communist group and prevent North Vietnamese troops using the country to smuggle weapons and equipment to aid the war effort against the US-backed regime in Saigon. The raids were made all-the-more urgent from the US’ perspective by the escalating Cold War battle against the Soviet Union, in which American leaders saw landlocked Laos as a vital buffer nation separating communist states, like China and North Vietnam, from Western allies in the region.

Each cluster bomb casing dispersed as many as 760 tennis ball-sized ‘bombies’ over a wide area.

The first US bombs were dropped in December 1964, beginning a nine-year onslaught that constituted the most extensive aerial bombing campaign in history. US aircraft flew 580,000 sorties and dropped two million tonnes of ordnance on Laos, most in the form of cluster munitions. Each cluster bomb casing contained hundreds of smaller bombs – known in Laos as ‘bombies’ – which were released mid-air and dispersed over a wide area to cause maximum indiscriminate spatial carnage.

An estimated 260 million bombies were released in total, of which around 80 million failed to detonate on impact and now litter the countryside in 14 of Laos’ 17 provinces. More than 25% of villages are contaminated with bombies, each roughly the size of a tennis ball – but with a 30-metre killing radius.

Rivers, streams, forest paths, rice paddies, roads and settlements are all home to a hidden killer, laying silent but primed and ready to detonate five decades after their arrival from above.

In some areas of the country, every step brings a risk of death or life-changing injury.

Mr Mai, a 27-year-old construction worker from Xieng Khouang province, was digging at the roadside in 2015 when a device exploded, inflicting severe injuries which led to the loss of his arm.

“I’ve always been careful about unexploded ordnance, [but] one day, my arm was suddenly snatched away from me,” he told COPE after a mobile clinic team visited his village in June 2016.

Medical staff assessed his injuries and referred him to a regional rehabilitation centre, and a year after his accident, Mr Mai was fitted with a prosthetic arm, with the costs covered by COPE. After receiving the prosthetic, he said he had regained hope of being able to resume work and raise animals to support his children’s education.

Mr Mai lost his arm to a roadside blast in Xieng Khouang in 2015. (Image Source: COPE)

After referral via a mobile clinic, Mr Mai received a custom-made prosthesis. (Image: COPE)

Clearance work, conducted by the Lao People’s Armed Forces, a national clearance operator and a network of international NGOs, has been underway since the 1990s. Over 1.4 million remnants of war have been destroyed, but that represents just 2% of the total.

Katherine Harrison, programme coordinator in Laos for Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) – a demining group that has removed at least 68,000 explosive items since it began clearance activities in Laos more than a decade ago – says that ‘‘[local] estimates of the remaining contamination are indicative of areas where the risk is higher’’.

She adds that aside from Xieng Khouang and Savannakhet, which bore the brunt of the bombing, Laos’ four southernmost provinces of Attapeu, Champassak, Saravane and Sekong ‘‘are all heavily contaminated due to the location of the Ho Chi Minh trail through the southern part of Laos’’. NPA has deployed its own survey and clearance staff in those provinces since 2009, having provided technical assistance since 1997 to the national clearance operator, UXO-Lao.

Contact with unexploded ordnance is usually unintentional. Accidents continue to occur despite public awareness campaigns, each year adding to the 12,000 explosions that have taken place since the US air raids concluded in 1973. Activities central to human existence can even be high risk. Ploughing land to cultivate crops, digging to facilitate construction and lighting fires for open-air cooking all bring the danger of sparking a dormant bomb back to life. Children have also mistaken war remnants for toys.

Harrison says it is ‘‘difficult to generalise’’ when forecasting who among the civilian population faces the greatest threat, ‘‘as individuals and communities may, out of socio-economic need, interact [with unexploded ordnance] in different ways in contaminated areas with differing levels of risk’’.

Laos’ scrap metal trade encourages risk-taking with UXO. The price of scrap has risen over the last 15 years as regional demand for construction materials has grown, meaning the scrap trade in heavily-bombed areas has been fed by an expanding number of smelting mills and foundries along the Vietnam border.

Poor, rural communities, with limited access to cash, have greater incentive to hunt for scrap as, using a metal detector, large finds can bring a quick financial return. Yet digging to investigate signals is risky, with some even attempting to defuse or dismantle ordnance to sell its components, risking a deadly explosion.

Hunting for scrap metal risks disturbing unexploded ordnance. (Image Source: Adam Jones)

In the event of a blast, about 200 metal fragments inflict devastating wounds to those at the site. The shockwaves from the explosion, and shrapnel penetrating the body, causes horrific injuries like blindness, hearing loss, and the loss of limbs. Most accidents occur in rural areas and on mountainous terrain, meaning immediate medical help is often unavailable, resulting in severe blood loss and infections of untreated wounds being major causes of death.

In addition to the facility in Xieng Khouang that treated Mr Mai, COPE, along with the government-run Centre for Medical Rehabilitation (CMR), runs another four rehabilitation centres across the country.

Supported by international donors and fundraising, all medical costs are covered, along with transport and food for victims and family members. Paphavady, who oversees the COPE-CMR visitor centre and supports their outreach from Vientiane, says amputee survivors are thankful for the chance to fulfil a “big dream; to have a chance to come back to walk again” when receiving a new limb for the first time.

While prosthetics manufactured in previous decades were made of leather, resin and aluminium, technicians now make use of polypropylene technology to ensure a more comfortable fit; essential to relieve pain and prevent pressure sores from developing.

Each prosthetic device is made-to-measure. Technicians forge an exact replica of the patient’s residual stump, before heating sheets of polypropylene to make the socket. Minor adjustments are then made by hand, according to the requirements of each patient.

Survivors of explosions are also in need of orthotics; small assistive devices which help support an injured body part and make it easier to carry-out daily tasks. Specially-designed fittings to hold a toothbrush, or cutlery, can make a huge difference in allowing survivors to live independently.

Most patients later need to attend physical and occupational therapy sessions; while their prosthetics and assistive devices need to be replaced after, at most, seven years – or every six months for children.

Improvised prosthetic limbs and assistive devices, some fashioned from raw materials by their wearers, are among those on display at the COPE-CMR visitor centre in Vientiane.

Amputees sometimes experience phantom pain, a sensation that occurs when nerve endings that used to serve the absent limb send signals to the brain.

Patients have reported feeling uncomfortable pain, itching and cramps. To alleviate this, patients use a mirror box. By sitting down at a table and placing an arm into the box, a mirror down the centre fools the brain into thinking the reflection is the missing arm. Moving, massaging or scratching the arm, with practice and in time, can help relieve symptoms.

The therapy was invented by Indian-American neuroscientist, Prof. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, in the late-1990s, and has been adopted widely in Laos by survivors of bomb blasts. The therapy can also be used for leg amputees.

Canadian Stephen Sumner, himself an above-the-knee amputee following a motorbike accident in Italy 15 years ago, has gone to great lengths to enable wider access to reflection therapy in Southeast Asia’s former conflict zones. Over several years, Sumner travelled Cambodia and Laos by bicycle, distributing mirrors to amputees and teaching recipients how to use them effectively.

But the challenges facing blast survivors are, of course, not only limited to physical mobility.

Each accident has reverberating social and economic impacts on the victim and their family. Farmers make up a high proportion of those involved in incidents, and their inability to work as productively as they once did, leads to a loss of income. Immediate family members, often wives, are forced to take-on the bread-winning role of their husband, while the children drop-out of school early to become full-time carers.

Assistance for victims of US bombs in Laos has greatly improved since the early post-war years. The uncomfortable, home-fashioned artificial limbs of previous decades have now been replaced, in most cases, with prosthetics made using the latest technology, and available for next to no cost to survivors.

Some of the improvised legs, still a symbol of pride for their wearers, are now on display in Vientiane. The prosthesis of one veteran survivor, who lost his left leg in 1972 and carved his first artificial limb from a single piece of wood, has been as far as Oslo and New York to advocate for a cluster bomb ban.

Prosthetics help give independence back to their recipients, but there is concern that despite the huge progress made, such life-changing support has not reached everyone.

An estimated 8.7-million hectares of land in Laos remains contaminated by war remnants.

Paphavady from COPE says the outreach project and mobile clinics hope to expand access to survivors throughout the country, some of whom may not know the service is available.

Paphavady also says continued funding of the project, and the ability to continue training technical staff, is crucial for victims to be able to access the support they need. The outreach programme, which also involves distributing leaflets to villagers, will be key as in some areas a lack of infrastructure and fear of the unknown may prevent victims travelling for help.

Sadly, there will be more victims, with the explosive legacy of the US bombing embedded in the soil. At the annual meeting in February of the government-led National Regulatory Authority, which oversees the de-mining sector, officials set a target to clear 10,000 hectares of land of ordnance this year. Yet up to 8.7 million hectares are still contaminated, emphasising the huge scale of the task ahead.

While deadly remnants of war are set to remain for generations, the resilience of those who have survived them is a mark of Laos’ efforts to move on from a time when it was the most bombed nation on earth.

A version of this article was first published on Southeast Asia Globe.

Why Indonesia’s Papua Insurgency Has Reached a Strategic Stalemate

The Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) deployed an additional 1,000 troops to Papua after protests erupted across the region in August 2019. (Image Source: USAF/Richard Ebensberger)

On 30 March, separatist rebels opened fire on three employees of the Grasberg gold and copper mine near Puncak Jaya – the highest mountain in Indonesia’s remote easternmost province of Papua. One worker was killed and another two sustained gunshot wounds in the attack, which targeted an office and housing area of US-based firm Freeport-McMoRan. The company jointly owns the site – which is the largest gold mine and second largest copper mine in the world – with the Indonesian government.

The mine sits at the heart of a volatile region. The Papua region, which encompasses the provinces of both Papua and West Papua, has been the site of a low-level separatist insurgency since the 1960s. Seven years after the end of Dutch colonial rule, the region was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 via a disputed referendum, in which only 1,025 Papuans, carefully chosen by the Indonesian military, were permitted to cast a ballot. The poll remains a source of tension and drives separatism to this day.

While the conflict has persisted at a low level for decades, last year – the 50th anniversary of the vote – witnessed an uptick in violence. Protestors took to the streets across the two provinces last August, angered by an incident in Surabaya in which Papuan university students were arrested by police and suffered racial taunts from nationalists, over accusations they had desecrated an Indonesian flag. The ensuing street demonstrations soon turned violent, with deaths and injuries reported on both sides.

The recent shooting incident near Puncak Jaya was preceded by a series of clashes in the area between rebels and the Indonesian military, which prompted 917 residents to flee to the nearby city of Timika. Violence appears to be rising while the political campaign for Papuan independence stalls, leaving the status-quo intact and the future no-clearer for the region’s residents, who have long endured poverty and underdevelopment. As the stalemate persists, what makes the situation in Papua so intractable?

The roots of the independence movement

The origins of the dispute date to the mid-20th Century, when the area was under Dutch colonial rule. Indonesia gained Independence in 1949, yet the Dutch retained control of Papua through the 1950s. As calls for independence grew, Papuan leaders held a Congress in 1961 and raised their own flag, the Morning Star. Violence erupted between Papuans, Indonesians and Dutch forces until a UN-sponsored treaty – the New York Agreement – was brokered in 1962. The agreement facilitated initial Indonesian control with the promise of a future referendum to decide the final status of the disputed territory.

The ballot, labelled the ‘Act of Free Choice’, was held in 1969. The Indonesian authorities selected just 1,025 Papuan representatives to vote, by raising of the hand, on behalf of the entire population of the region, which at the time had almost a million inhabitants. Voters unanimously backed staying under the rule of Jakarta; yet did so within an atmosphere of intimidation and under the threat of violence. The result was controversially ratified by the UN, which voted by a majority 84-0, with 30 abstentions.

Widespread street protests last August were sparked by the arrest of Papuan students, alleged to have desecrated an Indonesian flag, in the city of Surabaya. (Image Source: Papua Glossary)

Angered by the perceived unfairness of the process, breakaway elements in the Papua region resorted to violence. An armed guerrilla group, the Free Papua Movement or Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) has carried-out attacks targeting security forces and multinational corporations since the 1970s. Other insurgent groups, such as the West Papua National Liberation Army or Tentera Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat (TPNPB) also operate in the region. The latter group claimed responsibility for the attack in late-March on workers of the Grasberg mine, which it views as diverting profits abroad and harming the environment. The Indonesian military has also been accused of rights abuses and arbitrary arrests.

While the insurgency has persisted away from the scrutiny of the international media spotlight, 2019 marked a turning point in coverage. The protests which started last August, spread to cities including Timika, Fakfak, Sarong and regional capital Manokwari. Mobile phone footage was shared around the world on social media platforms and made it into mainstream news in the West. Indonesia promptly cut internet access to the region, claiming it would ‘accelerate the process of restoring security’. Yet Papuan independence activists and human rights organizations suspected the move was designed to limit global media coverage, cover-up abuses and prevent protestors from co-ordinating their actions.

Why is the Papuan situation so intractable?

The conflict is resistant to resolution given the diametrically opposed positions of both sides. From the perspective of Jakarta, the region came under its control in the 1960s via a legitimate vote, backed by the UN and supported by its neighbours and allies. Even today, regional powers such as Australia are reluctant to sympathize with Papuan separatists or criticize Indonesian military actions in the region. Indonesian politicians and military leaders are keen to defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in its outermost regions; while as a resource-rich area, Papua is vital to the national economy.

Papuan independence activists, such as exiled figurehead of the movement, Benny Wenda, present a different reality. They view the 1969 vote as flawed and unrepresentative of the native population of Papua. Indonesian rule is seen as being illegitimate and constituting a form of modern-day colonialism. A set of additional grievances have added to the Papuan narrative of unjust domination by Jakarta. Of particular concern to independence activists is transmigration; a policy which has seen mostly-Muslim Javanese settle in Papua, displacing elements of the culture of mostly-Christian Melanesian Papuans.

Regional power Australia supports Indonesia’s control of Papua. Indonesian leader Joko Widodo is pictured here with Australian PM Scott Morrison. (Image Source: Australian Embassy Jakarta)

Economic grievances also feature highly on the list of concerns. Under Indonesian control, large multi-national companies have won contracts to extract Papua’s natural resources, diverting profits out of the region while much of the local population lives in poverty. Infrastructure also lags behind, leaving Papua underdeveloped and disconnected from more affluent sections of the Indonesian archipelago. Such companies also bring negative environmental impacts, such as pollution and the loss of forests. Many Papuans feel marginalized by the Jakarta elite and discriminated against by other ethnic groups.

An insurgency governed by stalemate

Indonesia shows little sign of budging from its long-term position on Papua, despite current President Joko Widodo pledging to listen to the concerns of Papuans after last year’s violent demonstrations. The Papuan independence movement – led primarily by Papuans exiled abroad – has made minimal progress amid internal divisions and a lack of coherence, despite the recent boost in global attention.

The UN – which ratified Indonesian control in the 1960s – is just as unlikely today to provide support for those intent on securing independence via political means. The principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity remain the two cornerstones of international diplomacy, while regional allies with similar concerns about breakaway regions and separatist struggles at home are certain to back Jakarta. For major powers such as the US, China and Russia, Papua is of little wider geo-strategic significance.

It is hard to see how Papua will escape the current impasse. A cycle of insurgent attacks, alleged state oppression, protests and military deployments continue to dictate the region’s security architecture. Papuan separatist groups are no match for the strength of the Indonesian military; while in times of increased tension the authorities are able to suppress information, denting the organizational ability of rebels and their supporters. For as long as there is no meaningful political dialogue, the status-quo in Papua – of a conflict frozen in time and largely hidden from view – will prevail long into the future.

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

After Duterte Scraps VFA, What Next for the US-Philippine Security Alliance?

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin sent the US formal notice of Duterte’s decision to terminate the VFA on 11 February. (Image Source: US Marine Corps, Chanelcherie K. DeMello)

On 11 February, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte provided formal notice to the US of his decision to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) – a bilateral treaty inked in 1998 to facilitate the presence of US troops in the country. Duterte’s Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin had voiced his concerns over the risks of cancelling the agreement in a Senate hearing the previous week, warning the move could result in the ‘severe curtailment’ of America’s long-standing defence obligations to its former colony.

Many observers have questioned the sense in Duterte terminating an agreement that has for the past 22 years underpinned what is arguably Washington’s most strategically important security alliance in Asia. The immediate trigger appears to be the US decision in January to rescind a visa for Ronald dela Rosa – a senator and close political ally of Duterte, who in his former role as national police chief led Duterte’s violent anti-drug campaign; roundly criticized in the West over alleged extra-judicial killings.

The visa revocation drew an angry response from Duterte, who immediately threatened to cancel the VFA and barred members of his cabinet from travelling to the US. Yet the visa issue may have provided a convenient excuse for Duterte, who has executed a pivot away from the US and toward China, since his shock election win in 2016. Duterte has routinely denounced US influence and criticized US foreign policy, claiming it has treated his nation ‘like a dog on a leash’ since the end of American rule in 1946.

Immediate and practical impacts of VFA termination

The termination of the VFA will take effect after 180 days, meaning the status-quo will be maintained until mid-August when the agreement is scheduled to expire. However, US-Philippine defence ties will not cease to exist when the six-month deadline is reached, as the two countries have two additional defence agreements, which are set to remain in place. A Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), signed in 1951, commits the US to come to the Philippines’ aid in the event of an attack by a foreign power; while the 2014 Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement (EDCA), penned during the Obama administration, introduced new provisions for troop rotations, the use of military bases and the positioning of assets.

While these two agreements are important in their own right, the VFA is vital to their implementation. It provides a legal framework for US troops to enter and exit the country without needing a passport or visa, and provides clear procedures for handling issues and disputes which may arise as a result of American presence. Above all, the VFA is a crucial tool in facilitating regular joint exercises between the two militaries. Around 390 such exercises are planned for 2020, the largest of which – referred to as Balikatan, meaning ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ in the local Tagalog language – is due to be held in May.

The continuation of these drills after the 180-day period ends would be uncertain in the absence of a replacement for the VFA. After Duterte’s decision, US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Clarke Cooper, said joint operations would be ‘put at risk’, emphasizing that ‘all engagements’ require a facilitating legal mechanism to be in place. Foreign Secretary Locsin said as much during the Senate hearing on 6 February, noting that the VFA was the ‘substance’ that made the MDT effective.

Long-term strategic implications of terminating the VFA

Beyond these logistical issues, terminating the VFA has two significant implications for the Philippines’ national security – which may also impact regional security and wider US interests in the Asia-Pacific.

Firstly, a permanent US military presence in the Philippines, enabled by the VFA, serves as a deterrent to Chinese maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea – labelled the West Philippine Sea by Manila. Over the past decade, Beijing has reclaimed land and built military installations on contested islands in the region, where control of various portions of the sea and its features is disputed between China and five other claimant states. The area serves as a vital route for global shipping and seaborne trade.

The VFA – which facilitates the presence of US troops in the Philippines – was signed in 1998. The two nations also have a Mutual Defence Treaty dating back to the 1950s. (Image Source: US DoD)

The US has sought to push-back against Chinese maritime expansionism, for fear Beijing could assert full dominance and displace the US as the foremost naval power in the Asia-Pacific. In this sense, the Philippines is ideally located – on the sea’s eastern perimeter – as a staging post to guard against this perceived threat. The VFA, in allowing the permanent presence of US troops, has ensured a base from which the US can project power and launch freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. While the US does have close ties with other claimant states – such as Vietnam, on the sea’s western fringe – the relationship with the Philippines is long-established and it is considered a crucial partner. Terminating the VFA may give China the green light to continue its activities in the sea unchallenged.

Secondly, the VFA has enabled two decades of counter-terrorism co-operation between US forces and the Philippine military on the troubled southern island of Mindanao, where extreme Islamist groups, such as the notorious Abu Sayyaf, operate. The area is also home to a number of other hardline groups linked to the Islamic State, including the Maute Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US deployed 600 soldiers to the region to help stem the tide of militancy, and around 100 remain stationed in Mindanao on a rotating basis. Although they don’t participate in active combat, US personnel provide intelligence and reconnaissance support, which played a key role in ending the 2017 siege of Marawi, when Philippine forces battled Islamist militants for five months.

The US has also provided equipment, financial assistance and urban-warfare training, helping to boost the capacity of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to tackle rapidly-evolving terrorist threats in Mindanao. Several senior Filipino politicians now fear that by scrapping the VFA, the desire of the US to provide such assistance may decrease, risking worsening instability in the insurgency-prone south. Foreign Secretary Locsin stated last month that the VFA ‘allows for continued support for addressing non-traditional security threats’, adding that US forces had been ‘instrumental’ in not only combating terrorism, but also in helping to confront ‘trafficking in persons, cyber-attacks…and illegal narcotics’. Security issues aside, US humanitarian support and disaster response has also been aided by the VFA.

A shared interest in renegotiating the VFA?

Despite senior figures in his administration voicing their concerns, Duterte appears intent on sticking with his decision. He has pushed back against those ‘trying to save’ the VFA, voicing a desire to ‘rely on ourselves’ in the defence sphere. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump responded to reporters with apparent indifference when asked about the move, remarking ‘I really don’t mind…we’ll save a lot of money’. Despite these assertions, some Filipino politicians have stated a preference for the VFA to be reviewed rather than scrapped, and the 180-day notice period may afford time for negotiations.

It is in the interests of both parties to maintain the kind of co-operation that the VFA facilitated, even if the agreement must now be revived in a different form and under a different name. A renegotiation of aspects of the VFA as part of a new deal, acceptable to both Duterte and Trump, may be possible if both men opt to put the shared security interests of their respective countries ahead of political gain in the domestic sphere – where their populist bases are largely supportive of an isolationist approach to foreign policy. Longer-term, the future of the US-Philippine security alliance will be passed into the hands of new leaders: Duterte’s single six-year term ends in 2022, while Trump is seeking re-election in November. A US-friendly leader in Manila, or a Democratic president in the US, would likely lead to a return to the more engaged Obama-era relationship between the US and its Southeast Asian allies: centred on strengthening security partnerships, and opposing Chinese actions in the maritime realm.

Yet with Duterte and Trump at the helm, the US-Philippine security alliance appears to be weakening; and with the VFA set to be terminated, the defence establishments of both countries will hope for no lasting damage.

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