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.

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. 

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.

Is Bangladesh Succeeding in its Battle Against Islamist Militants?

Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in the wake of the July 2016 siege on a Dhaka cafe (Image Source: Jubair1985)

Since Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in response to the high-profile attack on a popular Dhaka café by Islamist militants last July, the country has fortunately not witnessed another major attack on the same scale. Yet sixteen months on from the siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery – during which terrorists massacred 20 civilians with sharp weapons before Bangladeshi commandos stormed the building – fears over violent extremism in the south Asian nation remain ever-present.

Despite thousands of arrests and the deaths of top militant leaders at the hands of state security forces, signs of heightened political tensions and evidence of militant activity just below the surface have raised concerns over the potential for separatist violence and a new wave of attacks, in a country which until recently had little past experience of dealing with terrorism.

Whilst Bangladesh’s improved law enforcement capabilities have almost certainly prevented further bloodshed over the past year, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has faced criticism over its somewhat contradictory approach to confronting terrorism. At the same time as pledging to tackle Islamist militants head-on, the government has been accused of facilitating an environment in which extremist ideology can flourish.

This report asks if Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism crackdown will ultimately prove successful in keeping a lid on militant activity, and asks whether the government in Dhaka is doing enough to combat the radical ideology which fuels such violence.

The issue of terrorism in Bangladesh first caught the world’s attention in 2015, after an unrelenting wave of small-scale attacks targeting secular bloggers, university professors, foreign citizens and members of religious minority groups. In all, more than 20 people were shot dead or hacked to death in a two-year period by Islamist militants, with attacks often taking place in broad daylight.

The level of violence was unprecedented in what is usually considered one of the most secular and tolerant Muslim-majority countries, especially in comparison to regional neighbours Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have long been blighted by sectarianism, religious intolerance and suicide bombings. The attacks made global headlines and hit the tourism industry and Bangladeshi economy hard.

PM Sheikh Hasina’s government blamed the attacks squarely on domestic jihadist group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which it said were linked to its political opponents and seeking to destabilize the country.  This was despite claims of responsibility for some of the attacks by trans-national jihadist groups including the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Neither claim could be proven concretely, however the government’s investigation into the attacks was roundly criticized at the time as few people were brought to justice over the killings.

The attack on the Dhaka café in July 2016 – often described by analysts as ‘Bangladesh’s 9/11’ – was seen as a game changer, and prompted the government to take concrete action. A sweeping security crackdown followed and large-scale police raids led to the arrest of thousands of suspected terrorist sympathizers across the country, whilst a number of senior militant leaders were killed during security operations. Nine suspected militants were killed in the Kalyanpur neighbourhood of Dhaka just three weeks after the café attack, whilst on 27 August last year police claimed to have killed the head of ISIS in Bangladesh – Tamim Chowdhury – during a raid in Narayanganj.

PM Sheikh Hasina denies that ISIS has a presence in Bangladesh, blaming attacks on local JMB militants (Image Source: DFID)

A newly-formed Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU) of the Dhaka Metropolitan police took on hundreds of new recruits was granted a national mandate several months after the café siege, and has overseen counter-terrorism operations across the country. Authorities have clamped-down hard and have received much praise for their actions.

However, a number of small-scale suicide bombings earlier this year reignited fears and indicated a possible shift in tactics away from the knife attacks witnessed in the past, towards more sophisticated and well-planned operations of the nature seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whilst the threat appears to have been contained for now, these developments show there is little room for complacency – especially given that some of the driving factors behind Bangladesh’s surge in terrorism over the last few years remain unresolved.

The initial wave of machete attacks on secular bloggers and foreign citizens came after a period marked by what some analysts describe as a ‘creeping Islamism and sectarianism’ in Bangladeshi society. The rise of religious intolerance was evidenced by two attacks on Shia targets in late-2015. First, a bomb blast targeting a procession outside a Shia shrine left two people dead, before a few weeks later a Shia mosque in Bogra was attacked, killing one person and wounding several others. These attacks on Shia targets – a minority group in Sunni-majority Bangladesh – raised suggestions that some in Bangladesh were becoming increasingly sectarian in mindset.

Longer-term factors have also played a role. Following the country’s 1971 independence war, senior leaders from the Jamaat-e-Islam party were convicted many years later on charges of crimes against humanity, with several of them sentenced to death by hanging. These events have stoked anger and exacerbated tensions in Bangladeshi politics which remain close the surface to this day. The Jamaat-e-Islam party is part of the current opposition alliance to the ruling Awami League, which has been in power since 2009. Divisiveness has been a key feature of the political scene in recent years, which has only worsened as the government has linked the terrorist JMB group to opposition parties.

In this sense, the government’s counter-terrorism campaign must be viewed in the broader domestic political context. The debate over naming perpetrators and ascribing blame following terror attacks has become a heavily politicized issue. Despite numerous claims of responsibility from international terror groups – including for the Dhaka café siege – Sheikh Hasina’s government has continued to deny the presence of ISIS or AQIS within the country’s borders, referring only to the JMB group and domestic political forces looking to ‘destabilize the government’.

This language has facilitated a corresponding crackdown on opposition political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islam and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), exacerbating concerns that Hasina’s administration is becoming increasingly authoritarian in its approach to governance. More worryingly, absolving ISIS and AQIS of responsibility allows them to act with impunity – if indeed they are directing attacks within Bangladesh – and establish a firmer foothold under-the-radar.

Whilst terrorism remains a concern in Bangladesh, a repeat attack on the scale of the Dhaka cafe assault has so-far been avoided (Image Source: Souvik.arco)

Whilst launching a crackdown and condemning Islamist terrorism, the government’s approach has also been contradictory. At the same time as appearing to clamp down on terrorist elements, PM Sheikh Hasina has several times in the past warned secular bloggers for criticizing religion, saying ‘I don’t consider such writings as free-thinking but as filthy words. It is not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions’. Some have labelled this as victim-blaming, and say it constitutes a sympathetic attitude towards terrorism, facilitating recruitment and legitimizing extremist ideology. At the very least, many argue that it is an attempt to stifle debate and restrict freedom-of-speech in a country which had been considered relatively open.

Despite these problems, a high-profile attack on the scale of the Dhaka café assault has not been repeated, to a degree validating the government’s strategy and indicating its improved counter-terrorism capabilities. The tide of less-sophisticated lone-wolf attacks has also slowed markedly. However, this type of attack is extremely difficult to guard against as perpetrators make use of easily-obtainable weapons and often have no known links to militant organizations.

When incidents do occur, the government continues to blame local groups such as JMB. And it is true that concrete links between domestic militants and ISIS or AQIS have not been proven, despite claims of responsibility. Yet the politicization of terrorism remains a concern, and a clear distinction must be made between political parties and militant groups unless there is concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.

The government’s denial of ISIS presence in the country raises fears that the violent ideology of transnational jihadist groups is being underestimated. As ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq, it may look to further its recruitment in south Asian countries, including Bangladesh. As we have seen recently in the southern Philippines, local groups can be heavily influenced by such ideology and act upon it, whether concrete links to international groups exist or not.

As a result, the authorities in Bangladesh must remain vigilant and alert. The anti-terror crackdown has undoubtedly made progress, but this alone is not enough. Violent ideology must be countered and criticized, meaning that the space for those who wish to defend secular ideals – as well those who wish to defend various strains of religious thought – must be protected in Bangladesh if violent extremism is to be defeated in the long-run.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor

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.

Balochistan: Seven Decades of Insurgency in Pakistan’s Restive South

The proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, linking Xinjiang to Gwadar Port, has raised tensions over development in Balochistan (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Next year will signal 70 years since the beginning of a fierce separatist insurgency fought in Pakistan’s troubled southern province of Balochistan. Over much of the last seven decades the conflict has rumbled on at a relatively low intensity, punctuated by five distinct periods of heightened violence. The current flare-up – which ignited in the mid-2000s – has proved by far the most enduring. And amid rising tensions in recent years, it appears there is no end in sight to Pakistan’s longest – yet most under-reported – war.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province and stretches from the country’s interior to its remote southwestern region, where it borders neighbouring Afghanistan and Iran. The province is a vast territory rich in resources including gold, copper and natural gas, yet remains Pakistan’s most underdeveloped and impoverished province. A sizeable proportion of its 12 million residents hold grievances regarding a perceived lack of political rights and accuse the central government of resource exploitation – concerns which underlie the seven-decade separatist movement and continue to drive the struggle for independence today.

The insurgency began less than a year after Pakistan’s independence from colonial rule in August 1947, when in March 1948 Pakistan dispatched troops to annex the southwestern area which was then known as Kalat. The territory’s ruler, Ahmed Yar Khan, later signed an accession treaty formalizing the incorporation of Kalat into the newly-founded nation-state of Pakistan. Yet many in the region strongly opposed the move, and the first of the Baloch nationalist rebellions was born.

The 1948 uprising was soon put down by security forces, but further armed campaigns erupted in 1958, 1962 and 1973, each lasting no-longer than four years before the army were able to regain a semblance of control. The fifth insurgency began in the mid-2000s and has been the most enduring. The violence was triggered as a consequence of several factors: as a result of opposition to the regime of General Pervez Musharraf; as a reaction to the 2006 killing of a key Baloch leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, by the Pakistani army; and in response to a crackdown launched by security forces.

Ten years on, the fifth Baloch insurgency has still not abated as clashes continue between the military and an array of armed separatist groups, including the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Balochistan Republican Army (BRA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF).

In the last decade, the Pakistani authorities have been accused of committing widespread human rights violations, including presiding over unlawful detentions, extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances. Criticism from international observers has been particularly fierce, with Human Rights Watch stating in a 2011 report that ‘‘the surge in unlawful killings of suspected militants and opposition figures in Balochistan has taken the brutality in the province to an unprecedented level.’’

The most controversial aspect of the war in Balochistan concerns the fate of the thousands of Baloch fighters and opposition activists who have disappeared in the last few decades. In December 2016, the BBC reported that almost 1,000 dead bodies of political activists and suspected separatists had been found dumped across the province since 2011. Human rights groups say the evidence points towards large-scale abductions and extra-judicial killings, citing relatives’ claims that many of the victims had previously been detained by Pakistan’s security forces before disappearing.

The government and military have repeatedly denied all accusations of complicity with regard to kidnappings and extra-judicial murder, instead blaming the deaths on organized crime and clashes between various militant groups active in the region. However, media silence on the issue within Pakistan, along with the high level of risk making the province a virtual no-go zone for journalists, has made substantive corroboration or verification of these claims almost impossible, further raising suspicions among many in the international community.

Quetta, Balochistan. The resource-rich province is home to 12 million residents in Pakistan’s southwest, bordering Iran and Afghanistan. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Amid the lack of coverage, the government is keen to put across its point of view, labelling most of the Baloch nationalist groups as ‘terrorist organizations’ and highlighting their continued attacks on not just security forces, but also against civilians. For example, in an April 2015 incident the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) reportedly killed 20 labourers working on a road near the city of Turbat. The past few months have witnessed further attacks by Baloch nationalists against construction workers, who are often regarded as legitimate targets by the insurgents given local opposition to state-led development projects in the province.

Ongoing construction projects related to the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have caused particular concern, further enflaming tensions over development in the region. China has invested $46bn in the project, which aims to connect the western Chinese province of Xinjiang with the strategically-important deep-water port of Gwadar, located on southern Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coastline. Pipeline projects routed through the province have also heightened tensions, with separatists accusing the government of prioritizing large-scale, foreign-backed infrastructure and resource-based projects which bring few direct benefits to residents in the southwest.

In this sense, the conflict and its drivers are largely a tale of competing narratives: whilst the separatists claim the government ignores their long-standing grievances related to poverty and underdevelopment, the government argues that insurgent activity is holding the province back and restricting economic growth.

All previous peace-making efforts – which can be described as limited at best – have achieved little. The provincial government is weak and has failed to adequately mediate between politicians in Islamabad, the military and the numerous Baloch separatist groups. A proposed government amnesty programme has also failed to gain traction as violence has continued on both sides.

Unless the central government makes a concerted attempt to initiate meaningful dialogue involving all stakeholders, allows greater media access and demonstrates a willingness to discuss the core grievances of the Baloch population, the prospects for a lasting ceasefire remain slim. The longer the current status-quo continues, the conflict will remain intractable and existing divisions will be further entrenched. Seven decades on from the first uprising against the Pakistani state in Balochistan, the hope for a peaceful resolution looks as far away as ever.

This article was first published on Eurasia Review.

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.