Why Indonesia’s Papua Insurgency Has Reached a Strategic Stalemate

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

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

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

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

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

The roots of the independence movement

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

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

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

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

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

Why is the Papuan situation so intractable?

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

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

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

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

An insurgency governed by stalemate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immediate and practical impacts of VFA termination

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

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

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

Long-term strategic implications of terminating the VFA

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

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

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

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

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

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

A shared interest in renegotiating the VFA?

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

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

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

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

Is Duterte’s Latest Peace Overture to the NPA Another False Dawn?

In December, President Rodrigo Duterte called on CPP leader Jose Maria Sison to return home to the Philippines from exile in the Netherlands, for a one-on-one meeting. (Image Source: PCOO)

Late last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte indicated a willingness to reverse his prior decision to terminate the peace process with the New People’s Army (NPA) – a communist rebel group at odds with Manila since the 1960s. On 26 December, Duterte appealed to Jose Maria Sison – the exiled head of the NPA’s political wing, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) – to return home from exile in the Netherlands for one-on-one talks in an attempt to revive the peace process. Sison replied that while he was open to dialogue, he would only be prepared to meet Duterte in a neighbouring country.

This initial positive exchange was followed by a sense of growing momentum, when a 16-day ‘holiday truce’ agreed by the NPA and the Philippine military – covering the Christmas and New Year period – largely held firm despite several reported violations. In the early weeks of 2020, informal discussions have taken place and the government’s former chief negotiator, Silvestre Bello III, has even suggested Sison could return to Manila to sign an interim peace accord ahead of the resumption of formal talks. Duterte has sought to allay Sison’s fears over returning, stating on 11 January: ‘I guarantee his safety’.

Yet despite these steps forward, the window of opportunity for peace talks to resume may be limited. At the start of Duterte’s administration, talks with the NPA appeared to be moving forward until the peace process collapsed in early-2017 amid a dispute over a prisoner amnesty. All attempts to restart dialogue have since proven fruitless amid an atmosphere of rising hostility between the government and the CPP, typified by repeated tirades of insults exchanged in public between Duterte and Sison. This chequered history suggests the current receding of tensions may turn out only to be temporary.

A history of failed talks

The NPA and CPP have been led by Sison since he founded the rebel movement in the late-1960s. For five decades, the NPA has fought government troops in rural areas across the country, with the stated aim of overthrowing the Philippine state and replacing it with a political system predicated on Maoist ideology. While the insurgency reached its height in the 1980s during the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos, the rebel movement has since held peace talks with six successive democratic-era presidents.

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) – the negotiating body of the NPA and CPP – participated in failed talks during the administrations of Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino III before entering dialogue with Duterte upon his election in 2016. Talks initially progressed well, with a ceasefire being declared and four rounds of dialogue being held in Amsterdam, Oslo and Rome. Yet the peace process collapsed in 2017 amid Duterte’s refusal to release political prisoners and renewed rebel attacks. NPA activity has since rebounded in rural central and southern areas of the Philippines.

In 2018, several months of back-channel talks proved fruitless after the NPA refused to meet Duterte’s pre-conditions for the resumption of formal dialogue, which included an end to rebel attacks, an end to extortion and a political commitment from the CPP not to seek to form a coalition government. Last March, Duterte announced the peace process was ‘permanently terminated’ during his presidency – due to expire in 2022 – and disbanded his negotiating panel, which had been led by Silvestre Bello III. In its place, Duterte proposed localized talks with NPA commanders, bypassing the senior leadership.

Barriers to renewed dialogue

Duterte has rowed back on his decision, offering an olive branch in the form of a face-to-face meeting with Sison. Given this change in tone, what is the likelihood of formal national-level talks between the government and NDFP restarting, and ultimately succeeding, during the remainder of Duterte’s term?

Since peace talks failed in 2017, AFP troops have fought the NPA on a near-daily basis. Violence has centered on Eastern Mindanao, Samar and Negros Island. (Image Source: Matthew Hulett)

Meaningful progress is unlikely for several reasons. First, Sison’s reluctance to return to the Philippines represents a firm barrier to dialogue. Duterte has long insisted that any future talks must be hosted in the Philippines, which Sison has described as ‘totally unacceptable’, arguing in December that agreeing to return would ‘put the NDFP and the entire peace negotiations in the pocket of the Duterte regime’. Alternatively, Sison has proposed holding informal talks in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, ahead of the resumption of formal negotiations in a third-party country – most likely Norway, which has served as a mediator between the two sides in the past. The Philippine government is unlikely to allow the CPP to dictate the timing or location of negotiations, leaving both sides at odds over their desired venue.

Second, the core areas of disagreement that have scuppered talks in recent years, remain unresolved. The government still requires the rebel movement to meet six pre-conditions, first proposed in 2018, before the peace process can resume. These conditions include an end to attacks, extortion and arson in addition to the encampment of rebel fighters, the signing of a bilateral ceasefire and an end to NPA recruitment. Given Sison’s lack of control over NPA commanders on the ground, from his base in the Netherlands, it is difficult to foresee these conditions being met, even if Sison and his advisors agreed. Sison also continues to call for ‘the release of political prisoners on humanitarian grounds’ as his own pre-condition for formal talks resuming. It is unlikely the government will deviate from its past stance.

Third, a lack of trust exists on both sides, with each suspicious of the other’s real intentions in seeking fresh talks. The CPP fears Duterte’s offer for Sison to return to partake in negotiations is a pre-text for his arrest. Despite Duterte’s reassurances, a court in Manila issued an arrest warrant for Sison just last August over his alleged role in the 1985 Inopacan massacre, while in September the Philippine police asked INTERPOL to issue a ‘red notice’ for the detention of Sison. These developments came after the arrest of several NDFP negotiators since 2017 and many previous threats from Duterte to detain Sison. Equally, the government is also suspicious of the CPP’s true intentions, having criticized NPA violations of past ceasefires and accused the group of using past peace negotiations as a cover for recruitment.

These suspicions have not been helped by an ongoing war-of-words between Duterte and Sison since the peace process first collapsed in 2017, typified by increasingly heated rhetoric and personal insults. After back-channel talks failed in 2018, Duterte derided NPA rebels as ‘robots’ fighting for a ‘bankrupt mind’ in reference to Sison, while the CPP leader retorted that Duterte was ‘very capable of violence’, labelling him as a ‘crazy guy in power’. Duterte has openly criticized CPP ideology as ‘outdated’, while the CPP has condemned Duterte’s authoritarian leadership style and argues he seeks to crush dissent. Tensions have been raised by the alleged ‘red-tagging’ of left-wing advocacy groups in recent months.

Fourth, even if the peace process resumes, the likelihood of a final peace accord being signed is slim, given that both sides have opposing visions of its end point. The CPP’s stated aim remains to replace the Philippines’ system of government with a socialist-style system lead by the working classes. Sison’s ideology, first outlined in 1974, argues this must be achieved through a prolonged guerrilla-style war, leaving little room for political negotiation. Many suspect that even in the event of a deal being signed, the NPA would refuse to disarm, with a spokesperson for Duterte’s peace process advisor arguing on 17 January that ‘never has it been the rebels’ intention to demobilize their armed wing, even if both parties sign a final peace agreement’. The Duterte administration, in line with the view of past Manila administrations, foresees a solution in line with the Philippine constitution and democratic processes. In such a case, no parallel armed forces would be permitted and the NPA would be required to disarm.

Another false dawn?

Despite Duterte’s latest peace overture being accompanied by more positive rhetoric by both parties, recent history suggests that events could spiral downhill quickly if disagreement on the core stumbling blocks persists. Since talks first collapsed in 2017, relations between the government and the CPP have been characterized by rising hostility and distrust. Even amid the recent détente, on 5 January the new chief-of-staff of the Philippine armed forces, Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos, vowed to crush the NPA before the end of Duterte’s term in 2022 – a threat which Duterte himself his repeated on multiple occasions.

Such mixed-messaging and Duterte’s unpredictable, shifting stance on his approach toward the CPP, may dissuade the CPP from returning to the negotiating table and leave Sison to conclude the risk of returning to Manila is too high. Unless a formal summit is agreed during this rare moment of calm, the revival of the peace process may – as Duterte stated last March – have to wait ‘for the next president’.

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

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