Almost a Year on from ISIS, Marawi’s Displaced Residents Face a Long Wait to Return Home

Many of Marawi’s former residents remain displaced across Mindanao. The city’s central Banggolo area remains off-limits while the military works to clear unexploded bombs and war materials left behind from the conflict. (Image Source: Philippine Information Agency)

Five months since President Duterte declared Marawi city ‘liberated from terrorist influence’ after the slaying of militant leaders Isnilon Haplion and Omar Maute during the final throes of battle, the vast majority of the city’s war-weary former residents have not yet been able to return to their homes.

More than 200,000 of Marawi’s inhabitants remain displaced and are at the epicentre of what has become a prolonged humanitarian crisis, which is beginning to foster an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair among the resilient but increasingly forlorn community of Marawian evacuees.

The exiled are desperate to resume their lives and begin the slow process of rebuilding everything they have lost, yet the path ahead appears uncertain, dangerous and littered with obstacles.

The government says the full reconstruction and rehabilitation of Marawi could take up to four years to complete, whilst the flattened streets of the city centre remain littered with unexploded ordnance. The scale of devastation across the war-ravaged city makes a return to normality a distant prospect.

In the interim, the prolonged marginalization and disenfranchisement of Marawi’s exiled community could create fertile ground for recruitment by ISIS in the areas of western Mindanao worst-affected by the displacement crisis. Should the government be doing more?

The scale of the humanitarian crisis is huge. More than 353,000 people from around 77,000 families were displaced by the five-month war which pitted government forces against jihadists from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups. The vast majority fled during the early days of the conflict after militants took the authorities by surprise and over-ran the city on 23 May last year, leaving only around 2,000 civilians stranded in areas of heavy fighting. Several-hundred were taken hostage by the Mautes.

Most internally-displaced persons (IDPs) sought refuge in the nearby provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, with smaller numbers residing in Misamis Oriental and South Cotabato. The majority of those who fled have stayed with friends or relatives, yet tens-of-thousands more have been forced to seek shelter in cramped conditions in hastily-established state-run temporary evacuation centres.

The military initially hoped to defeat the jihadists within a few weeks, but as residents anxiously waited for news the conflict ran-on for five long months as the city was reduced to rubble through intense ground battles and sustained aerial bombardment. The scale of devastation was immense, as security forces engaged in some of the heaviest fighting witnessed in the Philippines since World War Two.

Whilst the small number of civilians trapped in the conflict zone endured a desperate daily battle for survival, dodging bullets and launching daring attempts to escape from their captors, those who had already managed to flee to safety were confronted with a new set of dire challenges.

In overcrowded evacuation centres, health became a major concern as cases of fever, diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses soared. Inadequate sanitation facilities increased the risk of waterborne diseases, whilst safe drinking water was in short supply. Dwindling food supplies led to a rise in malnutrition among the elderly and young children, many of whom remain out of education as twenty of Marawi’s 69 schools were totally destroyed. Most other schools suffered extensive damage and remain closed.

The sheer extent of the unfolding humanitarian emergency overwhelmed local authorities, who were ill-prepared to cope with the burgeoning crisis. The siege of Marawi not only destroyed homes but also jobs, livelihoods and entire communities, prompting a sudden exodus with little prior warning.

Some families from the outer-regions of the city were able to return home in the weeks immediately following the ‘termination of military operations’ in the city by the armed forces in late-October. A few thousand others have been moved to temporary resettlement villages built by the government, the largest of which is in Sagonsongan and will eventually be able to accommodate 4,600 families.

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants from the radical Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups laid siege to Marawi on 23 May 2017. The authorities were initially taken aback at the scale of the assault, and it took almost five months for the Philippine military to retake the city. (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Yet the majority of Marawians remain displaced. According to the latest figures released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) only 87,306 individuals from 16,930 families have returned to Marawi so-far, leaving another 266,615 residents from 53,323 families still without a home.

Contamination of the main battle area with IEDs planted by the militants and unexploded ordnance (UXO) from military air raids presents the most immediate barrier to return. Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBN), the multi-agency group set-up by the government to co-ordinate the rehabilitation effort, is currently working alongside military engineers to clear the hard-hit central Banggolo area.

As of the end of December, TFBN said 30% of the area had been cleared with the army having removed 2,853 items of UXO and 415 IEDs from the ruins. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner says clearing operations in the area, which covers 24 of the city’s 96 villages, are scheduled to be completed by mid-April. Even then it will not be safe for residents to return permanently, only to pay a fleeting visit.

The government estimates that full reconstruction and rehabilitation of the city will take up to four years and cost PHP50bn, yet some have predicted the final bill will surpass PHP150bn. International organizations such as the World Bank and foreign governments including Australia, China, Japan and the US have all pledged financial support, whilst President Duterte has allocated an initial PHP10bn for the rehabilitation of Marawi in this year’s budget. Despite these commitments, little can be done to speed up recovery and get residents home sooner.

More however could be done to support Marawi’s displaced inhabitants while they are living in a state of flux. Nine months after the siege began host families are still struggling with the burden of care, whilst the basic needs of many IDPs staying in evacuation centres are still not being met. It is now clear that most evacuees will not be able to return home for years, prompting calls for greater support.

In the present void, resentment and anger are rising. This could play directly into the hands of the very people who drove Marawi’s residents from their homes. The Philippine military has already voiced concerns over radicalization in the provinces surrounding Marawi, warning that ISIS-linked groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and remnants of the Maute group are actively seeking to recruit new fighters, first targeting young men from the most marginalized communities.

Marawi’s residents are eager to return home, but their city has been reduced to rubble and large parts of it will remain uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. The conflict will leave lasting scars not only on the landscape, but also in the minds of those who witnessed the horrors inflicted by ISIS and those who have lived through its aftermath in desperate conditions.

By extending Martial Law until the end of 2018 and looking to bolster the military’s presence in Mindanao, as well as reaffirming his commitment to pass a law creating a new autonomous Muslim region in the south, President Duterte is at least attempting to ensure that the siege of Marawi is not repeated elsewhere in the region whilst concurrently dealing a blow to ISIS’ recruitment ambitions.

Yet with an eye on securing peace for the future, Duterte’s administration is arguably not doing enough in the present to help Marawi’s displaced residents recover and get their shattered lives back on track. Despite starting the process of rebuilding the city and providing various means of assistance to IDPs, the state’s response has been criticized in some quarters as being too slow and inequitable.

The void is being filled by NGOs and the charitable nature of victims’ friends and families. Yet as time passes and funding dries-up, these additional resources will likely wear thin. Duterte must hope that radical groups are not able to also fill part of the void and take advantage of the situation.

Just like the siege itself, the path home for Marawi’s displaced inhabitants is set to be long, arduous and fraught with setbacks.

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

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How Malaysia’s Counter-Terror Strategy Has Kept ISIS in Check

During the tenure of Prime Minister Najib Razak, Malaysia has introduced a raft of new counter-terrorism laws amid heightened regional tensions (Image Source: World Economic Forum)

Since ISIS burst onto the scene after rampaging through northern Syria and Iraq more than three years ago, Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority countries have watched the chaos unfolding in the Middle East amid concern that the new wave of jihadist terrorism would spread to the region.

These fears have indeed been realised: a deadly gun and bomb attack rocked Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, killing four civilians in January 2016; whilst last year ISIS-inspired militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for more than five months, resulting in hundreds of deaths and brazenly confirming the arrival of a dangerous new era of jihadism in Southeast Asia.

As the regional threat environment has evolved rapidly over the past year, Malaysia is one of the countries watching its back. In the first few years after the emergence of ISIS, the threat appeared more distant; yet now there is a very real risk of fighters returning from Syria, Iraq and Marawi to launch attacks in Malaysia, in addition to the threat emanating from ISIS’ online recruitment and radicalization efforts aimed at inspiring sympathizers to carry-out low-tech, lone-wolf attacks.

Yet despite the rise of ISIS and the recent deterioration of security in its neighbours, Malaysia has continued to enhance its record of counter-terrorism success, and a major Islamist attack within its borders has so-far been prevented. This report assesses how Malaysia has avoided suffering the same fate as neighbouring countries, and asks if its strong record in thwarting attacks can be sustained amid the rapidly shifting regional threat picture.

The evolving threat from Islamist terror

Malaysia has long possessed an excellent counter-terrorism record. In past decades, domestic terror groups such as Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), regional groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and transnational groups such as Al-Qaeda have all been thwarted by the Malaysian authorities. In the 2000s, as neighbouring Indonesia was shaken by a wave of deadly attacks – most notoriously the JI-claimed Bali nightclub bombings which killed 202 people in October 2002 – Malaysia escaped the decade of elevated risk which followed 9/11 relatively unscathed, without suffering a major attack.

Regional authorities clamped-down hard on JI and Al-Qaeda, and by 2010 the terrorism threat to Southeast Asia had significantly reduced. Yet the sudden and dramatic emergence of ISIS reignited the threat, sending alarm bells ringing across the region. Soon after ISIS declared its Middle Eastern ‘Caliphate’ in 2014, fears emerged over the growing number of Southeast Asian nationals travelling to join the group as foreign fighters.

The head of Malaysia’s Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, says at least 53 Malaysians are known to have joined ISIS in Syria. In reality, the number could be far higher. ISIS has even formed a separate armed unit in Syria – known as Katibah Nusantara – made-up solely of Indonesian and Malaysian citizens who have travelled to the region. At least 20 Malaysians are thought to have died during battle in Syria, including nine who have detonated themselves in suicide bombings. ISIS has also released several Malay-language videos through its Al-Hayat media centre, encouraging Malaysians to carry out attacks in their homeland. The recruitment and radicalization of Malaysians has also occurred through social media channels and encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram, prompting concern over the potential for ISIS-inspired lone-wolf attacks.

The last two years have provided particularly dangerous warning signs for Southeast Asian nations. The deadly attack in Jakarta in January 2016 was followed by an ISIS-claimed grenade attack on a nightclub near Kuala Lumpur later that year, which injured eight people but failed to inflict any fatalities. The botched attack was the first to be claimed by ISIS in Malaysia. The five-month siege of Marawi from May-October 2017 has further stoked fears and raised the regional terror threat to its highest level, signifying the arrival of ISIS as a fighting force in Southeast Asia. 2017 also witnessed further suicide blasts and attempted attacks in Indonesia, whilst Philippine authorities continue to battle the ISIS-inspired Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mindanao.

However, the threat has so-far not resulted in large-scale fatal attacks within Malaysian borders. The reason why this is the case, has much to do with Malaysia’s multi-faceted counter-terror strategy.

Malaysia’s reinforced counter-terror strategy

In response to the rise of ISIS in 2014, Malaysia quickly identified the risk and immediately set about reinforcing and upgrading its counter-terror measures, as the government in Kuala Lumpur sought to build upon its strong historical record in confronting violent extremism.

Firstly, lawmakers updated anti-terror legislation, replacing the outdated Internal Security Act (ISA) with a raft of new measures. The new Security Offences and Special Measures Act (SOSMA) had already been passed shortly before ISIS emerged in 2014, adding to the existing Penal Code a range of provisions covering terrorism-related offences and crimes against the State. The listed offences include violent attacks aimed at causing fear, in addition to encouraging terrorist acts and financing, harbouring or providing assistance to terrorists. The new laws enable judges to sentence those convicted of terror offences to lengthy prison sentences, and in some cases even the death penalty.

In 2015, Malaysia also introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act (SMATA), giving the police greater powers to arrest and detain individuals, as well as designating two detention centres to house terror suspects. Whilst legitimate human rights concerns have been raised over the powers granted to law enforcement agencies, the updated legislation has so-far achieved its aim of preventing attacks within Malaysia.

The Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division says that since 2013, 19 large plots have been foiled and more than 340 terror suspects have been detained. The numbers have been increasing year-on-year. In 2013 just four individuals were arrested, rising to 59 in 2014, 82 in 2015 and 106 in 2016. In 2017, the number of terror arrests passed the one-hundred mark for a second successive year. The country also has one of the highest conviction rates for terror offences, with 101 individuals found guilty and sentenced in the last four years. Whilst these figures indicate an ever-rising threat, they also indicate the increased capability of the Malaysian authorities to respond in turn.

Secondly, Malaysia has sought to crack-down on terrorist financing – an area which required improvement after widespread criticism of its past performance. Malaysia passed the Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorism Financing Act (AMLATFA) back in 2001, which required financial institutions to submit Suspicious Transaction Reports (STRs) to the Malaysian Central Bank. Full implementation of these measures was initially weak. However, Malaysia’s compliance with global counter-terror financing standards has improved markedly, and in 2016 it was granted membership of the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF), marking Malaysia out as a country committed to cutting-off funding for terrorist groups. These improved anti-terror finance capabilities add to the legislation already discussed, making Malaysia an unattractive base for Islamist terror groups.

Malaysia has so-far avoided suffering large-scale ISIS attacks, but battle-hardened militants returning from Syria, Iraq and Marawi pose a new risk (Image Source: Flickr, Luke Ma)

Thirdly, Malaysia’s deradicalization programmes are among the most successful in the world. Of the 229 suspects enrolled between 2001 and 2012, only seven relapsed into terrorism-related activities, giving the programme a 97% success rate. These efforts are a collaboration between the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA), Ministry of Education (MoE), the prison authorities and religious institutions. Counselling sessions aim to counter extremist interpretations of Islam and successfully reintegrate radicalized individuals back into society, whilst post-release support mechanisms are designed to continually engage both the participant and their family members, lessening the risk of relapse.

Malaysia is often cited as a leading example in the field of deradicalization, and has willingly shared its expertise and best practice with other nations. In the age of ISIS, Malaysia has also taken steps to combat radicalization online, spearheading a new regional initiative – the Digital Counter-Messaging Centre (CMC) – established in September 2016, to counter extremist ideology in cyberspace.

The threat of returning fighters in 2018

Despite the success of these combined measures in recent years, the threat posed by ISIS is entering a dangerous new phase. In the last few months of 2017, Mosul, Raqqa and Marawi were wrestled from the hands of the jihadists, shrinking the size of ISIS’ territory in the Middle East whilst dealing a hammer blow to its attempt to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate in the southern Philippines.

Security analysts have raised concerns that given the collapse of ISIS as a military force, hordes of foreign fighters could now seek to return to their countries of origin, including Malaysia, in 2018.

Malaysia has responded quickly and kept up the pace of its counter-terror operations, in an attempt to pre-empt the threat. The Navy has taken part in trilateral sea and air patrols in the Sulu Sea since June alongside the armed forces of Indonesia and the Philippines, in an attempt to stem the flow of jihadists between Mindanao and the rest of maritime Southeast Asia to the west. In addition, high vigilance has been maintained in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZ) to prevent the infiltration of ISIS fighters into Sabah state; which has become Malaysia’s front-line in the battle against militancy.

In October, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak launched a new National Special Operations Force (NSOF), comprising personnel from the armed forces, police and the Maritime Enforcement Agency, created to respond immediately and effectively any terror scenario which may unfold in the country. The unit aims to smooth the chain-of-command to ensure a highly co-ordinated response in the event of an attack. The authorities also conducted a wave of anti-terror raids in the final weeks of 2017, detaining at least 20 individuals in raids across Johor, Sabah, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.

Conclusion: Malaysia’s hybrid approach is working

Malaysia appears resolute and determined to keep a lid on the threat from Islamist terrorism, and prevent ISIS infiltration into the country. Considering the chaos wrought by jihadists in surrounding countries, it is remarkable that Malaysia has been able to continue preventing attacks since the emergence of ISIS in 2014.

It has achieved this through adopting a combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ measures: a hybrid strategy which has approached the threat from opposite angles. Strengthened counter-terrorism legislation and frequent law enforcement operations tackle the threat visible on the surface, whilst sustained deradicalization initiatives mitigate the threat away from the glare of public spotlight, taking on the warped ideology which underlies Islamist terrorism. Malaysia has continually emphasized that a military solution alone will not solve the problems of radicalization and violent extremism.

Malaysia’s counter-terrorism measures have proven highly successful, yet it remains impossible to eliminate the threat entirely. Low-tech lone-wolf attacks inspired by ISIS remain particularly difficult to prevent; whilst in a rapidly-changing regional threat environment, the authorities must maintain heightened vigilance and be prepared to respond to new challenges.

In a world where a lasting solution to Islamist terrorism appears a distant prospect, Malaysia’s hybrid counter-terrorism approach – aimed at preventing attacks and reducing radicalization – serves as the leading example for every state confronting the scourge of ISIS to learn from and follow.

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

The Long Road to Justice for Sri Lanka’s Civil War Victims

During the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, around 80,000 civilians became trapped between Tamil Tiger rebels and advancing government troops (Image Source: trokilinochchi)

More than eight years after government forces crushed the northern Tamil Tiger separatists in the bloody final battle of Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war, victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by both sides still await a semblance of justice. On a visit to the island nation last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, lamented the government’s failure to establish a hybrid court to try those accused of committing war crimes. De Greiff warned Sri Lanka over its slow progress, stating the delay in investigating alleged abuses ‘‘raises many questions about the determination of the government to undertake a comprehensive transitional justice program’’.

The worst of the alleged abuses took place during the last few weeks of the conflict in May 2009, when government troops cornered the remaining rebels in a thin slice of territory along Sri Lanka’s northeast coastline. The UN and human rights groups have accused the government of extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances and indiscriminately shelling civilian ‘no-fire zones’. Meanwhile, the Tamil Tigers have been accused of launching suicide bombings, recruiting child soldiers and using civilians as human shields during the final battle.

It is estimated that in the dying months of the conflict, anywhere between 7,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed. In addition, tens-of-thousands of Sri Lankans – mostly from the Tamil ethnic minority – have disappeared without trace. With progress toward establishing a war crimes tribunal stalling almost a decade after the bloodshed ended, this report reflects on Sri Lanka’s post-war politics and looks at the political controversy surrounding efforts to put war criminals on trial.

The conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers – formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – began in 1983, after rebels fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the northeast killed 13 soldiers in an ambush. Ethnic tensions had long been simmering between the Hindu Tamil minority and the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, since Sri Lanka’s independence from 150 years of British rule in 1948. The LTTE initially carried out a guerrilla campaign consisting of suicide bomb attacks and ambushes targeting security personnel, before a full-scale civil war erupted in the mid-1990s. The two sides eventually signed a ceasefire mediated by Norway in 2002, before violence once again flared in the mid-2000s as the LTTE regained swathes of territory in its strongholds.

After the election of authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, the military took the fight to the rebels with renewed vigour. In January 2008, the government formally withdrew from the ceasefire and launched an all-out offensive designed to bring an end to the conflict. Over the next eighteen months, government forces re-took most of the rebel-held territory in the northeast, including the strategically-important town of Kilinochchi, which had served as the LTTE’s headquarters for more than a decade. On 19 May 2009, President Rajapaksa declared the country ‘‘liberated’’ from terrorism, as the remnants of the LTTE laid down their arms after their long-time leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed in a shoot-out with government troops.

The final weeks of the conflict were among its most bloody. More then 80,000 fleeing civilians became trapped in a small pocket of territory between rapidly advancing soldiers and retreating LTTE rebels. Alleged war crimes were committed by both sides. International human rights groups accused government forces of shelling civilians in areas which had been demarcated as ‘safe zones’, as well as carrying-out extra-judicial killings of captured Tamil fighters. The LTTE were accused of forcibly recruiting children in an attempt to bolster its rapidly-dwindling ranks, as well as launching suicide attacks in civilian areas and using fleeing civilians as human shields, even reportedly firing in front of crowds to prevent trapped people from leaving the combat zone. Media outlets – notably Channel 4 News in the UK – obtained video footage purporting to show the aftermath of hospitals being shelled, as well as unarmed Tamil fighters being blindfolded and executed by government troops at point-blank range. The footage prompted international outcry and condemnation.

The Sri Lankan government at the time – led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa – denied all allegations of abuse, labelling the unverified video footage as ‘‘fabricated’’ and an outside attempt to destabilize the country. Rajapaksa’s administration rejected all calls for an international inquiry, despite calls by the UN for Sri Lanka to set-up a hybrid court with the involvement of foreign judges.

Hopes for a formal investigation into war crimes were raised in January 2015 following the surprise election victory of Maithripala Sirisena. President Sirisena was elected on a reform ticket pledging to curb the powers of the presidency, fight corruption and protect freedom of speech, marking a clear break from the increasingly-authoritarian strongman-type regime led by Rajapaksa.

President Sirisena’s government has implemented reforms since assuming power in 2015, but a UN-backed war crimes tribunal is yet to be established (Image Source: Russian Government)

Under Sirisena, a degree of progress has indeed been made. The government has initiated public consultations on issues related to the conflict, and last year set-up an ‘Office for Missing Persons’ to trace more than 20,000 people who disappeared during the conflict and its aftermath. Among the missing are activists, journalists and critics of the government along with thousands of former LTTE rebels, family members and Tamil rights campaigners. The government has now acknowledged the problem and announced that family members of missing persons will be issued with certificates, but as yet little progress has been made in finding out the truth of what happened to the disappeared.

Some observers contend that many of the missing Tamils have been abducted by military and intelligence officers, and have either been killed or may still be being held in state-run detention centres. Some evidence has emerged to support this theory, with campaign groups such as Freedom from Torture and the International Truth and Justice Project presenting harrowing witness accounts and first-hand testimonies detailing detention and torture in military camps. Whilst these accounts are unverified, they have been supported by a number of legal and medical experts.

In the year after his election victory, President Sirisena spoke at the UN General Assembly of the importance of confronting his country’s past, pledging to ‘‘follow a process of truth-seeking, justice, reparation and non-recurrence’’. He appeared to back-up these words with action in September 2015, after tentatively agreeing to the terms of a UN Security Council resolution to establish a hybrid court – made up of both Sri Lankan and international judges – to put on trial those suspected of committing war crimes during the Tamil conflict. The move was praised by most member states.

Yet progress in establishing such a tribunal has been slow, and Sirisena appears to have backtracked on some of his early promises. A reconciliation consultation committee appointed by Sri Lanka’s government recommended earlier this year that ‘‘international participation in the court should be phased-out’’ once the ‘‘required expertise and capacity has been built-up’’ among locally-appointed judges. The tribunal has still not come to fruition, and Sri Lanka received a two-year extension in March this year to fulfil its commitment to the UN resolution, further delaying the process.

Last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, warned the government in Colombo that further delays in making good on their promise to establish a war crimes tribunal involves significant risks. After a two-week visit to Sri Lanka, he said ‘‘no-one should be under the impression that waiting is a costless alternative’’, adding that the ‘‘failure to achieve progress in fully addressing issues’’ related to the civil war ‘‘constitutes a denial of justice’’.

The longer it takes to establish the truth and secure justice for what happened in the final weeks of the conflict back in May 2009, the frustration of victims and tensions between Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese communities will inevitably rise. Many Tamils still hold grievances and perceive repression at the hands of the state – particularly at the hands of the military – who retain a dominant presence in the northeast of the country. These suspicions will surely continue to fester for as long as relatives of the deceased and the disappeared sense a continued lack of accountability for abuses committed by state actors during the war, and an absence of justice for its thousands of civilian victims.

President Sirisena’s government has undoubtedly made progress through the introduction of limited reforms, yet accusations of human rights abuses and impunity for state actors continue to be made. It is time for the tougher and more controversial issues related to the final stages of conflict to be tackled – including confronting allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes on both sides – if reconciliation is to be achieved and Sri Lanka is to finally move on from a dark chapter in its history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was first published on Eurasia Review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dokdo-Takeshima Islands: South Korea and Japan’s Intractable Maritime Dispute

The disputed islands are located in the Sea of Japan – also known as the East Sea – approximately half-way between Japan and South Korea (Image Source: Flickr, ROK)

Over the last few years, maritime disputes in the contested waters of East Asia have made global headlines. In the South China Sea, China has faced opposition from Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines for its claims to sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. In the East China Sea, relations have remained tense between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands.

Yet another long-standing maritime dispute in the region has continued to exist under-the-radar, and remains unresolved after more than six decades. The dispute concerns a collection of small islands located in the Sea of Japan – or the East Sea as it is known on the Korean peninsula. The contested islands are called the Dokdo Islands by South Korea, yet are known as the Takeshima Islands by the Japanese, and the Liancourt Rocks by many in the West.

The isolated maritime territory – consisting of two larger islands and more than thirty smaller features – is officially controlled by South Korea, yet is also claimed by Japan. The islands sit roughly half-way between the two countries, being located approximately 134 nautical miles from South Korea’s mainland, and around 155 miles from the Japanese coastline.

This article will seek to review the background context and current situation related to the long-running dispute over the Dokdo-Takeshima Islands, before assessing its impact on South Korean-Japanese bilateral relations and asking why the dispute has proved so difficult to resolve.

Both sides claim that their right to sovereignty over the islands stretches back hundreds of years, yet there is a significant degree of historical ambiguity to these claims. Instances of conflicting evidence make a clear and objective timeline of the disputes almost impossible to ascertain.

South Korea argues that the islands were first mentioned in historical literature from as long ago as 512-AD, whilst Japan argues that South Korea has failed to prove their control over the islands prior to their occupation by Japanese forces in 1905, several years prior to the Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula. Japan’s Foreign Ministry has also stated that its claims originally date back to the mid-17th Century when the islands were used by Japanese sailors.

South Korea insists that the islands were rightfully handed back to the country following the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, signed between the United States and Japan after the end of WWII. However, the islands had been omitted from the final text of the treaty, leading to confusion over which country was entitled to administer the territory. South Korea established formal administrative control over the islands in the mid-1950s – a move which Japan has described as an ‘illegal occupation’.

Today, the Dokdo-Takeshima islands remain administered by South Korea and the dispute has rumbled on at a relatively low level, albeit damaging bilateral relations between the two countries. South Korea has constructed a coast guard station on one of the two main islands, whilst on the other resides a Korean fisherman and his family – the territory’s only permanent residents.

The long-held views of both countries regarding the dispute are not expected to change, despite the election of new South Korean president Moon Jae-In (Image Source: Flickr, ROK)

There are several reasons why the dispute has proved so resistant to a resolution over the past six decades.

Firstly, nationalism remains a key factor on both sides, with the islands holding symbolic importance to both the South Korean and Japanese populations. Many South Korean’s see Japan’s unrelenting sovereignty claim as a neo-colonial attempt to retain a strategically-important territory acquired during Japan’s days as an imperial power. This aspect of the dispute is arguably the most sensitive, with many Koreans still feeling a sense of anger and humiliation over their country’s annexation by Japanese forces in 1910 and the lengthy occupation of the mainland which followed.

Nationalist sentiments have also been a feature of Japan’s continuing claim, with the southern Shimane Prefecture introducing an annual ‘Takeshima Day’ in 2005. In both countries, nationalistic feelings centred on historical animosity between the two regional powers have dominated thinking with regard to the dispute – resulting in occasional street protests by civilians and rhetorical flare-ups from political leaders in the aftermath of sensitive incidents.

Secondly, the dispute has proved even more intractable due to the economic and geo-strategic importance of the islands. The Dokdo-Takeshima islands are located in the middle of an important route for shipping and regional trade, and are surrounded by plentiful fish stocks. In addition, there is significant potential for the unexplored sea-bed around the islands to contain large amounts of oil and natural gas deposits.

Full political control over the islands would enable access to a 12-natuical mile Territorial Sea, along with a 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching out from the coastline, under the terms of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This international agreement has further entrenched the position of both sides – as has also been the case with claimants in other territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas – due to the potential for large rewards in terms of energy security and economic prosperity, as a result of preferential fishing rights and greater access to natural resources within the legally delimited zones.

Whilst the disputes have continued at a low level for the past six decades, recent years have witnessed several flare-ups and periods of increased friction. In 2012, tensions reached their highest point when Japan recalled its ambassador to Seoul, following a high-profile visit to the islands by then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak – the first visit by an incumbent Korean leader.

Concerns have also been raised over the impact of the dispute on bilateral relations and security co-operation between the two countries – both of which are allies of the United States. This question is especially important given the rapidly escalating nuclear threat emanating from the hostile regime in North Korea, after it conducted a series of missile tests earlier this year in contravention of a UN ban. The successful management of this issue will require a unified response involving close cooperation between the United States and its regional allies. This provides a strong imperative for South Korea and Japan to put their long-running maritime dispute to one side, at least for now, and work more closely together to tackle a common threat.

At first glance, the dispute over the Dokdo-Takeshima Islands appears relatively minor in scale, especially when compared to the more complex maritime disputes underway in the East and South China Seas. However, the islands occupy a position of great national importance for many in both South Korea and Japan, a factor which provides a significant obstacle to resolution and has resulted in deeply-ingrained positions on both sides.

Whilst tensions occasionally rise to the surface, the dispute is not one which looks likely to result in military conflict any time soon. For now, with little sign of compromise or willingness to debate the issue of sovereignty on either side, the status-quo over the islands looks set to remain unchanged – especially whilst a serious threat to the entire region looms large on the horizon.

A version of this article was also published on Eurasia Review

Indonesia unmoved by West Papua independence struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niger Delta: pipeline attacks fuel fears of a return to militancy

Niger Delta (1)
The Niger Delta – a lucrative oil-producing region in southern Nigeria – is vital to the country’s economy (Image Source: Flickr, Sosialistisk Ungdom)

A spate of attacks on oil pipelines since the emergence last year of a new armed group – the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) – has sparked fears of a return to militancy in Nigeria’s long-troubled southern oil-producing region. The attacks have dented oil production and focused the attention of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration on the Niger Delta, where the last large-scale insurgency ended after an amnesty deal was signed between the government and rebels in 2009.

Despite the agreement initially being effective in dampening down the insurgency, the underlying causes of the region’s strife – endemic poverty, inequality and economic underdevelopment – have been allowed to fester over the past eight years, providing fertile ground for the emergence of the NDA and leaving the Niger Delta facing the very real prospect of a return to conflict.

In April 2016, the newly-formed Niger Delta Avengers pledged to ‘’take the struggle to new heights’’, and proceeded to carry out a spate of attacks on oil installations in the following months. The group’s membership structure is shrouded in obscurity; however, the NDA is thought to include former rebel fighters from several now-defunct groups – such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and the Niger Delta People’s Salvation Front. The NDA emerged soon after President Buhari’s decision to cut funding for the 2009 amnesty programme, which had promised monthly cash handouts and training for former militants.

The NDA has demonstrated a significant level of planning and expertise in its operations, carried out in pursuit of its stated goal to ‘’cripple Nigeria’s economy’’ through attacks on energy installations. In February 2016, it blew up an underwater pipeline operated by Shell before going on to attack two Chevron export terminals. In November 2016, the group also blew up three pipelines carrying 500,000 barrels of oil a day to a Shell terminal in Bayelsa state. The spate of attacks over the past twelve months appears to have had the desired effect, causing the country’s oil production to drop to 1.65 million barrels per day, in comparison to the projected output of 2.2 million.

While attacks against oil installations are now at an eight-year high and causing significant damage to Nigeria’s fragile economy, this type of militant activity in the Niger Delta is far from a new phenomenon. Across several decades, the area has spawned a number of militant groups seeking to disrupt the energy industry, motivated by desire to fight for rights of the region’s citizens against a long history of perceived marginalization at the hands of local elites and western energy companies.

Despite the Niger Delta bringing in billions of dollars in oil revenue, the vast majority of the region’s 31-million inhabitants continue to live in abject poverty, with few job opportunities and a lack of access to basic infrastructure, education and health services. More than half of the population survive on less than $2 per day and less than 50% have regular access to safe drinking water.

Trapped in a life of poverty and economic insecurity, the people of the Niger Delta continue to experience the feelings of vulnerability and helplessness which have driven cycles of violent conflict for decades. The upsurge in pipeline bombings since the emergence of the NDA serves as a worrying reminder of the tensions and frustrations which lay just beneath the surface, in a region which has long suffered the ills of the ‘resource curse’.

The current tensions can therefore only be understood within the context of the Niger Delta’s history as an oil-rich yet poverty-stricken region, in which the local population has received few benefits from the energy industry. This unequal relationship originated during the colonial era, when European countries asserted their control over trade in the region, signalling the beginning of a long-history of resentment from the marginalized local population. British firms Shell and BP began oil exploration in the 1950s, sparking tensions as the Delta’s Ijaw ethnic majority were excluded from the rewards of the oil wealth. This profound sense of inequality became further ingrained after Nigeria’s independence in 1960, as British, Dutch, French and Italian oil companies extended their dominance of the energy sector.

As the century progressed, it became clear that the oil companies and political elite were receiving the bulk of profits from the Niger Delta’s resources. Tensions within the local community over the perceived unfair distribution of wealth soon translated into active resistance, characterized by the emergence of the first armed militias, such as the Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF).

A new wave of militant groups emerged in the 2000s, deploying violent tactics including bombings and kidnappings, which pushed-up world oil prices and focused international attention. In 2009 however, militant leaders signed up to a ceasefire and government-sponsored amnesty process, which resulted in up to 30,000 former militants receiving monthly handouts from the state.

Whilst this had the effect of stabilizing the situation, the underlying issues remained unresolved and the negative impacts of the oil industry did not disappear. In recent years, frustrations have gradually risen as companies have failed to clean-up a legacy of environmental damage, lost livelihoods and broken societies. Due to repeated oil spills, traditional fishing and farming activities have become almost impossible across large swathes of once-fertile land.

A 2011 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report recommended that oil companies spend $6bn cleaning up contaminated farmland, providing further legitimacy to the long-standing complaints of environmental degradation by local people.

According to human rights group Amnesty International, the four worst-polluted sites mentioned in the UN report – Bomu Manifold, Boobanabe, Barabeedom Swamp and Okuluebu – remain heavily polluted. Activists say that the 7000-km long network of pipelines passing through the region is rapidly ageing and in need of urgent repairs to prevent leaks. However, the oil companies argue that the theft of oil by militants is largely to blame for the environmental damage.

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has cut funding to an amnesty scheme by 70%, raising concerns of a renewed insurgency (Image Source: Flickr, Chatham House)

In light of these issues, tensions under the surface have once again become visible in the form of the latest wave of attacks by the NDA. President Buhari last year promised a tough response, stating: ‘’we will deal with them [Niger Delta militants] in the same way we dealt with Boko Haram’’.

However, a response of further securitization and militarization may serve only to perpetuate the cycle of instability which has been prevalent in the Niger Delta for decades, adding to the failure to address the root causes of conflict. Short-term, militaristic solutions ignore the fact that in a region plagued by the mismanagement of its oil wealth, the ills of the resource curse are long-lasting and difficult to avoid, creating problems which have become endemic in nature.

Approaches aimed solely at short-term stabilization to facilitate the free flow of oil, serve only to create a temporary peace and delay an inevitable return to insurgency. There remains an urgent need to address the underlying drivers of conflict which have for too-long been left unresolved: the unequal distribution of oil revenues, institutionalized corruption and patronage, economic underdevelopment, environmental damage and the loss of traditional livelihoods.

The government has recently indicated it may be willing to pay greater attention to these underlying drivers, with President Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo making high-profile visits to the region. This visible diplomacy is designed to reassure locals that the central government is now listening to their concerns and taking account of their interests, whilst President Buhari has also indicated that the controversial amnesty scheme many now be maintained. These developments indicate a potential shift in the government’s strategy in the early months of this year – away from one being based solely on military force, towards one based on wider engagement.

However, despite the increased interactions between government officials and local stakeholders in the Niger Delta, resolving the underlying drivers will remain extremely difficult due to the ingrained and intractable nature of the issues involved.

At the state level, corruption remains endemic in Nigerian politics, facilitating the continued dominance of the political elite whilst preventing faster progress in regional development. At the local level, the political economy of violence is deeply entrenched in society, leaving the financial incentives for militancy looking attractive in the absence of alternative employment opportunities.

The prevalence of these norms creates a mutually-reinforcing cycle in which key stakeholders in the government and local populations often have vested interests in the continuation of instability, which poses a significant obstacle to productive peace negotiations.

The emergence of the NDA and the recent upsurge in militant activity, must therefore be viewed as a continuation of the historical pattern of violence in the Niger Delta; the causes of which are complex, multiple and overlapping. Attempts at resolution are likely to be fraught with difficulty, as the negative impacts of resource management in the region have fostered deeply-ingrained tensions between the local population, the oil industry and government officials.

The murky politics of the energy sector continue to represent the largest obstacle to peace in the Niger Delta: rent-seeking and poor governance in this arena have fuelled decades of underdevelopment, exacerbating the inequalities which result in a disenfranchised population resorting to violence. For as long as the region’s inhabitants remain excluded from the benefits of oil wealth, the government will struggle to end the destructive cycle of poverty, marginalization and hopelessness which looks likely to spawn further waves of militancy.

Cyprus: an island divided, but for how much longer?

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Since 1974, a heavily-guarded UN buffer zone has divided Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish communities (Image Source: Jpatokal)

After more than four decades of division, recent peace talks between leaders on both sides of Cyprus’ infamous Green Line have led to a renewed sense of optimism, bringing fresh hope that the long-troubled eastern Mediterranean island could finally be reunified. Since 20 July 1974, Cyprus has been split across the middle, with a 180km-long UN buffer zone separating the Greek-Cypriot south from the Turkish-Cypriot north. Despite the failure of several previous attempts at resolution, there now appears to be a greater chance of success due to a growing political will – reinforced by firm commitments from the island’s leaders – to achieve reunification.

The current phase of negotiations between Greek-Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot President Mustafa Akinci began in May 2015, and significant progress has been made over the last two years. Recent media reports – as of January 2017 – have indicated that the talks are now entering the latter stages, with a final deal expected to be announced in the near future. However, whilst this apparent progress should be welcomed, it is important to apply a note of caution and avoid celebrating prematurely. As talks continue further into the year, it must be acknowledged that the issue of reunification is complex and fraught with many difficult and emotive issues, which will not simply be resolved overnight – irrespective of the outcome of the current discussions.

In order to better understand the complexity of the issues to be resolved, it is first necessary to return to to the roots of Cyprus’ division, and trace the key developments across four decades of a conflict which has remained frozen in time.

In the aftermath of WWII, Cyprus initially remained under British colonial control despite the desire of many Cypriots to unify the country with Greece. Cyprus, however, never came to be under Greek control. Instead, it became a sovereign nation after being granted full independence from Britain in 1960, on the basis of a power-sharing agreement between the Greek and Turkish populations resident on the island. The Greek-Cypriot community leader – Archbishop Makarios – became president, whilst it was determined that a Turkish-Cypriot should hold the position of vice president. The status-quo didn’t last long: in 1964, inter-communal clashes broke out after Makarios proposed constitutional changes which undermined the shared governmental structure, and the fragile system of power-sharing broke down. Following these events, the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to patrol the Green Line, which by the mid-1960s had been set up to divide the Greek and Cypriot sectors of the island’s capital city, Nicosia.

Events gathered pace in the summer of 1974. First, Greece’s nationalist government deposed Greek-Cypriot leader Makarios in a military coup, in an attempt to move forward the process of unification between Cyprus and Greece. In response to the coup, Turkish troops invaded the shores of Northern Cyprus on 20 July, quickly advancing inland before stopping at the line of division which ran through the centre of Nicosia. From that day onwards, Cyprus has remained divided in two, with the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities partitioned by a heavily-guarded buffer zone.

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Planes lie in ruin at Nicosia Airport, which has remained frozen in time since being abandoned four decades ago (Image Source: Dick Elbers)

In the four decades since – despite being split in two – Cyprus has remained largely at peace. The northern section of the country – named the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – declared independence in 1983, yet remains recognized only Turkey. Meanwhile, the southern part of the country became a member state of the European Union in 2004, whilst the local economy has grown and the tourism industry has flourished. The only reminders of the conflict are found in the buffer zone, which is up to 7 kilometres wide in places. The landscape within the prohibited zone remains exactly as it looked at the time of abandonment 1974, with the now-defunct Nicosia International Airport serving as a lasting physical symbol of the four-decade-long stalemate. Numerous towns and villages are effectively frozen in time, after their residents fled at the height of the conflict.

Today, Cyprus has more than 1 million inhabitants. Around 80% of the population are Greek-Cypriots living in the south, most of whom are Orthodox Christians; whilst 20% are Turkish-Cypriots living in the north, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims. The internationally-recognized government of the Republic of Cyprus controls the southern two-thirds of the island, whilst the remaining one-third of territory north of the buffer zone is controlled by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

All previous attempts to negotiate a resolution have failed, first in 1987, and more notably in 2004. As part of the 2004 attempt, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put forward a proposal to make Cyprus a federation of two separately-administered states. The idea was the cause of much optimism at the time, but was ultimately rejected by Greek-Cypriots in a referendum – despite being accepted by the Turkish-majority population in the north. The rejection of the 2004 deal now serves a signal of just how difficult the dispute is to resolve, indicating how simmering tensions and a long-standing lack of trust between the two communities could stand in the way of future efforts.

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The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared independence in 1983, but is only recognized by Turkey. The southern Republic of Cyprus is recognized by the UN, and became an EU member state in 2004 (Image Source: Golbez)

In the decade since, however, there is a sense that the political atmosphere on the island has shifted markedly, allowing for a new-found sense of optimism which has enveloped the current round of negotiations. The island’s leaders – Greek-Cypriot Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot Mustafa Akinci – share a mutual commitment to pursue reunification, and appear to have more in common than previous generations of politicians on the island. When the talks first began in May 2015, both leaders enthusiastically promised to meet regularly, in order to maintain momentum and continue moving forward with the peace process. Towards the end of 2016, the negotiations – brokered in Switzerland by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon – significantly gathered pace, leading to hopes that a settlement could be reached before the end of the year, and before Mr Ban’s term as UN head came to an end. However, despite significant progress in a number of areas, this deadline has now passed and intense discussions have continued into the new year.

In recent months, large sections of the mainstream media – particularly in the West – have often over-simplified the dispute, with the majority of reporting on the issue striking a triumphant tone and emphasizing that a resolution is close. However, this enthusiasm and positivity must be tempered by greater recognition that as the talks reach a critical stage, significant obstacles remain to be overcome, in a complex frozen conflict which has to this point proved intractable.

In particular, discussions on critical issues such as territorial realignment, land swaps, property returns and displaced persons will be highly emotive and fraught with difficulty. When the conflict was at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, around 200,000 people were displaced from their homes and driven from their businesses, many of which now lie unoccupied and in a state of ruin, abandonment and disrepair inside the buffer zone. Drawing up new boundaries, determining the control of territory, and deciding upon compensation payments and land returns will be pivotal issues in finding a resolution to the dispute, with both sides so far reportedly unable to reach agreement on difficult questions of this nature.

In addition, two wider issues remain unresolved, surrounding the questions of governance and security. Firstly, it must be determined what the new state of Cyprus should look like, and how it will be administered. Both sides are in broad agreement that the new state should be based on some kind of federal model, yet the extent of power-sharing and the exact nature of governance structures remain unclear. Secondly, the island’s security remains a core issue, which often stokes high emotions on both sides of the Green Line. For citizens in the south, the presence of 40,000 Turkish troops is often viewed as a threat, and to many constitutes an occupation; yet for citizens in the north, the continued Turkish military presence is seen as vital and offers significant reassurance to Turkish-Cypriots. These issues remain particularly contentious, and will require careful diplomacy and compromise on both sides. Finding such compromise, however, will not be easy: a high degree of opposition and scepticism remains in the south, whilst the northern side remains concerned over losing-out on issues of power-sharing and securing a rotating presidency. In any case, any proposed final peace settlement will need to gain the approval of local politicians, in addition to being deferred to the people of Cyprus in a nationwide referendum

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The latest round of peace talks between the island’s Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot leaders have moved the country closer towards reunification (Image Source: Adam Jones)

With the peace negotiations being open-ended and having no set timetable, talk of an imminent end to Cyprus’ division is premature. The political will for reunification does exist, and there remains a strong chance that the talks will be successful, yet the issues are complex and positions deeply-ingrained – meaning that if a solution is to be found, significant compromise will be required on both sides of the Green Line. Even in the scenario where an agreement has been reached, approved and implemented, only time will tell if the two communities can live together in peace and harmony once the physical barrier has been removed.

If this best-case scenario – for so long desired by many Cypriots – does indeed materialize, then the benefits for the island in the coming years – particularly in terms of tourism and economic growth – could be huge. More importantly however, at a time when peace-making is failing miserably in other parts of the region (such as in Syria and Yemen, where attempts at peaceful resolution have given way to years of bloodshed and multiple external military interventions), the reunification of Cyprus would serve as a timely reminder of what concerted and determined diplomacy can achieve.

Is Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency over?

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced in December that Boko Haram’s last remaining stronghold had been captured by the military (Image source: Chatham House)

In the final days of 2016, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the army had captured Boko Haram’s last stronghold in the remote Sambisa forest in the northeast of the country. President Buhari said the successful operation marked the ‘‘final crushing’’ of Boko Haram, bringing an end to the brutal seven-year insurgency which has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million.

The apparent defeat of Boko Haram follows a year in which the group appeared to be in turmoil after a dispute between two of its dominant figures. In August, long-time militant leader Abukakar Shekau claimed to still be in command, despite an earlier statement by IS – to whom Boko Haram pledged allegiance in 2014 – that he had been replaced as leader by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The dispute was the strongest indication yet of a more widespread split within the terrorist organization, which had already been significantly weakened by a Nigerian military offensive over the past 18 months.

For some time, the long-running Islamist insurgency – which began in 2009 – has looked to be in a state of gradual decline: militants have been forced to retreat into their rural heartlands after being pushed back from the urban areas they once controlled by a regional coalition of troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

However, the group have seemingly been on the cusp of defeat on several occasions in the past, yet each time have fought back – proving themselves to be more resilient than expected. This article looks back at the key developments and crucial moments over the last seven years of the insurgency, before asking how Boko Haram was able to emerge to control large swathes of Nigeria in the first place, and how it can be prevented from doing so again.

Since its emergence as a military force in 2009, Boko Haram has forged a reputation as a particularly brutal terrorist group, pressing its objectives through a wave of killings, bombings, and abductions across Nigeria. It gained widespread international media coverage in April 2014, after the kidnapping of more than 200 girls from their boarding school in the town of Chibok. This thrust the situation into the global spotlight, prompting widespread outrage and strong condemnation from Western governments. Since pledging allegiance to IS later the same year, the Boko Haram conflict has often been simplified and presented within the overall narrative of global Islamic terrorism; however in reality, the background to the militancy is complex, with many factors being responsible for the rise of Boko Haram and its sustained campaign against the Nigerian state.

Boko Haram was formed in 2002 by Muslim Cleric Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf set up a religious complex consisting of a mosque and Islamic school with the aim of opposing Western-style education. The group set up its headquarters in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, and became known by the local population as Boko Haram – which loosely translates from the local Hausa language as ‘Western education is forbidden’.

Based on its radical interpretation of Islam, Boko Haram’s aims quickly moved beyond just education and morphed into a wider, longer-term political objective: to overthrow the Nigerian government and establish an Islamic Caliphate.

In July 2009, Boko Haram shifted its focus to full-scale militant insurgency, launching a campaign of violence in Borno state, killing hundreds of people in attacks on marketplaces, police stations and government buildings. The response from the Nigerian military was immediate: security forces launched a sustained assault, seizing the group’s headquarters and killing its leader along with many of its fighters. At this point, Boko Haram appeared to be decimated; yet its fighters were soon able to re-group under a new leader, Abubakar Shekau.

Under the leadership of Shekau, recruitment soared and Boko Haram gained a reputation for committing acts of horrific brutality, launching a campaign of high-profile attacks throughout Nigeria. In August 2011, Boko Haram extended its reach to the capital, killing 23 people in a suicide bombing at the UN headquarters in Abuja. In January 2012, more than 100 civilians were killed in a single day of co-ordinated bombings and shootings in the town of Kano.

As the violence escalated, the government struggled to maintain control, leading former president Goodluck Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in May 2013, in the three northern provinces of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Troops were deployed to the region to combat the growing militant threat, leading to Boko Haram fighters being pushed out of their urban base Maiduguri, retreating to the dense Sambisa forest and the Mandara Mountains close to the border with Cameroon.

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A coalition of West African states have undertaken a sustained military offensive against Boko Haram since January 2015 (Image Source:VOA)

However, the insurgency proved difficult to put-down, and attacks by Boko Haram continued. Militants once again emerged from their rural hideouts to launch attacks on towns and villages – looting property, carrying out mass killings, abducting women and girls, and conscripting men and boys into their army. In April 2014, the group launched its most notorious attack, kidnapping more than 200 girls from a boarding school in Chibok. Some of the girls have recently been released, but the whereabouts of many others remains unknown.

By the end of 2014 the group had pledged its allegiance to IS, and rebranded itself as IS’ West Africa Province. Despite this development, the Nigerian military continued to push back the jihadists. In recent years, many Boko Haram fighters have been killed and large quantities of weapons have been seized, leaving the group seemingly on the edge of extinction once more. Yet given its past resilience, Boko Haram’s demise is far from certain; and to avoid it rising up once again, a key question must be answered: how was Boko Haram able to emerge as a group powerful and resourceful enough to wage a sustained seven-year insurgency, which wrought havoc across large swathes of territory and threatened the Nigerian state?

A large part of the answer lies in its ideological pull to those who may be sympathetic to its core values: an extreme form of Islam based on Sharia Law, the desired creation of a caliphate, vehement opposition to the West, and the concept of waging war against the Nigerian state.

However, an often-overlooked, but ever-present set of underlying, inter-related factors was vital in driving recruitment and sustaining Boko Haram in the area of northern Nigeria in which it first sprung-up: poverty, underdevelopment and economic marginalization.

This same set of conditions has been a common feature in the emergence of many other groups which have fought against the State throughout recent history. This story is particularly relevant to many other countries in Africa – particularly those with vast natural resources such as oil and minerals – where economic growth has gone hand-in-hand with growing inequality. In this sense, Nigeria can be understood to be suffering from the ‘resource curse’ – a situation in which oil wealth encourages corrupt governance, resulting in vast inequalities between regions and social groups, leading to an increased risk of poverty-induced conflict. Nigeria is now Africa’s largest economy, yet it is also one of the continent’s most unequal societies: in the north, 72% of the population live in poverty, compared to just 27% in the south.

Some may contend that a combination of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness have created a strong sense of resentment amongst the northeast’s generation of disenchanted young men, making the area fertile ground for jihadist groups such as Boko Haram. This wide pool of potential recruits, along with the manipulation of religion by Boko Haram as a vehicle for mobilization, is a key reason as to why the insurgency was able to be sustained for so long.

At present, however, the group finally looks on the verge of defeat – with no major strongholds left and splits in its leadership, Boko Haram appears to no-longer have an effective command structure. Its remaining fighters are likely to splinter into smaller factions, with little capacity to operate beyond remote areas or pose a large-scale threat as they once did. However, despite successes in driving back the militants, the authorities should be wary: if the underlying conditions remain unchanged, the militancy is likely to lie dormant beneath the surface, only to re-emerge once more. A military strategy alone therefore cannot remove the threat entirely. To ensure peace prevails in the coming years, a long-term strategy is needed: one which also addresses the economic and social conditions which have sustained seven-years of insurgency.