Deciphering the Jihadist Threat to the Philippines’ Moro Peace Process

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR), ratified in a public vote in early-2019, lends greater autonomy to Moro Muslims in western Mindanao (Image Source: Philippine News Agency).

In the impoverished west of the Philippines’ conflict-afflicted southern island of Mindanao, residents voted earlier this year to approve a landmark peace deal which it is hoped will signal an end to one of Southeast Asia’s bloodiest and most intractable insurgencies. Since the early-1970s, separatists have waged a decades-long armed campaign against the central government in Manila in pursuit of either full independence or greater political autonomy for the region’s oppressed Moro Muslim population. After failed peace agreements and false dawns in 1976, 1989 and 1996, the past year has seen major progress.

July 2018 witnessed the signing of an historic peace accord between the government of President Rodrigo Duterte and Mindanao’s largest Muslim insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The deal – known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) – provided the legislation needed to create a new self-governing region to replace the flawed Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was established in 1989. A public vote in all areas set to form part of the new political entity was held across two days in January and February, with a majority needed to ratify the BOL in each jurisdiction. Turnout exceeded 85% as residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed new region, which will be called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

In the five existing ARMM provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, a combined total of 1.54m people voted in favour while just 198,000 voted against. After polling closed in non-ARMM areas, it emerged that Cotabato city had also voted to join the BARMM and will become its seat of government. While Isabela city voted against, more than twenty villages in North Cotabato province voted in favour to ensure the BARMM will be larger and more populous than its predecessor.

Yet despite hopes for peace rising after voters rubber-stamped the creation of the BARMM, Duterte has kept Mindanao under martial law in an attempt to tackle the lingering threat from ISIS-affiliated groups active in the provinces set to form the new region. Martial law has remained in place since the siege of Marawi erupted in May 2017, when jihadists from the Maute Group (MG), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP) joined forces to take-over the city. In spite of ongoing peace efforts, these radical elements have refused to relent.

Moro Muslims have been present in western Mindanao since the arrival of Arab traders in the Sulu islands in the 1300s, and have since fought uprisings against Spanish and US colonialists, and later the modern-day Philippine state. The Moros’ have long suffered cultural and political marginalization, and their communities rank among the poorest in the country, with the poverty rate in the ARMM at 59%.

The 30-000 strong MILF long-ago dropped their demand for full independence in favour of autonomy. The last few decades have seen episodes of violence despite a series of past peace agreements having been signed; none of which have managed to quell the insurgency in its entirety. There is now real optimism on both sides that the proposed Bangsamoro region may represent a genuine path to peace.

The new jurisdiction will have its own 80-member elected parliament able to enact laws, headed by a chief minister. The region will receive 75% of taxes collected within its territory, while benefiting from central government grants and improved access to natural resource revenues. Rebel leaders are also hopeful the new region will be a significant improvement on the ARMM, which has been associated with corruption and criticized for constituting autonomy in name only. The government and the MILF campaigned side-by-side for a ‘yes’ vote and have pledged to work together to implement the BOL.

The new Bangsamoro region is to be led during a three year transition period by Moro Islamic Liberation Front chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim (Image Source: Philippine News Agency).

While the government and the MILF have pursued peace, several ISIS-aligned groups have remained active in Mindanao. The main protagonists of the Marawi siege, the ASG and the Mautes, are still alive despite having suffered heavy losses during the conflict. The ASG has reverted to launching attacks in its remote island lairs of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, while the Mautes are still thought to be recruiting in Lanao del Sur despite the group’s leader, Abu Dar, being killed in a recent army offensive. The BIFF is the strongest jihadi group in the region, with around 400 fighters in the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The AKP operates further south in Sarangani and South Cotabato.

These groups have committed a series of high-profile attacks aimed at disrupting the peace process. Just five days after the BOL was inked last July, a Moroccan suicide bomber with ties to the ASG detonated his device at an army checkpoint near Lamitan city, killing 11 people. Local police said his intended target was a school parade taking place in the city centre. BIFF bombings targeted the Sultan Kudarat town of Isulan on 28 August and 2 September, killing five and injuring 49 civilians. In mid-September a bomb planted by the AKP wounded seven people in General Santos city. A blast blamed on the BIFF struck a shopping mall in Cotabato city on 31 December, leaving another two dead and 34 injured. The post-BOL spike in IED attacks in late-2018 followed a stark warning from BIFF figurehead Abu Misri Mama: ‘we are not in favour of autonomy [and will] continue to fight for independence.’

Attacks have continued into 2019. On 27 January – timed to wreak maximum havoc between the two BOL polling days scheduled for 21 January and 6 February – twin explosions tore through a packed cathedral in Jolo, killing 22 worshippers. The attack, carried out by ISIS-aligned ASG militants, served as a reminder that jihadist groups remain intent on shattering the southern Philippines’ fragile peace.

ISIS-affiliated militants have also regularly clashed with government soldiers on the battlefield, with fighting most intense in rural areas of western Mindanao. Last year witnessed 119 clashes linked to Moro and Islamist groups on mainland Mindanao, with at least 83 involving the BIFF. While the MILF engaged only in small-scale clan disputes between rival factions at the local level, clashes between BIFF factions and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) led to the death of 173 militants and 21 government soldiers. The BIFF is most active in Maguindanao, the site of 70 clashes in 2018, and North Cotabato, which saw 24 encounters. The Mautes have engaged in sporadic fighting with the army in Lanao del Sur, while the AKP has initiated several gun battles in Sarangani and South Cotabato. At least 91,485 people were displaced last year in Mindanao as a result of clashes involving ISIS-linked groups.

The BIFF stronghold of Maguindanao also proved to be the epicentre of a rising IED threat, seeing 19 attacks, which mostly targeted military and Philippine National Police (PNP) vehicles by the roadside.

Meanwhile in its remote island hideouts of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, the ASG engaged in 63 armed clashes with the military during 2018, resulting in 161 fatalities and displacing at least 5,000 civilians.

The 30,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front has pledged to disband and disarm its insurgent force before transitioning into a political party and contesting elections (Image Source: PCOO).

These figures demonstrate that ISIS-aligned groups are still active and pose a threat to stability in the region. Sustained BIFF-AFP clashes continue to take place, while IED blasts have targeted both state security personnel and civilians. However, the threat has reduced since the militants’ attempt to take-over Marawi city was extinguished in October 2017. In the build-up to the siege, the four ISIS-affiliated groups were able to join forces and operate relatively freely in light of alleged AFP intelligence failures. The army was taken aback by the militants’ combined strength and level of co-ordination, and was vastly under-prepared for a prolonged urban siege characterized by street battles and enemy sniper fire.

Post-Marawi, the AFP’s awareness and posture has altered considerably. Remnants of the four ISIS-aligned groups have been weakened by sustained offensives under martial law, while the infiltration of foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia has slowed due to trilateral naval patrols carried-out in the Sulu Sea by the Philippines and its two nearest neighbours. Mindanao’s ISIS-aligned groups are now separated geographically, and will struggle to join ranks to launch a combined assault as they did in Marawi. While a repeat can’t be ruled out, it is unlikely in the current state of heightened vigilance.

With the BARMM ratified, Duterte is now hoping to crush these groups under martial law. Yet despite the progress made in the past year, barriers to peace remain. A lengthy transition awaits as the MILF transforms into a political party ahead of elections to the new regional parliament due by 2022. The demobilisation of the MILF may also prove difficult. The MILF’s 30,000 fighters will likely find it harder to reintegrate back into society than senior MILF leaders who have joined the BARMM’s transitional administration. Political leadership itself will be an arduous task. MILF leaders have sought to prepare early by visiting former rebel chiefs in Indonesia’s Aceh province to learn about the implementation of a similar peace accord there over the past decade. In Aceh, an autonomous settlement addressing grievances of Muslim insurgent groups in exchange for disarmament has largely held firm since 2005.

Authorities hope the peace accord will dent recruitment for ISIS-affiliated groups in Mindanao, who joined forces to occupy Marawi city for five months in 2017 (Image Source: Mark Jhomel).

On Mindanao, the presence of Jihadi groups makes a replication of Aceh’s peace gains more uncertain. Military intelligence reports suggest foreign jihadists from the pre-Marawi influx are still fighting with the BIFF, while the Mautes are alleged to be recruiting in Lanao del Sur to bolster their depleted ranks. Further clashes with the AFP are likely throughout 2019, although under the strain of martial law ISIS-linked groups may further splinter, turn to guerrilla-style tactics and make greater use of explosives.

The key test for a lasting peace in Mindanao will be whether the hearts and minds of Moro Muslims can be won over by the new autonomous region, which promises to reduce poverty and spark more equitable development. Should genuine autonomy prevail and political stability take hold, the brazen attempt by ISIS to hijack the Moros’ five-decade separatist campaign may yet prove to be short-lived.

This article was first published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The statistics in this article are sourced from the institute’s Armed Conflict Database (ACD), which collects data and analyses key trends in all active conflicts worldwide. 

Advertisements

Vietnam’s Struggle to Overcome the Legacy of US Bombs

In an eight-year aerial campaign between 1965-1973, US warplanes dropped 800,000 tonnes of munitions, striking at least 55 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces and cities. (Image Source: US Navy)

The recent Hanoi summit attended by US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un thrust Vietnam into the global spotlight; a rare moment of publicity in the modern era for a country which dominated the world’s attention through the unfolding horrors of war in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet the hosts were left disappointed when the summit collapsed, after failed talks on de-nuclearization prompted the US delegation to depart early for Washington. Five decades earlier the US had been in no rush to leave despite a similar sense of impending mission failure, instead sending thousands more troops and sticking around to bomb Vietnam for eight years from 1965-1973. While the summit leaves no lasting impression, the legacy of unexploded bombs and toxic contamination from the war remains.

Just days after dialogue faltered in Hanoi, a huge 350kg US-made war-era bomb was unearthed 400km further south in the central province of Quang Binh, as a family dug foundations for their new house. The live air-dropped bomb, discovered close to the busy national highway 1A, was one of the largest found in recent years. The area was evacuated and the bomb later safely defused by demining experts. While deaths or injuries were avoided, the find is a stark reminder of the lingering risk from US bombs.

The effects of Agent Orange also persist in central areas of Vietnam, where soil and waterways remain contaminated after toxic defoliants were sprayed by the US to deny forest cover to Viet Cong troops.

With Vietnam back out of the media glare after the Hanoi summit, and with global attention fixed on new conflict hot-spots in the Middle East, there is concern over the future will of foreign governments and international donors to clear unexploded ordnance from former battle zones in Indochina. Given Trump’s isolationist ‘America First’ foreign policy and desire to cut funding overseas, there are also doubts over whether the US commitment to help Vietnam heal from the war is set for the long-term.

The lasting impact of US bombing raids on Vietnam

In an eight-year aerial campaign between 1965-1973, US warplanes dropped around 800,000 tonnes of munitions, striking at least 55 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces and cities in an attempt to turn the tide of the war between the US-backed south and the communist-controlled North. A significant proportion of bombs failed to detonate on impact, and remain buried just beneath the surface in the countryside.

Since hostilities ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975, accidents involving unexploded ordnance (UXO) have claimed more than 105,000 victims across the country, killing at least 38,900 and leaving 66,000 injured. Meanwhile 7% of Vietnamese citizens, or 6.2 million people, have a disability, while 13% live in households with at least one disabled occupant. UXO explosions are a major contributory factor to Vietnam’s high disability rate, in many cases leaving victims with crippling conditions such as lost limbs and blindness. Agent Orange has also been blamed for an unusually high rate of severe birth defects.

UXO survivors often sustain life-changing injuries as a result of shrapnel wounds, including loss of eyesight and loss of limbs. More than 100,000 people have been killed or injured after coming into contact with UXO in Vietnam since the war ended in 1975. (Image Source: James Hathaway)

Farmers and scrap metal collectors most often fall victim to UXO blasts after coming into contact with ordnance in rural areas. Children are also disproportionately affected, with thousands having suffered injuries after mistaking spherical-shaped cluster bomblets for toys. Since the mid-1990s, a number of organizations have run risk education classes to help educate local communities of the hidden danger.

Added to the immediate physical effects on those caught up in accidents, UXO contamination has had a wider socio-economic impact. Tens-of-thousands of victims require long-term physical rehabilitation and psychological support, placing a strain on Vietnam’s healthcare system. In micro-economic terms UXO can have a devastating effect, removing the earning-capacity of the main breadwinner in families and placing a double burden on relatives in the form of providing care and making-up for lost income. The prevailing threat of UXO also restricts agriculture and development in rural areas near the former demilitarized zone in central Vietnam, where fighting was most intense. Quang Tri province, along the old dividing line, is worst-hit: up to 84% of land here is contaminated, compared to 15% nationwide.

Local and international demining efforts since the 1990s

For more than 20 years since the mid-1990s, a collection of experienced international NGOs has been working to rid Vietnam of UXO alongside local state-run agencies and the Vietnamese armed forces. In recent years, Danish Demining Group (DDG), Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) have been among those operating in central areas to clear land and provide risk education.

The Vietnamese government has also been working to improve national-level infrastructure in recent years to better co-ordinate and oversee the demining effort. In 2013, a military-run Vietnam National Mine Action Centre (VNMAC) was established, while last year Hanoi formed Steering Committee 701 on the Settlement of Post-War Unexploded Ordnance and Toxic Chemical Consequences, to propose new solutions and mobilize civil society actors both at home and abroad to confront war legacy issues.

Since the mid-1990s, a network of international de-mining groups has been working to clear UXO in Vietnam alongside state-run agencies and the Vietnamese military. (Image Source: USAID)

The government is hoping to make greater inroads into combatting the harmful legacy of UXO in the coming years, and aims to clear 800,000 hectares of bomb-contaminated land by 2025. However, this only represents a small percentage of the affected area, which totals at least 6.1 million hectares. The true figure may turn out to be even higher once a full survey has been completed. It is estimated that the removal of all UXO items in Vietnam will take up to a century and cost an eye-watering US$10bn.

Speaking at a global mine awareness conference last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said UXO was still holding the country back four decades after the guns fell silent. ‘‘Although the war has been over, the severe consequences of landmines, UXO and toxic chemicals still exist, affecting human health and living environments. Many people have lost their lives or suffered the loss of a part of their body, or lost their loved ones’’. Phuc added the presence of UXO still limits socio-economic progress.

Concerns over future US and global demining support

In the past year, new funding has been announced from the UK, Norway and South Korea to continue demining activities in the worst-affected provinces. In mid-2018, South Korea committed US$20m for survey and clearance in Binh Dinh and Quang Binh, while a deal was signed with the NPA to fund work in Quang Tri until 2022. Late last year, funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) was announced to support the work of MAG in Quang Tri. Yet the US remains the main source of external funding, providing over 90% of total foreign assistance for UXO projects in Vietnam in 2017.

The US is the largest foreign donor supporting de-mining efforts in Vietnam, investing at least US$119.3m from 1993-2017. The UK and Norway are also major donors. (Image Source: USAID)

Between 1993-2017, the US has invested at least US$119.3m for UXO-related programmes in Vietnam. For two decades, the network of in-country demining operators has relied primarily on US finance to expand their vital work. There are now concerns that under the more isolationist and inward-looking administration of President Trump – intent on cost-cutting on projects abroad which are not deemed in the national interest – sustained US help for the UXO clean-up in Vietnam appears more uncertain. And with the Vietnam War fading into distant memory, other foreign funding sources are also fragile.

Will war legacy issues remain central in US-Vietnam ties?

Does the US have a moral obligation to help Vietnam recover from a conflict which is now condemned widely in the west and increasingly viewed as an aggressive act of Cold War-era misadventure? Former president Obama appeared to hold that view, stating his belief on a 2016 visit to Laos that the US had a duty to help Vietnam’s neighbour ‘heal’ from the pain caused by past US actions in the region. It is unclear whether President Trump, and future US presidents, will share such sentiment. There are positive signs: the US recently completed an operation to remove Agent Orange toxins from land near Da Nang airport, and is due to start decontaminating a larger site at Bien Hoa air base later this year.

Since restoring diplomatic ties in 1995, the US and Vietnam have enjoyed a blossoming bilateral relationship centred on defence and security co-operation. (Image Source: US Embassy Vietnam)

In the four decades since the war ended, geopolitical realities have shifted and the rapid rise of China has pushed Vietnam and the US closer together faster than anticipated. Since restoring diplomatic ties in 1995, relations between the two former enemies have blossomed, most ironically in the field of defence. The Hanoi-Washington security relationship has been evidenced since Trump came to power by a rising frequency of high-level visits. Trump has visited twice, while State Secretary Mike Pompeo and former Defence Secretary James Mattis have also made trips to take part in high-level exchanges.

The US has focused mainly on improving Vietnam’s maritime security capabilities in the context of the South China Sea disputes. Vietnam is a major claimant state and is opposed to China’s expansive claim. Last year, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson aircraft carrier docked at Da Nang port for four days, marking the first visit by a US carrier since the war. The US has also transferred a refurbished US Coast Guard cutter to the Vietnamese navy, funded the acquisition of 24 45-ft patrol boats – 12 of which have already been delivered – and granted Vietnam US$26.25m to boost its maritime security capacity during 2017-2018. Once an enemy, Vietnam is now one of the US’ most dependable security partners in Southeast Asia.

Four decades since the war ended, more than 15% of Vietnam’s land area is still contaminated with UXO. In central Quang Tri province, 84% of land is affected. The Vietnamese government predicts the full clean-up will take a century and cost up to US$10bn. (Image Source: USAF)

In this context, a long-term US commitment to fund UXO clearance in the coming decades would not only be in the interests of Vietnam’s prosperity and continued economic development, cementing its recovery from the war. It would also be in the US’ national interest, helping to cement its growing ties with Hanoi as it aims to refocus on the Indo-Pacific, while signalling its recognition of the harm caused in Vietnam. Only when the last bomb is cleared, can the shared horrors of the war be fully lain to rest.

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

Southern Thailand’s Fractured Peace Process Reaches a Crossroads

Thailand’s ruling military Junta – led by Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha – began peace talks with the Mara Patani rebel grouping in 2015, yet little progress has been made (Image Source: SSG Teddy Wade)

The shock return to power of political veteran Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur last May signalled not only a new dawn for Malaysia, but also fresh hope of a peaceful resolution to a decades-old conflict raging across the border in southern Thailand. The 93-year-old Mahathir, returning for a second stint as Malaysia’s prime minister, has long held an interest in securing peace in Thailand’s troubled Deep South, where separatist Muslim insurgents have fought the military for independence since the 1950s.

After a high-level meeting in Bangkok last October between Mahathir and the head of Thailand’s ruling military Junta, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, both sides appointed new peace envoys and initial talks began in January. The early signs were remarkably positive. Thailand, for the first time, voiced a willingness to consider making concessions on autonomy and political decentralization, while indicating a desire to bring the most powerful rebel group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), back to the negotiating table.

Yet the fleeting peace process hit an unexpected snag earlier this month, when the head of the Thai negotiating team, retired army general Udomchai Thammasarorat, failed to turn up for a scheduled meeting in the Malaysian capital. The no-show left Malaysian mediator Abdul Rahim Noor ‘shocked’, and drew an angry response from rebel groups. Mara Patani, an umbrella organization representing a series of rebel factions, responded by ruling-out further participation until after Thai national elections are held in late-March, while the rogue BRN vowed to continue its armed struggle for independence.

With support from Malaysia assured, can southern Thailand’s fractured peace process overcome this early setback and – with elections looming – navigate the choppy political waters which may lie ahead?

The roots of southern Thailand’s separatist insurgency

For seven decades, ethnic Malay Muslim separatist rebels have battled Thai security forces to establish an independent homeland in the four southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla. The conflict-stricken region borders Muslim-majority Malaysia to the south, and was formerly part of the Islamic Sultanate of Patani, which was formed in 1516 and bordered the ancient kingdom of Siam to the north, which would later become modern-day Thailand. The region was annexed in the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 and incorporated into the Buddhist-majority Thai state, governed by Bangkok.

The region retained its local traditions and largely failed to assimilate with the rest of Thailand, leading to disenfranchisement among many residents and sparking tensions over territorial control of the four southern provinces. By the late-1950s, a political independence campaign had been superseded by an emerging armed insurgency. For decades the conflict remained at a low-level until its intensification in 2004. During the past 15 years more than 7,000 people have been killed amid insurgent bombings, shootings and assassinations, while the military has launched repeated crackdowns on rebel activity.

Peace talks started in 2015, a year after the Prayut-commanded military Junta – formally labelled the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – seized power from the democratically-elected regime of Yingluck Shinawatra in a bloodless coup. Yet negotiations have failed to make meaningful progress. The Junta has initiated dialogue with the Mara Patani umbrella grouping, which represents a network of shadowy rebel units operating in the Deep South. Talks have been restricted because the BRN – the most powerful and influential rebel group, which controls most fighters on the ground – has declined to participate in the peace process due to the government’s refusal to allow international mediation. The Junta views the conflict as an internal and domestic matter which should not be internationalized.

Another, more deeply-ingrained sticking point, concerns the rebels’ demand for independence, while the Junta and all previous Bangkok administrations have maintained a blunt, non-negotiable position, opposed to allowing the south to break away. With secession out of the question, the Junta has also until-recently refused to consider granting autonomy or any kind of political devolution to the south, reflecting the military’s long-term preoccupation with preserving the territorial integrity of the state.

Malaysia’s Mahathir reinvigorates the peace process

Talks remained stalled until the shock election victory of Mahathir in mid-2018. Thailand and Malaysia have long enjoyed strong bilateral ties, while Mahathir’s return – as a respected elder statesman in Southeast Asia with a strong personal interest in regional peace-making – lent fresh impetus to the peace process. Malaysia also has a long-standing interest in helping to resolve the conflict for several vital geo-strategic reasons. Kuala Lumpur feels a sense of duty to ensure an environment of peace and prosperity for ethnic Malay Muslims living in southern Thailand, while also wanting to avoid worsening instability and violence along its northern border, which could result in unmanageable refugee flows. Concerns over the suspected presence of ISIS sympathizers in Malaysia and the potential for weapons to be smuggled via rebels operating in Thailand’s volatile south have also incentivised Malaysia to act.

When Mahathir met Gen. Prayut in late-2018, both leaders were optimistic in tone, and spoke of their shared desire to resolve the conflict. Mahathir pledged to help ‘in whatever way possible to end this violence in the south’, calling for better co-operation on the issue ‘between two friendly neighbours’. Gen. Prayut said although the insurgency is considered a ‘domestic problem’, dialogue would ‘resume immediately with Malaysia as the facilitator’, without giving a specific timeline for fresh negotiations.

After the appointment of representatives for both countries, initial meetings were held at the start of January. Early indications were positive. Malaysian facilitator Abdul Rahim Noor said he was optimistic the conflict could end within two years, while Thai negotiator Udomchai Thammasarorat said Bangkok would consider devolving powers or allowing a ‘special administrative zone’, having taken advice from Mahathir. However, it was stated that independence or separation would remain off the table. On 11 January, Udomchai confirmed ‘low-level’ talks had been held with ‘all groups’ involved in the process.

Thailand’s armed forces seized power in a 2014 coup. The future of the revived army-led peace process is uncertain ahead of elections scheduled for late-March (Image Source: Takeaway)

Yet just weeks later, the peace process stands on the brink of collapse, after Udomchai failed to attend an introductory meeting with Mara Patani representatives scheduled for 4 February in Kuala Lumpur. The move took the Malaysian facilitating team by surprise and drew an angry reaction from the rebel leadership. Udomchai claimed he would only meet Mara Patani chief Sukree Haree one-on-one, and had never agreed to the pre-arranged meeting with a larger rebel delegation. A Mara Patani statement condemned the Thai panel’s ‘unacceptable attitude’ and ‘hidden agenda’, calling for Udomchai to be replaced by someone with ‘more credibility’. Mara Patani has now suspended its participation in talks until after the Thai national election, set for 24 March. The BRN had already rejected involvement and released a video message in early-January, which vowed to ‘fight with all our might’ for independence.

Little over a month in, talks have ended and the revived peace process already stands at a crossroads.

Can the peace process outride upcoming hurdles?

The most immediate obstacle facing the peace process is the upcoming Thai election, set for the end of March. The election has been pushed-back repeatedly since the Junta came to power in 2014, and may bring a return to democratic governance for the first time in five years. A return to democracy would leave things in the south uncertain: talks would likely be re-set and the Thai negotiating team would change, while a new government in Bangkok would have more immediate priorities, such as securing their grip on power after half-a-decade of military rule. Malaysia is also due to undergo a leadership transition, with Mahathir having pledged to give-way to successor Anwar Ibrahim within the next few years. This is likely to be a smooth change and would have only a minimal effect on the peace process. However, the charismatic Mahathir, who has invested much time and energy in the process, would be a big loss.

If the Thai Junta does stay in power, it remains to be seen whether autonomy will remain on the table. The Junta has recently, for the first time, demonstrated a willingness to make concessions and devolve power to some degree, but after the election may revert to its previous policy of initiating a low-key and slow-moving peace dialogue while at the same time hoping to see the insurgency fizzle out on the ground. In this sense, the Junta sees the conflict as a low-level nuisance, isolated and confined to the remote southern provinces, rather than as a conflict representing a major threat to national security.

It would certainly suit the next Thai government – whether civilian-led or military-controlled – for the insurgency to die out without the need for talks. Evidence does suggest violence has declined in recent years, with monitoring group Deep South Watch reporting 218 deaths in 2018, down from 235 in 2017 and 892 at the conflict’s peak in 2007. Yet insurgent groups have been resilient enough to persist for decades, while a spate of attacks in early-2019 suggests the security situation may be deteriorating. Insurgent groups certainly retain the ability to inflict harm. On 21 January, rebels shot dead two monks at a Buddhist temple in Narathiwat, while other attacks have targeted school guards and policemen.

Some have even raised concerns over ISIS infiltration, as has been witnessed in other conflict zones in Southeast Asia. In 2017, ISIS-aligned militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months, and retain a presence in the country after joining-up with local Muslim insurgent groups. However, there has to-date been no documented evidence of ISIS fighters in southern Thailand, while throughout its history the conflict has remained purely separatist and ethno-nationalist in nature. It is unlikely the BRN or Mara Patani would risk accepting ISIS recruits into their ranks, as adopting a violent jihadist ideology would erode local support among moderate Muslims and encourage a firmer military crackdown in the region, supported by global actors. Aside from lingering fears of ISIS infiltration, the prospect of further civilian suffering and impoverishment due to the insurgency lasting in its existing separatist form may yet serve as a strong enough imperative for both sides to seek a political solution.

Future forecast: is autonomy a realistic solution?

If the peace process survives the expected turbulence of the next few months, the process is likely to re-start with only informal talks and trust-building mechanisms, with Malaysia retaining its traditional role as impartial mediator. Both the Thai government and the rebel leadership must demonstrate a genuine willingness to compromise before formal dialogue can begin. The Junta – or a newly-elected civilian administration – will need to show openness to an autonomous political settlement based on some form of decentralized governance. The rebels – including the BRN and all factions represented by Mara Patani – will need to resolve their differences and negotiate on an alternative outcome to full independence. Independence remains unattainable, no matter the type of government in Bangkok.

Two precedents for such a compromise settlement already exist in Southeast Asia. Separatist rebels in Indonesia’s Aceh province signed a peace accord with Jakarta in 2005, while a 30,000-strong Muslim insurgent organization based on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao signed an autonomous settlement with Manila just last year, which it is hoped will eventually bring an end to decades of war. Both conflicts started out as violent struggles for independence by heavily-armed Muslim insurgents. In both instances, violence has significantly de-escalated after compromise settlements were reached.

The history of peace processes in these regions shows that negotiations in southern Thailand are likely to be fraught, arduous and littered with setbacks. Securing an illusive peace in Thailand’s Deep South will require a sustained, long-term effort marked by patience, resolve and compromise on both sides.

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

Why Aung San Suu Kyi will Struggle to Revive Myanmar’s Stalling Peace Process

Clashes between army troops and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) rebels have intensified over the past year in several mining townships in Myanmar’s north (Image Source: Paul Vrieze, VOA)

When Aung San Suu Kyi was propelled to high office via a landslide election victory in November 2015, she vowed to make ending Myanmar’s decades-old internal strife a top priority of her government. Yet three years on, the initial outpouring of hope and optimism around the world after the ascent to power of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has been replaced with rising condemnation of the brutal Rohingya crackdown and alleged army abuses in the northern states of Kachin and Shan.

While the quasi-civilian administration led by Suu Kyi has failed to condemn the actions of Myanmar’s still-dominant armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, the former global human rights icon has pushed forward with a government peace initiative designed to end a myriad of long-running ethnic conflicts which have blighted the country’s remote borderlands for seventy years. While talks began under the former military regime, Suu Kyi attended the latest rounds of dialogue held in July and October 2018.

Despite repeated sets of negotiations, the peace process has stalled amid escalating violence on the ground. Suu Kyi’s strategy is centred on persuading more rebel groups to join the existing Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), signed by eight groups the month before her election in 2015. A further two signed in February, yet the country’s most powerful militias are refusing to join the accord while talks remain deadlocked over key security matters and the central issue of devolving political powers.

Can Aung San Suu Kyi break the impasse in Myanmar’s fractured peace process? Or will the continued dominance of the military and mis-trust of the army among ethnic leaders stand in the way of peace?

Myanmar’s decades-old internal ethnic conflicts

Myanmar’s raging civil conflicts date back to before the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.  Prior to independence, in February 1947 ethnic leaders from Chin, Kachin and Shan states signed the Panglong Agreement with Myanmar’s leader at the time, General Aung San; Suu Kyi’s father. The deal promised autonomy and self-determination for ethnic groups after the creation of Burma. Aung San was assassinated by political opponents later that year and his commitment was not honoured by the nation’s post-independence rulers, sparking the formation of ethnic armies set on securing autonomy.

Insurgencies have persisted for much of the past seven decades in the states of Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayin and Mon. A wide array of armed insurgent groups have fought government troops, driven by core grievances centred on the political control of territory, rights for ethnic minorities and access to natural resource revenues. Most fighting has occurred in isolated and inaccessible border areas far from the centre of state power in Naypyidaw. The uprisings have proven resistant to resolution, having persisted through the 26-year dictatorship of Ne Win and successive military regimes which followed. Previous ceasefires have been negotiated with individual armed groups; yet all have been broken and peace has rarely held for long. The most enduring was in Kachin state, where a 1994 ceasefire quelled fighting with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) for 17 years until hostilities resumed six years ago.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempt to reboot the peace process

The government’s approach to conflict resolution widened in 2011 when reformist military ruler Thein Sein initiated a national-level peace dialogue for the first time under army rule. Negotiations led to a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed in October 2015, just a month before Suu Kyi’s historic election win. Yet only eight of 15 groups involved in discussions put pen to paper. Some of Myanmar’s largest and most influential insurgent groups – including the 10,000-strong KIA and the 25,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) – refused to sign the deal due to the Tatmadaw’s exclusion of smaller allied rebel organizations, such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), from the peace process.

Suu Kyi has sought to revive the peace process through her 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences, named after a 1940s initiative led by her father (Image Source: A. N. Soe, VOA)

A month later, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD swept to power having secured a high proportion of the ethnic minority vote. Despite being barred from the presidency by a constitutional clause, Suu Kyi, with the title of State Counsellor and as the nation’s de-facto ruler, vowed to pursue a lasting peace settlement.

Under the weight of high expectations, Suu Kyi has since sought to foster continual dialogue through reviving her father’s peace drive of the 1940s through holding a series of 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences. Yet the military – which maintains decision-making control over internal security matters and for which one-third of parliamentary seats are reserved – has maintained its central role in talks, which are designed to build upon the 2015 NCA deal. Despite two more insurgent groups signing-up in February, progress has been slower than hoped and delays have occurred. Suu Kyi planned to hold Panglong conferences every six months, yet to-date only three have taken place since she took power. Loose agreements have been reached on principles covering politics, economics, the environment and social issues, but the agenda has been vague and core drivers of the conflict have yet to be discussed.

A stalling peace process amid escalating violence on the ground

The three rounds of talks hosted by Suu Kyi so-far, in August 2016, May 2017 and July 2018, have been held against a backdrop of rising violence on the ground and unchecked abuses by the Tatmadaw. In Rakhine state, the army has responded to attacks on border posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants by launching a wide-ranging crackdown on Rohingya villages. The UN and a multitude of human rights organizations have accused troops of burning villages, raping women and deliberately killing civilians. Some have even gone so far as to label the military’s campaign as ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’, while Suu Kyi has faced strong criticism from western leaders for her failure to speak out. Suu Kyi insists the army have only targeted ‘terrorists’ in clearing operations. Over 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh since violence erupted in 2017.

Meanwhile in 2018, fighting has intensified in the northeastern states of Kachin and Shan, along the border with China. In Kachin, clashes between the government and ethnic rebels have centred on the townships of Hpakant, Injangyang, Sumprabum, Tanaing and Waingmaw, while in excess of 100,000 people have been displaced in the state since 2011. Human rights groups have accused the Tatmadaw of adopting heavy-handed tactics and employing a ‘scorched earth’ policy in conflict-affected regions.

A UN report in March documented ‘credible reports of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence’ at the hands of the army in Kachin. Human Rights Watch has warned of a ‘dire humanitarian situation’ in the state. The Tatmadaw denies all allegations of abuses, and maintains it only targets armed insurgents.

Why is the peace process failing, and can it be revived?

Amid rising violence, the third round of the Panglong initiative in July made little meaningful progress. A group of four powerful non-signatory rebel groups from the north, including the KIA and TNLA, met with Suu Kyi on the sidelines of the summit, yet there is still little sign they are willing to join the NCA. The peace process, in its current form, appears to be stalling: talks have reached an impasse with NCA signatories, while the non-participation of other groups is blocking the path to a nationwide peace.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since a military crackdown began in 2017 in response to a spate of  attacks on border posts (Image Source: Tasnim News Agency)

It will be hard for Suu Kyi to revive the fortunes of the faltering peace process in the current climate. Rebel demands for genuine autonomy and self-determination appear unlikely to be met, despite the government’s stated desire to turn Myanmar into a federal union. With the Tatmadaw still dominant and primarily concerned with preserving the territorial integrity of the state, any attempt by the NLD to cede too much ground to ethnic rebels would not go down well with the generals, and would risk the removal of Suu Kyi from power. Military leaders effectively hold a veto over all decisions made by democratically-elected politicians. The rhetoric of the generals suggests the rebels’ demands will not be met in full. Despite Tatmadaw chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing calling for a ‘brotherly spirit’ to drive the peace process forward, he has also warned against giving too much away to ethnic minorities or local political parties. In July, Hlaing said ‘armed ethnic groups in some regions cannot represent the entire national people of 52 million, and political parties only represent a particular walk of life’. In contrast, he said ‘the people’s Tatmadaw, born of ethnic people, is an organization representing the state and the people’. In this context, Suu Kyi’s vision for a federal union with devolved powers is restricted. The army sees itself as the unifying force in Myanmar, and is averse to giving up control over defence and security matters. It is hard to imagine the Tatmadaw agreeing to withdraw its troops from ethnic areas.

A second barrier to peace is the long-standing lack of trust between the communities represented by insurgent groups and the Tatmadaw. A history of alleged army abuses in the form of disappearances, extrajudicial killings, sexual abuse and the use of slave labour will be hard to forget for deeply scarred populations, even in the event of a peace deal. Seven decades of conflict has fermented anger on both sides, with each viewing the other as the enemy. This factor serves to make the peace process fragile, and may rear its head if or when more contentious issues are discussed at a later stage of negotiations.

Future forecast: looking beyond Myanmar’s current political climate

Withstanding international criticism over her handling of the Rohingya situation, away from the global media spotlight Aung San Suu Kyi has made considerable efforts to resolve conflicts outside Rakhine state, making internal peace-making elsewhere a political priority. Yet it appears on the battlefield, the army has different ideas, and things have continued much the same as before. In fact, violence on several fronts has worsened since the NLD’s victory, mainly due to conflict dynamics at the local level.

While Suu Kyi’s personal view on the Rohingya is shrouded in mystery, it is clear that her government is not able to act independently of the Tatmadaw, who still maintain a stranglehold over Myanmar’s politics and security. To what extent Suu Kyi is willingly allowing the army’s abuses to go unchecked, or not opting to speak out for fear of losing power, is unclear. In the domestic political context, it may suit Suu Kyi to remain silent, as many in the Bamar ethnic majority support the crackdown in Rakhine.

Yet in other areas where conflicts are raging, the story is different. Suu Kyi rode to power in 2015 with widespread support from ethnic minority voters, hopeful the NLD-led government would be able to reduce violence in their communities. If the stalling peace process cannot be revived, Suu Kyi risks losing a proportion of this vote at the ballot box in 2020, risking the military once again firming up its grip on power. These complex electoral dynamics and the increasingly volatile events of recent years demonstrate how the situation in Myanmar is far more nuanced than outside interpretations suggest.

Even beyond the present political era of quasi-civilian part-democratic governance, Myanmar’s ethnic insurgencies will remain highly resistant to resolution. Rather than vague ceasefires and half-hearted peace initiatives, it will take generational shifts and years of trust-building to lend dialogue a chance.

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

What Underlies the Long-Running Dispute in the South China Sea?

China claims all South China Sea waters within its self-imposed ‘nine-dash line’, demarcated in a 1947 map, including the Paracel archipelago and the Spratly Islands (Image Source: US Navy)

The South China Sea is a site of intense geostrategic importance located at the heart of the Asia-Pacific. It is the site of decades-old contestation between rival regional powers over territory, lucrative energy resources and economically-vital sea lanes. Given the sea’s location at the centre of the world’s most densely-populated and fastest-growing region, and considering the above-mentioned convergence of interests, the disputes represent a pressing and complex issue which is highly resistant to resolution.

The disputes first emerged in the aftermath of World War Two, when the six claimant states bordering the sea – China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – scrambled to occupy islands following the withdrawal of colonial powers. In their early stages, the disputes centred primarily over the question of territorial sovereignty. China claimed almost the entire body of water according to its ‘nine-dash line’ map, originally released publicly in 1947. The map was based on historical claims of naval expeditions in the area dating back as far as the Han Dynasty. China views its claim to sovereignty as a major national interest comparable with its desire to incorporate Taiwan into the Chinese state.

Taiwan and Vietnam also stake a claim to large portions of the sea encompassing two island groups: the Paracels and the Spratly islands. Similarly, these claims are based on historical records stretching back centuries. Another three Southeast Asian nations – Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – claim more limited portions of the sea and look to assert their right to a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching from their coastlines. These claims are made in line with the terms of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS, while serving as an important modern-day legal referent and a possible future tool of resolution, has been a primary driver of the disputes in recent decades. This was most evident in 2009, when a UNCLOS deadline for new submissions on the delimitation of continental shelves led to a series of claims from nations bordering the sea, adding to an already-complex picture of overlapping claims and leading to a further raising of regional tensions.

While a full-scale military conflict has so-far been avoided, the South China Sea has witnessed a series of past incidents involving the militaries of the six claimant states. Most of these have taken the form of small-scale encounters or non-violent stand-offs involving coastguard ships and fishing vessels from China, Vietnam and the Philippines. In May 2014, a more high-profile incident occurred when China stationed an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its EEZ, resulting in a stand-off involving more than 30 vessels. The incident damaged bilateral relations and sparked street protests in Hanoi.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has assertively pressed its claims in the disputed region through land reclamation and conducting maritime patrols (Image Source: Russian Govt.)

The two countries had previously clashed in the sea in a notorious incident at Johnson South Reef in 1988, in which two Vietnamese ships were sunk and 64 sailors perished. In more recent years, the US has risked China’s ire by carrying-out ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations in the contested area, sailing military vessels close to islands occupied by China. This policy was a major aspect of former President Obama’s ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific, which many considered a thinly-veiled attempt to counter China’s rising power and support Southeast Asian states in ensuring China met opposition to its activities in the South China Sea. President Trump has taken a softer stance since his shock election win in 2016.

While competing territorial claims over islets, rocks and other land-features have defined the disputes for decades, undersea energy resources have become an increasingly important driver of the disputes in more recent times. The South China Sea is thought to contain up to 213 billion barrels of sub-sea oil in addition to vast quantities of natural gas in rocks deep beneath the waves, leading states to intensify their claims to the region. This is particularly important given the rising populations of the Asia-Pacific in combination with dwindling domestic energy reserves and a need to decrease over-reliance on the volatile Middle East for oil. China’s population is set to reach 1.4 billion by 2020, whilst the population of Southeast Asia is nudging 650 million. Shipping is another important factor, with the South China Sea being a vital transit route for the import of oil and gas, and the export of consumer goods. Up to 90% of energy imports to East Asia pass through the narrow Malacca Strait chokepoint and through the South China Sea, after being shipped first through the Indian Ocean. This provides another major imperative for states to seek a degree of control over the waters, to ensure the free-flow of shipping which is necessary to sustain high rates of economic growth. Analysts in the US have raised concerns that China could block this vital maritime trading route, while China holds the opposite fear that the US and its regional allies could close the Malacca Strait in a future worst-case scenario. Such an event – instigated by any party – would negatively impact all regional nations and dent the global economy.

All attempts to resolve the dispute so-far have failed. In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed-up to a joint Declaration of Conduct on the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), agreeing to pursue peaceful co-operation and exercise self-restraint. However, the DOC has long been criticized as being ineffective due to its non-binding nature, while talks between the two sides on a binding code-of-conduct have made little progress over the years. This has been made more difficult due to division within ASEAN over the dispute in recent times. The claimant states – in particular Vietnam and the Philippines – have maintained a tougher stance, while several of the non-claimant states – including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – have been reluctant to criticize China’s activities too forcefully for fear of losing-out on much-needed Chinese investment. During the current impasse, China has expanded its de-facto control over the South China Sea, asserting its claims through land reclamation, building military installations on islets and conducting regular naval patrols.

The United States conducted regular Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea under President Obama, sailing warships close to disputed islands (Image Source: US Navy)

At present, the disputes have drifted out of international headlines as more immediate concerns have dominated global politics; namely the escalating US-China ‘trade war’, and the North Korea situation. The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and rising Islamist conflict in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao have also held regional attention, forcing the South China Sea issue into the background. The US has largely retreated from Southeast Asia under nationalist President Trump, looking to lessen rather than increase America’s commitments in far-flung parts of the world. Since the final days of the Obama administration, US rhetoric on China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea has softened.

The Philippines’ President Duterte – elected several months before Trump’s unlikely rise in the US – has also adopted a softer stance. ASEAN remains divided on the issue and unable to reach consensus. This has left China to press on with its land reclamation programme and solidify its territorial gains in the South China Sea, with Beijing having previously rejected a 2016 tribunal arbitration ruling which questioned the legitimacy of its claim to sovereignty. Whether China and ASEAN will be able to adapt to the new status-quo and agree upon a binding code-of-conduct in the coming years remains to be seen. Another unknown concerns a potential change of government in the US once Trump’s first term ends in 2021. The election of an Obama-style leader may see the US strive to re-engage on the issue.

For now, at least, China has solidified its position as the dominant player in the South China Sea. Yet despite apocalyptic predictions from some analysts in the West, the disputes look unlikely to result in conflict. China, the US and ASEAN states all have too much to lose. Irrespective of whether the complex territorial claims can be resolved in the coming decades, economic realities and shared interests mean a co-operative environment regarding the sea’s resources and shipping routes may yet develop. This will be the key test as to whether peace can be sustained in the world’s most hotly-contested waters.

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

Has the Shifting Islamic State Threat Bypassed India?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cracked down on IS suspects at home, but India has opted not to formally join the US-led global anti-IS coalition (Image Source: US DoD)

Since first bursting into global consciousness in mid-2014 as they rampaged through Iraq – and later Syria – the militants of the Islamic State (IS) have looked to extend their reach eastward across Asia. The notorious jihadist group has since gone on to establish some form of presence in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. The group has also tried repeatedly to make inroads into India in recent years – but after a smattering of low-profile attacks and other IS-linked incidents threatened briefly to grow into something larger, this traction appears to have stalled.

India – a melting pot of cultures and religions encircled by terrorist-affected Pakistan and Afghanistan to the west, and Bangladesh to the east – appears at first glance to be in an ideal geographical location for IS to infiltrate, with segments of its population ripe for exploitation with its extremist ideological mantra. Yet India has experienced very little jihadist activity since the emergence of IS four years ago, despite its large population of 1.3 billion, of which an estimated 180 million are Muslims. With the risk so-far averted and as IS weakens further as a global force, is India free from the latest jihadi scourge?

Background: concerns over IS-linked activities in India

The first signs of IS activity in India emerged in May 2014, when four young engineering students from Thane – near Mumbai – were reported by local media to have travelled to Iraq to fight with the group. Since then, two terror attacks in India have been linked to IS, amid sporadic reports of recruitment in some areas of the country. The first of these occurred in December of that year, when an explosion outside a restaurant in central Bangalore killed one person and left four others injured. Several men linked to homegrown militant group Indian Mujahideen were arrested but links between the suspects and IS could not be proven, despite speculation. A second bomb attack however was claimed by IS on 7 March 2017, when a powerful explosion ripped through a passenger train on the Bhopal-Ujjain line near Jabri railway station. The attack left ten civilians injured, and marked the first terrorist attack in India with definite links to IS. Police soon identified the perpetrators as belonging to a local jihadi cell spread across the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, making at least seven arrests in the days which followed. The alleged mastermind of the attack – named in media reports as Saifullah – was killed during a siege at his home with elite police counter-terrorism officers in the city of Lucknow.

These attacks appear minor when compared to the scale of the marauding three-day gun rampage in Mumbai in November 2008, which left at least 174 people dead, including 20 members of the security forces and 26 foreign tourists. More than 300 people were also injured during the assault, which sent shockwaves across the country and is often referred to as India’s 9/11. The onslaught was carried-out by ten Islamist militants from the radical Lashkar-e-Taiba group based next door in Pakistan, harming relations and igniting concern from India over the alleged safe-haven provided to terrorists in Pakistan.

While the threat from across the border has been clearly visible since 2008, the internal risk posed by IS has in India remained largely hidden below the surface. The Brookings Institution went some way to exposing the magnitude of this threat in a report last year, documenting the number of reported IS sympathizers – consisting of recruiters, supporters, propagandists and suspected terrorists – present in the country. The investigation revealed that 142 Indian citizens were affiliated with the jihadi group in some way, with the annual figure increasing during 2013-2016 before levelling-out in 2017. It was revealed that the majority came from relatively prosperous states in the south of the country such as Kerala, Telangana, Maharashtra and Karnataka. The report’s authors concluded that the number of IS-linked individuals was very small in comparison to other countries affected by the group. Based on this evidence, IS appears to have made little progress in swaying Indian citizens to its support its cause.

To what extent does IS pose a threat to India at present?

IS’ initial ambitions were to forge a concrete presence in the world’s largest democracy – the group even included India on a map of its desired caliphate back in 2014, and in some literature considered it part of its ‘Khorasan province’ encompassing the south Asian nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Propaganda efforts also focused on India, with a video released in May 2016 threatening the nation’s leaders and appealing to India’s 180 million Muslims to either travel to the caliphate or launch attacks at home. The slickly-produced video – featuring an Indian ‘foreign fighter’ and allegedly filmed in the Syrian province of Homs – warned IS would come to India to avenge injustices committed against the sizeable Muslim-minority population. The man in the video – named as Abu Salman al-Hindi – referred to sectarian rioting in the western state of Gujarat in 2002 when more than 1,000 Muslims were killed by mobs in response to the burning of a train carrying Hindus. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was accused of inaction as state governor at the time. The independence struggle in Kashmir was also mentioned as justification for targeting India, along with the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992.

Indian security forces dismantled an IS cell active in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh after a train bombing injured 10 civilians in March 2017 (Image Source: US DoD)

Despite these warnings, the lofty ambitions of maintaining a permanent presence on the ground and incorporating India into some kind of imagined IS super-caliphate have not even come close to being realised. Instead, the main threat has turned out to be from online recruitment and self-radicalization. As mentioned earlier, Kerala and other prosperous southwestern states have been worst-affected, with individuals and small groups of citizens becoming radicalized by extremist ideology disseminated online and through mobile platforms. Websites on the so-called ‘dark web’, social media sites and encrypted messaging apps have served as particularly useful mediums of communication for jihadis seeking to reach out to Indians. A single online recruiter – identified by intelligence agencies as Shafi Armar, or Yusuf-al-Hindi – has been linked to the majority of known cases of radicalization, while rogue Islamic centres and schools may also have played a role in providing a platform for extremist ideology. Radical preachers appearing on television and online platforms represent another area of concern for the authorities. The most prominent controversial preacher – Zakir Naik – has been accused by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) of encouraging unlawful activities and promoting religious hatred.

What measures has India taken to combat the threat?

Indian politicians have consistently denied that IS has an established presence in the country but have often warned of the seriousness of the threat posed by the group. In March, Home Minister Rajnath Singh highlighted the ‘radicalization of youth’ as a particular concern; but said India had so-far been successful in dismantling ‘modules that were planning to orchestrate terrorist attacks’ on its soil. Singh added that the ‘shift’ of jihadi networks linked to IS and al-Qaeda ‘from the Middle East to south Asia is a phenomenon which is of serious concern to India’. Singh also expressed confidence in the ability of the Indian authorities to combat the lingering threat, stating: ‘the Indian social fabric has not been affected by the emergence of IS – and I am sure this will not have any further impact in our country’.

This confidence appears to be well-founded, given the authorities’ record of cracking-down effectively on the activities of IS sympathizers. Several years ago, the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IIB) launched Operation Chakravyuh, designed to identify and entrap potential IS recruits online before they could be radicalized fully. Intelligence officers created social media accounts posing as IS recruiters, through which they interacted with more than 3,000 unassuming Indian youths seeking to join the global jihadi movement. The operatives were able to gather information related to the identity of the individuals concerned, which was then used to monitor and impose surveillance on targets and track the activities of emerging terrorist cells. It is thought that this initiative led to the arrest of multiple suspects before they were able to either travel abroad to join IS or carry-out attacks at home. The NIA and local police forces have also played a key role in conducting investigations and launching raids to arrest suspects. The Brookings Institution reported last year that 85 of 142 known IS suspects at the time had been detained. At least 11 others had been confirmed killed either while fighting abroad or during police operations in India, while many of the remaining 43 individuals were also reported to have been killed.

The national police and state intelligence services are also looking to improve their capabilities further, having recently taken part in a new two-day workshop with the EU aimed at countering radicalization online. The NIA has stressed the importance of closer global co-operation in this area, describing the internet and social media as ‘the main vehicles used by extremists and terrorist organizations to incite violence and sow hatred…and allow them to reach a far greater number of people than ever before’.

Future forecast: how might the threat from IS evolve?

Aside from the online sphere, several other areas of concern exist when it comes to IS in India. The decades-old conflict in Kashmir may be a particular weak spot, with IS-claimed attacks in the regional capital Srinagar last November and this February exposing the potential for a worrying new dynamic to the conflict. The attacks left two policemen dead, while a militant killed during the first incident was wrapped in an IS flag for his burial. While the attacks appear to have been isolated incidents, they indicate that a small number of IS sympathizers exist in the region, which some observers say could serve as a potential recruitment pool for extremist groups in the future. However, other analysts in the region argue this is unlikely due to the dominantly separatist nature of the long-running Kashmir independence struggle, while most of the armed groups active in the region are openly opposed to IS.

Secondly, sectarian tensions between Hindus and Muslims could also be a potential flashpoint. IS often looks to stir up such tensions in all countries where it operates, through its production of literature and audio-visual propaganda materials. A previous video aimed at India has disparaged Hindus as ‘worshippers of cows, trees and the sun’, while encouraging Muslims in the country to disassociate themselves from other religious groups. Prime Minister Modi’s alleged failure to take stronger action as state governor in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, along with the Hindu nationalist policies of the current administration, could also increase feelings of marginalization among disenfranchised Muslims and play into the hands of the militants. There also remains the dual risk of low-tech, small-scale lone-wolf attacks along with the threat of larger attacks from militants based across borders in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Such an eventuality has happened before, in Mumbai in 2008.

The need for continued vigilance against IS

India – as one of the world’s most populous and religiously diverse countries, located in the heart of a volatile region long-beset by problems related to Islamist militancy – has so-far been remarkably unscathed by IS. Yet as the group continues to lose territory in its former Middle Eastern strongholds of Syria and Iraq, it may yet attempt to open up new fronts to ensure its survival. This is less likely to be in the form of a fixed caliphate, but more likely something more akin to the loose global terrorist network developed by al-Qaeda in the 1990s and 2000s. As authorities around the world crack-down on the group’s activities, remote and long-volatile regions such as Kashmir may become an attractive option for IS. At first glance this appears unlikely, yet there is an existing precedent for such a scenario. Last year on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, IS was able to infiltrate and manipulate a decades-old insurgent movement that had previously been purely separatist in nature, to the point where it was able to take over and rule parts of a mid-sized city – Marawi – under the black flag of IS for almost six months. A similar scenario in Kashmir is just as unlikely; but can’t entirely be ruled out.

Prime Minister Modi’s government, along with India’s intelligence community and law enforcement agencies, will need to remain vigilant and on high alert even as IS’ global influence continues to wane. Although fading, IS’ ambitions for south Asia are not yet dead. Complacency at this stage from India – or any state around the world which appears to have avoided IS’ scourge – would be very dangerous.

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

Liguasan Marsh Clashes Expose the Latent Threat from ISIS in the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 amid the continued threat posed by IS-linked groups (Image Source: PCOO)

Shortly before dawn on 10 June, government airstrikes pounded militant hideouts in towns dotted around the edge of Liguasan Marsh. This sprawling wetland – straddling two provinces in the remote interior of the Philippines’ conflict-wracked southern island of Mindanao – has become just the latest front in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia, after militants allied to the notorious jihadi group laid siege to the city of Marawi – located 120km further north – for five months last year.

The initial aerial attack by government forces in Liguasan Marsh was followed by a ground offensive lasting several days, which resulted in the death of at least 26 militants but prompted 15,000 residents to flee their homes. The deceased militants belonged to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) – an IS-aligned group which has clashed repeatedly with the military since the turn of the year.

Meanwhile the radical Maute group – chief architects of the Marawi siege – have also risen their head in Mindanao in recent weeks after several months of inactivity. On 17 June, the Mautes – commanded by IS’ new leader in the Philippines, Abu Dar – clashed with government troops in the Lanao del Sur town of Tubaran, leaving five militants dead and 11,700 people from 2,200 families displaced. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner said around 30 Maute fighters were able to flee the area unharmed.

More than a year since the uprising in Marawi, does the intensified violence witnessed in June indicate that IS-linked groups – considerably depleted after the siege – are rebounding in western Mindanao?

While the Mautes were dealt a near-knockout blow after sustaining vast losses in Marawi, only a small cohort of BIFF members participated in the siege. The BIFF fighters who did not travel to Marawi have now picked up the IS mantle. Thought to number several-hundred jihadis, the BIFF remain embedded in small pockets of rural territory across three provinces in western Mindanao: Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The group is split into at least three sub-factions, with Esmael Abdulmalik serving as its main figurehead and de-facto leader. Since Marawi, the BIFF have regularly clashed with the security forces, launched a wave of IED attacks and rampaged through civilian towns.

Encounters between the BIFF and the military have increased in both scale and intensity. On 11 March, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported it had killed 44 militants and wounded 26 during three days of intense clashes in Datu Saudi town. Fighting again erupted in mid-April, before June’s latest military onslaught targeted the group in Liguasan Marsh. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the BIFF have proven unexpectedly resilient, well-resourced and difficult to dislodge. The group have hit back by ambushing soldiers using IEDs. Bomb blasts have also targeted civilians, with an explosion outside a bar in Tacurong causing 14 casualties on New Year’s Eve. More recently, the BIFF bombed a cathedral in Koronadal city in late-April and detonated a device outside a school in Midsayap in May.

IS-linked militants laid siege to Marawi city for five months from May-October 2017. The conflict left more than 1,000 people dead, most of whom were militants (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

The AFP have reported seeing foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia fighting alongside the BIFF, providing a possible explanation for their confounding level of strength. It is thought that a number of these non-Filipino combatants managed to escape from Marawi during the siege and linked-up with the BIFF, while others are rumoured to have entered Mindanao later by crossing porous sea borders. Senior army commander Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana says the AFP is verifying reports that Indonesians and Singaporeans were among those killed recently at Liguasan Marsh, while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has previously warned of the illicit entry of terrorists from neighbouring countries. The AFP has vowed to keep a ‘tight watch’ along Mindanao’s heavily-indented coast but policing it round-the-clock is a monumental challenge, and inevitably some are able to slip through the net undetected. Some of these new recruits are battle-hardened and trained in bomb-making skills acquired abroad.

As the BIFF has proceeded with its campaign of terror, the Maute group – destroyed as a hierarchical and organized fighting force in Marawi – has been slowly rebuilding beneath the surface. The clashes that erupted in Tubaran in June were the first involving the group since the early months of the year, when sporadic gun battles with government soldiers erupted in the towns of Masui, Pagayawan and Pantar. The latest violence indicates the Mautes are still very much alive under new leader Abu Dar.

Reports of Maute recruitment in Lanao del Sur province have emerged, with the army claiming the terrorists are using cash, gold and jewellery looted from Marawi to lure impoverished young men into their ranks in villages surrounding the ruins of the now-destroyed Islamic city on the shores of Lake Lanao. In February, the AFP’s Col. Romeo Brawner estimated the Mautes had replenished their ranks with around 200 fighters from Lanao del Sur and said the group ‘had not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate’. The military’s commanding general Rolando Bautista recently warned another Marawi-style urban siege was becoming a ‘big possibility’. Police have also arrested Maute members and sympathizers further afield in central and northern areas of the country, while Manila’s police director Oscar Albayalde has placed officers on ‘full alert’ for potential Maute attacks in the capital.

Alarmist rhetoric aside, on the surface the threat from radical Islamists appears to have reduced since the Marawi siege ended. A military crackdown facilitated by Martial Law has kept up the pressure on the jihadists, while a long-delayed peace process with the region’s larger and more moderate Muslim rebel groups is inching towards a conclusion. The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is set to be passed next month, paving the way for the creation of a new autonomously-governed region for Muslim majority areas in Mindanao. It is hoped the landmark deal will forge a lasting peace between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – which has already laid down its arms – while at the same time reducing grievances among the Muslim population and tackling the core long-term drivers of terrorist recruitment in western Mindanao, which have sustained more radical groups for decades.

Since the Marawi siege ended, Philippine troops have been battling the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and remnants of the Maute group in Mindanao (Image Source: PIA)

Yet the current generation of extremist groups present in the region – spearheaded by the IS-aligned BIFF and the rapidly-regrouping Maute remnants – appear unlikely to give up their fight. If the peace process fails to live up to its promise of bringing greater autonomy and development, there is a danger these elements may be able to garner enough support to once again revive Mindanao’s six-decade Islamist separatist struggle – but this time entwined with the warped ideology of transnational jihad and the brutal tactics which have become the trademark of IS’ global brand. Just last month, senior BIFF spokesperson Abu Misri Mama warned the group does not recognize the BBL-led peace process and chillingly said ‘‘we are not in favour of autonomy…the BIFF will continue to fight for independence; the island will not see peace even after this BBL is passed’’. President Rodrigo Duterte has also voiced fears of such a scenario, warning earlier this year of ‘‘war in Mindanao’’ if the peace process collapses.

For as long as their flame still burns, the IS-linked jihadists of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Mautes will represent the greatest barrier to a lasting peace in the Philippines’ troubled south.

Indonesia Launches Anti-Terror Crackdown After Surabaya Church Bombings

Since the ISIS-inspired triple suicide bombings in Surabaya on 13 May, elite counter-terrorism police have detained more than 70 alleged militants across Indonesia (Image Source: AWG97)

A spate of suicide bomb attacks on three churches and the police headquarters in the Indonesian city of Surabaya last month shocked the country and made headlines around the world. The attacks came less than a week after more than 150 Islamist militant convicts laid siege to a prison on the outskirts of Jakarta, killing five police officers and exposing the growing threat posed to Indonesia by ISIS and its affiliates. This report provides an overview of the major terrorist incidents that shook the country last month and discusses the response of both Indonesia’s lawmakers and law enforcement agencies.

After avoiding a major Islamist attack for more than two years – since the ISIS-claimed gun and bomb attack on Jakarta’s Thamrin business district killed four civilians in January 2016 – signs of increased militant activity first rose to the surface on 8 May, when armed clashes broke-out between convicted terrorists and police officers at a high-security prison in Depok, near the Indonesian capital Jakarta. The situation quickly escalated into a tense two-day siege, resulting in the death of five police officers and one militant. The siege eventually came to an end after officers from the elite police counter-terrorism unit – Detachment 88 – stormed the prison in an attempt to free hostages, triggering the militants’ surrender. Soon after the incident, President Joko Widodo said the state would ‘never give space to terrorism or any effort to undermine national security’. However, worse was still to come.

On 13 May, suicide bombers linked to the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) militant group detonated their devices at three Christian churches in the East Java city of Surabaya, killing at least 13 people and leaving in excess of 30 wounded. ISIS soon claimed responsibility for the attack, and authorities later revealed that all six of the attackers came from the same family, several of whom were young children. The following morning, another five suicide bombers blew themselves up nearby at the city’s police headquarters, leaving ten people wounded. As with the first incident, the attack was again carried-out by a single family. On 16 May, a third attack occurred in the space of just three days when four men wielding samurai swords attacked a police station in the city of Pekanbaru, in Riau province. A police officer was killed and three others injured, while all four of the attackers were shot dead at the scene.

The wave of attacks shocked Indonesia and its neighbours, despite Southeast Asian countries having already been on a raised state of alert since last year’s siege of Marawi in the Philippines and amid fears of ISIS fighters returning from war zones in the Middle East. However, the unexpectedly large scale and nature of the attacks – in the sense that children were used – heightened the shock factor.

In the wake of the turbulent few days endured in mid-May, Indonesia’s authorities have been swift to respond. In a direct response to the siege at the prison in Depok, police announced that all of the 155 militants involved would be transferred to a maximum-security detention facility on Nusakambangan island in Central Java. In the weeks immediately following the attacks in Surabaya and Pekanbaru, officers from the Detachment 88 counter-terrorism squad launched a series of raids across the nation. On 22 May, national police chief Tito Karnavian announced that 74 suspects had been arrested in the previous ten days, adding that officers had seized ‘ready-made bombs and other explosive materials’.

After a recent surge in Islamist attacks, Indonesia’s armed forces are set to play a greater role in counter-terrorism operations alongside the national police (Image Source: Kurniawan3115)

In some instances, militants tried to resist arrest, resulting in several armed skirmishes and fatalities. On 10 May two jihadists attempting to join the prison siege in Depok were shot by police officers after attempting to seize their weapons in Bekasi, leaving one dead while the other sustained injuries and was later taken into custody. On 14 May two suspects were killed by police in Sidoarjo after opening fire on officers. Two days later a militant was shot dead in Tanjung Balai in similar circumstances. Of the 74 people arrested, Karnavian said most had ties to JAD while at least 37 of the suspects were linked to the Surabaya bombings. Describing the police response, Karnavian said on 31 May that his force had ‘moved fast’ to ‘identify the perpetrators’ and restore a semblance of stability in the country.

President Widodo condemned the attacks as ‘barbaric’, labelling the actions of the perpetrators as ‘cowardly’. Widodo also urged lawmakers to push through a raft of new counter-terrorism legislation which was first proposed after the Thamrin attack in early-2016 but has since faced repeated hurdles in Parliament. The national police chief also echoed the need for tougher anti-terror measures, with Karnavian requesting assistance from the army to conduct joint operations targeting JAD and several other domestic ISIS-inspired militant groups, such as Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) and Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT). Less than a week after the attacks, President Widodo confirmed that he would reactivate the military’s Joint Special Operations Command – known as Koopsusgab – to aid the police in counter-terrorism operations. A greater role for Indonesia’s armed forces in tackling terrorism now appears certain as public opinion has shifted in the wake of the sudden resurgence in jihadist violence.

In the final days of May, lawmakers in Jakarta passed the new counter-terrorism laws first proposed more than two years ago. The new legislation is set to give the authorities enhanced and wide-ranging powers to arrest and question suspected terrorists at an earlier stage in investigations. Police will now be permitted to detain terror suspects for up to 21 days, increased from the previous limit of seven. Officers will also be able to apply for an extension if more time is required. Prosecuting authorities will now also be able to charge individuals suspected of either supporting or recruiting for both foreign and domestic militant groups. Sentences are also set to be increased for those convicted, including lengthy jail terms and the death penalty for those found guilty of the most serious terrorism offences.

The attacks by Islamist militants in Surabaya and Pekanbaru expose the growing threat posed to the country by ISIS and its regional affiliates: JAD, JAT, MIT and the remnants of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). A secondary threat also emanates from so-called ‘lone wolves’, who may strike at any moment using unsophisticated weapons such as knives or vehicles. These low-tech attacks require little planning and are notoriously difficult for the intelligence services to prevent. At present, Indonesia is facing a dual threat from both homegrown jihadists and foreign fighters returning from conflict zones in ISIS’ former heartlands in Syria and Iraq. Just a few weeks ago, President Widodo’s Chief-of-Staff revealed that almost 1,500 Indonesian citizens have attempted to travel to the Middle East to fight alongside ISIS and other extremist groups in recent years – and many of them succeeded in their aim. Of these, 590 are thought to remain in Syria while 103 have been killed and 86 have already returned of their own accord. In addition, more than 500 were forcibly deported back to Indonesia while 171 others have been prevented from leaving the country after suspicions that they intended to take up arms overseas.

These figures may represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the threat posed by Islamist militants in Indonesia, a country which has until recently done a remarkable job in keeping the jihadists at bay. In the current climate however, the task for intelligence and law enforcement agencies has become far more difficult. Despite the wave of arrests and introduction of new counter-terrorism laws since the attacks last month, it may be many years before Indonesia can turn the tide on its rising militancy.

The Political Undertones to Cambodia’s Unresolved Border Dispute with Laos

Tensions flared during 2017 after Laotian troops reportedly crossed the border to halt the construction of a road in Stung Treng province (Image Source: Pierre Andre)

Cambodia’s usually low-key dispute over an unmarked stretch of its remote 540-km long border with northern neighbour Laos made international headlines last August, when long-time Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a stern six-day ultimatum for Laotian troops to withdraw from the disputed region or face a forceful military response. Cambodian troops equipped with rocket launchers headed from Phnom Penh toward the contested area but were ordered to turn back the following day after a hastily-arranged meeting between Hun Sen and Laotian leader Thongloun Sisoulith defused tensions.

Despite a renewed commitment from both sides to work on delineating the precise boundary, the dispute remains unresolved and in late-February – a year after tensions first reignited – the Cambodian military held a live-fire weapons training exercise just south of the contested border. Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said the drills were designed to improve the army’s capabilities and allow soldiers to ‘‘get to know the location in order to defend our country and our territorial integrity’’, yet emphasized the drills were ‘‘not a threat to any country’’ and unrelated to the border row with Laos.

Are the recent military exercises a sign that lingering tensions over the border are once again rising to the surface? The answer may have less to do with the dynamics of the dispute, and more to do with the upcoming election season in Cambodia. Despite the border issue remaining unresolved, since the flare-up last August relations between Cambodia and Laos have progressed seemingly unaffected by the near confrontation. Yet the dispute remains conveniently alive in the background to be used as a political tool by Hun Sen, who often looks to fan the flames of nationalism to advance his ‘strongman’ and ‘protector of the nation’ image as crucial elections draw closer. The next is scheduled for 29 July.

Background to the dispute

The dispute over the boundary separating the Laotian provinces of Attapeu and Champassak to the north from the Cambodian provinces of Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri and Stung Treng to the south dates back centuries. A large Khmer population was present in modern-day southern Laos during the Angkor empire until its collapse in the mid-14th century, while the northern Lao population migrated further south from the 15th century onward; forming the basis of historical claims to ownership of the border region. The root of the problem today however can be traced to the French colonial era. As a remote inland border far from the coastline and any potential invading force, its precise mapping was not exactly a high priority for the French rulers of Indochina from the late-19th until the mid-20th century.

After the French withdrew in the mid-1950s the boundary remained undefined throughout the next few decades of upheaval, encapsulated by the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Genocide. After the remnants of the Khmer Rouge collapsed in 1998 and a semblance of peace returned, closer attention was paid to the border region. In 2000, a joint bilateral committee was set-up to define the border, and by 2005, the two neighbours announced that around 87% of the boundary had been officially demarcated through the placing of 121 border markers, with only another 24 left to position. Yet due to disagreement over the final unmarked areas the job was never completed and up to 14% of the border remains undefined. Despite tensions occasionally flaring, a peaceful status-quo has prevailed.

Threat of military confrontation in 2017

The relative peace was threatened last year. In early-February 2017 Laotian soldiers crossed into Siem Peng district to prevent Cambodian military engineers from building a road over contested territory, and after a succession of similar incidents over the next few months, Cambodian PM Hun Sen issued an ultimatum on 11 August warning an estimated 30 Laotian soldiers to retreat within six days or face a military response. Hun Sen ordered troops to the border province of Stung Treng, stating he had run out of patience with the ‘‘invasion’’, warning ‘‘if a situation happens, please don’t blame Cambodia’’.

A military confrontation appeared imminent in August 2017 after Cambodian PM Hun Sen ordered troops to the disputed border region (Image Source: RC Army)

Yet soon after rocket launchers were seen heading to the area amid the imminent threat of armed clashes breaking-out, the crisis was de-escalated following a rapidly-convened meeting between the Cambodian PM and his Laotian counterpart in Vientiane. After the meeting, which Hun Sen labelled as a ‘‘huge victory’’ for both sides, troops were withdrawn and both leaders promised to re-establish dialogue channels to reduce tensions and work towards delimiting the rest of the border. Hun Sen later lauded his ‘‘personal relations’’ with Laotian PM Thongloun Sisoulith as crucial to resolving the issue, and in September the two nations’ foreign ministries said they would request detailed colonial-era maps from the French government before agreeing on the final geographical limits of the border.

Has the flare-up harmed Cambodia-Laos Relations?

Despite the live-fire drill earlier this year refocusing minds, the dispute has been pushed firmly aside as relations between Cambodia and Laos have flourished apparently undisturbed by the latent border tensions. The two sides have held a series of high-level security meetings, with Cambodian Defence Minster Tea Banh visiting Laotian counterpart Chansmone Chanyalat in mid-January, pledging to forge closer military ties and avoid confrontation along the border. Later that month the interior ministries of both nations took part in a key bilateral security meeting, where they signed a new memorandum of understanding on co-operation and vowed to jointly combat drug trafficking and other cross-border crimes. In March, the two countries also signed an agreement with neighbouring Vietnam to enhance tourism and economic ties in the 13 provinces surrounding the tri-border between the three countries.

More recently, on 4 April Laotian PM Sisoulith visited Hun Sen in Siem Reap where both men vowed to bolster co-operation in the fields of trade, investment and tourism. It is clear that both leaders wish to build upon their nations strong historical relationship which has been fostered by close religious, cultural and geographical ties over the centuries. Ensuring good relations is especially important given the central role both countries hope to play in China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, which will require the careful management of border tensions but should provide a long-term boost to both nations economies. In this context, it is evident why the dispute has had no discernible effect on bilateral ties, leaving many to wonder why Hun Sen seemed so agitated by the dispute last year in the first instance, and why he would risk enflaming tensions again by holding drills so close to the border.

The dispute remains a political tool for Hun Sen

The dispute has arguably been used by Hun Sen as part of a wider strategy to promote his image as the sole capable protector of his country’s national security and territorial sovereignty ahead of upcoming elections. It should not be overlooked that the escalation came in a year when Hun Sen also cracked down on alleged internal ‘threats’ by arresting political opponents on contentious treason charges, dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and forced the closure of critical independent media outlets such as the Cambodia Daily. The minor border incursion by Laos was presented as another – this time external – ‘threat’ which only the prime minister was said to be capable of responding to. This portrayal was visible through Hun Sen’s claim that the dispute would be ‘‘hard to resolve’’ if it were not for his ‘‘personal relations’’ with Lao politicians, in addition to February’s exercise carried-out by a battalion created by the PM just days after last August’s flare-up.

The August 2017 border flare-up was defused almost as quickly as it began, after Hun Sen met his Laotian counterpart in Vientiane (Image Source: Russian Govt)

To secure enough votes from the public to guarantee an extension of his 33-years in power, Hun Sen appears keen to play the nationalist card and remind voters of internal and external ‘threats’ which he says pose a danger to the once-troubled country. The PM has often used alarmist rhetoric before elections by warning voters of a descent back into civil war if his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is not re-elected. Laos represents by far the easiest external target to aim at for Hun Sen to boost his ‘strongman’ credentials, with its army being significantly smaller and weaker than Cambodia’s other two neighbours – Thailand and Vietnam – which also have outstanding border issues with Cambodia.

Yet despite the alarm sparked by Hun Sen’s ultimatum last August and the recent military drills, the dispute itself remains low-key and unlikely to escalate or lead to armed conflict any time soon. The border area is remote and sparsely populated, making it geopolitically neutral in relative terms and therefore unlikely to ignite into violence. While the dispute causes few problems on the ground and poses little impediment to bilateral relations, emerging tensions over the trade in natural resources and the proposed construction of dams further upstream could make it more significant in the future.

To avoid such a scenario and prevent the area becoming a flashpoint in decades to come, both sides must take the present opportunity to resolve the dispute and demarcate the final unmarked stretches of the border. Little progress has been made since last year’s vow from both nations to look again at the issue, and achieving meaningful progress will require enhanced political determination. Yet while the dispute remains in the background as a convenient political tool for Hun Sen to draw attention to as elections draw closer, there is even less of an incentive for politicians to push for a faster resolution.

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

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.