Mittwoch, 10. Oktober 2012

Peace accord in Mindanao – why this is not the end of the story yet…

On Monday 8 October 2012, President Benigno Aquino III announced that a long-expected peace accord had been reached between his negotiators and the leadership of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). This accord seeks to create a new regional entity, Bangsamoro, to replace the corrupt and dysfunctional Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The agreement is a major step on the way to a comprehensive peace deal which Aquino hopes to have in place by 2016 when his single, six-year-term ends. Despite the positive media echo hailing this as the end of the 40-year armed conflict and the praise by foreign diplomats around the world, this consensus between the two negotiating teams does not reflect the sentiment of all actors within the MILF, nor in government, particularly local government. Both sides will have their work cut out if this agreement is to be implemented and there is to be a permanent peace deal in four years time.

Local power-holders could pursue judicial review again

While many local actors such as bishops and imams and some Muslim local power holders have expressed their support for the peace deal, local Christian bosses in the South have been suspiciously silent. In August 2008 a similar peace framework was agreed on, the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD). The MoA-AD was brought down when a well-organised wave of protest swept from Christian settlers in Mindanao to the Supreme Court in Manila which declared the agreement unconstitutional, preventing its signing and implementation. Similarly, it can be expected that there will be resistance to this peace plan now, particularly as the suggested territory for a vote on inclusion in the Bangsamoro region is not significantly different to the area suggested under the MoA-AD.

While this peace agreement is likely to experience little protest from the national level, as Aquino enjoys stable support, it is less certain whether the actors at the national level will want to use their political clout to force local Christian leaders from the region into line. The topic is not a high-priority for most representatives, but is of utmost importance to these local politicians who do not want to see their economic and political clout undermined.

Renegade MILF commanders must be reigned in

As the peace process has proceeded and it has become increasingly clear that the MILF has given up its aspirations of an independent Mindanao, some of the more fundamentalist, nationalist commanders within the organisation have started breaking away. Most prominently, MILF commander Ameril Umra Kato split from the group and founded the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). While this group is looking relatively weak without Kato's leadership, the MILF is strongly divided and it is not unlikely that other split-off groups could emerge to continue fighting for an independent state.

This could become particularly threatening if the promised reintegration programmes for the MILF’s
11,000 combatants to be paid for by foreign governments do not offer a reasonable amount of economic stability. As these combatants for decades have been earning their living through war, it is pivotal to integrate them economically well into peace in order to minimise the likelihood of them joining renegade groups.

Furthermore, the prospects for long-term peace are overshadowed by the question on whether the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, establishing the ARMM, will cooperate within the new framework of the Bangsamoro. While the government stresses that the MNLF were consulted during the peace talks, former chairman and founder of the MNLF, Nur Misuari, has contested the legitimacy of scrapping the ARMM for a new regional entity. This could be a potentila major spoiler, which both sides need to address.

Continued hard work on both sides could lead to sustainable peace

While these challenges are certainly important and could undermine the entire peace process, it is also possible for them to be overcome and a long-term peace be secured for Mindanao. Both the MILF leadership and Aquino’s government must now approach the potential spoilers in their camp and ensure that they cooperate. Whether this is done through the proverbial carrot or stick will depend on their preparedness to cooperate, but it is a process which must be begun soon. Without an expedite inclusion of these groups, the peace process will certainly stagnate and probably be brought to collapse as in 2008. But with a concerted effort, peace could actually be reached in Mindanao by the end of Aquino’s term in 2016.

An article by the same author on the collapse of the peace process in 2008 can be found here:

Montag, 24. September 2012

Long-term peace in Thailand’s South only through space for insurgents

Secessionist impulses in Southern Thailand have existed since the Sultanate of Patani was formally included in the Siamese Kingdom in the early 20th century, but violence returned to the region in January 2004. Today, the violence shows no signs of abating and continues on a daily basis with assassinations and bombings of government employees, military personnel and civilians, and the destruction of regional infrastructure. Since 2004 over 5,000 people have died and 8,000 have been injured, a majority of whom were civilians. Also, human rights abuses by insurgents are steadily increasing in both quantity and intensity.

The aim of the insurgency

The main organisation operating today is thought to be BRN-Coordinate (Barisan Revolusi Nasional- Coordinate), which was formed after splitting from the BRN in the 1980s. This very loosely structured and hyper-secretive group does not take credit for any of its attacks, and has also refrained from issuing any concrete demands or stating clear and negotiable goals. The general aim, however, appears to be merdeka – the Malay word for sovereignty or independence – for the territory of the former Sultanate of Patani, although some factions of the movement may settle for autonomy within the Thai state. The insurgency cannot be seen as a cry for development or a better standard of living, but it feeds off a sense of Malay nationalism rooted in the Patani homeland – altogether this creates a sense of being ruled by foreigners and undermining the Patani national right to self-determination.

Military response so far inadequate

The policy for bringing peace to the South so far has been to try and suppress the insurgency militarily, combined with an increase in development of the area. This strategy has been and is doomed to be unsuccessful, simply because it does not pay enough tribute to the real situation. Investing in development is always good, but will not bring peace as it assumes that the violence springs from economic dissatisfaction, not recognising the genuine desire for cultural recognition and a degree of autonomy.

Further, while in past decades, when insurgents were camped in the jungle and launched coordinated attacks from there, a military approach may have been useful, today’s cellular structure is embedded in everyday village life with volunteers not fighting full-time but well integrated into their surroundings. Intervention, thus, always effects the lives of non-participating civilians, too; rather than undermining the insurgency, this military response can even feed the grievances of the population and raise support for the insurgency.

It is necessary for a regional dialogue to emerge on possibilities of autonomy or special governance structures for the South, and to this end the Thai government must try and facilitate the openness of dialogue. Actors in the South must be able to engage in a dialogue without fearing accusations of being traitors – only through creative, open and honest discourse will it be possible for a solution to emerge which a majority is happy with.

BRN-C structure undermines potential for negotiation

All organisations in the insurgency are so cellular that not only is military success unlikely, the groups are also so disparate that they render dialogue impossible. Members mostly do not even know the name of their group, and often the real name of superiors; further, membership is secret and the insurgents do not claim responsibility for attacks.

The degree of cohesion is fiercely debated, some seeing groups as flexible but with an order of command and commander intent being present while others doubt any coordination between groups at all. The renowned scholar and former National Reconciliation Commission secretary, Gothom Arya, deems the current insurgency to be a hybrid of bottom-up, disparate cells and a top-down hierarchy, whereby the leadership gives flexible instructions which are adapted to local structures by individual cells; the initiative for certain attacks is at the cell level though training, ideological formation and preparation for each attack is at the organisation level. Thus, there is a certain amount of coordination between groups, though they also function independently and are deeply embedded in local village structures.

Discussions regarding autonomy and other political solutions to the Patani violence will only work if they receive the backing of the insurgency. Otherwise, much time and money will be spent on creating new structures that are then still the target of intense violence. At the moment, however, the insurgents are in no position to bargain as they have no coherent political arm to their operations due to their cellular and hyper-secret organisation. Insurgents must be given the space to organise themselves politically without having to constantly fear being targeted by security personnel; only then will they be able to negotiate – primarily, this can then be a negotiation of a ceasefire so that all will lay down arms; a ceasefire would then be a good basis on which to then start negotiating political settlements.

Peace deals can only come from organised insurgents

It is not uncommon across Southeast Asia to see phases of peace and violence: in both Indonesia and the Philippines, peace dialogue has continually been faced by relapses into violence, but peace agreements have only ever been possible out of a position of strength for the insurgents who can then rally their constituents into supporting the deal. At the moment, unfortunately, the Thai government appears to be doing the exact opposite through its military strategy: it is trying to divide and conquer the insurgents rather than encouraging them to cooperate and engage politically. Further, not only within the groups themselves must this organisational cohesion progress, but also dialogue between the groups should be facilitated in order to preclude later factional violence.

It is absolutely pivotal that insurgency groups be encouraged to organise politically and come to the negotiation table as soon as possible. By involving them in dialogue on the region’s future the violence and bloodshed that has been plaguing Southern Thailand for nearly eight years now can be brought to an end for their own benefit.

A longer version of this piece can be found here

Donnerstag, 2. August 2012

No genocide in Rakhine State – but the warning signs are there

Over 100,000 displaced people, nearly 5,000 burned houses and a death toll of at least 78 people (probably many more) was the result of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State only in June 2012. It seems that the victims were mostly members of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group, although this is also far from clear as there were also several Rohingyas involved in violence against ethnic Rakhines. This perceived one-sidedness of the conflict has led some journalists and activist groups to label this outbreak of violence as ‘genocide’. But how apt is this categorisation? This blog will argue that the term genocide is misused in this case, but will then go on to explore what the future dangers of genocide occurring in this conflict are. 

Classification as genocide not appropriate in June's Rakhine State violence

To begin with I should clarify what I understand ‘genocide’ to be. The best definition I have come across in my research was written by two scholars Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn in their 1990 book The History and Sociology of Genocide: they define genocide as “a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator.”

At a first glance this definition may well fit the Rohingya case – the Rohingyas are a Muslim minority in Myanmar and have long been discriminated against by the central Burmese state. The government of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has denied the 800,000 Rohingyas in the country citizenship rights, claiming they are illegal settlers from Bangladesh. Thus the group is clearly defined as the Muslim Rohingya group and has a history of being targeted for discrimination. Furthermore, the violence was perceived as primarily one-sided, and this is why most observers have chosen to label the conflict genocidal.

But this alone is not enough to constitute genocide. In Myanmar it does not appear that there is any intention on the part of the government, the ethnic Burmese majority or the security forces to actually destroy the Rohingyas. Their aim is to undermine their presence in Myanmar and push these people into Bangladesh, where the government claims they have emigrated from. To be clear, the aim is not to annihilate them all but to transfer the population elsewhere. While it is reprehensible to kill tens of people in order to scare the rest away, this does not constitute genocide itself. The government has demonstrated in the past that if it actually wanted to kill all Rohingyas it would have the capacity to target a lot more than those killed in June. This is naturally could be a ploy not to displease the international community, while testing the international reaction. 

The theoretical risk of genocide in Myanmar

While I cannot agree to calling this a genocide, history has shown that it is out of situations not unlike this that genocides have emerged. I will now illustrate some previous research on when genocides occur and investigate how likely a Rohingya genocide could therefore be in the future. Several factors have been mentioned in the genocide academic literature and I will pick out the five most important ones, evaluating how Myanmar holds up.

First, genocide have so far exclusively occured in pluralistic societies, societies in which there are strong ethnic and political divisions. This criterion most certainly applies to Myanmar, as the government recognises 135 distinct ethnic groups in its territories which form eight major national groupings. Furthermore, the ethnic splits within society are deep, demonstrated by years of numerous civil wars between the Burmese central state and ethnic rebel groups.

Another major characteristic of genocidal circumstances is major political upheaval, such as a revolution. While popular revolutions have been brutally suppressed in the past (such as the 1988 uprising), Myanmar today has seen a period of unprecedented change since former General Thein Sein came to power in March 2011. The speed of reform has surprised even the most optimistic analysts and can tentatively be seen as a time of political upheaval, with all sides still unsure what democracy could bring to the country. Given that all dissent in the past has been successfully and brutally put down, this change of heart is truly a revolution from above.

Furthermore, genocides are mostly found in the context of war. While Thein Sein’s government has negotiated ceasefires with eleven rebel groups in the country’s twelve civil wars within the last year, the divisions are still deep, military skirmishes continue and the result of the peace processes remain open. Even if Thein Sein manages to bring the last remaining violent civil conflict with the Kachin Independence Army to a ceasefire, it is hard to see how he will manage to negotiate lasting peace deals with all other groups. It is possible and Thein Sein is investing significant political clout into this, but should some more ceasefires break down, the country could see more armed conflict than with just the Kachin in the future.

The penultimate circumstance which provides a conducive environment for genocide is a suitable ideology, most prominently demonstrated in the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust. Maltreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar goes beyond state-led discrimination to a deep-seated societal hatred. The exclusion of the Rohingya goes so far that even many pro-democracy activists do not recognise their citizenship rights or their right to live in Myanmar. The grande dame of the political opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, known for taking on the thorniest issues, has repeatedly refused to broach the subject as she recognises how widespread negative attitudes are, even within her own movement. This anti-Rohingya sentiment certainly prepares the ground for a potential genocidal scenario.

Lastly, there must be some kind of impetus for genocide to ensue, a spark which will set the genocidal fire alight. This can be if the victim group becomes seen to have provoked the perpetrators, or if politicians see their chance to win political capital from the genocide, for instance be rallying their ethnic kin closer around them. The recent anti-Rohingya riots were sparked by rumours of two Muslims having raped and murdered an ethnic Rakhine woman. Such incidents and further rumour-spreading could, in future, spark even wider violence.

High risk of genocide is compensated by lack of incentive by elites

This article has demonstrated that while the riots of 2012 in Rakhine State should not be labelled genocide, there is certainly the fundamental background situation for genocide to occur in the future. Taking the insight of academic scholarship and historical cases one sees soberingly that the theoretical conditions for genocide are mostly evident in Myanmar. This does not, however, mean that genocide will occur, particularly as genocide is inherently authority-led and the government and other community leaders at this time has no incentive to turn on the Rohingyas. Thein Sein is too intent on securing Western reconciliation with his country to jeopardise this with genocidal action. However, the foundations are laid in Myanmar and it is a situation that the global community must carefully monitor in the years to come and civil society actors capable of bringing about a transformation of the conflict must actively engage with stakeholders in the country.