Ungoverned spaces and extremism

Michael Vatikiotis

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'Governments urgently need to address the precursors that litter the region making it easier for people aiming to emulate or follow ISIS'

Modern forms of terrorism increasingly draw on the dynamics of territorial warfare to build strength. The Islamic State has effectively used command of territory both to train misguided adherents and amply demonstrate its violent agenda.  

For some time, this apparent concentration in dusty corners of broken Syria and divided Iraq lent some comfort to those Southeast Asian states who had experienced an earlier airborne version of Islamic extremism that apparently favored far-flung networks and local recruitment. The audacious daylight attack in central Jakarta in mid-January by a poorly organized but desperate group of men acting in the name of ISIS has blown a hole in this false sense of insulation.

More importantly, given the spotty evidence of how far ISIS has been able to infiltrate the region, the biggest risk is in those countries which provide a permissive environment, because of unresolved internal armed conflict and the ungoverned spaces created as a result.

Thus we see signs that extremist elements striving to emulate or affiliate with ISIS have already found refuge in conflict-riddled spaces of the southern Philippines, where the Muslim Moro community has been struggling for local autonomy.  In southern Thailand, where a virulent Muslim insurgency has been fighting for independence, both western intelligence agencies and now the government fear that ISIS has already started to infiltrate this embittered war torn society.

Poor governance and the neglect of long-festering communal grievances in places where Muslims and non-Muslims live side by side has also generated small crevices susceptible to extremist inducements. This goes for prison populations in Indonesia, as well as often overlooked areas such as Eastern Indonesia and northern Sumatra, where past patterns of conflict and modern movements of people make young people susceptible to messages of hate.

The crux of the problem is that little is being done to address these ungoverned spaces. A peace agreement reached between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine government last year languishes as politicians bicker and  contest for power ahead of presidential elections in May. Thailand’s military government has shown little interest in pursuing a peace deal with the Patani Malay Revolutionary Front that leads a virulent insurgency in the country’s three southernmost provinces.

Indonesia has made little effective effort to address the sources of religious intolerance that breeds disaffected Muslim youth on the margins of society, and has continued to allow detained extremists suspects to communicate with their followers from inside the prison system. And Myanmar resolutely insists that it will not be pushed into providing marginalized Muslim residents of Rakhine State with rights that would stabilize them and prevent their movement and further disaffection.

Malaysia, meanwhile, uses the rhetoric of moderation to convey the docility of its Muslim Malay majority population, but then manipulates issues of race and religion to shore up power, which has encouraged extremist elements within the ruling party. Opinion polls indicate that more than 10% of Muslim Malaysians have some sympathy for ISIS and its aims.  

Even if ISIS based in Syria and Iraq had no intention to mount a global campaign, it would seem that Southeast Asia provides a fertile, receptive environment for those who would either emulate or propagate its aims. So what should be done? Arguably 3 levels of action are required.

First, it is imperative for those countries afflicted by internal conflict to hasten efforts to resolve them through genuine dialogue and negotiation. The indications are that all the mainstream insurgent movements currently battling central governments are keen to abjure violent extremism, which also poses a threat to their own organizational structures and leadership.  

However, without an end to the conflict, or the implementation of agreed terms of peace, more extreme narratives could gain a foothold. The MILF in the Philippines could more easily help stem the spread of ISIS ideology and support if it can convince marginal elements of the peace divided secured by the agreement last year.

Similarly, it is hard for BRN in Southern Thailand, whose struggle is based on ethnic and nationalist rather than religious ideals, to deter disaffected young Muslim Malays from falling for ISIS ideology if the Thai government continues to ignore overtures for genuine dialogue and peace.

Second, all the governments of the region should do more to safeguard traditional models of tolerance and pluralism that have served Southeast Asia well in the modern period. This means putting aside the interests of local power and politics in favor of the greater communal good.

Finally, there needs to be closer multilateral cooperation at a regional level. The threat of destabilizing terrorist violence is too great to be subjugated by narrow nationalist narratives and agendas. The evidence of Malaysians and Indonesians organizing themselves in permissive environments such as the southern Philippines suggests the need for better coordination between regional security agencies. Thailand’s security forces confer regularly with their Malaysian counterparts on this issue, but the two countries are mistrustful of one another when it comes to dealing with issues regarding race and religion.

Time also to end the bickering over how to manage the movement of people from distressed areas such as Rakhine State. Singapore recently arrested two-dozen Bangladeshi workers who it claims were radicalized. With the movement of migrant labor reaching record levels in Southeast Asia, it is time to ensure there are better safeguards in place to ensure these migrants are not lured by radical movements.

There is no reason why Southeast Asia can’t protect its citizens from the encroachment of this new wave of violent extremism distilled in the deserts of Syria and Iraq, but governments urgently need to address the precursors that litter the region making it easier for people aiming to emulate or follow ISIS to gain a foothold. There has never been a more pressing need for the tools of peaceful conflict resolution and prevention, as well as collective action to protect rights and prevent social disaffection. – Rappler.com

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Regional Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. 

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