Tackling Southeast Asia’s new extremists

  • Published: 30/01/2016 at 04:32 AM
Modern forms of terrorism increasingly draw on the dynamics of territorial warfare to build strength. The Islamic State (IS) has effectively used command of territory both to train misguided adherents and 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 favoured far flung networks and local recruitment. The audacious daylight attack in central Jakarta in mid-January by a poorly organised but desperate group of men acting in the name of the IS has blown a hole in this false sense of insulation.
More importantly, given the spotty evidence of how far the IS 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.
We see signs that extremist elements, striving to emulate or affiliate with the IS, 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 the IS has already started to infiltrate this embittered war torn society.
Poor governance and the neglect of communal grievances in places where Muslims and non-Muslims live side by side has generated small crevices susceptible to extremist inducements. This goes for prison populations in Indonesia, as well as 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.
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 close to death 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 marginalised Muslim residents of Rakhine State with rights that would stabilise 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 the IS and its aims.
Even if the IS 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 three 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 organisational 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 Moro Front in the Philippines could more easily help stem the spread of the IS ideology and support if it can convince marginal elements of the peace 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 the IS 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 favour of the greater communal good.
Finally, there needs to be closer multilateral cooperation at a regional level. The threat of destabilising terrorist violence is too great to be subjugated by narrow nationalist narratives and agendas. The evidence of Malaysians and Indonesians organising 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 radicalised. With the movement of migrant labour 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, but governments urgently need to address the precursors that litter the region making it easier for people aiming to emulate or follow the IS 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.
Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Regional Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Source http://m.bangkokpost.com/opinion/845164


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