SOME analysts are worried that Southeast Asia may turn into a new hotbed of militancy, post-Syria conflict. They base the conclusion on the recent violent episodes in the Philippines and Myanmar.
Should the region worry about security threats from militants?
The answer is no, and there are several reasons for this. First, the region had defeated insurgency and irredentism before and there is no reason to believe that they can’t do it again.
Second, the conditions that could encourage the blossoming of militants are not present, except in certain areas.
Third, like all past insurgencies and irredentist movements, such militant episodes tend to fade away with time given a generous dose of good governance.
As long as the region views militancy as a threat to be commonly fought, the opportunity to get rid of it is there.
Political uprisings in the Philippines, southern Thailand and Myanmar, for example, result from decades of suppression of minority rights. Some are carry- over of unfinished nation-building challenges from the colonial days.
While political violence against the colonial powers can be justified, political violence for regime change in a democratic environment is another matter.
While motivations for militancy are society-specific, regime change is not its primary agenda. At least not in contemporary Southeast Asia. The militants, who see themselves as freedom fighters, fight for basic human rights including the right to practise religion, the right to a home and the right to education.
Militancy will continue to thrive in societies where basic human rights are frequently violated. Sociologists inform us that militancy thrives best in dysfunctional societies.
Lately, there has been a noticeable spike in militant activities in some societies in Southeast Asia. Militancy must be distinquished from terrorism as the latter is only the tool of the trade. Terrorism and violence is their trademark or business model.
The reason why some parts of the region are more “susceptible” to militancy has been the subject of many intellectual discourses.
We can, however, mitigate the impact of militancy and extremism in the region by sharing experiences and intelligence as well as working together to defeat the extremists.
Apart from the existing bilateral and region-wide mechanisms of sharing intelligence on militant activities, our successful joint enforcement effort in combating militancy, especially at sea, has gone unappreciated.
For example, the media rarely reports on the successful coordinated patrols in the Straits of Malacca and the trilateral patrols in the Sulu Sea against violence at sea.
Besides joint enforcement action, an important aspect of mitigating militancy is education to prevent the process of radicalisation and extremism. While every home must become a bastion against radicalisation and extremism, social media must be at the forefront of censorship of publications that incite, for example, lone wolves and groups to violence and radical thinking.
Governments in Western countries must also rein in prejudices against Muslims through social media and good governance. What they do there does have an impact on the militants in the region looking for excuses for their cause.
Consider the 44 organisations listed by the European Union as terrorist entities in 2015. As it turns out, only five of them are what may be called religious organisations.
Similarly, in the US, of the 260,000 murders committed from 2001 to 2017, only 140 were carried out by American Muslim extremists, according to a study at North Carolina University at Chapel Hill. Another report suggests that more Americans were killed by home-grown right-wing extremists than by Muslim militants.
While a very small number of Muslims have turned militant, militancy is not inherent in Islam. Niether is it the preserve of a particular religion.
The Irish Republican Army traced its militant activities to Catholic and Irish nationalism while the Lords’ Resistance Army terrorising many states in Central Africa began as a Christian Army movement in Uganda.
Buddhism in Myanmar should not be blamed for the activities of a few right-wing monks, described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya.
Managing militancy and political violence will be more daunting in the future when states use militant proxies to advance interests.
The use of militant proxies in Syria and Yemen, for example, has widened the scope of military operations on the ground and at the same time, made it more difficult to put an end to local conflicts when the interests of big powers intersect with local interests.
What started as a civil war has now become the battleground for regional proxies. Russia, United States, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Saudi Arabia, among others, have boots on the ground in Syria through their proxies and the situation is going to be more daunting in the near future if President Donald Trump’s threat against Russia and its allies, following the alleged chemical attacks in Syria, is carried through.
B. A. Hamzah is a lecturer with the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defence University Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. He is also an adjunct research professor, National Institute of South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.