The religiously and ethnically influenced separatist movements currently thriving in Southeast Asia show just how far the region has to go before nations based on consensus can be formed. Islamism has taken the place of communism as divisive force. By Manfred Rist
In Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, hardly a day goes by lately without reports of conflicts between government troops and rebels. Although the insurgents in Aceh, Pattani and Mindanao, all peripheral regions in the corresponding countries, are Muslim separatists with alleged contacts to Al-Qaeda, their main objective is to achieve greater autonomy or even national independence.
Roots in the old sultanates
In all three cases, the roots of the conflict reach back far into the past, drawing strength from the traditional sultanates, whose influence extended far beyond the territories currently under dispute. At its height, the Sultanate of Sulu of Mindanao, for example, reached all the way to Sabah, an area that is today part of East Malaysia.
The influence of the Kingdom of Aceh during its "golden age" in the 17th century under Sultan Iskandar Muda extended through North Sumatra and over the straight of Malakka all the way to Malaysia and South Thailand. And in the southern part of Thailand, the province of Pattani represents the last holdover of a kingdom that enjoyed thriving trade relations with all the European colonial powers during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Today, these regions' distance from the capital cities of Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila presents a challenge to the still relatively young states, since the concept of a nation of consensus within clearly defined borders is questioned by many who live here.
Fostering a nation of consensus
In other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, where history shaped ties that gave the inhabitants a cohesive identity, or where the idea of a nation of consensus has been vigilantly and successfully fostered by those in power, this concept has now gained widespread acceptance. In Indonesia and the Philippines, however, economic neglect and poverty have provided additional fuel for separatism.
As a force for dissent, militant Islam has long been overshadowed by an utterly different threat in Southeast Asia: communism. It’s true that the communist movements, by taking up arms against the colonial rulers, did contribute in nearly all of the Southeast Asian states to the achievement of independence and thus in their way played an important role in nation-building.
After they were later forced underground, however, they posed a threat to the newly formed states for several decades, which lead to an official ban on communist parties in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore which is still in effect today. This ban has meanwhile not prevented the New People's Army (NPA) in the Philippines from continuing to actively fight to stamp out poverty.
Communism has developed much greater explosive power in Southeast Asia than Islamism. It not only triggered disastrous civil wars in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia; during the years of the Cold War, communist ideology also split all of Southeast Asia into two camps.
While on the mainland (Indochina and Burma) nationalistic communist governments came to power, these were countered on the islands, including Thailand, by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Launched in 1967 under Indonesia’s leadership as a "bastion against communism", it was only after the successful assimilation of Vietnam in 1995 that the group began to take more decisive steps toward regional integration, culminating in the inclusion of all of Southeast Asia (with the exception of East Timor).
It is no accident that, after Asean managed to overcome all Southeast Asian borders, the fight against Islamic separatists has focused on the islands. After taking root in Aceh, Islam spread out along the coastal trading routes, gaining a firm foothold in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore, as well as South Thailand and the Philippines.
The challenge of nation-building
In the latter two states, integrating the various religious minorities is among the governments’ greatest challenges. Nevertheless, what is now standing in the way of a peaceful solution in Aceh is less a matter of religious differences than the bloody legacy of the Indonesian military, which has been violating human rights in Aceh at will for the past several decades.
What the southern Philippines and Aceh on the island of Sumatra have in common is that the rebels in both trouble spots have been well organized for decades and have produced a series of prominent military and political leaders. These include Nur Misuari, Hashim Salamat, Hasan Tiro, Malik Mahmut and Zaini Abdullah – all figures who have put in appearances as official negotiating partners both at home and abroad.
This personification of the resistance leads observers to conclude that the violence in these areas is not being fanned from outside, but has internal causes instead. By contrast, the escalation of violence in South Thailand seems much less coordinated, and the rebels remain largely anonymous. This situation makes it easier for the government to look for scapegoats outside the country.
Negotiations and continuing skepticism
In the midst of spiralling violence in the crisis regions, peace talks have nonetheless made some progress here in the past few weeks. Thanks to the mediation of Malaysia, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have once again come to the negotiating table, although the rebels have steadfastly refused to renounce their independence.
Thailand’s leaders, who only recently reacted to unrest in the South with brutal violence, also seem to be shifting to a milder course in an attempt to get the country’s problems under control. Finally, for the third time after the tsunami, representatives from Jakarta and the rebel organization GAM have met in Helsinki to map out routes toward a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Aceh.
Despite this willingness to enter talks, a healthy dose of skepticism is indicated here in the face of the disparate objectives of the two sides in each case, along with the weight of the past, and the divergent interpretations of the history of the conflicts.
From the standpoint of the insurgents, who view themselves as advocates of the marginalized, but not yet extinct, sultanates, the decolonization of Southeast Asia is not over yet. New rulers have simply stepped up to take the place of the former ones.
As long as this mindset prevails and no new generation comes to the fore avowing a more far-reaching concept of nationhood that can concede to alternative solutions for autonomy, the young states will remain vulnerable.
© Qantara.de 2005
This article was previously published by the Swiss weekly NZZ.