Southeast Asia: Fighting the Bad Fight?

A brief consideration of armed movements in this region in the 21st century as case studies to understand the phenomenon in local contexts of Manipur and Northeast India

The mountains, the hills
They echo with their silence
Shots of machine guns

Map from

The French Revolution took place 227 years ago, the Russian 99 years, the Chinese 70 years and the Cuban 57 years. In the modern sense of the term, social revolution refers to the reorganisation and overhauling of a state or a system; or in the words of Theda Skocpol, it is a ‘combination of thoroughgoing structural transformation and massive class upheavals’. The phenomenon is global in nature and is also denoted by different terms such as armed movement, guerrilla warfare, insurgency, terrorism, asymmetric warfare, low-level internal violence, subnational conflict, terrorism and so on. The number of expressions clearly illustrates its complicate nature.

To present a comprehensive account of this matter across Southeast Asia in this century, it will take volumes of books—so here in this essay, we are concerned with the basic nature of some of the ongoing movements that can be related to the conditions in and around the so-called Northeast India. By Northeast, we are primarily referring to the states of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura, which have bore the brunt of armed movements, which in terms of years that are as old as India, considering the fact that this country was a forced design of the British Raj. For an idea of this creation, compare the maps of the Mughal Dynasty in 16th century and that of British India in 19th century. While the India of today is on a race to become a potential superpower just next to China, there are some issues the world cannot afford to miss.

State of Affairs

BURMA: This is a terrible comparison but to explore the movements in Southeast Asia we can start right away from one of our neighbours. Burma, like India, is a land of many nations suffering from a Zomia Syndrome. A chief characteristic of the Burmese polity is defined by ethnic nationalism. Randomly, we can name the Kachin (Kachin Independence Army), Karen (Karen National Union), Karenni (Karenni National Progressive Party), Chin (Chin National Front), Wa (United Wa State Army) and the Shan (Shan State Army) with their national liberation armies, communist forces, multiple factions and splinter groups, contradictory ideologies, tendency for schism just like the conditions are in the Northeast—and all of which have separate agendas and rebel against the Tatmadaw or the Burmese armed forces. Their driving force is ethnic power and their contention includes the right to self-determination, the brutality of the military junta, the powerlessness of Burmese authority at the national level, their historical evolution as separate political entities and so on.

Ironically, a group like the Chin National Front claims it ‘is not based on a class of people, a religious belief, a region or an ideology but is working for implementation of the ideal of the Chin people’ (Source: the Information and Propaganda Department, Chin National Front In Northeast India, generally, we have been a witness to this lack of ‘discrimination’ as espoused by the ‘civil’ society organisations, but which are no different from partisan groups that are established on an ethnic foundation. A closer peek into the Burmese rebel groups also shows that there is gross suspicion against each other, reports of one group teaming up with the Tatmadaw to strike against another, gross corruption and the likes. The only difference is that Burma is a bona fide military junta while we live in a police state that claims to be the largest democracy in the world.

This alleged ambiguity of the rebel groups does not imply to underestimate their movements or mutually agreed peace-building processes; but as things stand today, the credibility of these groups especially those around us has hit a record low. To add excess masala to the soup, other people have peace monitor groups and conflict-resolution think tanks; in India there are defence and security analysis institutes. Apparently the overall reflection is seen on others too.

The conditions appear to be hopeful in Burma seeing the recent political development with a new people’s government at Naypyidaw. Official reports have confirmed that Aung San Suu Kyi is going to be the supreme leader though the military has played a constitutional game to debar her from becoming a president. Besides, around the time when the government of India signed a clandestine framework agreement with the NSCN-IM in August 2015, Burma had also signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with sixteen rebel groups. The non-participation of a few influential groups like the Kachin Independence Army and United Wa State Army, however, tells a different tale. Amongst others, the armed-conflict drama is going to continue and a familiar outcome of these approaches is the birth of new factions.

To the east and southeast of Burma, we have Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia that are embroiled in armed movements for liberation and autonomy.

LAOS: The Vietnam War has been over quite a long time ago but its ghost continues to haunt Laos, of which one of the most noticeable struggles is that of the Hmong rebels. They are more or less the descendants of the soldiers funded by the American CIA to fight in the secret war during the Vietnam fiasco and who were abandoned when the communists came to power circa 1975. Mainly based in northern Laos, the movement is spearheaded by a couple of groups like the Ethnic Liberation Organisation of Laos (ELOL) and the Lao National Liberation Front (LNFL). Like Burma and Northeast India, this country is also notorious for human rights abuse, perpetrated by the dominant Lao government. According to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples’ Organisation: ‘The Hmong people are represented at UNPO by the ChaoFa Federated State, which claims self-government of Hmong-inhabited territories in Laos.’ Records show the population of the Hmong is less than 400,000 while a thousand of them are actively taking part in the rebellion. The situation is rather grim with the government of Laos’s relentless inclination, over ideological differences and perception of disloyalty, to mistreat the Hmongs who live in abject poverty and as one of the worst-hit refugees in the region.

THAILAND: A constituent along with Burma and Laos that makes up the infamous Golden Triangle, Thailand has seen one of the fiercest conflicts in the region of Pattani, a Muslim stronghold in southern part of the country. The majority Thai Buddhists comprise nearly 95% of the Thai population while the Muslims are less than 5%. Under the banner of organisations like the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Pattani (BRN or the National Revolutionary Front), the rebels are contesting the legitimacy of the Thai hegemony and the majority’s expansionary policy since the early 20th century. Pattani is just one amongst the three provinces worst affected by separatism; and the other two includes Yala, and Narathiwat—these places are also home to the Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani (GMIP) and the Pusat Persatuan Tadika Narathiwat or the Center for the Narathiwat Kindergarten Associations, which is popularly known as PUSAKA. The conflict can be traced throughout modern history and nowadays it has been heavily influenced by the Islamic Caliphate as in West Asia. Besides, Thailand has a dubious record of unstable national politics, corruption and coup d’états. Currently, all eyes are set on the military and the famous yellow-shirts and red-shirts while Pattani burns in the backyard unseen and unheard. In recent times, peace talks have as well been disrupted repeatedly due to the political mess in Bangkok.

Like the faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim that operates in multiple countries (India and Burma), groups such as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Kayin National Union (KNU that was formed in 1959) and Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors (VBSW) operate in Thailand and Burma while the Jemaah Islamiya has several bases in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. Still, it is important to note that the context is poles apart in each country or within a country, even if the political nature of conflicts might be similar.

CAMBODIA: Bordering Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia was once a power to reckon with, particularly in the heydays of the Khmer Empire but now it exists as a grossly underdeveloped, impoverished and a highly corrupt country. Its leadership is notorious for developing and helping develop terms such as Year Zero and Killing Fields. It hit a record low during the regime of Pol Pot—with his sidekicks including, amongst others, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Khieu Samphan—he masterminded genocide around the Sixties and Seventies in the name of socialist–agrarian revolution, until Vietnam intervened and overthrow the Khmer Rouge government in 1979. The political climate in its contemporary history has always been conducive to breed armed organisations. Pol Pot had Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea and his opponents had the Kampuchean (or Khmer) National United Front for National Salvation and now the vacuum has been taken over by groups like those of the minority Khmer Krom people whose territory was erroneously inserted into Vietnam in their postcolonial history. Since 2001, the Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), a non-armed advocacy group, has been representing the Khmer Krom at the UNPO. In its own words: ‘The mission of KKF is, through the use of peaceful measures and international laws, to seek freedom, justice and the right to self-determination for the indigenous Khmer-Krom peoples in Kampuchea-Krom (Mekong Delta region).’ (Source: Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Federation  

THE PHILIPPINES: Crossing the South China Sea, the condition in the Philippines is no different in terms of the misguiding ‘internal low-level’ violence—misguiding, because a term like ‘low level’ is very relative and politically correct while these conflicts have the potential to destroy a civilisation. In this island nation, the Moro Muslim organisations in the southern Philippines or the densely populated Mindanao are literally up in arms against the government since the Sixties though the history of their resistance against a host of colonialists dates back to the Medieval Age. At one time, it was against the Spanish, and in others, against the American colonisers; and now against the Philippines nation-state, spearheaded mainly by three ethnic groups: the Tausug, Maguindanao and the Maranao that constitute the Bangsamoro or simply Moro group, which again comprises 13 different ethno-linguistic groups but make up hardly 5% of the Philippine population. The region is also notorious for rido that is often translated as clan feuds while three groups are currently spearheading the resistance movement: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and its two breakaway groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf. The combination of rido and liberation movements is a complication that requires multiple layers of understanding. On the other hand, the Philippine government has another enemy: the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which originated around the same time as the MNLF in the Sixties. The MNLF stands for an independent Mindanao, while the CPP—with its military wing, the New People’s Army which is known for lethal attacks—wants to overthrow the national government entirely.

INDONESIA: Further down the south, all’s not well in Indonesia, which one of the world’s most populous countries with nearly 350 ethnic groups and 742 different languages and dialects. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of Maryland has listed thirteen different armed groups having as many political objectives that operating in the country. Indonesia has also earned the title of the Island of Unrest from its rampant conflicts based on the right to self-determination as well as on the ground of ethnicity and faiths that comprise mostly Muslims and Christians, and has a record number of internally displaced people. One of the most prominent groups is the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM or the Free Papua Movement) and its military wing, the West Papua National Liberation Army. In 1999, East Timor—under the leadership of the Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente or FRETILIN, a communist resistance group—successfully seceded from Indonesia while the liberation movements are still going on in areas like Maluku, Kalimantan, Irian Jaya and West Papua with the Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia (ABRI or the Indonesian national armed forces) as their common enemy.

A Long Journey from Tordesillas to Zomia 

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote that ‘all warfare is based on deception’ and that ‘there is no instance of a country having benefited from a prolonged warfare’; so he preached: ‘Let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.’

However, some of these regions in Southeast Asia have been a witness to the longest armed conflicts. As a coterie of men and women forms groups to play the game of power, it is another set of men and women with their children least interested in power yet much, much larger in number, who are worst hit in that struggle. Sometimes the supposedly common objective—like liberation will benefit everybody—legitimise the fighting or struggle or whatever; but to quote Marx, there is a reason for everything but not all the reasons are logical. To make the conflict even more complicated, there are also hostilities between several nations in addition to internal instability of each one of them in this region. Border disagreements between Thailand and Cambodia are yet to be resolved even after a decade of clashes; and Thailand has the same problem with Vietnam too. From national boundaries the territorial disputes extend up to the South China Sea, where China, Taiwan along with the ASEAN countries: Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei, are claiming their ownership in the resource-rich region. Above all, the national governments are depending on military intervention though various case studies have shown over the years that it produces only the least result.

Southeast Asia has had a huge influence from India and China—that was why the French came up with the nomenclature of Indochina that primarily consisted of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and parts of Malaysia and Myanmar. These two huge countries have played a role in shaping the socio-cultural landscape that was further politicised by European imperialists, whose impeccable legacy of civilising the uncivilised is one among the major reasons for the continuing mess till today. East Timor was a colony of the Portuguese, the Philippines of the Spaniards, Laos of the French and Burma of the British. Sometimes there were multiple colonialists in one area like the Dutch and Portuguese were in Indonesia. Above all, Japan and the United States, the latter which dominated the Philippines after Spain did, are continuing the imperial agenda as a parasite that preys on many of these countries though without necessarily concentrating on a single area like most of their European counterparts.

The history of Europe also had a direct impact on this region. In fact, the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas—that was signed between two medieval superpowers, Spain and Portugal, according to which the New World was divided into two zones by drawing a line on the Atlantic Ocean—is quite significant. As we know, Portugal took the eastern part while Spain the western part and it heralded the ‘Year Zero’ of European onslaught, exploration, colonialism and globalisation. But the development was a complicated process that took place over centuries. Meanwhile in less than three centuries, the Netherlands, Great Britain and France had also joined in the West Great Loot of South and Southeast Asia. Then, suddenly, we saw the rise of epithets like those of the Scramble for Africa, the Discovery doctrine, the Age of Sail, the Sun never setting on the British Empire and so on, which we can club broadly under the curse of imperialism.

Incidentally, Great Britain was involved in three Anglo-Burmese Wars in 1824–26, 1852 and 1885–86, in addition to the setting up of the East India Company in 1600: all of which had a direct impact on the erstwhile kingdom of Manipur that now exists politically as a frontier state of India. So to say, despite the diversity of contents and contexts, there is a trace of the same thread that runs along these conflict zones in Southeast Asia. Some people label a huge section of this region as Zomia (refer to The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C Scott), while others as the Southeast Asian Massif (The A to Z of the Peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif by Jean Michaud).

A reading of colonialism explains the rise of nationalism in Southeast Asia, or particularly, the concept of states and nations emerged as a resistance against colonialism and ancien régimes. This resistance is also one of the foundations that various armed groups in the region draw their inspiration from. If not in its entirety, such a development made it clear the meanings of Max Weber’s ‘a community of sentiment which would adequately manifest itself in a state of its own’ and how a nation is distinct, how loyalty is essential and how the nation must have its own state. One of the most noted revolutionaries and former Vietnamese president Hồ Chí Minh (1890–1969) was ‘politicalised’ in the early Twenties while he was in France and started the Việt Minh liberation movement in 1941. Even the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam clearly mentioned the influence of the French Revolution and specifically an excerpt of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Moreover, it was also in the first half of the 20th century that the western concept of democracy and citizenship had fashioned the articulation of nations in many parts of the region including Manipur in particular and Northeast India as a whole.

A museum in Bagan, Burma

The Times They Are A-changin’ 

Political observers maintain that, unlike elsewhere, there has been a gradual change in these Southeast Asian countries. For instance, it does not take a radical sort of Arab Spring to bring about the constitutional reform in Burma per se. It is still early to say anything about this country; nevertheless we can see the birth of two blocs, in which the first stands for economic reforms before anything else while the second for political reforms. Whatsoever agenda is it for the government, the littlest success will not only benefit the Burmese masses but their neighbours like the Laotians, Hmongs, Khmers and the Thais.

Things have drastically changed in the post-World War period, though some basic nature have remained unchanged. Culturally, diverse lives in Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand are inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism; the Vietnamese or the Kinh people (who is almost 90% of the total population) are indigenously Confucian; Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia are Islamic; and in the Philippines, the two majority groups, the Visayan and the Tagalog, are predominantly Christians. We can say that religion adds a new complex layer to the forms of articulating voices of ethnic nationalism. It is no coincidence that their faiths have shaped the kind of struggles in all these places—and it will be an entirely new topic, for instance, to study the Sarekat Islam in Indonesia and the wave of Marxism–Leninism in Vietnam and the Philippines or the contextual interrelationship between religion and politics. For that matter, a relatively peaceful state like Malaysia, where more than 60% of its population are Muslims, has been reported to be affected by the Islamic resistance in Thailand and the Philippines.

Many of these countries had undergone an arduous process of reform, national awakening and freedom struggle, as noted earlier, against the colonialists and the ancien régimes. But today, even Thailand, which enjoys the privilege of a non-colonised former kingdom, is not free from armed conflicts.

This essay has only attempted to offer a ‘prelude’ to put the conflicts into context while considering their structural analogies. For example, when in 1946 the Philippines attained independence, it marked merely a transfer of colonial power for Mindanao Muslims, just like Manipur has faced in the hands of Great Britain and India. We can see it in the physical location, for certain, and from hints exposed unintentionally by the target countries’ governments that are often insensitive and incompetent. We can also see it from economic injustice, ideologies of social revolution, marginalisation of the minorities and developing consciousness of the masses, in addition to the existing impoverished and fragile societal conditions; leave alone the drug problem and the humanitarian crises that are plaguing many of the corners in these countries.

In this regard, a formidable regional organisation like the ASEAN can play a huge role but it is too ineffectual in resolving the problem by virtue of its apolitical nature, which helps little when the crux of any armed conflict is political contestation. So far, riding on the golden principle of non-interference, its biggest achievement has been the prevention of a large-scale war between the member-nations but we know how these conflicts of our study are subnational, low level and internal, albeit sufficiently prospective to be the demolisher of a civilisation. Observers have been stating that the end of Cold War has resulted in a drastic cut on the number of inter-state conflicts but in reverse those within a state, predominantly based on ethnicity, have been increasing considerably. Somehow, the sentiment of the ASEAN is reflected on the minuscule suited-and-booted class of Manipur that is known for its charm, hospitality and love for promoting tourism and economy but politically is sheer infantile.

Nevertheless, in 2013, the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR) was established in Jakarta. Surin Pitsuwan, a Thai politician and former ASEAN Secretary-General, had once remarked: ‘The days when domestic political controversies could not be discussed in regional settings are over,’ indicating all’s not lost though and assuming no more will the organisation solely focus on multi-lateral economic matters but also reassess the politics in the days to come, for obviously the latter can affect its very existence no matter how much it is reluctant to intervene. Likewise, a global group like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation can also play a crucial role but again it depends on the will and commitment.

Postlude: The Politics of ‘Southeast’

As in the popular joke that when non-Asian people picture an image of Asian, it is always the Chinese or Japanese or any of the Mongoloid people but never the Indians and Pakistanis. Similarly, when we talk about Southeast Asia, it is always Burma or Malaysia or Indonesia. India is ‘full-time’ South Asian, but its conflict-torn Northeast is located in the tail end. For an idea, my hometown in Imphal is just three hours away from Moreh, a major trading town in Manipur that borders Burma. For long, the natives have a grievance about politically belonging to India but that their face is never included in the ‘Indian’ imagination of India. But it makes sense because if not for the political affiliation, the Northeast is closer to Southeast Asia in terms of geography, history and culture than it does with India. Unfortunately again, in the highly specialised, focussed studies on Southeast Asia, the region is never included in it except perhaps in anthropological and cultural studies as apparent from those of James C Scott’s Zomia and Jean Michaud’s Southeast Asian Massif.

Yet indicating a change in the dynamics, in 2015, four groups in the Northeast and Burma, namely, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim–Khaplang faction (NSCN-K), the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) had declared the formation of a consolidated armed organisation called the United National Liberation Front of West Southeast Asia or UNLFW as they mentioned it in their press release. NSCN-K’s Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang is the chairman of this front. Incidentally, it was announced after the dissolution of the former Indo-Burmese Revolutionary Front that was formed in 1989 and consisted of NSCN-K, ULFA, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the Kuki National Front (KNF) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). All of these groups, like elsewhere in the region, are an anti-thesis to the process of nation building and assimilation into a pan-national identity as defined by the dominant group in each state. Perhaps the only difference is in the lack of ethnic hostilities in Southeast Asia ‘proper’ while it is raging in a region like the Northeast that after five decades of conflict, peace has remained as elusive as ever.

The consolidation will certainly redefine the narratives of armed conflict in this part of the world, at least in some short-term manners. Similarities and differences apart, the most important issues are of peace and development. It will be too idealistic to even imagine a resolution now because not many people want to negotiate and compromise for reasons as varying as the number of ethnic groups across Southeast Asia. The word on the street in my hometown is that armed conflict is a good business.

From India to Indonesia, the areas are marked in blood. To ‘unmark’ it particularly in Northeast India, definitely we cannot deny the issue like the governments they would do in never seeing the problems as political or even if they do, considering that geostrategic factors are more important than people. By some means we can count on participation of more people from the public in resolving the crises because as noted in the beginning, it is not only the government but the credibility of the armed organisations that are also at an all-time low.

- Conclusion.

Suggested reading

ASEAN Charter
Asia Foundation
BBC Asia
Crossroads: An Introduction to Southeast Asia, Northern Illinois University
Myanmar Peace Monitor
National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of Maryland
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples’ Organisation (UNPO)

Great Game East - India, China, and the Struggle for Asias Most Volatile Frontier by Bertil Lintner (Yale University Press 2015 ISBN-10: 0300195672 ISBN-13: 978-0300195675)
A Handbook of Terrorism and Insurgency in Southeast Asia by Andrew TH Tan (Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd 2007 ISBN-10: 184542543X ISBN-13: 978-1845425432)
The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers by Pradip Phanjoubam (Routledge India 2015 ISBN-10: 1138957984 ISBN-13: 978-1138957985)
States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China by Theda Skocpol (Cambridge University Press 1979, ISBN-10: 0521294991 ISBN-13: 978-0521294997)
Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia by Thant Myint-U (Faber 2012 ISBN-10: 0571239641 ISBN-13: 978-0571239641)



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