By Zachary Abuza*
Long-running conflicts in Southeast Asia have cooled in 2021, a development overshadowed by the February 1 coup in Myanmar and the ensuing civil war.
Since the coup, the Myanmar military has killed at least 1,375 people, according to reports. As they battled the National Unity Government (NUG) and myriad ethnic armed groups this year, the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, attacked civilian populations, particularly in Chin State. , Kayah State and Sagaing Region.
He razed villages and perpetrated massive massacres of civilians.
With the civil war spreading, especially after the NUG declared war on the Tatmadaw in September, it was easy to lose sight of developments in some of the other conflicts in the region.
Rohingya and Arakan rebels
Despite a wider civil war in Myanmar, the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA), a rebel group that backed the national unity government, has not been a factor.
A rival group, the Arakan Buddhist Army, did not join the National Unity Government and other ethnic armed groups taking part in the post-coup civil war, but did engage army in a few small-scale skirmishes despite agreeing a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw in late 2020.
The Arakan Army also took advantage of the army’s preoccupation with other conflicts to consolidate its political power and strengthen its autonomy. He threatened to resume hostilities completely if the Tatmadaw tries to end its autonomy, which the army can hardly afford.
ARSA, meanwhile, has taken aggressive steps to consolidate its control over sprawling refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, where uprooted Rohingya seem destined to remain until a political resolution is found in Myanmar.
UN investigators say ARSA killed a leading Rohingya militant and then six others in the Cox’s Bazar camps, where Bangladeshi forces are trying to control the security of the huge refugee population.
Rebellion in southern Thailand
In 2021, the insurgency in Thailand’s restive Malay-majority southern border provinces remained at historically low levels. Thirty-four people were killed and 48 injured – the first time the total number of casualties was in double digits since the resumption of separatist conflict in 2004.
Early last year, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebels announced a unilateral humanitarian ceasefire so that public health officials could respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although violence started to resume again from July 2020, there was no official end to the ceasefire.
In September 2021, the BRN called for renewed violence via a social media post. In a statement, he urged fighters to “resume self-defense operations” as “Siam’s security forces have staged raids and carried out summary executions despite COVID difficulties.”
The rate of COVID infections in the Deep South, meanwhile, has far exceeded the rest of Thailand.
As of October 2021, only 33% of the population had been vaccinated, the lowest rate in the country. There was clearly reluctance to vaccinate among the local population, coupled with distrust of the Thai government. This reflects the low priority given by the Thai government to the provision of social services in the border region.
The rate of violence escalated in August. Since then, there have been 19 IED attacks, almost the number of bombings in 2020. Targeted killings declined from 2020 but picked up in the last five months of the year.
The security forces remained the main target of the BRN: some 25 soldiers, police, rangers and defense volunteers were killed and 38 were injured, compared to 11 civilians killed and 6 injured.
There were 14 protracted firefights with security forces, down from 16 in 2020. But several stood out: militants who refused to surrender in protracted clashes in Pattani’s Sai Buri district , Krong Pinang district in Yala and a 17-day standoff at Bacho in Narathiwat. piece.
In all these cases, public opinion turned against the security forces, who used disproportionate firepower. The militants were buried as martyrs.
It was a reminder that public sentiment is still against the Thai government.
In December, the Malaysian government announced that face-to-face talks between the Thai government and the BRN would resume in January 2021 for the first time in nearly two years.
But with low levels of violence, the Thai side is unlikely to make any concessions, ensuring the insurgency will continue.
Extremism in Indonesia
In the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, 2021 has started on a sour note in the fight against terrorism.
Indonesian authorities have released pro-Islamic Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) leader Abu Bakar Bashir after he served just 11 years of his 15-year sentence. Although he has been quite reluctant publicly, he retains a large following.
There has only been one major terrorist attack: A young couple blew themselves up in a cathedral in Makassar, South Sulawesi, injuring 20 people.
No one but the bombers were killed. The woman was four months pregnant. The pair were linked to another couple who blew themselves up at a cathedral in Jolo, in the southern Philippines, in January 2019.
Overall, there were four significant trends in terrorism in Indonesia during the calendar year.
First, JAD continued to weaken both in terms of operational capacity and resources. The investigation into the Makassar attacks led to the arrest of nearly 30 people.
Second, the Indonesian security forces have begun to take the revival of Jemaah Islamiyah very seriously.
There were almost as many arrests of JI members in 2021 as JAD members, and the JI had not carried out a terrorist attack since 2011.
Indonesian security forces no longer view JI as an ideological “exit ramp” for Islamic State groups and are seriously concerned about the group’s resilience and ingenuity.
And there were clear signs that the JI, which has never renounced violence, was considering a revival of militancy: in March, security forces arrested a member of the JI trained in Afghanistan, who had established a camp for training in Malang for new JI members.
Related to this was a third trend: JI’s decision to infiltrate government organizations.
Security forces arrested, among others, a senior member of the fatwa committee of the Indonesian Ulema Council, suspected of being a JI leader.
Fourth, despite having only a handful of members, the Eastern Indonesian Mujahideen (MIT), a pro-Islamic State group, continued to terrorize the local population in the Poso region of the central Sulawesi. Members of MIT lashed out at local communities who they said were providing intelligence to security forces.
Poso remains central to the narrative of every militant group in Indonesia.
Volatile Southern Philippines
Violence in the conflict-prone southern Philippines was at its lowest level in years.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front continued to implement the peace accord in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BAARM).
Due to the pandemic and the Herculean task of passing a multitude of enforcement and election laws, the Philippine Congress passed legislation that extended the power of the appointed Bangsamoro Transitional Authority until 2025, when when elections for a regional government would take place.
Although there was some public backlash, especially from rivals MILF, the public did not see the extension as a power grab.
Meanwhile, the MILF continued its decommissioning of weapons, after the pandemic slowed the normalization process. As of September 12, 12,000 weapons had been disabled.
Despite the success of the peace process, there remained several militant groups that continued to wreak havoc.
Philippine security forces continued to fight Abu Sayyaf militants in Sulu and Basilan provinces, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Mautes, and other groups in Mindanao.
While the Philippine government has called on BARMM to help fight these militant groups, the home rule actually has no legal authority to do so, after the Philippine Congress removed these provisions from the 2019 implementing legislation. .
In 2021, the various militant groups continued to engage in low-level violence, bombings, kidnappings, and other terrorist attacks in an effort to scuttle the peace process.
Locals have remained angry over the government’s continued failure to rebuild the town of Marawi, where pro-Islamic State fighters took over for five months in 2017. The negative impact of the pandemic on the economy has further fueled grievances that activists sought to exploit.
With national polls scheduled for May 2022, the 150 private armies operating across the country are causing serious concern; many of which are concentrated in Mindanao.
The decline in political violence in the region is an opportunity for respective governments to take stock and address some fundamental grievances.
Unfortunately, few governments are willing to expend political capital to achieve lasting political solutions, while security forces, many of them with increased powers, will always be unable to soundly defeat militant groups.
Thus, many conflicts will continue to simmer in 2022.
*Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the United States Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews