Regional conflicts defy optimism about 2010
January 15, 2010
It is usual to look forward to a new year with a degree of hope and optimism but, so far as much of Australia's region is concerned, there is little chance for that. Given the conflicts that continue at varying levels of intensity in our part of the world, 2010 will probably go down in the history books as a year of missed opportunities.
For each of the conflicts in the region, a solution has been identified, if rarely taken up or meaningfully so. There is widespread agreement about how to settle many regional conflicts, but a distinct lack of political will to do so.
The separatist Islamic war in the southern Philippines is, at one level, perhaps the simplest to resolve. This is because both main parties to the conflict have agreed on the basic terms and conditions for a sustainable peace.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) reached a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain with the Government of the Philippines in 2008, which identified the area that was legitimately claimed by the MILF. It was the first half of an overall peace agreement that would see the Islamic "Bangsmoro" region of the southern island of Mindanao become an autonomous province.
However, legislators in Manila immediately refused to accept the agreement and claimed it required a variation of the constitution. When unpopular President Gloria Arroyo agreed to constitutional change the legislators then argued, with some legitimacy, that she would use the opening up of the constitution to give herself a third, currently unconstitutional, term as president.
The war in Mindanao was then resumed with full ferocity, with neither the Government nor the MILF making meaningful gains but, predictably, local people suffering.
Similarly, in Sri Lanka, whenever there has been a glimmer of hope of a resolution to that country's Tamil separatist claims, the Government has been undermined for it by whoever happens to be in opposition. With the military aspect of that conflict over, at least for the time being, the political contest in Colombo is between the current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the recently resigned chief of the armed forces, Sarath Fonseca.
Both will now contest the presidential elections later this month on a triumphalist platform of who was most responsible for defeating the Tamil Tigers. Neither have expressed interest in taking the opportunity of the end of military hostilities to find a political solution to the Tamils continuing grievances.
To suggest that a military victory over the Tamil Tigers spells the end of conflict with Sri Lanka's population ignores the more than two decades of prior conflict that brought the Tamil Tigers into existence. The current "peace", then, is just the end of one phase of a longer and deeper problem.
Thailand's four southern provinces continue to struggle under the burden of being Muslim Malay speakers in an officially Buddhist Thai-speaking state. This accident of arbitrary colonial division is able to be resolved through recognition of the region's special status.
However, when Thailand's two dominant political groupings are not fighting with each other, or otherwise dismantling their latest incarnation of temporary democracy, they are deeply reluctant to recognise the south as anything but Thai, despite the fact that it is linguistically, culturally, religiously and historically Malay.
Indonesia's eastern-most province(s) of West Papua remains troubled, with numerous recent political arrests, the continued use of torture and, not least, the killing on December of separatist leader Kelly Kwalik. Kwalik had already arranged with the police to live peacefully while the umbrella West Papua Coalition for National Liberation (WPNCL) attempted to engage the Indonesian Government in dialogue. Others, notably in the Indonesian army (TNI), saw their own interests in seeing Kwalik dead and thus keeping alive the low-level conflict.
It was hoped that when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected for a second term in 2009 he would take the opportunity to fulfil the second half of his 2004 election promise of bringing peace to Aceh and West Papua. However, Yudhoyono has been beset by opponents, both within the legislature and in the TNI, either setting up circumstances that have been claimed as a cover-up for fraud, or calling for his impeachment for such a cover-up.
Yudhoyono is struggling to keep his head above political water, so taking on a task as divisive among Indonesia's economically self-interest elites as finding an equitable solution to the West Papua problem might be just enough to push him under. Regardless of the willingness of the WPNCL to find a middle way and Yudhoyono's in-principle agreement, he has his hands full just surviving.
It is not at all certain that Yudhoyono will find the clear political space, much less the cohesive authority, to embark on a dialogue for resolution of the West Papua problem in his remaining term in office, much less the coming year.
More hopefully, when his political capital was high, Yudhoyono's strong support for a compromise resolution to the separatist war in Aceh is seeing that now autonomous province enter its fifth year of relative peace. There have been some troubling incidents in Aceh since the 2005 peace agreement, but these have been relatively minor compared with other post-conflict environments.
Aceh's increasingly liberal democracy continues not only to hold but to flourish. This is despite occasional attacks against ruling Aceh Party leaders and three shooting attacks against foreigners in 2009, the most recent in November involving the wounding of two Europeans and an American.
One view is that "rogue elements" in the TNI want to push out Aceh's foreign presence so they can return to running Aceh as a corrupt economic fiefdom. Another view is that the claim of "rogue elements" disguises the still deeply corrupt and often brutal character of the TNI, which has been deeply reluctant to undertake any one of a number of serious reforms, including divesting itself of private "business" interests.
Perhaps most positively, if a little surprisingly given the events of 2006-7, East Timor continues to stabilise and, relative to its past, prosper. There is no doubt that East Timor continues to face a series of daunting problems, from illiteracy to poverty to still globally high infant mortality rates.
But its human development indicators are all trending up, the violence of 2006-7 appears gone, the potentially dissident or troublesome groups that existed in internal refugee camps, among ex-soldiers and former guerillas have now been settled, not least with the liberal application of cash that has flowed from an unexpected spike in oil prices. East Timor even has a pension scheme, if a modest one, for the aged, which makes it a happy rarity among developing countries.
East Timor has problems with the distribution of its economic development outside Dili, so this year the Government will embark on the decentralisation of government administration and spending. Each locally elected district government will have a high degree of discretion over spending, ensuring that the country's useful if still somewhat modest funds are spent where most people will actually benefit from them.
Having elected district governments, too, will increase East Timor's democratic credentials, making local decision makers more directly accountable. The East Timorese Government sees political and economic decentralisation as a way of giving power back to its people, in turn reducing the potential for unrest. A number of other regional governments would do well to learn from East Timor's example.
Professor Damien Kingsbury holds a personal chair in the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University.