Monday, June 26, 2006

The Forever Wars

Forty bombs went off simultaneously in southern Thailand in mid-June, targeting police stations and government offices. That same month 13 Naxalites were killed in clashes with security forces in the Indian state of Chhattingarth.

Welcome to Asia’s insurgencies. Neither of the incidents mentioned above receive much attention in the US, where the only conflict that matters is the three-year-old insurgency against American troops in Iraq.

Still, it is worth noting that South and Southeast Asia have been racked with insurgencies, many of them raging for 30 years or more.

The violence that has engulfed Thailand’s three southern-most provinces is just in its infancy. The disturbances there go back only to 2004. Some of the other insurgencies have been going on for nearly 50 years – with no end in sight. Here is a list:

Insurgency Year begun

Myanmar – various 1958
India – Naxalites 1967
Philippines – NPA 1969
Philippines – MILF 1971
Indonesia – Aceh l976
India – Northeast 1979
Sri Lanka – LTTE 1983
India – Kashmir 1989
Nepal – Maoists 1996
Thailand – south 2004

Source: Ploughshares, Armed Conflict Reports

Ten insurgencies, not counting those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been raging in Asia, many of them dating back to the end of the World War II. The average duration is 27 years – and counting. Insurgencies go on forever.

Probably the most serious spate of violence today is in India – everybody’s current cover story. New Delhi confronts three insurgencies, of which the most serious and growing is the one against the communists, known as Naxalites from the small northeastern town where the rebellion started 30 years ago.

Once a rag-tag force, the Naxalites have grown into a rather formidable army of some 20,000 fighters. They are active now in about half of India’s states, especially in the poorer eastern states, a large swath of territory known as the “Red Corridor.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently called the Naxalites India’s greatest security threat since independence in 1947. more serious than Islamic terrorism or al-Qaeda.

The governments fight back these various insurgencies with a combination military force, amnesties, incentives, promises of increased autonomy, with various success. This month Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared “all-out war” against the communist New People’s Army, one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies.

The Philippines has one of the poorest-equipped armies in Southeast Asia and has to deal not just with the NPA but also with the simmering Islamic insurgency on the southern island of Mindanao. One wonders if Arroyo’s “all-out war” will have any more impact that her predecessors’.

In the world of Asian insurgencies cease fires come and cease fires are broken. Very often the enemy is not one but several different groups – a dozen or more insurgent groups fight New Delhi in India’s troubled northeastern states.

Of course, the nations use divide and conquer tactics. Sometimes insurgent groups abandon the fight and come over to the side of the national government, as happens from time to time in Myanmar.

The signing of an agreement in 1996 between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front split the rebellion into two parts. One faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front continues to make war on Manila (a cease fire is in place).

Sometimes insurgencies finally do come to an end. The twenty-year rebellion in Indonesia’s Aceh province seems to have ended with an agreement signed last year in Sweden. Indonesian troops withdrew, and the rebels turned in their weapons. The shock of the tsunami in late 2004, which devastated Aceh, may have played a part in ending the conflict.

This month Nepal was treated to the spectacle of “Comrade Pachanda”, leader of the Maoists, showing up at government house in Kathmandu to treat with the prime minister. It remaines to be seen if he will end his “People’s War” and join in democratic elections.

The influence of al-Qaeda or any other outside force on any of these conflicts seems to be marginal. Terrorism experts debate the extent to which al-Qaeda is involved in Thailand’s insurgency in its three Muslim provinces in the south. Supposedly the MILF has contacts with al-Qaeda in the southern Philippines.

There is little doubt that al-Qaeda likes to stir up trouble in infidel states. But the aim of the Muslim rebellions in Thailand, and earlier in Aceh, namely independence or autonomy for small Muslim states, runs counter to al-Qaeda’s vision of a pan-Islamic Caliphate.

The Sri Lankan insurgency – actually more like a civil war – involves two ethnic groups that share a common Hinduism, although there are some Muslim Tamils fighting with the rebels.

As mentioned before, several of the insurgencies are actually communist – Communists. Remember them? - although there is no evidence that any of the three communist states in Asia, China, Vietnam or North Korea, has any connection with them.

These countries have little choice but to carry on the struggle, even if it goes on for decades. They are like a long-running sore. Not for them the luxury of debating whether to set a withdrawal date. The rebellions must be defeated or accommodated in some way.

Nevertheless they offer a lesson: Insurgencies go on forever. When one hears about “staying the course” remember Asia’s experiences shows that the “course” can be very long indeed.


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