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Agenda for Human Rights Workers in Southeast Asia



Chaiwat Satha-Anand

Peace Information Center, Foundation for Democracy and Development Studies

Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University

TFF associate


There are at least two problems with the phrase "Agenda for Human Rights workers in Southeast Asia", apart from the usual politics of agenda setting. First, the term "human rights workers" is purposively selected to both emphasize the human side of working for human rights and to undermine the increasing tendency in some corners to relegate human rights activities to mainly be in the hands of experts. Second, the term "Southeast Asia" as a complex topography can hardly be discussed in general without essentializing it. But while there may be no underlying unity nor Southeast Asian essence which is shared by all Southeast Asian societies, to assume a total absence of broad family resemblance in the area would also be contrary to common experience. (1) One of the direct implications of this understanding then, is there could be no uniformed agenda for human rights workers in Southeast Asia, though a common guideline is possible.

"Agenda for human rights workers in Southeast Asia" will be formulated in connection with the issue of armed conflicts in the region, especially through raising a question: what could human rights workers do in situations of armed conflict in Southeast Asia? I would argue that in cases of armed conflict in general, and in Southeast Asia in particular, human rights workers could advance the cause of human rights by engaging in conflict transformation which would, in turn, create conditions where conflicts could be lived/dealt with peacefully. Using the armed conflict cases in Aceh and Maluku, Indonesia, Southern Philippines and recent violence in Southern Thailand, conditions responsible for these deadly conflicts will be identified. Then different ways in which these armed conflicts could be dealt with will be critically discussed. Finally, the notion of conflict transformation and its possible contributions to human rights works in situations of armed conflicts will be briefly advanced.

Armed Conflicts in Southeast Asia

From 1989-2000, there were 111 armed conflicts in 74 locations around the world. In 2000, there were 33 armed conflicts in all locations, lower than 37 in the previous year. In Asia, both in 2000 and 1999, there were 14 armed conflicts, a decrease however, from 19 in 1989, and 20 in 1992. In Southeast Asia, most of these armed conflict cases which took place in Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines, register more than 1,000 battle-related deaths recorded during the course of conflict, but less than 1,000 in any given year. (2) Although the number of armed conflicts has been in decline in recent years, their complexities have significantly increased due to the aging of conflicts, some negative experiences in peacemaking, the number of states involved in conflicts, 80 in the last decade, as well as the proliferation of more than 300 state and non-state actors' involvement in conflicts since the end of Cold War. (3) It goes without saying that nearly all of these armed conflicts are intrastate.

Asia-Pacific was sometimes considered the location with the highest number of ethnic conflict incidents and the highest number of independent ethno-political groups involved in such struggles, with possibly the largest number of "major armed conflicts" than any other region anywhere in the world, in every year between 1989 and 1997. (4) In Southeast Asia, due to the highly intermixed and fragmented ethnic demography as well as multicultural geography, domestic armed conflicts have complicated territorial prescriptions for settling conflicts and rendered many of them international in character. It could be argued that these intrastate armed conflicts result from a combination of factors which include control of resources, changing social relations, increasing group inequalities, tension between traditions and modernities, which are then articulated through some kinds of ethnic identities, reflected in organizations or movements in search of self-determination for control or even secession from existing states. (5) But to highlight differences for a cautious understanding of armed conflicts in Southeast Asia, apart from such generalization , I would discuss cases of violence in Aceh, Maluku in Indonesia, Southern Philippines and Southern Thailand.

Aceh and Maluku, Indonesia

There has been a number of studies on violence in Indonesia. (6) According to a 2002 study, from October 1998 to September 2001, there have been armed conflicts in Aceh, Sampit, Maluku, Poso as well as sporadic violence all over Indonesia which has killed 18,910 people. From May 4, 1999 to September 25, 2001, 1,406 were killed in Aceh, while from February 25, 1999 to September 24, 2001, 9,753 were killed in the Maluku deadly conflict. (7) It is interesting to note that within this period, some 59% of those killed by political violence in Indonesia were victims in these two conflicts, and that armed conflicts in Maluku was responsible for the number of deaths 7 times higher than those killed in the protracted case of Aceh. In addition, with more than 500,000 displaced people, forced conversions and human rights outrages in Maluku, one analyst concludes that the ongoing Christian-Muslim conflict in Maluku is "the most deadly civil war taking place anywhere in the world today". (8)

Both cases of armed conflict are different. A negotiator from GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka: Free Aceh Movement) told me recently in Jakarta that the Indonesian military was to blame for the present armed conflict. When pressed if the Jakarta government's hand was involved, he insisted it was mainly the military. But according to some Acehnese, the struggle in Aceh is a case of an "unfinished decolonisation". (9) I would argue, however, that in addition to other causes including economic and military exploitations, among others, violence in Aceh is by and large a result of history of betrayal which is responsible for the current imagination deficit, which takes place when a member of a given "imagined community" could no longer imagine him/herself as a meaningful part of the whole that is the nation. It is increasingly difficult to sustain a sense of belonging to that political home when there is gross injustice, brutal violence and acts of betrayal, among other things. (10) What is needed to transform this conflict, therefore, is an understanding that when imagination deficit becomes acute, a nation falls apart. Only through dialogue and innovation to transform armed conflict in Aceh, could a new imagining for alternative forms of state, perhaps a federation or a confederation of Indonesia in this case, be mobilized.

Abubakar Riry does not speak English. On January 20, 1999, this Javanese Muslim heard that Muslims in Ambon were forced out of their land by the Christians. His village organized a militia of 165 people, with him as the leader, and sending them to defend the Muslims and fight the Christians. He was in Ambon for over a year, saw blasphemous graffiti on the walls against both Prophet Muhammad and Jesus. He also learned two other things. He did not understand the conflict there until he left Maluku to attend a workshop on peaceful solutions in Bali, and that seeing increasing number of deaths and violation of rights, he began to ask about the futures, both for himself and his people. (11) According to him and others from Maluku, the present violence was triggered by personal conflict, but engineered for political purpose by an established Jakarta political party aiming to alter the demographic configuration in Maluku for electoral purposes. The question was, however, why was it so easy for the politician(s) to convince the Muslims and the Christians with such rumors and graffiti? Could it be that deep down, there exists a lack of trust between the two communities which need to be strengthened, or even created in some cases so that killings and violations of rights could cease? To regain trust between two different peoples require an experiment in cultural approach to conflicts.

The Moro in Southern Philippines and the Malay in Southern Thailand

Armed conflicts in the Philippines at present are between the government and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) which has been going on for 33 years (12) , and a lot longer between the Moros in Southern Philippines and the Manila government. (13) While fighting against communist insurgency continues in the Philippines, the Thai state has successfully dealt with them in the 1980's with innovative security policy which emphasizes the primacy of peaceful political solution rather than the use of military means, identification of social injustice and poverty as the major causes of insurgency rather than the Communist Party, and willingness to accommodate those who wanted to return to normal lives as friends not foes, among other things. (14)

On the other hand, a recent study which compared armed conflicts in Southern Philippines and Southern Thailand concluded that the Moro have been "relatively successful" because they experienced more severe socioeconomic and political deprivations at the hands of the Philippines state through repressive policies while the Thai state has mainly used accommodation and development. (15) Although both cases are armed conflicts between large Muslim minorities and the non-Muslim states where religious justifications and histories of colonization by the centers certainly play significant roles in keeping deadly conflicts alive, main factors underlying these two cases of armed conflicts are different. I would argue that conflict in Mindanao could also be framed as a conflict arising from opposing systems of land use practices. In the traditional Moro view, based on customary law and Islam, land is inherited by the community and held in trust by the chief. During the first decade of the last century, with massive influx of settlers from Northern and Central Philippines into communal Moro lands, the Moro became more alienated. Today due to land scarcity and monopoly of prime land in the hands of big agribusiness, not only the Moro but Christian and Lumad (non-Christian indigenous groups) farmers have become impoverished. (16) For the Malay Muslims in Southern Thailand, their political violence is a result of contracted political space. As a result, with the expansion of democratic space in connection with factors such as improvement of living standards and increased inter-cultural interaction between the Muslims and Buddhists, political violence has decreased. (17) Taken together, it could be argued that policy changes which would accommodate a better recognition of cultural rights in land use in the Philippines case, and the strengthening of democratic space that has already been in place as a result of the present Thai constitution and the new Southern Security Policy, which ensures the rights to political participation of minorities in the Thai case, would be conducive to peaceful transformations and thereby reduces the likelihood of violence in the region.

Conflict Transformation as an agenda for human rights workers in Southeast Asia

Given the limitations of terms such as "conflict management" and "conflict resolution", the notion of conflict transformation which "does not suggest we simply eliminate or control conflict, but rather points descriptively toward its inherent dialectic nature" (18) has increasingly become more relevant since it takes into account the dynamism of social conflict and the issue of justice. Following the analysis of deadly conflicts in the four cases in three countries, mentioned above, human rights workers should work set the following agenda. First, the problem of imagination deficit could be mitigated through innovative public debates on alternative forms of state that could restore the sense of belonging to alienated members of political communities. Second, trust as a necessary condition for a political community could be restored through dialogue, inspired by different cultural practices, among conflicting people not unlike the Baku Bae experiment currently conducted in the Maluku. Third, public space should be provided for, so that alternative bases of rights such as cultural rights conducive to land use which has been responsible for violence in the Philippines, could be recognized. Fourth, despite sporadic violence in today's Southern Thailand, which is believed to be more the result of criminal elements or petty politics, the state needs to strengthen its commitment to political rights for minority groups who could then realize their political objectives as full members of the Thai political community. As such, violence used to influence political destinies of a society would be rendered irrelevant. But conflict transformation does not come magically. It is based on a realistic analysis of the situation where conflicting parties' goals are taken into serious considerations so that legitimate and illegitimate goals could be distinguished, criteria for legitimation discussed. Nonviolent action in living through conflicts emphasizing the use of dialogue also need to be emphasized. Finally creativity in finding solutions to transform conflicts both at the structural and cultural levels are crucial. From the conflict transformation perspective, then, human rights workers need to engage in changing deadly conflicts through understanding the complex differences in existing conflicts, empathy, nonviolence and creativity.


A paper prepared for the South East Asia Civil Society Consultation
Organized by the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights,
Asia-Pacific Regional Office, United Nations, Bangkok, November 4-5, 2002



1. See similar argument in the service of discussing the idea of freedom in Asia in David Kelly, " Freedom-A Eurasian Mosaic," in David Kelly and Anthony Reid (eds.) Asian Freedoms: The Idea of Freedom in East and Southeast Asia. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 1-17.

2. Peter Wallensteen & Margareta Sollengberg, "Armed Conflict, 1989-2000," Journal of Peace Research. Vol. 38 No.5 (September 2001), pp. 629-644.

3. Ibid., pp. 633-634.

4. Benjamin Reilly, "Internal Conflict and Regional Security in Asia and the Pacific," Pacifica Review. Vol. 14, No.1 (February 2002), p. 8.

5. Ibid, pp. 8-9.

6. One of the latest is Freek Colombijn and J. Thomas Lindblad (eds.) Roots of Violence in Indonesia: Contemporary violence in historical perspective. (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies ; Leiden: KITLV Press, 2002). Curiously this book begins with a sentence that reads: "Indonesia is a violent country."(p.1) I can't help but wonder if this first sentence signals the foregone conclusion of the study itself?

7. Ichsan Malik, "Baku Bae: Grassroot movement to stop violence in Maluku." A paper prepared for the Regional Workshop on "Understanding and Shaping Conflicts in Asia: Towards a Peaceful Transformation", organized by Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum Asia) and the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Jakarta, October 29-30, 2002, p.1 and mapping deaths on p.2.

8. Reilly, "Internal Conflict and Regional Security in Asia and the Pacific," p.9.

9. Statement by Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro, President of Aceh, Sumatra, National Liberation Front at a meeting in Washington, D.C., October 19, 2000.

10. See a more elaborate discussion on this in Chaiwat Satha-Anand, "Forgiveness in Southeast Asia: Political Necessity and Sacred Justifications," Pacifica Review. Vol. 14 No.3 (October 2002, Forthcoming).

11. Abubakar Riry's account was given at the Regional Workshop on "Understanding and Shaping Conflicts in Asia: Towards a Peaceful Transformation", organized by Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum Asia) and the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Jakarta, October 29-30, 2002.

12. Jose Maria Sison, chief of the CPP, has recently declared that the National Democratic Front (NDF) will not lay down its weapons and will not be bullied by fear at the hands of Manila nor the US. Instead, "the revolutionary forces will instead continue the armed struggle." See Bangkok Post, November 2, 2002.

13. See R.J. May, "The Religious Factor I Three Minority Movements: The Moro of the Philippines, the Malays of Thailand, and Indonesia's West Papuans," Contemporary Southeast Asia. Vol. 13 No. 4 (March 1992), pp. 397-402, for a brief discussion of armed conflicts between the Moro in the South and the powers at the center which began since the Spanish colonists arrived in 1565, then after the Spanish-American war in 1898, against the American occupation in the South, and since the last century against the Manila government.

14. See Chaiwat Satha-Anand, " Forgiveness as a Nonviolent Security Policy: An Analysis of Thai Primie Ministerial Order 66/23," Social Alternatives. Vol.21 No. 2 (Autumn 2002), pp. 29-36.

15. Syed Serajul Islam, "The Islamic Independence Movements in Patani of Thailand and Mindanao of the Philippines," Asian Survey. Vol. XXXVIII No. 5 (May 1998), pp. 441-456.

16. This argument is based on Myrthena L. Fianza's research in her, " Conflicting Land Use and Ownership Patterns and the 'Moro Problem' in Southern Philippines," in Miriam Coronel Ferrer (ed.) Sama-Sama: Facets of Ethnic Relations in South East Asia. (Quezon City: Third World Studies Center, 1999), pp. 21-70.

17. See this line of argument in Suria Saniwa bin Wan Mahmood, " De-radicalization of Minority Dissent, A Case Study of the Malay-Muslim Movement in Southern Thailand, 1980-1994," in Ibid., pp. 115-154.

18. John Paul Lederach, Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), p. 17.


© TFF & the author 2002  


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