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  • Managing Armed Conflict in Southeast Asia:The Role of Mediation
  • Michael Vatikiotis (bio)

The Southeast Asian region is more peaceful than it has been in the past six decades. Interstate conflict is a distant memory, and many —though not all —of the internal conflicts that erupted in the process of nation building after the colonial era have either subsided or have been resolved. ASEAN is proud of the fact that compared with neighbouring regions, relations among member states are relatively harmonious and security is for the most part assured.

There are glaring exceptions, however. In several parts of the region stubborn irredentist conflict sustains low intensity armed violence. In recent years, internal conflicts in the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand and parts of Indonesia have flared up. In Southern Thailand, more than 3,500 lives have been lost since 2004. In 2008 a flare up of violence in the Southern Philippines resulted in the loss of 300 lives and the displacement of almost half a million people.

The fact that most of these conflicts pit Muslim against non-Muslim communities (in Indonesia's Maluku province, Mindanao in the Southern Philippines and Southern Thailand) has meant they attracted wider attention because of the dangers of wider international terrorist involvement.

Management of these conflicts has been partially successful. Over the years, governments have forged temporary ceasefire agreements, implemented some special local political arrangements, or placated communal feelings sufficiently enough to keep violence at a manageable level. But resolution in terms of reaching effective agreements to permanently end hostilities and address grievances through far reaching political and legal arrangements has been rare. [End Page 28]

One notable exception appears to be Aceh. The long running conflict between the Indonesian authorities and the Free Aceh Movement was settled after the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in Helsinki in August 2005. The settlement, which allowed the former rebel groups to set up their own political parties, came after more than six years of efforts by private mediators from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and latterly the Conflict Management Initiative, to bring the two sides together.

The successful settlement of conflict in Aceh has raised the profile of mediation as a tool of conflict resolution in Southeast Asia and inevitably prompted questions of whether similar strategies of facilitation and mediation by a third party in an internal armed conflict can help effectively reduce violence and settle long standing grievances. This article argues that this is indeed the case, and offers a general set of suggestions aimed at encouraging parties conflicting in the region to embrace modern mediation strategies.

Traditionally, governments in Southeast Asia are strongly averse to infringements of sovereignty. A collection for the most part of modern states with memories of relatively recent colonial rule, Southeast Asian nations have stoutly resisted embracing collective formal security mechanisms that provide for intervention in internal disputes. ASEAN was established formally more than forty years ago as a cooperative economic grouping, whereas in reality the five original member states were economic competitors in need of more assured collective security.

Yet underlying these rigid positions on interference is an equally strong tradition of informal diplomacy that has generated some successful instances of mediation. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, ASEAN member states cooperated to help resolve the Cambodian conflict. In many other instances, one country has helped another deal with violent conflict, as when Thailand and Malaysia cooperated in the late 1980s to settle a long running communist insurgency aimed at Malaysia, or when Indonesia helped broker a deal between the government in Manila and the Moro Nationalist Liberation Front in 1996.

Despite their success, all these instances of third party mediation have been presented as exceptions that prove the rule. Rather than embrace the need for an institutionalized process of mediation and conflict resolution within the region, ASEAN member states have preferred to stand solidly behind a firm insistence on non-interference. So much so that when Indonesia and Malaysia offered to help mediate in the resurgent conflict in Southern Thailand after 2004, Thailand said it preferred not to have the involvement of a third country settling an internal conflict. More than a decade after the MNLF agreement...


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pp. 28-35
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