The one-month cessation of hostilities proclaimed at the beginning of April by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN, the “National Revolutionary Front”) already witnessed to its end on the very first days of May. April was the first month without a single attack in 16 years. Due to the COVID-19pandemic, the rebels themselves took the decision to “cease all the activities” unilaterally in order to give way to health workers to operate in a secure context. The group kept faith to its communiqué stating that the hostilities would resume if the police attacked them.
Since 1963, the BRN spearheaded the whole secessionist movement of Malay Muslims, and, in a later period, started to organize a proper rebellion against the state with hundreds of members. The BRN’s course of action was embedded in left-wing aspirations of an Islamic socialism and Malay nationalism, in pursuit of the creation an independent Malay-Muslim country.
Nowadays, one of the debates concerning the insurgency’s nature is hinged on the question of the possibility that the struggle may be no longer based on ethnic claim of land, but on the modern-day Islamic extremism. There has been a great concern by intelligence assessment agencies that the separatists could be redirect into new forms of action, namely the transnational jihad, by external actors and social forces.
In fact, notwithstanding the ethnic-based violence, it may seem plausible to conjecture a slow insertion of the insurgents in the larger context of terrorism taking place mainly in the Middle East. Such conjectures could be made on the basis of several attacks perpetrated, where pattern of victims’ shared identity traits was not yet Thai but actually Christian. Among the organizations that partake in the insurgency, a few have not only been described by the UN as terrorist groups, but also, like in the case of Jemaah Islamiyah, have been found linked with Al-Qaeda.In this case indeed, it is correct to speak of a religious motive behind the killings as, in 2005, it got sadly famous with the beheadings of Christian girls in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Yet, the essence of the unrest itself seems still to be linked to an irredentist will of conquest, not a religious one aiming at the establishment of a panregional caliphate, which is typical of Daesh, al-Qaeda and al-Nusra, for example.
How is it then possible to discard the hypothesis of a jihadist motive? The BRN is not like the Jemaah Islamiyah. They have overtly declared their distance to Jemaah Islamiyah’s methods of warfare. To BRN chiefs, there is no advantage in associating with jihadists, both for political convenience and for ideological reasons, although these may sometimes intertwine together.
The theatrical terrorism of ISIS and al-Qaeda, featured with mass killings, suicide bombings and identification of the whole West as the enemy, does not appeal to Thai insurgents, who have also tried to gain diplomatic support by Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia. Mimicking their style of action or openly siding with them would mean losing the little legitimacy that is left.
The ethnic-nationalistic goal puts the insurgents on another piece of the political chessboard: whereas Daesh and al-Qaeda have had notably the complete rejection and destruction of the western US-led international system, they would prefer to be a part of it, provided an independent state.
It may be of use to think of “jihad” and “jihadism” as two different concepts. Whilst jihadism is more closely related to al-Qaeda and ISIS, asserting a transnational Islamic caliphate, the former may be intended more “simply” as a war against a non-Muslim enemy for, as in this case, a nation-building process – thus, virtually incompatible with the pan-Islamic state. As a matter of fact, it is already evident how different their projects fundamentally are, even conceptually. The Salafi doctrine embraced by the jihadists is altogether rejected by the military and ideological chiefs of the rebellion, meaning the BRN above all.
In Thailand, Salafism is spearheaded by the Saudi educated Ismail Lufti Japakiya, rector of the private Fatoni Islamic university, founded in 2004 by Arab foundations and now receiving government funding. He preaches the reconciliation with the Thai state in a way that is not well-welcomed by the BRN, which is by eschewing violence and trying a more pacific way in approaching the issue. So, while separatists are generally against Salafism, the Thai government is fostering it in the perspective of laying down an alternative path for Muslims’ discontent.
Nevertheless, a collision of ideologies among the high-ranking leaders does not mean that the lower cadres are actually involved in these more nuanced questions. It is more realistic to think of the majority of them as engaged in a battle where one can get the most out of it when the Thai state and society is endangered.
The deadliest attacks of the latest years may shed a light on the question we are attempting to give an answer to. Some actors on this stage are clearly siding/sympathizing for UN-declared international criminals, but this does not permit to generalize to groups like the BRN or the PULO, who still remain organizations guilty of the death of civilians, children included.
Considering that the death toll, that was about 892 in 2007, went down to 218 in 2018, it does feel like having lost much of what was “accomplished”. On the other hand, there has been indeed a gradual rapprochement between the state and the rebels already before the shooting, represented by the talks to which the BRN have begun to participate just recently after years of internal disputes between currents. In the negotiations, the Majlis Syura Patani (Patani Consultative Council, MARA Patani) is the body that stands for the militant groups, which have shown availability for ceasing fire temporarily, due to the COVID-19 situation.
The shooting took place at a security checkpoint on 5th November 2019, when rebels stormed in killing fifteen among policemen and village defense volunteers, making it one of the most disruptive and violent attacks of the last 20 years, also given the use of more advanced techniques of guerrilla and technologies in making IEDs. It is suggested that the perpetrators could have been the BRN and, again, as the target was clearly defined as the police and the village defense volunteers, the jihadist path may be excluded.
Yet, the conditions for a jihadist transition are present, meaning the fact of being a Sunni minority fighting against a non-Muslim country around which has been built a narrative of oppression and new colonialism. If violent fringes like the Jemaah Islamiyah continue to perpetrate horrible acts such the abovementioned one, or, conversely, massacres like those in 2004 at the Krue Se Mosque and in Tak Bai keep on happening, there will be always a high risk of Islamization relying on the exasperation of tones between the state and the insurgents, contextualized obviously in a broader framework where Salafist terrorism gets popularized and finds financial means to sustain its action.
Apart from exacerbating the whole situation once again, resuming the fight means that it will be unlikely to have the BRN do such a thing in the future. The peace talks represent now the best and only possibility for southern Thailand to reach stabilization, but it depends on how each side will be prone to concede to the other.
Benar News. “Bloodshed Returns to Insurgency-hit Thai Deep South after Month of Inactivity.” 4 May 2020.
 Peter Chalk, 2008. “The Malay-Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand Understanding the Conflict’s Evolving Dynamic”. RAND National Defense Research Institute
UN Security Council Resolution, Consolidated list of Taliban associates. 12 December 2006.
 8 November 2017. “Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace.” Report n°219, International Crisis Group.
 Murray Hunter, March 24, 2020. “The Changing Nature of Thailand’s Deep South Insurgency.”
Report of the Secretary General on Children in armed conflicts, UN General Assembly Security Council, 2017.
Matthew Wheeler, 2019. “Behind the Insurgent Attack in Southern Thailand”. International Crisis Group.
 BBC. Gunmen kill 15 in southern Thailand’s biggest attack in recent years.
Vietnam’s Role in ASEAN 2021 meetings
Taking on from the meetings held under the rubric of ASEAN chairmanship of Vietnam in the year 2020, the country coordinator for Russia in ASEAN, Indonesia conducted the meeting which reaffirmed the strategic partnership between ASEAN and Russia in January 2021. Under the meeting it was decided that the two sides need to address the implications of COVID -19 and accelerating the recovery from economic and social point of view across the region. The basis of meeting was the new ASEAN Russia comprehensive plan of action for the next four years (2021-2025), and discuss its impact related to political and economic security, industry, science and technology, smart cities, health cooperation, and increasing people to people contacts. Vietnam during its chairmanship has been proactive in developing meaningful engagement between ASEAN and Russia as well as between other dialogue partners.
Russia supported ASEAN centrality in organisational architecture, but a need was felt for further engaging Russia in the regional dynamics. Within January 2021 itself issues related to ASEAN Economic Community were discussed through the video conference. Given the fact that the ASEAN community blueprints have been discussed as well as the template for Asian comprehensive recovery framework has been out lined last year, the meeting as expected deliberated on issues related to communication and information technology, E-Commerce, minerals, science and technology, and innovation. Areas which have been highlighted during the ASEAN meetings last year has been related to the 4th industrial revolution and working out plan of action. ASEAN economies have been impacted by limited domestic demand and therefore recovery of the value chains suffered because of the pandemic. There is a need for post pandemic economic support.
ASEAN faced the biggest challenge with the change of government in Myanmar when military junta took over which has been criticised at global level. There have been calls at international level to address this at the regional organisational level and undertake effective measures so that the military junta should cede power to the democratically elected government in Myanmar. This was seen as a challenge to the ASEAN as military government had taken repressive measures with more than 800 people killed since the military coup. ASEAN took cognizance of the fact that the changes in Myanmar would be detrimental to its cohesive and centrality as well as it would challenge the authority that the ASEAN has in terms of a regional organization. It issued a statement seeking peace and dialogue among parties. In February 2021a meeting was held related to minerals exploitation and developing ASEAN minerals cooperation action plan and its effective implementation. It has been felt that with the ongoing 4th industrial revolution in ASEAN, the demand for critical minerals would rise exponentially. The meeting also commissioned a study which is expected to submit its report by the end of this year.
In the March 2021 ASEAN socio- cultural committee has expressed strong support to Brunei’s chairmanship which espouses for better care, effective preparations, and prosperity in the region. Taking note of the earlier decisions which have been taken during the ASEAN 2020 meetings, the new chair highlighted various proposals which include developing regional responses to emergencies and disasters, youth academy programme, establishing the ASEAN climate change centre, and developing gender understanding among the people of the region. By the end of March, ASEAN India meeting was also held through the video conference in which it was buttressed that there is a need for effective implementation of the new plan of action for 2021- 2025. Stress was laid about the execution of ASEAN-India Fund, ASEAN- India Green Fund and a need was felt to proactively implement all these programmes under the ASEAN India project management. India has contributed USD 1 million to the COVID 19 fund which was appreciated, and views were shared regarding cooperation in medicine, developing vaccines, and cheap pharmaceutical products.
Under the chairmanship of Vietnam last year, it was suggested that ASEAN should prepare for the 4th industrial revolution in a more cohesive way. It was expressed that with the coming of digital economy and new innovations there is a need for comprehensive consolidated strategy which should prepare the region towards the 4th industrial revolution. It suggested that to achieve such a manufacturing revolution there is need for a better regulatory environment, global competitive standards, developing skills and capacity at the same time. The consultative meetings which were held in the last week of April, accepted that there is need for collaborative frameworks, creating the ecosystem which is required for achieving such a goal.
In early May ASEAN discussed issues related toCOVID-19 impact, transformation of global value chains and how the organization should accept the post recovery phenomenon for the long term. The workshop also addressed the hindrances about global value chain and what exactly are the opportunities which will emerge in the post pandemic recovery. It was suggested that there is need for developing critical infrastructure, addressing gaps in connectivity, and seriously undertaking measures for human resource development. What is surprising this year is the fact that ASEAN failed to raise issues related to the South China Sea very vociferously and how China has been asserting its maritime claims in the region. Even though there have been constrained statements in this regard.
Vietnam, on its part, has been proactively engaging ASEAN dialogue partners -Japan, India, Russia and the US in developing long term strategic partnership, and the new Vietnamese foreign minister updated the developments in South China Sea. ASEAN as an organization has been engaging the new partners such as Chile and Cuba. Vietnam has also been drawing attention to the activities of numerous Chinese vessels in Ba Dau(Whitsun reef ) and it was stated by the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam that the activities of the Chinese vessels violate Vietnam sovereignty and the provisions of the UNCLOS as it goes against the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea(DOC). At the international level during the press conference which was conducted in April 2021 on the issue of South China Sea, Vietnam foreign office clearly remarked that all countries should maintain peace and stability as well as cooperation in the South China Sea and must comply with the international law.
All the discussions which happen this year were a carryover from the discussions which were held in November 2020, and it means that the issue related to politico-security and socio-cultural communities would gain more momentum in coming years. The ASEAN meetings in 2020 has laid out the template and suggested new ideas which would bring the ASEAN economies together and develop blueprint for E-commerce, digital economy, digital connectivity, promoting finance, trade and investment in the region. The issues and the engagement with dialogue partners is expected to start in May 2021 and Brunei will have to undertake effective measures so that the momentum of ASEAN discussions is maintained.
Is Quad 2.0 transforming into a Pentad?
The reinvigoration of Quad Security Dialogue as Quad 2.0 including US, Japan, and Australia along with India during the 12th East Asia Summit in November 2017 has been appreciated and acknowledged by several countries including Germany, France, and Britain. It has been expressed from these countries that such a concert of the major democracies would provide peace, security and help in maintaining order and harmony in the region. Quad 2.0 has been gaining strength with the Foreign ministers meeting in February 2021 followed with Summit level meeting (online) in March 2021 between the leaders of the four countries -India, US, Japan, and Australia.
In 2017, during the India-France Strategic Dialogue, the French senior officials have hinted that they would like to explore possibility regarding collaboration with the Quad members about joining the initiative. The French side has clearly mentioned that given the strength and the objective of the Quad, France would like to join the initiative with the common consensus of the other four partners.
Given the fact that India is averse to any idea of an Asian NATO, therefore France, India and Australia have created a new minilateral which would develop security structures and promote maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. In September 2020 during the foreign Secretary level dialogue between three countries issues such as Maritime Security, Blue Economy, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), and Protection of Marine Global Commons were discussed. The maritime global commons and the blue economy are the two things along with maritime security which allude to the fact that France wants Quad by its side to protect its resources. Deliberating on the objectives and agenda of the Quad, France recently concluded joint exercise with the Quad members in April 2021. The exercises were conducted in the eastern Indian Ocean and were held for three days.
India has been operating Rafale fighter jets (14 are now in service with Indian air force) and plans to procure two squadrons (about 36) of these jets while the three Scorpene submarines have already been commissioned with the Indian navy. This structural defence cooperation between India and France has also been seen in the context of India’s’ entry into the Indian Ocean Commission (an intergovernmental group of island nations- Madagascar, Comoros, Reunion islands, Mauritius, and Seychelles, dealing with maritime governance) as an observer, and India and France maritime surveillance sorties from Reunion islands from Reunion Islands. India benefits from France entry into the Quad as it would enhance extensive naval presence and add more friendly ports into the Quad network. France has expressed concerns related to China’s search for marine resources and seabed minerals near its Indian Ocean territories.
France has been looking into an agreement with Quad members for regular joint exercises and entering into a logistics supply agreement that India has signed with US and both Japan and Australia already have the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA).India and France have signed reciprocal logistics support which is not comprehensive but compliments the requirements from both sides. During the visit of the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to India in November 2017, the French Minister welcomed the “a free, open, prosperous and inclusive” Indo-Pacific and sated that it would servelong-term global interests but added that this concert of democracies should be open and inclusive citing that such an initiative should welcome other democracies.
Following the visit of the French Minister, it has been explored that given few Francophone countries in Eastern Africa, the logistics and other related support can be procured from the willing countries. India has set up a grid of coastal surveillance radars in Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and Madagascar. France has military assets in Mayotte, besides military bases in UAE and Djibouti, and it has proposed a wide network of radars which can be integrated with other coastal surveillance radars so that not only white shipping, but rogue ships can also be monitored.
France has expressed interest in developing synergies and cooperative structure which should assimilate itself with the larger objectives of the Quad and is looking for maintaining peace and security as well as protecting the marine resources in the Indian Ocean as China has also been exploring for seabed resources near the Madagascar region. The islands that are of interest and can benefit from the Pentad (with France as new entrant) as this would provide security to its islands namely Reunion, Mayotte, French Southern and Antarctic Lands which includes Île Amsterdam, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, Île Saint-Paul and other scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean, Bassas da India, Europa Island, Banc du Geyser, and Glorioso Islands, largely uninhabited islands.
Few of these islands can support military structures and Quad countries can use its facilities in and around the Indian Ocean as well as certain islands in the Pacific Ocean. In such a context, France has proposed in the past for holding bilateral and trilateral (with Australia and India) naval and coast guard exercises. The increasing bon homie between Quad members and France serves three basic purposes. Firstly, it involves the French navy in the Indian Ocean and helps in monitoring western Indian Ocean. Secondly, the number of island territories that France had both in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific provides unique coverage and support systems. Thirdly, the trilateral between Australia, India, and France (India and Australia are two Quad members) shows that even though it is not very profoundly expressed but the blueprint is already created for including France to make it a Pentad.
ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus: A Solution to Crisis in Myanmar?
It is a glimmer of hope amidst an ongoing military crackdown in Myanmar that the member countries of ASEAN have been convened in Jakarta to discuss the potential of a resolution of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. The meeting was conspicuous in its absence of any representative of Myanmar people. However, it has reached an interim five point consensus on how to resolve the impasse in Myanmar. This article assesses the efficacy of the consensus in ameliorating the ever deteriorating situation in Myanmar.
The Myanmar junta spearheaded by General Min Aung Hlaing is nearing its 3 month hold of power amidst continuing backlash from citizens and civil societies alike. Using the irregularities and widespread voting fraud of November election as a pretext to usurp the power, the Myanmar junta has taken over the country which is reminiscent of the country’s protracted military rule.
The junta has squelched all of the opposition in its bid to prolong the power hold. The junta has indiscriminately detained the protesters. The number of detainees climbed to 3,389. Security forces have deployed live ammunition to quell the uprising, killing more than 740 people in brutal crackdowns, according to local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Besides, the junta has also halted communications across the country by imposing a nightly internet shutdown for 70 consecutive days.
Amidst this backdrop, the regional organization of south-east Asia, ASEAN has convened a meeting to resolve the situation in Myanmar. This is the first in-person meeting since the onset of covid-19 pandemic and this is also the first foreign visit of junta Chief General Min Aung Hlaing. The ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting was convened at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, and was chaired by the Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. In a statement announced by ASEANs chair, the Sultan of Brunei, the leaders in their five-point consensus called for 1) the immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar; 2) constructive dialogue among all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people; 3) mediation to be facilitated by an envoy of ASEAN’s chair, with the assistance of the secretary-general; 4) humanitarian assistance provided by ASEAN’s AHA Centre and 5) a visit by the special envoy and delegation to Myanmar to meet all parties concerned
Although the statement by the ASEAN and its five point consensus is encouraging amidst such inflammatory situation in Myanmar, it leaves much to be desired. There are many blatant shortcomings of the meeting and the subsequent statement it put forth. Firstly, there was no mention of the prisoners both political and civilian which has been detained by the junta since February. While they had mentioned that the association has “heard the calls”, it is at best quite ambiguous selection of words in an attempt to evade the issue of political prisoners. Secondly, the meeting wasn’t representative enough. While chief of Myanmar military attended the meeting, there was no representative of Myanmar civilian of newly fashioned parallel government namely National Unity Government (NUG). Therefore, the decision that ASEAN reached run the risk of not reflecting the ground realities of Myanmar. Beside some doubts are being raised given ASEAN’s abysmal record of implementing such lofty goals. History abounds with numerous precedents where ASEAN purported to take firm actions but was futile due to its unique organizational structure and lack of good-will. It remains to be seen whether ASEAN can bring about any decisive solution to Myanmar impasse.
Although an epitome of regionalism as evidenced by deepening economic cooperation between the countries, ASEAN’s success in political stability is rather limited. Part of the reasons for lack of political involvement can be attributed to its cornerstone principle of non-interference which forbids any nation to interfere the internal affairs of other countries.
However, in a world marked by globalization where national, regional and global has been blurred and where any incidents in one nation can have spill over effect in other countries of the region. The potentiality of an essentially national incident to disrupt the stability of the region is well documented. Particularly, it requires no special mention that given the geopolitical importance of Myanmar, stability in the south-east Asian region hinges on the stability and good governance in Myanmar. Besides, economic cooperation presupposes a semblance of stability which is hindered if good governance can’t be assured.
Therefore, ASEAN shouldn’t remain aloof from its geopolitical calling since the situation in Myanmar isn’t an internal affair any more and has transcended Myanmar. The Rohingya refugee crisis which is the manifestation of Myanmar military hawkish posture serves as a shuddering reminder to world community. The inability to forestall any crisis can have devastating consequences for the whole region and can disrupt the security in the region.
If ASEAN’s firm action can’t be ensured, the present imbroglio can ensue more such refugee crisis given the assortment of ethnic communities that reside in Myanmar and their apparent hostility and protracted conflict with the junta. Therefore, ASEAN can’t trade the security and stability of broader region under the pretext of its provincial non-interference norm. A bold and effective action by ASEAN is the crying need of the time rather than lukewarm condemnations which doesn’t serve much purpose. Moreover, ASEAN should come out of its record of advancing platitudes and nostrums in response to pressing political issues and rather should take decisive action to solve the quagmire in Myanmar.
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