“As Long As They Don’t Use Violence”: Making Peace and Resisting Violent Extremism in South-East Asia (UNDP, 2020)

“As Long As They Don’t Use Violence”: Making Peace and Resisting Violent Extremism in South-East Asia (UNDP, 2020)
Resolving conflict in South-East Asia has been an important part of controlling violent extremism in the region in the last two decades. Ending communal violence and long-running insurgencies by signing peace agreements has allowed violent extremism to become a manageable problem.

The prospect of a future stake in government has encouraged some insurgents to shun extremist groups. By coming up with new subnational systems for governing formerly rebellious provinces, governments have helped create both have resistance to extremist ideology and marginalized those insurgents still committed to the cause. The future success of these arrangements could provide an alternative to those groups that continue to advocate extremist violence as the only way to achieve militant goals such as sharia or independence. The South-East Asian experience shows that the tools of conflict resolution, support for peace processes, respect for human rights, and peacebuilding are still central to aiding the present challenges of preventing violent extremism.

Changing the conflict environment is one in a complex series of factors influencing disengagement, resilience, and resistance to extremism. The experience of South-East Asia shows how militants in the region are often ready to stop using violence to achieve their political goals. Even for extremist militants, changing the context that encouraged them to join violent groups is important for disengagement. Other factors include disillusionment, reconnecting with non-radical social networks, and a shift towards work and family life. In Indonesia, broad historical and political trends have undermined extremist groups. Indonesia’s democracy is a decentralized one that allows regional interests to be represented and flexible enough to permit the advocacy of sharia. In the Philippines, a key distinction has been understanding the difference between insurgents and terrorists, and then treating the two groups differently.

Looking back, different conflicts provide various lessons on how peace and political processes interact with extremist groups in the Indonesian archipelago and the Philippines. In East Timor’s struggle for independence, the resistance movement’s frustration with a lack of political options led it to consider tactics usually associated with terrorist groups, such as an urban bombing campaign. In Aceh, an ethno-nationalist movement saw international support as a lever aiding its strategic success and rejected any association with transnational and regional extremist groups. In the Maluku, communal violence responded better to a peace agreement, as the social fabric there was stronger and jihadis more disorganized. In Poso, also in Indonesia, a long-term strategy implemented by outside militants led to persistent violence long after a peace agreement was signed. In Mindanao in the Philippines, a deliberate effort was made by the government not to call insurgents terrorists and this persisted over many difficult years during negotiations. In turn, this commitment to a peace process encouraged insurgents to make unwelcome foreign jihadis and close their training camps.

These cases studies help illustrate a number of lessons from the region that might inform how real or perceived extremist threats can be understood in ongoing South-East Asian conflicts. Conflict can be an entry point to extremism and targeted prevention that differentiates between insurgent and extremist violence is important. In South-East Asia, ethno-nationalist insurgencies have proved to be a bulwark against extremists. Governments, insurgents, and terrorists all use violence as a tactic, but understanding the nature of each group’s grievances, with whom to negotiate and sorting one kind of violent actor from another is important. While peace can take decades to negotiate, maintaining the momentum of a political process can be an important source of immunity against violent extremism. Insurgents who are committed to finding peace can also be partners in preventing violent extremism. The resolution of conflict remains a key part in promoting the disengagement and containment of violent radicals. The international community has a role to play by being more restrained in how it designates terrorists.

For those wishing to support the prevention of violent extremism in South-East Asia, it should be acknowledged that tools used in Indonesia and Philippines can contribute to ongoing challenges in places like Myanmar and Thailand. Insurgents with long standing grievances should be distinguished from terrorists. Instead of using terrorism laws to name and sanction insurgents, insurgents should be brought into established peace processes to minimize the potential of violent extremists taking advantage of these conflicts. Sustained political engagement rather than more unsuccessful deadly military campaigns should be the way forward. Environments that resist violent extremism can be maintained through conflict prevention or encouraged through conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and investing in successful political transitions after a peace agreement. The regional experience shows that preventing violent extremism can also be achieved by creating centripetal forces that pull extremists towards the centre and political processes. This can include putting a premium on talks rather than military action. It can mean finding new ways to encourage militants to disengage from violence rather than focus on the more challenging goal of trying to deradicalize them. It can happen by providing pathways to peaceful action through protest, political parties, and the ballot box. The prevention of violent extremism may also require democracies to tolerate uncomfortable, even anti-democratic, ideas such as majoritarianism, sharia or separatism.

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TopicDeradicalization, Programmes, Plans of Action, Preventing violent extremism, Strategic communication, Resilience
CountryIndonesia, Philippines
RegionAsia and the Pacific


Themes: Deradicalization, Programmes, Plans of Action, Preventing violent extremism, Strategic communication, Resilience
Countries: Indonesia, Philippines
Regions: Asia and the Pacific