Southeast Asia Theater

Anti-drug vigilantes heat up Burma's opium zone

With the harvest season just weeks away, tensions are high in Burma's opium-producing Kachin state following a series of clashes between opium-growing peasants and a local citizen anti-drug movement. Pat Jasan, a patrol established two years ago by the Kachin Baptist Church, has been in repeated confrontations over the past weeks at Kachin's Waingmaw township. The most recent, on Feb. 25, resulted in at least 20 Pat Jasan followers wounded in gunfire and grenade blasts. The vigilantes were apparently set upon by a heavily-armed force while clearing poppy fields.

Jakarta: ISIS franchise exploited sectarian tensions

ISIS claimed responsibility for the coordinated bomb blasts and armed attacks that left at least seven dead—including five assailants—in the Indonesian capital Jakarta Jan. 14. Security forces battled militants for hours in the city's central business and shopping district. The online statement said the attack was carried out by "soldiers of the Caliphate," targeting "citizens of the Crusader coalition" against ISIS. Indonesia is not actually part of the coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It has been invited to join the new Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance, but last month announced that it had not reached a decision to do so. (BBC News, SCD, Australia, Jan. 14; DNK, Pakistan, Dec. 18)

Mindanao: toward sectarian war

In a series of Christmas eve attacks, a breakaway rebel group killed nine civilians in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. Army troops killed four members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) after they attacked a farming community in Sultan Kudarat province. Miriam Ferrer, the government's chief negotiator in peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), said seven were shot at close range while working in their rice paddies. A coordinated attack targeted Christians, with two civilians were killed in a grenade attack on a chapel in nearby North Cotabato province. (Reuters, Dec. 26) MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Q. Iqbal blamed the failure of the government to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, instating a local autonomous region, for radicalizing breakaway factions like the BIFF and Abu Sayyaf. "[G]iven that frustrations can be contagious and toxic like poison, no one can really tell how wide it would spread if lawmakers would not be able to pass the BBL,” he said. (Business World, Philippines, Dec. 20)

Thai constitution would grant military immunity

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Nov. 24 that a proposed provision in Thailand's constitution would permit the nation's military to commit human rights abuses without fear of punishment, in violation of international treaties. A new constitutional provision before Thailand's legislative body, known as the the junta, or the National Council for Peace and Order, would exculpate the use of force by military personnel if the conduct is "carried out with honest intention" in the interest of national security. HRW referred to the constitutional amendment as a "license to kill." HRW acknowledged that Thailand's military forces have acted with impunity for decades, but stated: "International human rights treaties ratified by Thailand make clear that status as a government official does not permit immunity for serious rights violations. In addition, Thailand has international legal obligations to ensure the right to an effective remedy for victims of serious violations, including unlawful killings."

Burma: will ceasefire wind down opium war?

Burma's President Thein Sein signed a ceasefire Oct. 15 with eight armed rebel groups, in a bid to bring the country's multiple ethnic insurgencies to an end before the next month's general elections—the first since a nominally civilian government took over and pledged a democratic transition in 2011 after decades of dictatorship. The agreement seeks to incorporate rebel groups into the political process, ending a war that has persisted (with varying levels of intensity) since Burmese independence in 1948. But while the pact is optimistically dubbed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), seven armed groups involved in the peace talks did not sign the final deal. Among the seven non-signatories is the largest rebel army, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), with an estimated 25,000 fighters. Trying to put a good face on things, Thein Sein said, "history will judge the value of the NCA not by the number of signatories but how the terms of the NCA are effectively implemented." Also not signing on are the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Kokang armed factions along the Chinese border. One of the most significant groups signing on, the Karen National Union (KNU), actually entered a bilateral ceasefire with the government in 2012.

Hague to rule in South China Sea dispute

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled (PDF) Oct. 29 that it has jurisdiction to hear a dispute between the Philippines and China over parts of the South China Sea. At issue are a number of islands and shoals, which the Philippines says China has annexed illegally under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China has long held that the PCA lacks jurisdiction to hear the case, saying that it would be open to bilateral negotiations with the Philippines over the issue. China has boycotted the proceedings, rejecting the court's authority in the case. Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, maintaining that its rights are based on history rather than legal precedent.

Philippines: mining link seen to paramilitary terror

In the latest of a wave of deadly attacks on indigenous peoples in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, a community leader was gunned down by armed men on a motorcycle in Agusan del Sur province on Sept. 28. Lito Abion, 44, a leader of the indigenous organization Tagdumahan, was slain in  Doña Flavia village, San Luis municipality, where he long been an advocate for land rights and local autonomy—especially opposing large-scale gold-mining operations in the area. This year has seen several killings and violent attacks on Lumads, as the indigenous peoples of the region are collectively known. Following a call from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, the central government has formed a commission to investigate the attacks, led by Edmundo Arugay, director of the National Bureau of Investigation. But local rights advocates see the government's hand in the violence, pointing to a paramilitary group called the Magahat Bagani Force, said to be linked to the Philippine army. Some 3,000 Lumad residents of the municipalities of Lianga, Marihatag, San Agustin, San Miguel and Tago have been displaced by fighting in their villages and are currently taking shelter at a sports complex in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur province. The abuses have escalated along with a new counter-insurgency offensive against guerillas of the New People's Army (NPA) in recent weeks. (Rappler.com, Oct. 1; PIPLinks, Sept. 30 Inquirer, Sept. 6)

Uighur militants named in Bangkok blast

Thailand's national police authorities on Sept. 15 indicated that last month's deadly Erawan Shrine attack was carried out by Uighur militants. A Chinese national arrested by Thai police, Yusufu Meraili, is said to be from Xinjiang region, indicating he is likely an ethnic Uighur. Also arrested is Abdul Tawab, a Pakistani national who apparently ran a human trafficking ring that catered to Uighurs attempting to reach Turkey. Abudusataer Abudureheman AKA "Ishan," named as mastermind of the attack, is also said to be from Xinjiang, and is believed to have fled to Turkey. Thai authorities say several other suspects are Turks, who have ethnic and cultural links to the Uighurs. Many Turkish nationalists have vocally embraced the Uighur cause. Warrants have been issued for a Thai woman and her Turkish husband, both believed to be in Turkey, and two other Turkish men. Malaysia has made three arrests in the case—two Malaysians and a Pakistani man. Most of the 20 killed in the attack were ethnic Chinese tourists. Suspicion fell on Uighur militants as the bombing came just weeks after Thailand deported 109 Uighurs back to China, their heads covered in hoods. The move was widely criticized by rights groups, who said the Uighurs were could face persecution in China. If the claims are correct, this would be the first known Uighur terrorist attack outside China. No one has yet claimed responsibility. (Bangkok Post, Sept. 17; NYT, Sept. 15; BBC News, Sept. 14)

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