Southeast Asia Theater

Mindanao: deadly clash with ISIS forces

At least 18 soldiers and five militants were killed in a fierce 10-hour fire-fight between Philippine government forces and the Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan province, on the southern island of Mindanao April 10. More than 50 soldiers were wounded in the clash at the barangay (village) of Baguindan, Tipo Tipo municipality. Local media report that an entire platoon was "wiped out," and that four of the soldiers were beheaded. The fighting began when an army patrol found a camp of some 100 Abu Sayyaf fighters. Patrols had been hunting Abu Sayyaf across across Basilan and the nearby Joso islands for weeks, hoping to free at least 18 foreigners being held by the group. Abu Sayyaf has recently joined the ISIS franchise, with leader Isnilon Hapilon pledging to make Southeast Asia a "wilayat" or province of the Islamic State. (Straits Times, Singapore, April 10)

Bloody repression of peasant protests in Mindanao

Three were killed when security forces opened fire on farmers and lumad (indigenous people) who were blockading a highway in Kidapawan City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, April 1. At least 116 were injured, with 18 hospitalized, and 88 missing, including minors, according to local rights workers, according to Ariel Casilao of the Anakpawis political party. "Most of the injured suffered minor wounds and are here at the church compound," she said, refering to a local Methodist church that was supporting the protesters. The day after the repression, the church sheltering the wounded survivors was searched by police, ostensibly looking for weapons.

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.