Home » Nation and State-Building, Self-Determination and Conflict Resolution in Southeast Asia

Nation and State-Building, Self-Determination and Conflict Resolution in Southeast Asia

by Rinku Khumukcham
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By: Kamarulzaman Askandar

Mr. President Dr. Debabrata Roy, Chairman of the Arambam Somorendra Trust Dr. Arambam Lokendra, my friends Pradip Phanjoubam and Dr. Immanuel Varte, ladies and gentlemen.
It is indeed a privilege and an honour to be in Manipur to participate in the 14th Death Anniversary of late Arambam Somorendra and pay my respect to him by delivering the 9th Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture.
Let me take you to the world of the Southeast Asians who are close to the people of this region. We are living in the year 2014. Malaysia is still struggling with the nation-building process, even if she gained her independence in 1957 and has six years to go to achieve her Vision 2020 of becoming a developed nation. Many people in Singapore, most of whom are descendants of migrants themselves, are complaining that the city-state is being over-run by ‘unacceptable’ new migrants. Hate speeches on the internet, blogs and discussion rooms show the intolerance of many citizens against peoples brought in to do things, which normal Singaporeans would not do.
Indonesia being the largest country (with the highest number of ethnic groups) is not spared and has to constantly remind its population of the Bhineka Tunggal Ika – ‘unity in diversity’ concept and prevent another Timor Leste from being created within its boundaries. The Aceh war of independence is over. But self-determination issues are still being discussed between the capital Jakarta and the province Aceh. Timor Leste on its part is still very much struggling not only with nation-building but more importantly in the state-building process and survivality.
Thailand has not only the ‘colourful’ yellow-red power struggle to contend with but also one of the longest running self-determination struggles in the ‘far’ south involving the Malays of Patani fighting for peace, justice and resolution of the conflict punctuated with almost daily doses of shootings and bombings. These are happening under the shadow of uncertainty permeating the future of the nation amidst question of survivality of the monarchy.
All these, though, pale in comparison with the situation in Myanmar – a nation going through a phase of ‘guided transition’ in its transformation from war to peace; towards the direction of a ‘national dialogue’ and constitutional reform which promises an end to their problems, if they can pass through the quagmire of the peace process with the 14 ethnic-states demanding self-determination, justice, and peace. Then, in this country, there is also the need to overcome the dire situation of the Rohingyas, one of the most if the not the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world today.
The Indochinese sub-region is not spared as the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are still trying to overcome the sufferings and legacies of their fight for independence and the pains of this struggle. All have suffered a lot and nationbuilding has been a painful and laborious process. They have the advantage though of ‘determined’ leaderships not willing to compromise on their goals.
Lastly, the Philippines, too, went through difficult times in overcoming the pains of nation-building with groups in the southern part of the country mounting their own demands for a separate nationhood based on their identity and history. Together with the Patanis of Southern Thailand, the Bangsamoros of Southern Philippines claim the prize for being the longest running self-determination struggles in the region, going back about 400 years when they first fought against the Spanish invaders, to be followed by the Americans and Manila in subsequent years. However, while the Patani struggle rages on, the Bangsamoros have been involved in peace processes since the 1970s to secure peace for their region, culminating in the 2012 Framework Agreement for the Bangsamoro (FAB) and recent Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro (CAB) signed between the Philippines Government and the torchbearers of the Bangsamoro people, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
As peace can finally see the light of day in Mindanao, it is good to reflect upon the question of why it has been so difficult to attain peace in Southeast Asia. Why the issues that have caused these conflicts, which have their roots in history and are legacies of colonialism, have been so difficult to resolve. And finally, what lessons can be learnt from these examples. In this memorial lecture, I will argue that these struggles are part of the legacy of colonialism and unfinished decolonisation processes in the Southeast Asian region, and to finally resolve them would be tantamount to putting the final touches to the picture of peace in the region.
Nationhood and Self-determination
A nation-state is a State that is dominated by a single, majority or dominant nation. This is in contrast with the ‘state-nation’ which is reflective of most of what we have in multi-ethnic societies today – a State with many nations. The fond dreams of many nationalists and national liberation movements have been to create a nation-state where a national identity is forged via the consolidation of interests and identities at the end of a long struggle for independence. Whatever differences that they might have during the process of achieving independence, the outcome should be one that celebrates a particular national identity such as a Malaysian identity, a Singaporean identity, a Burmese identity, a Filipino identity and so on. The belief is that a national identity will enhance cohesiveness and make it easier for the fledgling nation to move forward as one.
While differences are acknowledged and even celebrated (tolerated?), they are constantly monitored for potential problems and ways are constantly being searched to bridge the gaps. The State for a newly independent nation is used as the instrument, tool or apparatus not only for ruling the country but also for forging this national identity. Power in the system is lodged with the dominant group or groups giving them the advantage over others. In many cases, the dominant group will try to impose its own characters onto the nation. Even if the original intention was to embrace the existing diversity, the outcomes at times would differ. For example, despite the ‘Unity in diversity’ slogan in Indonesia, the national identity is closely associated with the Javanese culture. This in return is also translated into national development resulting in uneven development between Java and the other islands. Outer islands and regions then complain about the uneven development between the islands, with Java being the most developed island in the country.
Malaysia started out as country that celebrated diversity, too, but minorities have registered their grievances complaining about preferential treatment given to the Bumiputera group, despite arguments saying that these are needed to correct socioeconomic imbalances between the different ethnic groups. Singapore too celebrated diversity in the country, even designating the four main spoken languages as the national languages of the country. The national anthem is sung in the Malay language. But it soon became clear that English is the main language sidelining the local languages and that the majority Chinese group would be dominant in all aspects of this small city-state.
Centralisation of power within the systems in the countries of Southeast Asia added more problems. Almost all the countries, with the exception of Malaysia, prefer the centralised or unitary mode of government. Power is concentrated in the capital and resides with the dominant group. Decision is made on the basis of national interests and sovereignty lies with the State, not the people. The bureaucracy is not only for administering the implementation of national policies but also acts as a tool to consolidate powers of the national government.
This is the flaw of many decolonisation processes.
The struggle for independence between the colonies (except Thailand) and their colonial masters is soon transformed into a struggle between the new sovereign nation and the newly independent peoples. The struggle is also between proponents of State’s rights and the collective group rights, which was then illuminated into a struggle for self-determination. This is especially evident in countries that harbor groups that have vehemently resisted inclusion into this new state-nation in the aftermath of an independence struggle.
The existence of such groups is not a surprise in a situation of multi-ethnicity in a new State. Among the reasons that have been given for their existence include the history of self-rule in the past; a history of antagonism with and struggle against the dominant group which can include too a history of violent actions against them; a clear ethnic or religious identity that differs the aggrieved minority from the rest of the country and especially the dominant majority ruling the country; uneven social, political and economic development between the centre and the periphery, and between the majority and the minority; and existence of kin groups across the border in adjacent countries.
Self-determination Struggles as Unfinished Decolonisation Processes
This section will look at some examples of self-determination struggles from around the region.
Thailand is the only country in the region that has never been colonised. In fact Thailand or Siam as it was known before was the one that terrorised neighbors in the region. One such former neighbour was the Malay Muslim Sultanate of Patani in what is now known as Southern Thailand. The Patani Sultanate was invaded by Siam in 1786 and vassals were installed to rule the area on behalf of the King in Bangkok.
The annexation of Patani was formalised with the London Treaty in 1909 between Siam and the British. This treaty gave international recognition to the annexation of the Sultanate. The five provinces, which were annexed into Siam, were a Muslim majority area. Thus, they were clearly distinct from the rest of the country and are now becoming a minority group in a country dominated by the Buddhist Thais.
Phases of anti Thai movements were carried out. Initially, the royalist elites led the movement, which was followed by the Muslim Ulamas and finally by broad ideologically-based pro-independence groups. The last category consist of several groups such as the Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN – National Revolutionary Front), Islamic Front for the Liberation of Patani (BIPP), the Bersatu, and many others.
These groups, most of which were established in the 1960s are still present to this day, having increased their prominence and the intensity of the conflict since 2004. Demands have been on achieving independence for their region, and to a lesser extent autonomy, self rule and the control of development in the area. A peace process was started in 2013, facilitated by Malaysia, but was derailed by the instability and eventual collapse of the Central Government in Bangkok and infighting within the Patani groups.
The Philippines
The Bangsamoro of Southern Philippines is a Muslim minority group living in a country dominated by the Christian Filipinos. Bangsamoro is divided into 13 ethnolinguistic groups and are spread out throughout the mid and western Mindanao, as well as in the smaller islands of Sulu, Basilan, Tawi Tawi and Palawan. They have fought the Spanish invaders since the 17th century only to be included as part of the Philippines by the Americans in the late 19th century and eventually by Manila.
Comparatively underdeveloped and poor, the Bangsamoro people also lost their land to land-grabbing activities and trans-migration programs supported by Manila. They now constitute only about 25 percent of the island population and are concentrated in the middle and western parts of the island.
The Mindanao Independence Movements in the 1960s gave way to a more organised liberation movement in 1970 led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). An Islamist faction broke out of the MNLF in 1977 and became MILF. These two became the major movers of the self-determination struggle in Southern Philippines.
While the MNLF started negotiating with Manila in 1976, culminating in the Final Peace Agreement (FPA) of 1996, MILF started their talks with the government in 1997. Indonesia represented the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the MNLF talks, while Malaysia facilitated the MILF talks.
The MNLF talks resulted in the creation of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which consisted of five provinces and a city. It was a failed experiment with autonomy for the MNLF.
MILF signed a few notable agreements – the most important being, as mentioned above, FAB in 2012 and CAB in 2014. CAB laid out provisions for a new Bangsamoro Basic Law, power and wealth sharing between Manila and the Bangsamoro, and what they termed ‘normalisation’ of relations.
The conflict is poised to be resolved with the creation of the Bangsamoro Government and parliament scheduled for 2016. This will be the climax of the self-determination struggle of the Bangsamoro people of Southern Philippines.
Aceh used to have its own Sultanate ruling over the Acehnese people. The Acehnese fought against the Dutch valiantly during the colonial period and are proud to say that they have never lost their independence to the Dutch. After the independence of Indonesia in 1949, Aceh was incorporated into the new nation under promises of Islamic solidarity and nationhood.
They were also promised a province of their own and self rule within Indonesia. The promises were not fulfilled resulting in the first phase of Aceh self-determination struggle in the 1950s led by the Ulamas. The conflict ended when they were given special autonomy status and freedom of religion in the late 50s.
The second phase of conflict was more secular in nature and started with the formation of the Free Aceh Movement in 1976 to fight against economic and political injustices. The war was bloody and protracted and ended only in 1998 when President Suharto was ousted.
Aceh then went on a couple of phases of peace processes, a military and civil emergency, a tsunami, and finally a peace agreement in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two sides facilitated by the Crisis Management Initiative of Finland. This MoU was then translated into the Law on Governing Aceh (LOGA) of 2007 to structure and guide new relations between Aceh and Jakarta.
Among the notable new arrangements are the reverse in the formula for wealth sharing from 30-70 to 70–30; the constitutional amendment allowing for the formation of local political parties in Aceh; and the enhanced decentralisation and autonomy formula for Aceh including consultation with the Acehnese on any decisions affecting them. Conflicting issues, however, continue to linger amidst accusations of abuse of power, neglect and incompetency of the current Acehnese administrators, lawmakers and leaders, most of whom were former combatants in the long self-determination struggle in Aceh.
Myanmar is currently undergoing a process of limited transformation and ‘guided transition’ after being in political isolation for many years. The problem in Myanmar is symptomatic of a problematic decolonisation process that has never been properly addressed. The current on-off ceasefire agreement with the 14 ethnic nationalities in the country shows just how difficult a nation building process is and can be.
The 1947 Panglung agreement could have paved the way for peace with at least some of the minority ethnic groups but was never fully accepted and implemented. The result has been the continuation of pre-independence era issues of nation and state-building, compounded by internal struggle for power and dominance within the country.
Further, it has resulted into military domination and oppression as well as violation of civil and political rights of the people, the continuous bloody self-determination struggle of ethnic minorities and persecution of other ethnic minorities, most notably the Muslim Rohingya population in the Rakhine state.
Pressures from outside including ASEAN ‘constructive engagement’ and sanctions from many countries has resulted in the ‘softening’ of the military approach and the opening of Myanmar to outsiders, including investors. This year’s ASEAN Civil Society Conference organised in Yangon in March drew about 3000 people all demanding change and faster transformation of Myanmar, albeit under the watchful eyes of the State.
It is accepted that Myanmar needs a constitutional reform to resolve the existing problems, and this would only come about after a national dialogue and successful peace process with the ethnic minorities. While all these are being planned, the self-determination struggles of the minority ethnic groups continue.
Challenges in Resolving Self-Determination Type Struggles
The continuous existence of self-determination type struggles in the region shows how difficult it is to resolve these conflicts. The use of weapons and violent means on all sides only compounded the problem even more. Over the last 50 years, only Brunei has peacefully become independent in 1984. Even Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965 was preceded by violent riots in some cities on the peninsula.
Timor Leste’s independence was preceded by an armed struggle of the Timorese people against Indonesian domination and was only made possible by international pressures on Indonesia in the aftermath of the Asian economic crisis in 1997. All in all, decolonizing and becoming an independent nation is never easy. Even after independence the problems continue as has been noted in the previous section.
Lingering issues continue during the power struggle between the new ruler and the newly ruled groups demanding self-determination. Some challenges and lessons learnt from the cases in the region include the following.
Power Struggle between the Centre and Periphery
Becoming a new State entails recognition of sovereignty by the international community, including admission into the United Nations. More importantly, and prior to that, this recognition has to come from within. There has to be recognition of State sovereignty by the people being ruled. The people in most cases just follow the lead of elites in giving blessings to the new State. The elites then in turn commandeered support for the creation of the new State through a liberation movement, a referendum, a ‘social contract’, even an armed uprising. The act of State creation then goes through various phases, including the handing over of sovereignty of the people to the State and giving the State the mandate to rule over the people.
Unfortunately, the process also involved manipulation of the majority and even the State to ensure that territories are included and groups pacified and persuaded to join the new State.
Take for instance ‘social contract’ between the Malays, Chinese, and Indians prior to independence of Malaya in 1957; the formation of Malaysia in 1963; the London Treaty of 1909 between Siam and Britain; struggle for independence of Indonesia in late 1940s and Panglung Agreement of 1947 in Burma, etc.
The power struggle between the centre and periphery that resulted after independence show the dissatisfaction between the State and the people, especially those forced or manipulated to be part of the new State. This in turn would be translated into movements to support self-determination aspirations of the aggrieved populace in the affected regions. The questions asked include the legality of inclusion and the question of sovereignty – sovereignty of whom over whom; sovereignty of State over the sovereignty of the people or likewise; and the question of indivisibility of the State.
Multiplicity of Actors
An important part of the problem is the multiplicity of actors involved on all sides. In many cases, there are simply too many actors involved and this has compounded the problem of finding a solution that can help pacify the interests of all. In the case of Myanmar, the needs of more than 100 ethnic groups have to be addressed. Even the current ceasefire agreement with only 14 groups is very complicated. In the Patani struggle of Thailand, there are multiple actors on both sides – on one side the politicians, military, royal family and on the other side the PULO, BRN and BIPP, etc. Similarly, there are multiple actors in the Bangsamoro struggle – government, military, MNLF, MILF, Abu Sayyaf, etc.
All actors have stakes, interests and needs in the conflict. The question then involves not only addressing the issues and answering the questions but also how to balance these multiplicities of needs and interests. The question also involves the sincerity of the elites (for whom and for what?) and the issue of representativeness – how much do they actually represent the grievances and aspirations of the people.
Strategy and the Use of Weapons by the Actors
The next issue involves strategy and the use of weapons by the actors. When the selfdetermination movements turned into an armed struggle, it elevates the conflict to another level. On the movement side, this is to address the asymmetrical nature of the conflict and a necessary precursor to future talks. They need to be taken seriously and in their minds they will not be taken seriously until they can show that they are capable of inflicting pain on the other side. On the side of the government, this is an affront to the State’s sole monopoly of the usage of arms and need to be put down.
Oft times, too, the State does not wait for armed uprising to happen and take unilateral action to violently suppress the movements. This in turn usually will result in likeminded actions on the other side even if there was no real intention to use this strategy. Cases in point would be Aceh, Mindanao and Patani. Prolonged use of this strategy usually results in the creation of a culture of violence which is very difficult to put down. The issue needs to be addressed though if resolution is to be achieved.
Difficulty of Finding Solutions Bilaterally
A problem with self-determination struggle is the difficulty of finding solutions bilaterally. The positions of the sides are usually too entrenched for them to move on.
Third party interveners can help. The problem is convincing the parties that they need this help, especially the government sides of the conflict. De-colonisation issues and unsolved problems connected to these issues are seen as internal matters that should be resolved internally.
Furthermore, we are talking about the sovereignty of the nation and the reputation of the State. The State would feel more comfortable if the process of finding the solution is one that they are in control of. Third parties are accepted if and only if they subscribe to the principles of the sovereignty and indivisibility of the State. Cases in point – Aceh, Bangsamoro and Patani. But when they are invited, these third parties have shown that they are not only capable of helping to improve the situation, but in many cases becoming crucial components for alleviating the violence, implementing agreed actions, guaranteeing and monitoring decisions made and so on.
Models of Ruling
When we try to settle once and for all the problems of decolonisation, especially in regards to self-determination issues, we have to take into account not only the points mentioned above but also the models of ruling that is capable of pacifying the needs and interests of the sovereign people. In general, there are three models of ruling as given below.
First is the ‘simple majoritarian rule of ruling’. It refers to elimination of all kinds of differences to become one. Centralised and unitary form of governance will be representative of this one coupled with insistence on nation building based on the majority dominant tradition in the country such as Thailand. This is not a good model and has given rise to many self-determination struggles by groups that feel the need to preserve their identities and collective rights.
Second model is the ‘complex representational model’ that will guarantee justice and equality. This includes the model of federalism, even decentralisation which is being touted as a lesser form of the federal system in the unitary model i.e. Malaysia and to a certain extent Indonesia in its current form. The same model is also being mentioned as a possible solution to the Myanmar problem.
Third is the ‘Hybrid model’. In this model, certain parts of the country are ruled by one model while other parts of the country are ruled by different models. It includes the autonomous or special autonomy model being used in some provinces of countries like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. This is also the current preferred solution to the problems in the Bangsamoro – the State within a State model created by the Bangsamoro peace process. In many cases, the State did not start out with this form after independence.
The failure of the chosen model points to the need to adapt existing form of governance to one that will address the demands of the aggrieved populace. Further, failure of the models will result in civil war. On the plus side, however, it might even result in alternative forms of government. Who knows, maybe we will get a new model that caters to the special needs of the region coming out of the selfdetermination struggles in this area.
Self-determination as reflected here is not a dirty word as bandied by those in power. It is not something that was created for frivolous reasons, but something that has come up because of unfinished business in the decolonisation process of a nation. It represents collective rights of a distinct group of people and is a driver of genuine democracy.
It is, thus, a form of conflict resolution because it envisions a solution to the problem through the restructuring of relationships, modes of governance and addressing real needs of the people. For it to be successful though, it needs to be translated into action and into actual new relations, guided by a new arrangement, constitution or structure. When this happens, you will see peace in the region. These are the lessons we have learnt from the challenges of decolonisation in Southeast Asia. They might be of use to friends here in the Northeast part of India.

(This write up was delivered by the author at Imphal on 10th June, 2014 ‘Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lectures’)

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