Notes from the Field

From South & Southeast Asia: Breaking the Cycle of Persistent, Violent Conflict

March 21, 2007

The recent attack on a bus in Yala province serves as a stark reminder that the violence in Southern Thailand shows no signs of letting up. Despite a more conciliatory approach by the new government in Bangkok, the situation continues to worsen in this turbulent corner of Southeast Asia. This conflict, like many others in Asia, seems to be caught in a long-term cycle of escalation, de-escalation, and re-escalation of violence, spanning decades. The current violence is the latest flare-up in a conflict that can be traced back more than one hundred years. The violence in Mindanao in the Philippines, north and eastern Sri Lanka, Papua, Sulawesi, Nepal, Kashmir, and northeastern India seem to follow the same trend. Regimes come and go, politicians rise and fall, but these conflicts persist. What will it take to break out of these recurring cycles of conflict?

The Asia Foundation believes that underlying all of these conflicts are a set of governance and political factors that sustain or even encourage conflict. These regions have usually been mismanaged and poorly governed for decades, leaving minority populations disaffected and disillusioned by perceived government injustices. The combination of conflict and poor governance results in economic stagnation, widespread poverty, and a growing gap between the conflict-affected regions and the rest of the country. Furthermore, the obstacles to addressing these problems can be daunting. Politically influential groups may be benefiting from the current status quo and reluctant to reform governance; powerful local actors often resist concessions; and some groups may even benefit from further conflict.

The key to breaking the cycle of conflict is to identify the underlying sources of conflict, and understand the unique local context that perpetuates these problems. The Asia Foundation supports local partners who are working within the local context to address these long term problems, and turn the tide towards finding a peaceful resolution. In Thailand, for example, a long history of discriminatory policies — and impunity among local officials — has created animosity within the Malay-speaking Muslim population in the three southernmost provinces. The Foundation is supporting civil society efforts to reform laws and regulations that discriminate against the Muslim population, and encourage greater participation of Southern Muslims in local governance. In Nepal, the remote, impoverished regions that were the epicenter of the Maoist insurgency have long been excluded from decision-making and resource allocation by the government in Kathmandu. The Foundation is supporting efforts to increase participation from these regions in the upcoming election for a constituent assembly to re-write the constitution. In East Timor, the Foundation recently conducted a series of public forums on conflict vulnerabilities that result from problems in governance.

The Foundation has a unique and important role to play in conflict management. Our local connections and long term presence allow us to understand the politics, know the players, and build trusted relationships. We are perceived by all sides as an independent, trusted, autonomous actor, as well as an international organization, giving us the ability to bring people to the table under difficult circumstances.

Tom Parks is The Asia Foundation’s Assistant Director for Governance, Law, and Civil Society.

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