Notes from the Field

Critical Challenges in Asia: Violent Conflict and Fragile States

January 9, 2008

Violent conflict presents enormous challenges for development and security in Asia. Many of Asia’s worst cases of instability and political violence are a direct result of sub-national conflicts involving areas in remote or border regions. In these peripheral areas, the state tends to have very limited capacity and its authority is challenged by armed non-state actors. Conflict-affected peripheral regions are usually home to disaffected minorities or marginalized populations that hold significant grievances with the central government and political establishment. These center-periphery conflicts raise an important set of questions that largely fall outside current policy discourse on fragile states.

It is important to differentiate between fragile states and conflict-affected regions within states, as this distinction carries important implications for the shape of international assistance. In cases like Afghanistan and Timor Leste, which are widely considered fragile states, the collapse of central authority precipitated the introduction of international security forces and substantial international assistance. In these environments, donor nations tend to focus on short to medium-term challenges such as stabilizing the environment, rapidly restoring central institutions, reconstituting local security forces, and returning power to a democratically elected government. However, for most of the other conflict-affected areas in Asia, the state is not uniformly weak, but faces significant challenges in governing a few peripheral regions where conflict is fueled by grievances related to real or perceived failures by the state. As a result, effective conflict mitigation requires long-term effort, geared towards achieving fundamental changes in the quality and character of governance.

Examples of conflict-affected, peripheral regions include southern Thailand; Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines; Tamil regions of northeastern Sri Lanka; Baluchistan, Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) regions of Pakistan; and the Maoist insurgency and recent ethnic minority revolts (e.g. Madhesi) in Nepal. The challenge for donors and international actors, however, is that these parts of Asia are difficult to access through traditional international assistance mechanisms. In these regions, the combination of violent conflict, poor governance, weak or absent public institutions, and the presence of armed non-state actors over long periods of time can lead to crises. In these cases, the central government may be struggling to manage the situation, but is unlikely to request or allow direct interventions by international actors. Frequently, the central government’s presence in these peripheral areas is extremely limited or intermittent, and it may be only one of several competing providers of public goods and security.

The complex nature of sub-national conflict requires interventions that address the linkages between security and development, emphasizing good cooperation between civilian and security actors with distinct yet complementary roles. While security is usually the foremost challenge in conflict zones, center-periphery conflicts cannot be managed through force alone. The grievances or policy-irritants driving conflict must be directly addressed. There is growing recognition that the most effective way to address these problems is through the joint efforts of civilian officials, civil society, and local community leaders, in close coordination with security forces. Many Asian governments and international donors have supported interventions that directly address the concerns of local populations in conflict-affected areas and reduce governance-related irritants, such as reducing official corruption, minimizing abuses by state actors or their allies, providing credible administration of justice, improving service delivery, reforming discriminatory laws and regulations, and extending security to include minority populations.

At this stage, there is a clear need to expand policy dialogue between the development and security communities on how to reduce sub-national conflicts. To this end, this week The Asia Foundation is organizing a roundtable for experts in conflict, security, and governance in Asia, to expand dialogue on the unique dynamics of center-periphery conflicts, the roles of security versus development actors, and appropriate interventions for mitigating conflict and state fragility in Asia. The Foundation believes that there is an important role for international organizations to support the work of local actors in civil society and government in addressing center-periphery conflicts, and state fragility at the sub-national level. At present, the majority of donor assistance to address conflict and state fragility has been through direct support to government and security forces. While this assistance is essential, there is an important and complementary role for local civil society actors and local governments to facilitate dialogue, support government efforts to address the sources of conflict, articulate local grievances and challenges in conflict-affected areas, build support for peace processes, strengthen local institutions, support potential mediators, and monitor conflict-affected areas. In many cases, local civil society actors, religious groups, educational institutions, and informal networks of community leaders, are the only ones with the credibility and connections to reach the key actors in conflict-affected areas.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Conflict and Governance.

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