In The News

The Elephant in the Room: Internal Security Operations and Conflict Management

July 30, 2008

At a recent conference on violent conflict in Asia, an Asian civil society leader said to me: “If we want to be serious about reducing violence in conflict-affected corners of Asia, how can we ignore the role of security forces?” In another conversation, a senior military officer from Southeast Asia explained to me that they are completely re-thinking the way they conduct internal security, including a significant new focus on conflict management training, sensitization to local context and customs, and addressing the critical needs of conflict-affected communities. For obvious reasons, I cannot share their names. However, these comments are indicative of some important new thinking.

How should civil society interpret this new thinking? And is there an important role for civilian actors?

Internal violent conflicts in Asia have become a common source of consternation for security actors, development organizations, and civil society. In the past few years, there has been growing interaction between civilian and military actors on how to best address the sources of violent conflict and state fragility. Our organization holds regular public events on conflict management in Asia, and it has been remarkable to see the increasing level of interest from security analysts and military actors. We have even received requests from Asian militaries to provide training on conflict management and local conflict dynamics. One important trend is emerging: militaries from across Asia are recognizing that internal conflicts and insurgencies cannot be “managed” by force alone. Topics like community development, governance, service delivery, human rights, and political grievances are starting to creep into military discourse. But can militaries address these problems on their own?

One of the greatest challenges for conflict management in Asia is the conduct of internal security operations, and the lack of accountability and oversight of security forces in conflict zones. Asian militaries often have a heavy presence in politically contested and turbulent regions, where the military has very little in common with the majority local population. The military is often seen as a “foreign” power, sent to enforce the will of an unaccountable, distant government. In conflict zones from Mindanao to Southern Afghanistan, it is extremely difficult for the military to differentiate between the local population and the armed actors responsible for the violence. These environments are further complicated by opportunistic violence that has nothing to do with the political resistance, such as local clan conflicts, criminal activity, or political rivalries. In these situations, security forces can perceive nearly everything as a threat, leading to heavy-handed tactics and abuses against the local population that only serve to widen the divide between the state and the local conflict-affected population. Furthermore, these operations fail to address the grievances of local conflict-affected populations that lead people to fight the state in the first place. Most Asian militaries realize this conundrum, but they are struggling to find a way to address the problem.

These problems have affected conflicts across Asia; the common characteristic shared by almost every military in South and Southeast Asia is the focus on internal threats, as opposed to foreign states. For most soldiers in Asia, the only real fighting they will ever see will be within their own borders. Militaries in Asia have long been internally oriented, especially in the immediate post-independence period of the mid-twentieth century. Many national armies began as anti-colonial insurgent fighters, and most of their history involves countering other internal armed actors and consolidating state control within the national territory.

It is important to recognize that internal security operations will continue to be the primary function of Asian militaries for many years. But must these operations continue to be a serious, ongoing irritant for internal conflicts, enraging local populations and prolonging conflicts?

The problems associated with internally focused militaries are well-known, but there has been very little progress in addressing the critical issues. In a few Asian countries, however, there are some specific issues that are starting to be discussed. For example, the laws and military doctrines that govern internal security operations have long been dominated by professional security personnel, with little input or influence from affected civilians. As a result, there are usually very few mechanisms for the local population in conflict-affected regions to complain about military actors or security forces without the fear of retaliation. Militaries are highly insulated from civilian judicial proceedings, leading to few human rights violators being successfully prosecuted. Most critically, without a serious monitoring mechanism, problematic soldiers or militia members can act with impunity. Oversight of military operations is especially limited in center-periphery conflicts where the military has a presence in remote corners of the country, civilian officials and civil society are sparse, and the local population is primarily ethnic and religious minorities with little influence in national politics. The composition of security forces is usually very different from local population in conflict-affected region, creating enormous challenges in communication and trust-building.

These problems are not new. What is new, however, is the breadth and capacity of development and civil society organizations involved in addressing the causes and consequences of violent internal conflicts. These civilian actors often have extensive contact with local conflict-affected communities and have the ability to articulate the concerns and grievances of those communities caught between the state and the insurgents. The emerging dialogue between security actors and civil society has the potential to help encourage moderation and restraint in internal security operations, leading to reductions in violence and human rights abuses. The growing openness to new ideas within the security sector may actually be an opportunity to address one of the most difficult issues that are exacerbating and prolonging conflict across Asia.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Governance and Conflict Programs. He is based in Bangkok and can be reached at tparks@asiafound.org.

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