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The Future of Armed Conflict

June 5, 2013

The Asia Foundation just launched a major new study on development and subnational conflict in Asia. “The Contested Corners of Asia” argues that subnational conflict is the most widespread, deadly, and enduring form of conflict in Asia, and that increasing development and expanding state capacity do not make these conflicts any easier to resolve. A product of a three-year research effort, the study involved nearly 100 researchers, leading subnational conflict experts, and Foundation program staff from 10 countries in Asia, as well as North America, Europe, and Australia.

Southern Thailand Conflict

Across Asia, more than 131 million people are living in areas affected by subnational conflicts, but the actual percentage of the national population in each case is relatively small (6.5% on average). Photo/Chandler Vandergrift

The research finds that as Asian states have become more capable and more prosperous, subnational conflicts have endured, and in some cases, increased in number and intensity. These conflicts are just as likely to be found in strong, middle-income states as they are in weak or low-income states. One important explanation for this is that these conflicts last an extraordinarily long time – 45 years on average. So, even as countries have transformed from low to middle income, the subnational conflicts continue.

Why do these conflicts last so long? Unlike large-scale civil wars, the costs of continuing the conflict are relatively low, and as such, many of these conflicts have reached a long-term equilibrium of low intensity, sporadic violence. The political calculus for national leaders usually discourages any serious reforms or compromises that would address the sources of conflict. The minority populations living in these areas are ethnically distinct, and have a long history of struggle for greater self-governance and preservation of local identity. Across Asia, more than 131 million people are living in areas affected by these protracted conflicts, but the actual percentage of the national population in each case is relatively small (6.5% on average). As a result, these areas are peripheral to national concerns, and easily overshadowed by much higher profile national issues.

Similarly, this type of low-intensity conflict generally allows armed, non-state opposition groups to continue their fight for generations, even under enormous pressure from national governments. These armed groups typically do not hold positions or control territory. Combatants blend into the population, and use guerrilla tactics that do not require significant financial or material support. Even when the national military maintains a strong presence in the area, and the government provides infrastructure and social services that exceed the national average, these conflicts continue and often get worse. The study finds that even well-established democracies have high levels of subnational conflict, and a shift from authoritarian to democratic government is unlikely to end subnational conflicts.

Over the next 20 years, subnational conflict is likely to become the most common form of armed violence on a global level. If successful states continue to have unresolved subnational conflicts, and high-intensity national civil wars become less common, then we are likely to see the rest of the developing world following in the footsteps of Asia. In a recent article in African Affairs, Scott Straus argues that conflict in sub-Saharan Africa is changing from large-scale civil wars to subnational conflicts. “Contemporary wars [in Africa] are typically small-scale, fought on state peripheries and sometimes across multiple states, and involve factionalized insurgents who typically cannot hold significant territory or capture state capitals.”

In some ways, this is progress. Large-scale civil wars are far more destructive and require massive international assistance for recovery and stabilization. However, it’s important to realize that this evolution does not mean that armed conflict is ending – it is merely changing to a new form.

Asia’s experience has shown that the process of statebuilding can instigate and entrench subnational conflicts. As states develop more capable militaries and administration, and begin to consolidate their control of outlying border regions, they are also more likely to encounter resistance in some ethnic minority areas. So, even as countries emerge from fragility and conflict at the national level, they spawn new conflicts at their peripheries. The Nepal case illustrates this new scenario. After the end of the Maoist insurgency, some regions at the periphery of the central, Kathmandu region are showing many of the early signs of brewing subnational conflict (Limbuwan/Khumbuwan, Madhesi, Magarat, and Tharuhat). In ethnically diverse states emerging from civil war, the national political settlement is bound to exclude some ethnic groups, particularly those living in peripheral regions with very few links into the national political elites circles. The exclusion of these groups can sow the seeds of deadly subnational conflict.

This study is timely. In Myanmar/Burma, for example, the international community is ramping up assistance to support the peace process, and will likely be moving this assistance into the subnational conflict areas at a significant scale over the next few years. In Southern Thailand, an area that the study focuses on extensively, the government has initiated a fledgling peace process with significant potential for international support should the process move forward. In Mindanao, another area that the report features, the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) is leading to a new generation of aid programs to the conflict-affected areas of Mindanao, and an enormous opportunity for the international community to shore-up a desperately needed peace agreement.

The report provides fresh and useful insights on how foreign aid can better help to address these long-running conflicts. The case studies show that development actors can make a major contribution if they invest in better understanding of local conflict dynamics, and can strategically target their programs to address transformative issues. There are limits to what aid can do – the transition from war to durable peace must be domestically driven through more inclusive political processes, and foreign aid can only play a supporting role.

Nevertheless, our findings provide many reasons to be optimistic about the role of the development community in areas of conflict. International development actors are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of conflict, and with some reforms that allow for greater internal space and program flexibility, there will be many opportunities for development assistance to play a key role in ending these long-running conflicts.

“The Contested Corners of Asia: Subnational Conflict and International Development Assistance” was supported by funding from the State and Peacebuilding Fund, administered by the World Bank, and UK Aid.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s regional director for Conflict and Governance based in Thailand. He can be reached at tparks@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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