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Subnational Conflict: The Dark Underbelly of a Rising Asia

August 6, 2014

Asia Foundation 60th anniversary seriesAsia’s rise has been momentous. Since the early 1960s, Asia has grown richer faster than any other region in the world. In 1990, 56 percent of people in East Asia and 54 percent in South Asia lived on under $1.25 a day (PPP). By 2010, these rates had fallen to 12 percent and 31 percent, respectively. In 2013, East Asia grew by 7.1 percent and South Asia by 5.2 percent, far outpacing any other region. The Asian Development Bank is not alone in dubbing the decades ahead the Asian century.

Since the early 1960s, Asia has grown richer faster than any other region in the world. Yet while hundreds of millions have seen their incomes and opportunities expand precipitously, in many countries accelerated growth has been conjoined with an upsurge in violent subnational conflict. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Since the early 1960s, Asia has grown richer faster than any other region in the world. Yet while hundreds of millions have seen their incomes and opportunities expand precipitously, in many countries accelerated growth has been conjoined with an upsurge in violent subnational conflict. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Yet the rising Asia narrative masks an ugly truth. While hundreds of millions have seen their incomes and opportunities expand precipitously, in many countries accelerated growth has been conjoined with an upsurge in violent subnational conflict.

Subnational conflicts (SNCs) affect half of the countries of Southeast and South Asia. These conflicts involve armed struggle over a part of a country with insurgents using violence to try to gain greater self-rule. In the past decade, 60 percent of the world’s SNCs have taken place in Asia and more than 100,000 people have been killed from these conflicts in Asia alone. An estimated 131 million people live in these conflict-affected areas, and in 2011, there were 13 active conflicts in Asia, almost the same total as those found in Africa.

These conflicts are nothing new. Indeed, Asia’s SNCs endure longer than those in other parts of the world with the average SNC in Asia lasting twice as long as the global average (Table 1).

SubnationalConflictTable1

If the shimmering towers of Bangkok, Mumbai, and Jakarta are the seductive smile of the “New Asia,” then enduring, deadly subnational conflicts are its dark underbelly.

Challenging thinking on conflict

The coexistence of high levels of development and conflict poses challenges for conventional thinking about why conflicts occur and how to prevent and respond to them.

First, growth is usually seen as a powerful conflict prevention pill. The conventional wisdom is that where people are well fed and have prospects for the future, they are less likely to rise up in rebellion. Yet the number of subnational conflicts has increased even as Asia has grown (Figure 1). Boosting incomes is obviously desirable. But it does not alone prevent conflicts from occurring.

SubnationalConflictTable2

Second, democracies are generally viewed as being more able to ensure that competition is managed through political channels rather than violently. Yet the third wave of democratization in the late 1970s and 1980s, which saw countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh move away from authoritarian regimes, also saw an increase in the number of SNCs. Scholars have pointed to the increased risk of conflict that nations face in the early years of democratization. But levels of SNC in Asia have remained high even as democracies have consolidated (Figure 2). There are many benefits to living in a liberal democracy. However, at least in Asia, it does not mean you are less vulnerable to conflict.

SubnationalConflictTable3

Third, state capacity is usually seen as a forceful conflict deterrent. Functioning states have more coercive capacity and can deliver on the needs of their populace. Yet most of Asia’s SNCs are not occurring in fragile states but in states with at least moderate capacity (Table 2). East Asia’s current most deadly SNC is situated in southern Thailand, where growth rates have been high and state capacity is substantial. The problem of conflict in Asia is not primarily one of state fragility.

SubnationalConflictTable4If conventional wisdom on the causes of conflict in Asia is incomplete, then what are the implications for international agencies seeking to promote peace? In next week’s follow-up post, I will discuss three challenges development agencies face and three implications for how aid can better play a supportive role in addressing Asia’s SNCs.

Patrick Barron is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Conflict and Development based in Thailand. He can be reached at patrick.barron@asiafoundation.org. Much of the analysis in this piece comes from The Asia Foundation’s Contested Corners of Asia study. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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