Insights and Analysis

Are Internal Conflicts Holding Asia Back?

October 19, 2011

By David D. Arnold, Thomas Parks

Internal conflicts are a widespread and enduring problem for Asia – Afghanistan, Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar, among others. Ten of the 18 countries in South and Southeast Asia have protracted internal conflicts, and in a few, there are several. These internal conflicts last a very long time – the average duration of active conflict by our estimation is 32 years.

MILF compound in Mindanao

As a result of long-running internal conflicts, many of Asia’s turbulent corners are falling further and further behind the rest of the region in terms of economic integration and security. Above, a commander stands guard outside a Moro Islamic Liberation Front camp in Mindanao. Photo by Karl Grobl.

Conflicts in Asia are not just confined to fragile states, either. In fact, internal conflicts affect middle-income countries as much as poor or fragile countries. Several countries in Asia have moved into middle-income status in the past 20 years, but this has had very little impact on the prevalence of internal conflicts in those countries. So, while Asia has seen one of the most rapid paces of development in human history, these long-running conflicts remain an enduring problem that increased wealth and state power have not addressed. As a result, these turbulent corners of Asia are falling further and further behind the rest of the region in terms of economic integration and security.

Internal conflicts are a measurable drain on Asian economic growth and on government budgets. The recently released World Development Report 2011 provides compelling evidence that countries affected by violent conflicts are developing at a slower pace, and that regions affected by conflict may be falling permanently behind. The WDR team found evidence that in conflict-affected countries, there is a 2.7 percent lag in poverty reduction for every three years of major violent conflict. While the WDR research focused primarily on comparisons between countries, there is clear evidence that internal conflict-affected areas follow a similar trend, experiencing much higher rates of poverty and under-development compared to the rest of the country. Decades of internal conflict have also produced an enormous strain on the national budgets of Asian governments. In the Philippines, for example, half of the Armed Forces are stationed in the conflict-affected regions of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. The Thai Government is spending $2.1 billion (THB 63.3 billion) over four years on special development assistance in the conflict-affected southern border provinces. This whopping sum does not include security operations or normal governance functions.

Internal conflict areas also tend to perpetuate dysfunctional governance and politics at the national level. Conflict zones have long been the destination for the “bad apples” in the civil service and security forces. In Thailand, for example, over the past half century officials and police were often sent to the southernmost provinces as punishment for improprieties or poor performance. In some cases, national political elites take advantage of the chaos in the conflict area to manipulate elections, divert public funds, or stoke nationalist sentiment. In the Philippines, dubious alliances between national politicians and local warlords in Mindanao have been the vehicle for massive vote manipulation, such as the famous “Hello Garci” scandal in the 2004 election. In Myanmar, the military government has long justified its regime based on the threat from ethnic insurgent groups based along the remote border regions.

The prevalence of internal conflicts adversely impacts Asia’s interactions with the rest of the international community. These conflicts have had significant impact on the dynamics of regional security cooperation, with important implications for the degree of influence that Asia has on global security issues. With an abundance of internal conflicts, there is a strong tendency for Asian governments to simply mind their own business on internal security affairs; this is so that neighboring countries do not start asking awkward questions about unstable regions. For example, in southern Thailand, for most of the past 50 years, the Malaysian government has generally cooperated with the Thai government on the southern conflict, despite the fact that the insurgents are mostly ethnic Malay.

Countries with internal conflicts tend to be strong supporters of non-interference, and much less likely to support international interventions in sovereign countries for security or human rights purposes. This norm of non-intervention has been particularly prevalent since the end of the Cold War. As Asia has developed, Asian governments have become far more confident and assertive in resisting outside pressure to address long-running conflicts. Indeed, with lower levels of dependency on western aid, western powers hold very little sway with Asian governments on these sensitive issues.

However, this strong tradition of non-interference has limited Asia’s role in security debates at the global level. With very few Asian governments participating in the multi-national UN or NATO interventions in Africa, Iraq, or Afghanistan, Asia has generally limited influence (relative to its growing economic and political influence in other areas) in recent global security debates.

Within this context, the limits on foreign assistance and influence on internal conflicts is much lower than in other parts of the world. Foreign assistance has by and large been kept out of long-running subnational conflict areas, such as southern Thailand, Aceh (before the Tsunami and peace deal), Papua, northeastern India, and the ethnic minority regions of Myanmar. “Name-and-shame” human rights approaches do not tend to have much impact on governments in Asia, as was seen in the ending of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The most successful foreign efforts to support internal peace and security in Asia have been through modest, constructive, low-profile, and locally sensitive efforts to facilitate dialogue or support key local reformers.

The Asia Foundation is committed to working with Asian governments and local partners to address these long-running conflicts. Our approach is well suited to the unique challenges of working in these sensitive areas. Our programs primarily help to support key local actors in their efforts to address the problems that perpetuate conflict. Our long-term presence and constructive approach has allowed us to build lasting relationships with key actors in governments and conflict-affected populations. We can often work in areas where other international organizations cannot, and can work on very sensitive issues because our approach is so responsive to local context.

We believe that there is also an opportunity to expand the role of women in peacebuilding. The awarding of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to three women leaders – two from Liberia and one from Yemen – is an important recognition of the vital role women have in securing peace and ensuring respect for human rights across the globe. These three awardees have been crucial in bringing heightened security and stability to their countries. In the Philippines, we recently conducted a study on the critical role of women in conflict areas in Mindanao. The study produced concrete evidence that illustrates the central role that women often play in helping to make communities more resilient in the face of violence and political upheaval.

Unquestionably, Asia’s development continues to expand at a rapid pace, despite many longstanding internal conflicts. However, the development is uneven, and may ultimately be threatened by unstable regions. Rapid development may have transformed the cities and growth centers of Asia, but little has changed in these long-running conflict zones. It remains to be seen whether Asia can reach its full potential without sustainable solutions for these ongoing internal conflicts.

On October 18 in Singapore, David D. Arnold spoke at The Economist‘s Banyan Conference, “Ideas for an Asian Century,” on the  impact of internal conflicts on Asia’s future, as well as The Asia Foundation’s long-term efforts to address the problems that perpetuate such conflicts. Read more about the event.

David D. Arnold is The Asia Foundation’s president and Thomas I. Parks is the Foundation’s regional director for Governance and Conflict, based in Bangkok. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation. 



  1. Editor's Picks: 2011 Must-Reads | In Asia - [...] On October 18 in Singapore, David D. Arnold spoke at The Economist‘s Banyan Conference, “Ideas for an Asian Century.”…

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