Local Data Sheds New Light on Violence in Southeast Asia
November 16, 2016
In the last few months, a spate of coordinated bomb attacks in Thailand days after a constitutional referendum, new bloodshed in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and violent protests in the lead-up to gubernatorial elections in Jakarta, have served as a somber reminder of the violence that simmers under the surface of an otherwise relatively stable and economically growing Southeast Asia.
In the last 20 years, half of the countries in the region have experienced armed conflicts between the state and insurgents over part of their territory. An estimated 131 million people live in those contested corners, suffering from insecurity, slower growth rates, and lower income levels than the national average. Beyond armed insurgency, other forms of local violence such as communal riots, conflict over land and natural resources, electoral violence, urban crime, and gender-based violence are also pervasive in the region.
It has been difficult to understand the wide array of subnational violence in Southeast Asia in large part because of data limitations. National-level homicide statistics tell us little about what is driving violence in a particular province or district. Global datasets on civil war or political conflict are unlikely to capture a clash between evicted farmers and police in rural Cambodia, or the lynching of someone accused of sorcery in Indonesia. Those types of incidents constitute a large share of the violence happening in the region. Sustainable Development Goal 16 calls for the reduction of all forms of violence globally. To achieve this and measure progress, better micro-data on subnational violence is needed.
In Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Myanmar, locally operated violence monitoring systems have begun to address this data gap by producing highly granular information on violence, based on local sources such as district newspapers, police records, and community reports. (Similar systems are being developed in South Asia, such as this one in Nepal.) The Asia Foundation has produced a new Methods Toolkit to help guide practitioners interested in establishing a violence monitoring system in their local context.
Recently, The Asia Foundation released a new paper that compares data from three of these violence monitoring systems—Indonesia’s National Violence Monitoring System, the Philippines’ Bangsamoro Conflict Monitoring System, and Thailand’s Deep South Incident Dataset—to provide fresh insights into regional patterns of conflict and violence.
Here are three key findings from the report that illustrate the value of micro-level data to better understand violence in the region:
The intensity of the conflict in Thailand’s Deep South is largely underestimated. The armed conflict pitting Malay-Muslim insurgents against the Thai state has received little international attention and very low levels of aid. However, the frequency of violent incidents in Thailand’s Deep South, once adjusted for population size, far eclipses incident rates during the peak years of the civil war in Aceh, or in the Bangsamoro region of the Philippines (Figure 1). With a death rate hovering above 30 fatalities per 100,000 people yearly between 2008 and 2013, after a peak at 56 per 100,000 in 2007, Thailand’s Deep South is on par with Afghanistan over the same time period. Much of the violence is low-scale, unspectacular incidents that escape media attention beyond Thai borders, yet result in significant cumulative impacts. It should command greater international response and action.
Violence does not end when conflicts stop. As conflicts transition to peace, violence reduces in intensity but does not disappear. Rather, more localized and less deadly forms of violence emerge. Aceh illustrates this.
Violent deaths dropped drastically after the signing of the peace accord in 2005. However, new types of violence have been on the rise (Figure 2). Violent crime increased sharply in the years following the peace accord, a phenomenon partly attributable to the availability of leftover automatic weapons from the civil war, and the difficulty faced by some former combatants in reintegrating into civilian life.
Post-war elections were characterized by unusual levels of violence and intimidation by Indonesian standards (between 2005 and 2015, 465 incidents of election-related violence leading to at least 13 deaths were recorded in Aceh). Most of the political violence was perpetrated by or targeted at parties formed by former separatist rebels, highlighting the challenges faced by armed movements when transitioning to mainstream politics.
While there is no question that the Aceh peace process has been a success, these patterns of post-conflict violence point to lingering issues that need to be addressed. Aceh may also foreshadow the trajectory that the Bangsamoro or Thai conflicts could take in the future.
Women suffer comparatively more from peacetime violence. Data from the three countries consistently shows that men are more likely than women to die from violence related to separatist insurgencies. In Aceh, Mindanao, and Thailand’s Deep South, most combatants on either side of the conflict are men. Women are impacted by war in different ways that range from sexual assault to economic and personal hardship. However, after transitions to peace, overall deaths tend to drop but the proportion of women among victims tends to rise.
In Aceh, the proportion of women among homicide victims rose sharply from below 5 percent during wartime to 35 percent in 2014 (Figure 3). This is because women are more likely to be victimized by forms of violence that are more dominant during peacetime, such as crime or domestic violence.
The data also show that insurgency and counter-insurgency tactics affect the likelihood of women to be killed by separatist violence. It is higher in Thailand (14 percent of victims are women), because insurgents often resort to bombings in public places. It is lower in Aceh, Papua, and Mindanao (below 5 percent), where bombings are less frequent and violence more discriminate.
As new, locally owned violence monitoring systems are established in other countries, and as they become increasingly compatible and comparable with one another, so too will their relevance for development programming and measuring progress on SDG 16. Such systems are not necessarily costly, but they require sustained financing and are critical to domestic efforts to monitor and resolve violence.
Adrian Morel is a program manager for The Asia Foundation and author of “Violent Incidents Monitoring Systems: A Methods Toolkit” and co-author of “Understanding Violence in Southeast Asia: The Contribution of Violent Incidents Monitoring Systems.” The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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