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The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia: Five Surprising Takeaways

October 18, 2017

By Editor

The Asia Foundation just released The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia, a new book detailing the levels and impacts of violence in 14 Asian countries. In Asia‘s editor asked the research team what surprised them most. [Watch the launch presentation of the report in Washington, D.C.]

Gender-based violence kills more women than armed conflict

The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia paints a bleak picture when it comes to violence against women. Surveys indicate that over half of female respondents in Afghanistan and Timor-Leste, and three-quarters in Pakistan and Bangladesh, have experienced physical or sexual violence at home. Dowry-related violence and honor killings still occur routinely in South Asia. In conflict zones such as the borderlands of Myanmar, studies suggest that rape is used as a weapon of war.

There are strong indications that gender-based violence (GBV) is deadlier than many other forms of violence, and that it kills more women than armed conflict. Between 2011 and 2015, India recorded over 40,000 dowry-related deaths. That is over 10 times more than were killed in the Naxalite conflict or Northeast India insurgencies during that period, regardless of gender. While hundreds of violent incidents were reported in Nepal’s local elections this year, the first in two decades, GBV remained the leading cause of violent deaths, ahead of politics or crime, accounting for just under 45 percent of all reported homicides. Converging evidence points to GBV as one of the deadliest violence types in Asia. It should command greater attention from policy-makers and the international community. (Adrian Morel)

Same actors, different conflicts

The sociologist Charles Tilly writes of “violent specialists”—people skilled in inflicting damage on others—in his classic study The Politics of Collective Violence. Tilly notes that violent specialists can exist both inside government (military, police, jailers) and outside government (militias, warlords, bandits, terrorists). Often, they collaborate in pursuit of shared goals—whether a pogrom targeting a hated ethnoreligious group, or the intimidation of a political rival in an election. This new book underscores the truth in what Tilly found: that violent specialists have fungible talents, forge alliances, and are involved in multiple forms of conflict.

Take Bangladesh, for example. The two major political parties that vie to form the government—the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party—use state security forces to persecute their enemies when in power, and deploy their student wings in street violence when in opposition. Because political violence is rife, Bangladesh has a remarkable range and number of violent specialists whose skills are in demand. Similarly, in Indonesia, members of violent Sunni militant groups that joined in earlier episodes of communal violence, for example in Central Sulawesi, have crossed over to transnational terrorist activities.

While The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia draws distinctions among forms of conflict, we should not overlook the fact that often the same individuals or organization may be responsible for violence. For a violent specialist, harming others is a transferable skill. (Bryony Lau)

Data gaps constrain the data gathering process

The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia required gathering and assessing existing data on nine forms of conflict and violence across 14 countries. This process revealed just how limited and inconsistent the existing data is on many types of violence in the region.

In some cases, statistics on violence are not systematically recorded. In Malaysia, for example, media reports showed that land conflict frequently led to major incidents of physical violence against local indigenous people. However, no comprehensive data on land conflict is recorded in the country, by either the government or civil society. In both Malaysia and India, there is no official data on electoral violence, meaning we had to depend on case by case news reports. Collecting data on gender-based violence was extremely challenging due to the existence of gender norms that prohibit reporting. In Bangladesh, a survey found that up to 72.7 percent of women did not disclose their experience of intimate partner violence to anyone. In some countries, data on violence against women is limited to reports by victims to civil society organizations. Although the GBV numbers documented in Bangladesh and elsewhere can give us a sense of impacts, the missing pieces affect the reliability of the GBV data.

Improving our understanding of the levels and impacts of violence in Asia requires better and more systematic data. (Patthiya Tongfueng)

National political leaders in Thailand don’t get killed

Drafting and reviewing country chapters in The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia required me to delve into the political history of each country. Some interesting patterns and surprising facts came up.

First, both assassination of political leaders and massacres of oppositions following coups have become rarer over time. Instead, judicial means have been more commonly employed to get rid of rivals. Second, politically motivated assassinations and massacres have occurred more often in South Asia than in Southeast Asia. Third, Thailand stands out. The country has experienced 12 military coups and frequent changes of government. Political divides have led to violent clashes and multiple deaths during mass protests, and Thailand is badly affected by separatism in the Deep South. Yet, unlike Bangladesh, India, or Sri Lanka, where political leaders were killed in coups or by extremists, separatists, or political rivals, no Thai prime minister or chair of an opposition political party has ever been assassinated. Furthermore, none has gone to jail. They either did not face legal charges or if facing them managed to escape for exile. Evidence shows that luck was involved in some cases but it appears that in many occasions this was a calculated strategy. Why Thailand differs so much from other countries requires further study. (Sasiwan Chingchit)

Widespread violence occurs in surprising places

There were surprising findings when looking at the intensity of violence within conflict zones. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the war in Afghanistan since 2001. But because these deaths are spread across a country of 35 million people, intensity rates are actually lower than in some of Asia’s subnational conflict areas which receive far less attention from the international community and from the media. In Thailand’s Deep South, for example, there were 22.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2007, more than double the per capita death rate in Afghanistan last year.

Afghanistan, devastated by four decades of war, certainly requires continuing policy attention. But working on the book highlighted again to me that the impacts of conflict and violence are also felt in many other areas of Asia. (Patrick Barron)

[Editor’s note: This blog has been edited to remove a comparison made between levels of violence in Dili and Kabul. Given the vast differences between the countries, the comparison was misleading.]

Contributors Adrian Morel, Bryony Lau, Patthiya Tongfueng, Sasiwan Chingchit, and Patrick Barron work on The Asia Foundation’s Conflict and Development team. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.



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