Thanks to COVID-19, Region Saw Less Violence in 2020

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
2020-12-23
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Thanks to COVID-19, Region Saw Less Violence in 2020 Indonesian military personnel conduct search operations to root out suspected MIT militants in Central Sulawesi province in Indonesia, Dec. 1, 2020.
[Wahono/BenarNews]

Perhaps the only positive thing about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it led to a decline in politically motivated violence in South and Southeast Asia in 2020.

There were hardly any major terrorist attacks and most of the primary secessionist insurgencies were less violent than in years past. The notable exception was the Arakan Army in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

The disarray of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in the Middle East manifested itself in Southeast Asia. Armed with new legal authorities, Indonesian police arrested some 205 members of IS-affiliated groups and killed roughly 10 more.

The loss of IS-central media platforms diminished the Islamic State brand and recruitment fell. In particular, the Indonesian government’s ongoing crackdown on Telegram weakened IS’s primary tool for radicalization and organization. The majority of attacks by Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) militants were rudimentary stabbings.

In the Philippines, the southern peace process is well into its second year. There were no major setbacks and the decommissioning of combatants and their weaponry continues.

Though the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority asked for – and looks likely to receive – a three-year extension before elections are held, the standing up of a new government and passing of laws – all during a pandemic – was a slow process. Some spoilers to the peace process will seize on this delay, but it should be acceptable if communicated well. 

 And there are spoilers to the peace process. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) staged a series of low-level attacks this year in central Mindanao. While bloody and disruptive, they have not yet led to wholesale defections from the MILF. Nor is there any sign that the BIFF militants gained any popular support from a war-wary population. Some 31 BIFF were killed, 184 surrendered, and 22 captured in 2020.

 A few small attacks by the Maute group serve as a reminder that, unchecked, groups have a tenacious way of rising from the ashes; thirty-one of its members were killed and 35 surrendered in 2020. The slow reconstruction of Marawi, however, is fodder for their recruitment.

 The Philippine military carried on with its offensive against the Abu Sayyaf Group in Basilan and Sulu, killing 68 militants. Some 130 surrendered, yet the Abu Sayyaf resisted, staging kidnappings, including a few operations at sea.

Operations against the Abu Sayyaf continue to be costly. Two female suicide bombers killed 14 and wounded 75 in an August attack, the latest in a string of ASG-IS suicide bombings since 2018.

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Police in combat gear are seen near the site where a bomb-rigged motorcycle exploded in Jolo, southern Philippines, one of two blats there blamed on Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf Group militants that left at least 14 people dead and about 75 others injured, Aug. 24, 2020. [Handout photo provided by Sulu Province Police]

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, violence in southern Thailand was at a historic low with roughly 40 people killed and under 125 wounded. The insurgency in the Thai Deep South entered the pandemic after low levels of violence in 2019, with only 75 killed and 132 wounded.

 In April, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebels declared a unilateral ceasefire for humanitarian reasons because the first major outbreak of COVID-19 in Thailand occurred in the Deep South. Although the BRN resumed operations, violence remains low. 

In southeastern Bangladesh, the Rohingya situation remains intractable. More than 1 million refugees are stranded in refugee camps in Bangladesh, but the Myanmar government is unwilling to seriously negotiate their return with legal protections. Yet transnational jihadist support for the Rohingya continued to be just lip service. At the same time violence within the camps grew.

Trends to watch

While overall levels of violence across multiple fronts declined in 2020, there are four trends that merit concern as we move into 2021.

The IS-aligned Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) conducted a series of shocking killings. Though tiny, the MIT remains resilient because Poso, its base of operations on Sulawesi Island, is central to the narrative of every jihadist group in Indonesia. That attracts outsiders, funding, and support. Poso remains the only place in Indonesia that militants believe they can control territory.

Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) was the most consistently lethal al-Qaeda affiliate between 2002 and 2009. By 2010, when security forces dismantled a large training camp and killed or arrested more than 100 militants, including top leaders, JI largely became dormant.

Though it banned JI as an organization in 2009, the Indonesian government gave it space to operate as long as it engaged in non-violent activities, including running its madrassas, mosques, charities, businesses, publishing arms, etc. But the arrest of its leader Para Wijayanto in 2019, exposed the group’s strength, in both resources and personnel.

The year 2020 saw Indonesian forces redouble their efforts against JI, arresting a top spiritual leader, thought to be the next emir, its top bomb maker, and its operations chief. In all, more than 30 JI members were arrested in 2020.

While a fraction of the number of pro-IS militants were arrested, it is telling that JI has reappeared on the security forces’ radar. JI has never renounced violence, and has been patiently waiting for the right conditions to resume its campaign of violence. Moreover, the revival of JI, could force JAD’s hands to conduct attacks in an attempt to not be “outbid.”

It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic led to a decline in violence. As mentioned above, the BRN in Thailand, declared a unilateral cessation of hostilities. Although violence resumed a few months later, it remained at low levels. Groups like the BIFF seemed to lose ground, as their rival, MILF, appeared to manage an effective COVID-19 response within the autonomous region. But the southern Philippines still attracts foreign fighters.

In Indonesia, JI responded well to the pandemic due to their nationwide network, top-down structure, charities, and history of providing social services to out-groups.

JAD and other pro-IS militant groups have less of an infrastructure, and the social welfare they do provide tends to support in-groups, such as the families of detainees. But even the JAD understood that staging attacks during a pandemic, which was already causing such economic harm, would be counterproductive.

In the coming year, we are likely to see groups resume violence as vaccines spread and the pandemic is brought under control.

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Officials inspect the site of a bombing in front of the Southern Border Province Administration office in Yala, Thailand, March 17, 2020. [BenarNews]

A hardening of intolerance

Finally, 2020 saw a hardening of attitudes and growing intolerance that fuels the underlying conditions for political violence.

The unwillingness to compromise and share power was exemplified in Thailand, where the military-backed government and their royalist elite supporters refused to accede to any of the demands of student demonstrators calling for reform.

Indeed, they doubled down and threatened more arrests and a crackdown if redlines were crossed. Likewise, the government continued to pay lip service to peace talks with the BRN, hoping the violence would peter out – despite that the rebels had refused to make any meaningful concessions in 25 rounds of talks since 2012.

Police brutality and impunity in the Philippines exacerbates low-levels of trust in legal institutions. And a new counter-terrorism law seems more targeted at political opponents of the president.

In Malaysia, the unceremonious end to the Pakatan Harapan government, which was replaced by a loose coalition of Malay parties early in 2020, bodes ill. The four parties are all vying for the same electorate. Each is trying to outdo the others in promoting their Islamic nationalism that threatens the country’s minorities.

In Myanmar, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, fresh off of an electoral rout of the military-backed party, is in a position to push back against the armed forces and negotiate the phased return of Rohingya, yet it shows no sign of doing so.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian government is sending mixed messages. While it continues to crack down on Islamist militancy, it is overconfident in its de-radicalization efforts.

And yet, we are seeing a hardening of Islamist voices in politics nationally. The return of the firebrand preacher Shihab Rizieq has only emboldened the FPI. Police have detained Rizieq and killed six of his supporters (four allegedly while in custody), provoking more confrontations. Due to the FPI’s ability to mobilize votes, politicians are already courting Rizieq. Indonesian police have found that the FPI is an important conveyor to terrorist organizations.

But it is in the Indonesia’s Papua region especially where we are seeing a hardening of positions. The Jokowi administration refuses to seek a durable political solution while the Indonesian military continues to commit human rights abuses.

Indeed, 2020 saw more crackdowns on Papuan civil society, free press, and internet freedoms

And as all the economies in the region (with the exception of Vietnam) have been hard hit by the pandemic, we need to expect that economic stimulus programs will almost certainly favor ethnic majorities, further stoking racial and sectarian tensions as underclasses grow. Scapegoating minorities and immigrant communities was rife in the region as the pandemic spread in 2020.

Violence was down this year largely because of the pandemic, but the conditions are ripe for a resurgence in political violence in 2021.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and at Georgetown University in Washington. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.

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