The year 2017 saw a devolving security landscape in Southeast Asia. Long-simmering crises erupted into major conflicts in the Philippines and Myanmar, while an insurgency in southern Thailand festered.
The Islamic State’s loss of key population centers in Syria curtailed its ubiquitous propaganda, but it also led to fears of returning foreign fighters replenishing local insurgencies, as well as the prospect of more lone-wolf attacks.
While some governments have worked to improve security, others have exacerbated the conflicts, conflating regime survival with national security.
The biggest news story out of the region was the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar security forces, which led to the largest refugee crisis in years: since late August more than 650,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where some 400,000 refugees from Rakhine state were already sheltering from earlier cycles of violence.
In what the U.N. described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” security forces killed at least 6,700 civilians, according to surveys of refugees by Doctors Without Borders (MSF). That figure is almost certainly an underestimation.
Over 250 Rohingya villages were razed. The sheer number of Rohingya refugees who were victims of sexual violence suggests a coordinated policy of using rape as a weapon of war. While the Myanmar government denies that the security forces targeted civilians, hundreds were treated for gunshot wounds and other injuries. Many had been tortured. Other were killed or wounded by landmines.
The pogroms were prompted by small-scale attacks on police and border patrol outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The poorly armed and resourced ARSA militants began operations in late 2016, and launched coordinated attacks on some 30 outposts in August.
In many ways it was a cynical ploy. ARSA, a fringe extremist group, had little support from the Rohingya community, which was already living precariously without citizenship or other legal protections. ARSA was clearly expecting a heavy-handed government response that would help the insurgents gain more adherents; but it was not expecting the overwhelming crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces, or the political and diplomatic cover that the government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi would actively give it.
While al-Qaeda quickly issued a statement calling on Muslims to come to the defense of the Rohingya, there is no hard evidence that there has been an influx of foreign fighters from Southeast or South Asia to join the Rohingya cause. ARSA, for its part, states that it has no ties to any foreign terrorist or militant organizations. Indeed its stated goal is citizenship for the Rohingya, not separatism, let alone transnational jihadis.
But the plight of the Rohingya is certainly a motivating factor for militants. Indeed, the Bangladeshi man, who is accused of a failed suicide bombing in New York City on Dec. 11 in the name of Islamic State (IS), had recently returned from the Kutupalong refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh, where he briefly served as an aid worker.
In some ways the Malay separatist insurgency in the Thai Deep South, now in its 14th year, is the good news story in the lot. Violence was at its lowest level in over a decade. The number killed and wounded was at a historical low; as were the number of violent incidents.
And yet, the violence festered on, flaring at certain times to remind the government that the insurgency was far from over.
The decline in violence is in part attributed to a major leadership transition within the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group in early 2017, after two of its founders died in the previous 16 months. In part, it was just due to the intense network of checkpoints throughout the south, which have made attacks harder. It was also partly due to a change in tactics.
Violence is down because the insurgents see no need for it. They have driven Buddhists out of large swaths of the south. The insurgents now rarely intentionally target civilians, certainly within the urban areas. Almost every IED was placed on a rural road to target security forces. And security forces are the primary target: insurgents killed over 40 and wounded at least 130 in 2017.
But while the downtick in violence is positive, it does have a downside: the military government in Bangkok has little incentive or pressure to make meaningful concessions at peace talks. As such, the dialogue with the umbrella grouping MARA-Patani is largely for show; and indeed, the BRN has remained largely aloof from the process, convinced of the government’s insincerity.
In the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) began 2017 in the way they had operated in 2016, with a focus on maritime kidnappings.
Japanese crewmen thwarted a ship-jacking in early January – one of the largest vessels the ASG had ever tried to board. Later that month, they kidnapped three Indonesian fishermen. In February, ASG gunmen kidnapped six Vietnamese sailors, including the captain of a bulk cargo vessel and killed one crewmember. The ASG released the Korean captain of a vessel and his crew when a ransom was paid, and then beheaded a German hostage when he failed to pay a ransom. Another Philippine captain was beheaded in April when a ransom was not paid; that July, they beheaded 2 Vietnamese captives.
Joint maritime patrols between the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia began in mid-2017, and had an immediate impact. The ASG’s maritime operations dropped sharply in the second half of the year, as militants returned to the less lucrative kidnapping of local Filipinos. In October, the three countries began coordinated aerial patrols, while Singapore and China both sought to participate in maritime patrols. Both the United States and Australia conducted maritime operations in the Sulu Sea in support.
In an alarming development, in April, a group of ASG gunmen took a small craft to the resort island of Bohol in the Visayas near Cebu, and clashed with security forces, killing three soldiers and a policeman. Although six militants were killed, and the others retreated, it was the group’s first foray outside of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, to what had been considered a safe region.
The Philippine military conducted operations against the ASG throughout the year, losing many men in pitched battles, but killing dozens of militants and arresting several important figures. Malaysia, for its part, arrested over a dozen ASG suspects or militants that were supporting them. And yet, the ASG's operations remained robust by year’s end.
Assaults on the ASG forced Isnilon Hapilon and his men to mainland Mindanao, where they joined forces with another IS-pledged group, led by the charismatic Maute brothers. In May, the militants seized the city of Marawi, which they held for some five months before being dislodged in a battle with government forces. President Duterte declared martial law for Mindanao.
The siege of Marawi highlighted brutal shortcomings in the capabilities of the Philippine military, which struggled to retake the southern city. While new to urban warfare, the ability of the militants to stockpile over 1,000 men, and enough arms and ammunition for a five-month siege was an appalling intelligence failure.
The militants were bolstered by several hundred fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and as far as Yemen and Chechnya. The siege was also the subject of a slick video produced by a central IS media organ.
Marawi was left in rubble. And the population is seething at the slow and, what they deem, inadequate government response. As of December, fewer than half of the city’s displaced population of 200,000 had returned.
While government forces killed the Maute brothers and Isnilon Hapilon, and hundreds of their fighters, and about 200 escaped and are regrouping. They have largely been protected by hardline elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), whose peace process with the government has been stalled since early 2015, and able to recruit from amongst citizens who are turning on the government.
And there remain a number of other pro-Islamic State groups that have continued to fight the government. Ansarul Khilafa Philippines suffered a setback in early 2017 when Philippine forces killed their leader Mohammad Jaafar Maguid (alias “Tokboy”), but the group remains largely intact. Militants under a former MILF commander, Abu Turaipe, stepped up their attacks, as did fighters from another group that broke away from the MILF, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
The siege of Marawi caused enormous concern across the region, which once again saw Mindanao as an ungoverned space, and thus a regional security concern.
Countries were quick to offer support: Malaysian and Indonesia stepped up maritime patrols, and policing in their respective portions of Borneo. Australia and Singapore dispatched manned planes and unmanned aerial surveillance craft. The United States gave the Philippines two small surveillance aircraft, while both the U.S. and China provided small arms. Australia and Singapore have since provided training in urban warfare.
Other Islamic State-related terrorism
Throughout the rest of Southeast Asia, there were relatively few terrorist attacks, though arrests of terror suspects occurred in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
In February, members of the pro-Islamic State JAD set off a pressure-cooker bomb in West Bandung, Indonesia. In May, on the eve of Ramadan, two suicide bombers attacked a bus terminal in East Jakarta, killing themselves, and three policeman, and wounding five police and five civilians. The Islamic State’s media organ, Amaq, took credit for the attack.
There were a number of thwarted attacks. In February, Malaysian authorities arrested seven people – a Malaysian, Indonesian, four Yemenis and a Uyghur – on suspicion of plotting to detonate a car bomb. The Indonesian suspect was an IS-trained militant who had recently returned from Syria. In November, Malaysian police arrested a 19-year-old for possession of IEDs, which he intended to use at a beer festival. Malaysian authorities also claimed to have broken up a cell that was smuggling weapons from southern Thailand.
In Indonesia, officials arrested three members of JAD for plotting to attack a police station in East Java in April. In a follow up operation to the May suicide bombings, police recovered weapons and pressure-cooker IEDs in June. In all, 41 people were arrested in connection with the May attack. In July, police arrested four men in Bandung after their IED exploded prematurely. And in November, police shot dead two suspects after an arson attack at a police station in western Sumatra.
Several top IS leaders from Southeast Asia were killed in Iraq and Syria in 2017, including Muhammad Fudhail Omar and Mohd Nizam Ariffin. Bahrun Naim - one of the most prolific recruiters for IS in Southeast Asia - has either been killed or gone underground.
CT legislation and policy
Meanwhile, the governments of the region took some steps to address policy shortfalls in dealing with militancy. Indonesia was able to compel Telegram to block some 55 channels that were used by regional militants. The Philippines tried to force Facebook to shut down pages that were linked to the Marawi militants. But social media remains an important tool for militants to use for fundraising, recruitment, and indoctrination.
Indonesia took a more extreme step with the banning of Hizbut Tahrir for violating the official ideology of Pancasila. And yet, the number of anti-vice organizations that are able to operate and attack or intimidate religious minorities proliferated. The jailing of the Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta, who had just lost a bitterly fought campaign, has led to a surge in religious intolerance and identity politics.
Indonesia continued to push through its controversial Counterterrorism Bill through parliament. There are three aspects to the bill that have most alarmed critics; first it would enshrine a counter-terror role for the military; it would criminalize joining militant groups overseas; and it would give the government the right to strip people of citizenship.
At the end of 2017, the situation across Southeast Asia was eerily calm. And to be fair, the devolving situation led to new levels of inter-state cooperation. But prospects to improved security in 2018 are grim.
More than a million Rohingya refugees live in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh, now amongst the world’s largest. Despite an “agreement” for repatriating Rohingya, the Myanmar government will likely make proof of residency hard. And with ongoing attacks, including the burning of some 40 more villages in November and December alone, the Rohingya have every reason to mistrust the government’s assurances for their security.
While ARSA has not staged a single attack since the August 2017 raids, it is poised to take advantage of the hopelessness, frustration of the refugee population. The insecurity of life in the refugee camps gives an added incentive to join a militant group. The Bangladesh government’s only real source of leverage over the Myanmar government to fulfill its commitment to return the refugees is allowing ARSA to recruit, organize, train, and stage attacks from Bangladeshi soil.
The security situation in Mindanao will likely continue to devolve. Already President Duterte has shifted the focus of the military to the communist New People’s Army, despite evidence that the survivors of Marawi are regrouping, while other pro-IS groups continue to stage attacks.
Duterte is already trying to lower the MILF’s expectations about passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the implementing legislation for the 2014 peace agreement. He recently questioned the BBL’s constitutionality, which will only empower legislators who are against the autonomy agreement. As such, the MILF will only continue to splinter.
While the governments of Malaysian, Indonesia, and Singapore keep taking the threat of IS seriously, the ungoverned space in the southern Philippines will continue to create space for militants to train, regroup, and execute attacks. On top of that, there is the resurgence of al-Qaeda, which is poised to take advantage of the Islamic State’s setbacks.
The BRN insurgents in southern Thailand have demonstrated that they are able to turn on the violence at will. With the flooding caused by an intense rainy season over in early 2018, violence is expected to spike.
The year turned out to be far more violent and destabilizing in Southeast Asia than anyone could have imagined. Sadly, 2018 is poised to start out that way.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.