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Seminar to Launch Reports on Conflict Resolution in Asia

Date: Wednesday, 27 July 2011
Time: 2 – 5pm
Venue: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)

 

Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.

Main Speaker: Dr Michael Vatikiotis, Regional Director, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre), Singapore.
Speakers: Mr Ouseph Tharakan, Project Officer, HD Centre, Singapore; and Dr Muridan Widjojo, Center for Political Studies at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Jakarta.
Chairperson: Associate Professor Ralf Emmers, Acting Head, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Introduction

This seminar marked the launch of three country reports from the Comparative Perspectives on Conflict Management and Peacemaking in Asia project undertaken by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre) and its partners. The HD Centre’s primary role across the globe is to facilitate dialogue and mediate in armed conflicts. Its collaborators in this project, which began in 2009, included the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Current Asia, the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies and the Delhi Policy Group.

The three country reports aim to offer a comparative perspective on approaches to conflict resolution, with each focusing on specific cases:

  • India: Kashmir, Manipur and the Naxalite insurgency.
  • Indonesia: Papua, Maluku and Sulawesi.
  • Philippines: The emphasis is on the use of civilian militia, a thematic issue of pressing concern in many peace processes, including in its southern provinces.

The seminar was led by Dr Michael Vatikiotis, Regional Director of the HD Centre. The authors of two country reports, Mr Ouseph Tharakan and Dr Muridan Widjojo, also presented.

 

Presentation

Dr Michael Vatikiotis highlighted that the examination of the successes and challenges of peacemaking in Asia is ultimately to provide practitioners in the area of conflict resolution with lessons learned and best practices.

Although the contexts of the case studies were quite varied, he noted that each started with the same lines of inquiry: What are the different ways the state engages with armed groups? What negotiation strategies have been used by parties to the conflict? How have armed actors other than armed opposition groups, such as militia groups, been dealt with? What is the role and potential of civil society in peacemaking and conflict resolution?

While recognising the complexity and diversity of the various case studies, he noted that the project identified some common observations (and lessons learned):

  • The appropriate (fair/proportionate) use of security forces is critical to resolving conflict.
  • Civil society has the potential to play an important peacemaking role, albeit being dependent on sustained support and the space to operate.
  • The role of women in the decision-making processes of peace talks is a frequently neglected aspect; indeed, they are still often relegated to the role of victim.
  • Coordination within government is paramount.
  • More policy-relevant material is needed for parties to peace processes, even at the community level, in order to share lessons and provide examples for local peacemaking efforts.

In the absence of a representative from the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies, Dr Vatikiotis pointed out the significance of the Filipino case study. In the Philippines, while a lot of attention has been on the internal conflict in Mindanao, relatively little critical examination has been undertaken on the role of armed civilian militia groups, which are often aligned with the government and other private, political actors, in sustaining the violence. Thus, the Philippines report considers the pressures on peacemaking posed by these groups and identifies measures aimed at sustainably disbanding civilian militia groups.

Dr Muridan Widjojo’s presentation focused on the Papua conflict and drew from research that had been carried out by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in 2004–2006 and 2008, which resulted in the 2009 ‘Papua Road Map: Negotiating the Past, Improving the Present and Securing the Future’. He began by outlining the historical and political background to the current conflict and stalemate, and then highlighted the importance of a Papua-Jakarta dialogue, including how the ground might be prepared, as well as some key challenges.

He set the scene by drawing out four root causes of the conflict: the marginalisation and discrimination of indigenous Papuans; the failure of development, particularly in health and education; the conflicting versions of history and perceptions of political status; and the lack of accountability for past state violence and human rights abuses.

Against this backdrop, the Special Autonomy Law was enacted in 2001. However, it ultimately failed to win over the Papuan people. Dr Widjojo noted its weak implementation, and attributed its failure to achieve its objective to several factors, including the questioning of its legitimacy by both parties; a failure to address and act upon crucial components of the Special Autonomy Law; government policies which undermined the law’s objectives, such as the division of territory and the banning of Papuan symbols; the narrowing of the Special Autonomy Law on the part of Indonesia’s government to budget-mounting and physical development aspects; and finally, poor leadership and governance among Papuan leaders.

Demonstrating the discontent, there have been several major violent clashes since the Special Autonomy Law was enacted and low-level violent conflict is ongoing in many areas of Papua. Since 2004, the Free Papua Movement (OPM), a low-level armed guerilla movement, has become active again. Various youth groups have become more radicalised, particularly since 2006. The arrests and detention of political prisoners have further inflamed tensions and spread separatist sentiment.

The ostensible failure of the Special Autonomy Law and the ongoing violence demonstrates the urgency of establishing a dialogue between Papua and Jakarta in order to develop workable solutions. To this end, groups such as the Papua Peace Network are working to prepare the ground for dialogue from the bottom-up – developing relationships with diverse stakeholders, such as civil society organisations, members of parliament, Indonesian government officials, the President and pro-independence groups; preparing Papuans for dialogue, such as through public consultations; lobbying strategic state institutions; and securing international support.

While there have been substantive successes over the past two years, Dr Widjojo also outlined some potential challenges, including differing concepts of ‘dialogue’, particularly vis-à-vis the notion of third-party engagement; the potential spoiling role of Papuan pro-referendum hardliners; and faction rivalries, weak leadership and ambiguous objectives among Papuan leaders. Overall though, despite the challenges, Dr Widjojo’s evaluation was that room for dialogue between Jakarta and Papua is slowly opening up for the reformulation and better implementation of the Special Autonomy Law.

Mr Ouseph Tharakan’s presentation focused on the case of Manipur in India. Despite recording the highest number of insurgency-related fatalities among north-eastern states in 2008 and 2009, relatively little has been written to date on this case. There has also not been any major attempt at reducing the violence or bringing about peace.

After outlining Manipur’s historical and political background, Mr Tharakan went on to highlight six main issues of conflict. First, many Manipuris continue to question and contest the merger with India in 1949, specifically the manner in which the merger agreement was signed, and this has led to a separatist rebellion. The hill-valley divide is another issue of conflict. There are internal tensions arising from inequalities between the Meiteis and the hill tribes (including the Nagas and Kukis), for instance, over land ownership; it was noted, though, that tensions also arise from inter-tribal rivalry. Third, across the north-east region, there is a sense of being distinct from mainstream India in terms of culture and attitude. This sense of alienation is one that is felt even more acutely in Manipur given that it is a majority Hindu state and might thus expect greater solidarity and consideration. Fourth is the issue of a Greater Nagaland. With the Government of India engaging in formal negotiations with the major rebel group in the neighbouring state of Nagaland, which lays claim to a Greater Nagaland encompassing part of the hill districts of Manipur, this holds the greatest potential to trigger conflict. The fifth issue is underdevelopment and institutional breakdown, including widespread corruption and extortion, rampant poverty and high unemployment, leading to an easy pool of recruits for armed groups, and a complete breakdown of governance, local political leadership, commitment to welfare, and respect for the rule of law. Sixth, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act constitutes a major cause of discontent. The Act has been blamed for creating a culture of impunity by providing immunity to national security forces undertaking counter-insurgency operations.

Mr Tharakan then outlined the dynamics of and among the main parties to the conflict in Manipur: the ethnic armed groups and the state security forces. He noted the presence of intersecting conflicts in the state – struggles against the central government, inter-ethnic conflict and inter-tribal conflict. Within the ethnic armed groups, there are also diverse and numerous strands of thought on the desired end goal of their struggles, ranging from a reversal of the annexation of Manipur to the overthrow of both the state and central governments, a return to Manipur’s pre-Hindu past, and, on the part of the Kukis, a demand for the formation of a separate Indian state. Potentially complicating the situation further, state security forces commonly have links with insurgent groups, for instance, through the receipt of funds from such groups and election support. Thus, there is also a symbiotic relationship between the two main parties in conflict. In terms of civil society, it is not given much space to operate in Manipur, and tends to be divided along sectarian lines.

The case for political dialogue remains very strong. Given that the various conflict dynamics depend for legitimacy on competing perceptions of history and geography, it is important that there be a long-term effort to discuss and reconcile different perceptions over the contested space. In terms of lessons learned, these included the importance of development; the need to manage ethnic groups so as not to prioritise the rights or demands of one over another; the importance of a regional approach as compared to a single-track negotiation, which takes into account the groups’ diverse views and demands; the importance of confidence-building measures early on in the discussions; the necessity of enabling talks without preconditions on the part of the participants; the potential role of civil society in preparing the ground for dialogue; and finally, the importance of government coordination, in this case between New Delhi and the state government.

 

Discussion

The discussion brought up a wide range of issues and questions, including the issue of preconditions for dialogue and mediation; questions of legitimacy and how peacemakers choose who to engage in dialogue; and issues of terminology, including the different implications of using the concepts of peacemaking, conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

The issue of when a conflict would be considered ‘ripe’ for effective mediation was raised. In response, it was noted that while the presence of preconditions for mediation constitutes an important consideration, it is perhaps a morally weak approach or framework to be adopted by a practitioner interested in resolving the conflict. For instance, in Manipur, while the situation would not be considered ripe, the scene is nonetheless set for initiatives to start to ready the stage for an eventual dialogue process. Similarly, in the Papuan case, while both sides are currently not very well prepared, it was argued that the situation must merely be made ripe. Thus, the question should instead be ‘can we make it ripe?’

In terms of how the HD Centre and similar actors choose who to engage in dialogue, it was noted that it should ultimately be considered ‘an art and not a science’, and essentially a matter of trial and error. Indeed, identifying and reaching out to various actors is a critical component of the preparation for dialogue. In terms of legitimacy issues in engaging certain actors, it was responded that there should be (and are) no taboos concerning who to engage in dialogue; sanctioned groups who are typically the parties to violence may be included.

Regarding theoretical approaches and terminology, one participant asked about the specific approach of the HD Centre project, given that terms such as peacemaking, conflict resolution and peacebuilding are often used interchangeably although each has different implications. In response, it was noted that the HD Centre’s approach is primarily to avoid the use of such terms; its approach more simply reflects the view that dialogue is a tool for mediation to resolve conflict. Thus, the HD Centre prefers to use the terms ‘mediation’ and ‘dialogue’. Nonetheless, the concept of peacebuilding is of specific relevance in the cases of Poso and Maluku, in terms of measures that are being taken once conflicts have officially been resolved.

During the discussion on terminology, it was also suggested that, for the sake of the wider profession, ‘peacemaking’ might be the most appropriate as it represents a catch-all phrase that covers all aspects of conflict resolution, while ‘conflict resolution’ merely refers to the mechanics of the process.

 

About the speakers:

Michael Vatikiotis is Regional Director for the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre). Based in Singapore, he works on promoting dialogue and conflict resolution in Asia. Formerly editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, Michael has been a writer and journalist in Asia for 20 years. He has lived in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand as well as Hong Kong. He has written two books on regional politics: Indonesian Politics under Suharto and Political Change in Southeast Asia. His published fiction books include The Spice Garden, a novel on religious conflict in Eastern Indonesia published in 2004 and Debatable Land, a collection of short stories on Southeast Asia. Michael is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, earned his doctorate from Oxford University and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Maryland. He is a member of the Asia Society’s International Council.

Ouseph Tharakan is a Project Officer at the HD Centre in Singapore. He has a Master's degree in International Relations from the University of Essex. Before joining the HD Centre in 2007, he worked with the International Trade Centre (UNCTAD – United Nations Conference on Trade and Development/WTO – World Trade Organization) and the South Centre in Geneva. Ouseph was a co-author of the Manipur case study.  

Muridan Widjojo graduated in anthropology and French literature from the University of Indonesia. After conducting archival and local research in Papua and Maluku, he was awarded a PhD from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. In 1993, he joined the Center for Political Studies at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in Jakarta and specialises in the concerns of Papua and Maluku. He was also a member of the investigation team of the National Commission of Human Rights in 2000 and has acted as a consultant for various organisations in Papua since 2000. Muridan was involved in the research and drafting of the Papua study.

 


Posted on: 27/7/2011 2:00:00 PM  |  Topic: Internal and Cross-Border Conflict


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