Inflaming the political sore

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 19 Sep 2004


Government authorities continue to misread the origins and purpose of insurgents and terrorists, often contributing to their growth in strength and numbers. But a better understanding to improve policy could require occupying powers to acknowledge their own mistakes, shortcomings and increasing unpopularity with the people. 

AFTER decades of monumental waste, unnecessary expense and lost opportunity known as the Cold War, some important lessons remain stubbornly unlearned. Disputes are still eagerly misrepresented by narrow self-interest or rigid ideology to worsen tension and conflict. 

One misstep was the decision during the George H.W. Bush administration to replace communism with Islam as the gravest post-Cold War threat facing the United States. The Cold War mentality as geopolitical template remained: issues were seen in isolation and different worldviews placed in a zero-sum mode. 

Another misstep was for academic ideologists like Samuel Huntington to feed administration prejudices with questionable notions. Thus a “clash of civilisations” was enacted in theory instead of having to hunt for a new academic vocation after the Cold War. 

Such misdirections made communism and Islam interchangeable as both concepts and field of operations, as conceived from the incumbent political centre. It ignores the plight of communities on the periphery, often diagnosing the problem wrongly and prescribing inflammatory solutions that aggravate the situation. 

In the real world, anti-establishment/centre struggles typically drawing support from impoverished masses marginalised in the periphery are termed “people’s wars,” and branded “communist” even when they are at least as nationalist in nature. Thus political labels become misleading. 

Whether political, ethnic or religious in form, these struggles that typify the Third World are a nation’s allergic reaction to cavalier policies and self-interested policymakers deemed to have neglected a community’s needs. Thus the struggle is also over political legitimacy. 

Nationalism in the Third World has long been a natural reaction against aberrations like colonialism and imperialism. In earlier decades it occasionally absorbed strands of international socialism for added force and some theoretical concepts, just as it now absorbs elements of ethnicity or Islam for similar purposes. 

Beyond the trappings of group identity, these struggles are essentially a gut-level reaction against the established order in advocating a socio-political alternative. Their armed actions may make them insurgents, but only when they target and terrorise civilians do they also become terroristic. 

Elsewhere, individuals, groups and states that deliberately attack civilians as bystanders and third parties just to make a point are more clearly terrorists. Much of the distinction between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” therefore remains intact. 

The problem with an incumbent state’s position often begins with neglect of local needs and grievances, then their misinterpretation, and then aggravation of the inflamed situation. At another level state authorities often fail to understand how basic grievances can shift their exterior manifestations, such as from leftism to ethnicity or religion. 

In the Philippines, the now-larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) not only grew from being a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), but also took a larger slice of the MNLF’s constituency with it. Thus when the ethnically-defined MNLF became co-opted and seemingly weakened by the state, the religious facet that defined the MILF took off. 

On Luzon island, rebel priest Conrado Balweg left the communist-inspired New People’s Army (NPA) to lead the ethnically-defined Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA). But after his assassination and the factional split of the CPLA, the state co-opted these sub-nationalists to help quell NPA activity on the island – leaving disaffected holdouts along the way. 

In Malaysia, the religion-defined Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) appears to play on the initials of the nationalist and ethnicity-defined Kesatuan Melayu Muda of yesteryear. Since the state had successfully appropriated nationalism after independence, led by Umno championing the Malay cause, these partisans had to resort to religion to rally the faithful. 

In Thailand, troubles in “the south” had been simmering due to local corruption, official brutality, feudal excesses and political apathy. Then when dissent boiled over in January, Bangkok upped the ante and added national insensitivity to the volatile mix, raising the stakes all round. 

In Indonesia, frequent reports of terrorist plots obscure the fact that only Aceh represents significant local grievances against uncaring elites in Jakarta. Yet even in Aceh, the original problem was not over separatism, let alone terrorism; but problems left unattended can fester in myriad forms. 

However defined or distinct, oppositional groups engaged in struggle sometimes converge – if only fleetingly – against the greater power of the incumbent authorities. Thus leftist and Islamic groups worked together against the Shah of Iran, just as nationalist, leftist and Catholic groups united against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. 

From Nicaragua to Chechnya to Myanmar, mass-based groups averse to the political centre are unlikely to be won over by changes effected by national elections.  

The Karens in Myanmar, for example, may not be any more impressed with a triumph by the National League for Democracy than Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians were with the Sandinistas’ defeat of the US-backed Somoza dictatorship. 

Much the same can be said of Iraq, whether or not the election planned for January proceeds smoothly. That it may not go as well as planned would only add to existing problems and anxieties. 

When the ‘cure’ can kill

IN THE celebrated fight against terrorism, a major hazard remains one of exacerbating the problem in the name of resolutely ending it. 

The Bush White House is renowned for turning on any perceptible threat anywhere and then opting for military overkill. It is a corruption of the Powell Doctrine, which advocated (now only in the past tense) a more selective choice of enemies. 

Nonetheless, Washington can get away with such policy incompetence because it is a superpower. When other nations try to copy its attitude, they are likely to get burnt more severely. 

Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has now chosen to do some ardent copying: unilateral pre-emptive strikes against suspected terrorist hideouts anywhere. If this is anything more than momentary bravado, the policy itself threatens to be terroristic while leaving Moscow in a morass more injurious than Afghanistan. 

It would be worrying enough if only Washington and Moscow shared the overkill approach and a neglect of political solutions. Now even smaller nations seem attracted to such follies. 

Bangkok’s clumsy manner with disaffection in three of its southern provinces has been classic insensitivity laced with overkill that has already proven lethal in the wrong way. First it opted for denial, then rejection, and finally some limited concessions that have yet to materialise. 

Relations between local authorities and rural folk in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat have been skewed by bullying and corruption that had always transcended ethnic or religious identities. The heavy hand and obscured vision of Bangkok only made matters worse, while the promised development remains only a promise. 

Now that Indonesia appears set to elect a new president tomorrow, similar temptations of aggravating a situation by seemingly tending to it may arise in Aceh. Inept leaders are often mesmerised by opinion poll figures, elite gossip and other forms of immediate self-gratification. 

The hard work required is less attractive since it means listening to people on the ground, understanding problems that may include existing policy, and taking effective measures with the resolve to see them all through. 

Such work is often avoided because it always seems easier just to send in the troops, regardless of mounting problems and growing liabilities. In a democracy, the incumbents can always leave it to the next administration a few years down the road to try solving the problems. 

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