Farish A. Noor For The Straits Times

Asean needs a comprehensive response to ISIS

Problem of militancy rears head amid new phase for region

Elite Indonesian anti-terror police escorting four Turks arrested for suspected links to ISIS on arrival at Jakarta airport on Sept 14, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Elite Indonesian anti-terror police escorting four Turks arrested for suspected links to ISIS on arrival at Jakarta airport on Sept 14, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

AS THE world gears up for what may well become a prolonged international campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) movement, there is growing concern about what to do with militants who may return to their countries of origin. That such an outcome has grown increasingly likely is harrowing for policymakers and laymen alike, particularly in South-east Asia.

Next year, the countries of Asean will enter a new phase in the development of the regional group, relaxing border controls further and deepening economic ties between each other.

By most accounts this would be a positive step towards building closer regional ties and enhancing state-to-state confidence, while also creating new opportunities allowing millions of Asean citizens to reap the benefits. Yet at the same time those in the security community are worried that this very same process of regional integration may be hijacked, by others who wish to disrupt deve- lopment in the region.

Asean is thus left in a bind: While the realities of the world today point to the need for greater economic integration and social mobility, genuine security concerns cannot be neglected. Something needs to be done to ensure that Asean's destiny will not be pushed off course by the malevolent actions of small, yet dangerous, militant groups.

Dealing with the multiple challenges of economic integration and regional militancy at the same time will require deft and agile thinking.

Militancy not a new challenge

SOUTH-EAST Asia is no stranger to such complexities. During the middle decades of the 20th century, it was practically the second front in the war against communism - long before it was dubbed the "second front in the war on terror".

The experience of the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) comes to mind, as well as the numerous campaigns that were waged in other neighbouring countries then. Back in the 1950s and 60s, social engagement, public outreach and education, and rehabilitation campaigns were part and parcel of the wider campaign to prevent the whole region from falling into the Soviet bloc.

One reason why the counter- terrorism campaign across South-east Asia in the 50s and 60s succeeded was because the alleged militants were given a halfway house option that did not paint them into an existential corner, forcing them to fight to the end - despite the claim of some die-hard militants that they would "fight to the death".

Many of those who had turned to militancy were seeking integration, representation, and a sense of place and belonging in a society that they felt had alienated them. Dealing with such existential angst went hand-in-hand with the anti-terror campaign then.

It was understood that unless, and until, some form of representative politics could be put in place, there would remain pockets of discontent and frustration that could be triggered at a later date.

Another factor that secured the success of the anti-militancy campaign then was that the states of Asean - notably the five founding member-states that set it up in 1967 - were able to work together for a singular purpose: to prevent the region from falling into the trap of the Cold War and to ensure that Asean would retain its status as a neutral zone.

Asean governments cooperated on a number of levels: economic, diplomatic and security, among others, to ensure the region as a whole prospered and developed together. There was the understanding that socio-economic inequalities in one country might create a haven for radicalism there, and by extension affect the region as a whole.

Asean's challenge today

BY THE late 1980s, the material needs of nation-building were met in most Asean countries. The challenge today, however, is to inject meaning into the lives of millions of people who have felt the impact of globalisation in no uncertain terms.

In the past, disgruntled and marginalised youth turned to the radical left as an alternative to what they regarded as an unjust and unequal world. Today, there is the phenomenon of apparently successful and integrated people who feel the need to travel abroad and engage in political conflicts that they deem necessary and just.

Nothing excuses today's militants from carrying out acts of violence against the innocent, but on the home front, South-east Asia needs to understand both the pull and push factors that drove them there in the first place.

Living in a developed Asean region where public education has increased, along with political-economic awareness, and where citizens are exposed daily to images and news of turmoil in other parts of the world, some citizens feel that they have to do something to change the world around them, leaving the comfort zone that Asean has created.

In more benign cases, this may involve joining international campaigns such as to promote awareness of the environment, but in more extreme cases, it has led to people taking up arms in conflicts that may not have anything to do with them. The former is a case of internationalism that is in keeping with common universal goals; but the latter may have a spillover effect that draws communities from South-east Asia into a cauldron of sectarian violence.

There is still much that needs to be done in creating an Asean region where the benefits of development can be felt by all. This is one of the things that Asean states need to do today, together: Asean needs to have meaning for all of its citizens, and be seen as a space where human potential can be realised without having to exceed the bounds of civility and law.

And this potential has to be realised here, in the bosom of Asean, which remains a work-in-progress - and not in some forlorn battlefield thousands of miles away.


The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.