Essay: Future Conflict Triggers in South East Asia

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Se Asia Conflict Triggers

Local Quarrels, Regional Risks:

Myanmar and Papua New Guinea

Decades of relative peace and prosperity have allowed the democracies of Southeast Asia the latitude to pursue economic cooperation and relatively stable domestic policies. But while the "liberal peace" of ASEAN has allowed its members to support each other's traditional security interests while settling disputes through non-violent channels (Dosch 2007, p. 211), regional membership in this pluralistic community is not universal. In fact, at least two low-level ongoing disputes -- the Karen-led insurgency in Myanmar and the effective collapse of civil order in Papua New Guinea -- have the potential to spill over into neighboring territories and thus require the intervention of regional or global peacekeepers.

Although Myanmar has been a member of ASEAN in relatively good standing since 1997, the ruling junta's efforts to enforce cultural and political unity on its heterogenous population (Cheesman 2002, p. 199) remain controversial both among the membership (Than 2005, p. 20) and the wider international community (Moller 1998, p. 1087). Several of the nation's ethnic minorities have sponsored long-term secessionist movements; one of the strongest, that of the Karen culture, has proved to be extremely persistent over the last six decades (Hironaka 2005, p. 78). While the Karen are currently not the military threat to the junta they were before the 1995 fall of Manerplaw (Fong 2008, p. 169), it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which increasingly systematic reprisals against civilians create an ideal guerilla recruiting environment, an international humanitarian disaster, or a combination of the two.

In 2005, roughly 540,000 Karen and other rural people along the Thai frontier had been internally displaced by ongoing military activity in the area (South 2007a, p. 58), and by 2010 another 100,000 were living in camps on the other side of the border (Thailand Burma Border Consortium 2010). While reports from 2003 (Checchi et al. 2003, p. 74) and 2007 (Hull 2009, p. 89) indicate that the refugee population has been fairly stable over the last several years, increased exploitation of non-combatants by the ruling SPDC apparatus and the inability of the weakened Karen insurgency to defend them could easily fuel a wider exodus:

Depleted food and fiscal provisions resulting from extortive demands have, in turn, led to worsening humanitarian conditions across much of SPDC-controlled Karen State, and indeed much of rural Burma […] Villagers living in SPDC-controlled areas therefore confront a difficult choice. They can try to eek out a living under the persistent demands […] they can flee into situations of displacement as a means of evading this abuse (Hull 2009, p. 12).

If these exiles are radicalized and strike back into Myanmar from over the border, several scenarios for wider conflict emerge. First, a revived Karen insurgency could easily become the new focus of armed resistance to the current regime (South 2007b, pp. 1-2), destabilizing the country, inaugurating a new phase in its long civil war, and possibly prompting a humanitarian response. Second, counter-strikes against rebel positions along the border could provoke the Thai military to respond in self-defense, especially if the natural gas pipelines that run across the frontier are damaged or Myanmar makes an incursion into the disputed Three Pagodas Pass region (Rajah 1994, p. 91).

Still, "the ASEAN way" does not allow for interference in the internal affairs of a member state (Mondejar and Chu 2005, p. 223), especially if it means pitting members against each other:

At the core of ASEAN's diplomacy and order building in Southeast Asia stand six norms: sovereign equality; the non-recourse to use of force and the peaceful settlement of conflict; noninterference and nonintervention; the noninvolvement of ASEAN to address unresolved bilateral conflict between members; quiet diplomacy; and mutual respect and tolerance (Dosch 2007, p. 218).

As such, the organization is more likely to pursue mediation between all parties (as during the 1968 dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah; see Anthony 2005, pp 66-9) than to mobilize in any way except in self-defense. Despite Thailand's historical willingness to at least rhetorically back the Karen movement, this support has long since waned (Thawnghmung 2008, p. 30)

However, other players in the region are more open to the idea of intervention in a neighbor's affairs, especially if it means propping up a state that is on the verge of civil war or outright failure. India shares a long border with Myanmar and the two nations have occasionally cooperated in recent years to raid the equally intransigent insurgencies of the Northeastern Tribal Areas on that border, which have given India a taste of the trouble that the Karen and other movements have created for Myanmar over the decades (Nardi 2008, p. 167). Moreover, Myanmar has energy resources that India both covets (Lall 2006, p. 437) and would like to keep out of the grasp of China; as such, the balance of factors may drive New Delhi to support its neighbor against a serious rebellion while remaining relatively quiet about any human rights issues that emerge.

Likewise, China itself has a long border with Myanmar and a strong strategic stake in its stability and independence. As such, it so would naturally be motivated to check any attempt to intervene in the country on the side of the rebels or, practically speaking, on the side of the ruling junta itself:

Beijing has no interest in seeing Myanmar pander to foreign powers with interests inimical to those of Beijing. […] From a Chinese point-of-view, it is also important to prevent instability in Myanmar that could result in the central authorities losing control over the border areas, particularly if this resulted in a further exacerbation of the drug flow into China or foreign intervention (Haacke 2005, p. 122).

If necessary, China would probably use its Security Council veto power to eliminate the possibility that the United States or European countries (which have complained vociferously about Myanmar's human rights record in the past) will take the case to the United Nations. While non-governmental humanitarian aid may be welcome, armed peacekeepers probably will not. As a result, it is difficult to determine just how much foreign support the Karen would receive in a full-fledged civil war, or even whether the situation would realistically be allowed to reach that stage.

While Myanmar has only partially succeeded in welding its diverse population into a modern nation, Papua New Guinea has arguably had next to no success at all. With an estimated six times as many ethnic groups inside its borders and limited experience with the machinery of modern government (Morgan and McLeod 2006, p. 4), the country has largely failed to create a communal national identity for its people or even competently deliver basic services. Much like the neighboring Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea is not so much a failed state as it is a "state conceived but never born" in the first place (Wainright 2003, p. 20).

The country is notorious for extremely high levels of crime, unemployment, and economic deterioration. As sociologist Maxine Pitts described the situation nearly a decade ago:

Crime and corruption in Papua New Guinea are rampant. […] Years of junketing, greed, sloth, sheer incompetence, and outright corruption [are] sending Papua New Guinea into an economic tailspin, exacerbated by an accompanying increase in crime. The country is dependent on foreign grants and loans, without which it would be bankrupt (Pitts 2001, p. 127).

Since then, foreign aid has continued, but if anything, the situation has worsened. Australia, which contributes about AUD150 million a year to support the country's police force and court system, recognizes that this campaign has largely been a failure.

Already, the Papua New Guinea internal security situation is "in a desperate state" and new recruitment of police personnel from elsewhere in the region is "a matter of urgency" (Dixon, Gene, and Walter 2008, p. 14). With this in mind, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which, like the Solomon Islands before it, local rule of law breaks down entirely and Papua New Guinea "risks becoming…a petri dish in which trans-national and non-state security threats can develop and breed" (Wainwright 2003, p. 19).

Given an apparent lack of interest within the United Nations in resolving Pacific conflicts, it is likely that no global response from that quarter would be forthcoming. However, a systemic breakdown in the rule of law in Papua New Guinea would likely bring an armed peacekeeping force from across the Coral Sea. As the primary administrator of much of this territory for most of the last century, Australia considers itself the "strong neighbor" in the Southwest Pacific. The country sent observers to Indonesia during that nation's early struggle for independence (Londey 2004, p. 4), mobilized police units to Bougainville and East Timor, and, most recently, led the 2003 mission that restored order to the Solomon Islands.

The Solomon Islands mission, in particular, gave Australia a chance to project its power as it "quietly succeeded in gathering wide-ranging regional support for a sensitive intervention in the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Future Conflict Triggers in South East Asia.  (2010, April 1).  Retrieved June 17, 2019, from

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"Future Conflict Triggers in South East Asia."  April 1, 2010.  Accessed June 17, 2019.