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Asean's potential role in conflict resolution

Many deem the territorial disputes in the South China Sea as the most prominent issue in the Asean Summit in Phnom Penh. While the South China Sea is obviously "hot", there is another important development to watch. At the summit, Asean leaders are scheduled to inaugurate the Asean Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR).



Proposed by Indonesia while hosting last year's summit, the AIPR aims to contribute to research on, and policy recommendations for, conflict resolution. The institute will also enhance existing cooperation among Asean think tanks, and hold workshops or share experiences in conflict resolution. The establishment of the AIPR is a clear indication that the long-standing principle of non-interference has adapted to the changing situation. Asean members are less reluctant to talk about conflicts, although doing so potentially creates tension and embarrassment.

Among other conflicts, intra-state conflicts remain difficult issues to completely and comprehensively solve.

According to Aurel Croissant and Christoph Trinn in their 2009 book, domestic conflicts in Asia have increased significantly, while inter-state conflicts have become less significant. In Southeast Asia, intra-state conflicts still persist. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, between 2004 and 2007 at least 2,400 people were killed and 4,000 injured in Thailand's deep South. Recently, conflicts in Myanmar's Rakhine State have also claimed many lives.

Clearly, the number of casualities provides a rationale for prioritising efforts to searching for resolution to intra-state conflicts.

To address intra-state conflicts, Southeast Asian nations usually prefer to exercise domestic policies that focus more on security. For the sake of sovereignty, integrity and national dignity, they do not seem eager to give up on the core of their national sovereignty in exchange for international involvement.

Intra-state conflicts are so sensitive that countries in the region usually avoid discussing them in any international mechanism. In this sense, the "Asean way", characterised by an attitude of non-interference in the internal affairs of one another, has been widely criticised for prolonging intra-state tensions in Southeast Asia.

The situation has changed in recent years, although there is still a lot of work to do. An adaptation of the non-interference principle, especially in dealing with intra-state conflicts can be observed from two channels: cross-border democracy and regionalism. Governments are now more careful in handling intra-state conflicts to avoid criticism from the international community, the media and neighbouring countries.

This was the case when the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) repeatedly sent messages condemning political repression in Myanmar.

A government cannot simply say that intra-state insurgencies are not our business, because cross-border civil society groups are now aware and concerned about what is happening in other countries.

At the same time, the countries of Southeast Asia have been fostering deeper and closer cooperation by working toward the creation of the Asean Community in 2015. That development, to a certain degree, has transformed perceptions of Southeast Asian states toward security norms and the political culture in the region.

The Asean Charter, for example, clearly mentions that the purpose of the association is to promote democracy, good governance, the rule of law, rights and freedom. In that regard, intra-state conflicts may be considered a common concern among Southeast Asian nations because unresolved conflicts can endanger regional and global stability.

In the case of the peace process in Aceh, for instance, military observers from Asean countries took part in a ceasefire-monitoring mission.

Learning from ongoing changes in the "non-interference" principle, the AIPR has modalities and opportunities to contribute to intra-state conflict management, although it is not exclusively designed for intra-state conflicts. The institute should look beyond research and advisory roles with little power to influence policies.

Instead, the AIPR should be involved in policy-making and implementation. In this regard, nevertheless, it should not ambitiously focus on conflict resolution, but on creating suitable conditions for resolution.

One area that the AIPR can work on conflict management is by promoting socio-economic development in conflict areas, which are mostly economically underdeveloped.

The AIPR could initiate a "trust fund" from Asean members and donors that would be used to direct financing to infrastructure projects in regions such as southern Thailand, Papua, Mindanao and Kayin State. Joint investment promotion, empowerment of small and medium enterprises, capacity building and development of centres of excellence in those regions could also be seriously considered.

Another potential project is to promote more people-to-people contacts and exchanges of scholars and local NGO leaders. Focusing on those areas will help the AIPR build important credibility.

The recent signing of the initial peace agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF rebel group is a wakeup call for Asean leaders to revisit their approach to dealing with intra-state conflicts. In this sense, the AIPR has a lot of opportunities to play a role in contributing to long-lasting peace.

The role of the AIPR, however, can only be beefed up if there is strong political will from Asean leaders. Asean secretary-general-designate Le Luong Minh will certainly play a pivotal role in transforming the AIPR into a valuable vehicle for peace and reconciliation in the region.

Awidya Santikajaya is a PhD scholar at the Australian National University's Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, Canberra.


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