Monthly Archives: May, 2017


Apocalypse not-right-now: The unsurprising disorder in Mindanao

Miguel Galsim

Politics | Asia


On May 23, militants from the Abu Sayyaf (ASG) and Maute Groups stormed the city of Marawi in the southern Philippine province of Lanao del Sur, Mindanao. The conflagration was sparked by a raid conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines which intended to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of ASG. Maute reinforcements were called into the city shortly afterwards, eventuating in the current crisis.

Having declared allegiance to the Islamic State, the actions of the Maute Group and ASG have drawn Western media attention in a somewhat apocalyptic light, linking the fighting to the international effort against IS. The ABC’s report began: “militants linked to the Islamic State group torched buildings, seized more than a dozen Catholic hostages and raised the black flag of IS.” Similarly, the Sydney Morning Herald’s lead stated simply that IS-linked militants “threatened to kill a priest and other Christian hostages.” A Reuters headline put it plainly as a “rebel rampage claimed by Islamic State.”

While the assault has undoubtable implications for human life and minority groups in the south, permitting an outsized appreciation of the Maute Group and ASG capabilities would be unhelpful for policy thinking. The recent upsurge in Marawi does not necessarily herald the spawn of a Philippine Raqqa, a caliphate wherein terrorists can freely roam and assail the rest of the archipelago.

The Maute Group and ASG operate in a distinct manner, and are empowered and constrained by unique contextual factors in the Philippine south. Firstly, the two terrorist organisations must be characterised by their relatively small size and limited controlled territory that forces them to operate surreptitiously in rural areas. ASG has been persistently hunted by the Duterte Government, and although a recent Congressional report places the Maute’s strength at 263 armed members, it remains outsized by rival Islamic, ethno-nationalist, and Communist armies on the island.

Moreover, both groups face resource limitations – this challenge drives ASG’s long-running fixation on kidnap-for-ransom operations, and similar extortionist behaviour from the Maute Group. While the aforementioned report also implied that the Maute Group was receiving funding from IS – a legitimate cause for concern – how well this will translate into battlefield advantages, especially in the face of a heavy-handed government counter-offensive, remains to be seen.

Most importantly, such unrest is not new to Mindanao. Armed groups have long exploited the central authorities’ inability to effectively govern and extend coercive influence over far-flung regions in the south. Opportunities are also opened by crushing poverty and pro-autonomy sentiment from a Bangsamoro Muslim population seeing itself as ethnically and culturally distinct, enmeshed in a history of maltreatment by Manila.

The Maguindanao Massacre of 2009, wherein 58 civilians were killed by a private militia as part of an electoral feud, illustrates this. In a similar vein, the Moro National Liberation Front occupied Zamboanga City for nearly three weeks in 2013, attempting to establish a breakaway republic. The current siege of Marawi is more an extension of a trend than an exceptional outburst of IS in Asia.

However, implicit in these opportunities are considerable threats to the Maute Group and ASG. These two organisations were not the only armed groups to rise out of deficient central governance. Much to their disdain, a number of Mindanao’s non-state forces – namely the MNLF, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the New People’s Army – contrast with the IS-linked militants ideologically and are engaged in talks with the government at present. The  MILF even assisted Government forces in disrupting Maute and the ASG as part of their ceasefire negotiations.

More so, both the MNLF and MILF have a deeper history in carrying the banner of Muslim and Moro autonomy, and are generally more popular as a result, as outlined by Filipino scholar Eric Gutierrez. Adding insult to injury, both Fronts also denounced the terrorists’ assault on Marawi. The Maute Group and ASG would struggle to capitalise on wider Muslim discontent in Mindanao while surrounded by more experienced and entrenched competitors, regardless of the funds it allegedly receives from IS.

IS influence in the Philippines and Southeast Asia is a real threat, but it should not be overly inflated. Nor should it be forgotten that the Maute Group and ASG differ from the core IS organisation in the Middle East. Mindanao’s home-grown jihadist groups have a unique modus operandi, and exist under circumstances that stem from entrenched local issues, particularly the difficulties facing the Philippine state in bringing order and equitable development to the distant south.

In recognising these distinctions, more realistic and targeted policy options – especially from the Philippines’ Western allies – can be rendered that pinpoint specific vulnerabilities in the Abu Sayyaf and Maute Groups. More broadly, there is greater wisdom in restraining current and future policymakers from defining regional threats in broad strokes when localised, surgical approaches would prove more fitting.

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Human costs of the sacred cow

Tess Styles

Uncategorized | South Asia


India is home to over 200 million cows, more than any other country in the world. They roam freely on the streets, unfazed by the surrounding cries of street vendors and incessant tooting of horns as they go about their business. It is not uncommon to find that a cow has caused a traffic jam by wandering into the middle of a busy intersection.

Almost 80 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion human citizens are Hindu. Cows are regarded as sacred in Hinduism, which explains why they seem to have a license to do as they please.

The cow’s gentle nature embodies the religion’s “do no harm” principle and forms part of the reason they are held in such high esteem. Ironically however, it is the humble cow that is at the root of widespread controversy and violence throughout India.

[caption id="attachment_5960" align="alignnone" width="3872"] A small herd of urban-dwelling cows inhabiting a street in Jaisalmer, India[/caption]

Cow slaughter is banned in 24 of 29 Indian states. Following the government’s recent crackdown on butchers in the northern and western states of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, restrictions have tightened further. The butchers are suspected of selling cow meat, instead of the permitted water buffalo meat.

As India’s largest meat-producing state, the beef ban comes at a great cost to many citizens in Uttar Pradesh who rely on the meat trade to make a living.

Since the election of right-wing chief minister Yogi Adityanath last month, hundreds of meat shops and slaughterhouses around the state have been forced to close. Most of the slaughterhouses are owned by Muslims, who make up 14 per cent of India’s population.

Authorities claim that the new restrictions are only aimed at shutting down illegal businesses, however locals believe they are being unfairly targeted. Even small shops selling only goat, sheep and chicken have been closed, despite these meats being legal to trade.

Many in Muslim communities have earnt their livelihoods through the meat trade for decades and do not have any other skills to make money. Already poor before the new restrictions, these families now face even greater hardship and uncertainty.

It is not only Muslims who are being impacted. The resultant meat shortage in the state has also led to Hindu workers employed in legal abattoirs facing the prospect of losing their jobs.

In addition to the crackdown in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat last week increased the penalty for cow slaughter to life imprisonment. Anyone convicted of even transporting, possessing or selling beef will now also face up to ten years in jail.

Risks of severe legal punishment for cow slaughter are not the only factors sending butchers out of business. Following the new laws, meat shops around the country have been vandalised and set alight, leaving many involved in the meat trade fearing for their lives.

It is not the first time such violence has erupted due to controversy over cow slaughter.

In 2015, a 50-year-old farmer from Uttar Pradesh was violently murdered by a mob after being accused of slaughtering and eating a cow. The man was dragged from his bed and bashed in the head with a sewing machine, before being repeatedly kicked, stabbed and beaten with bricks in front of family members. Police later revealed that the meat the family had been consuming was mutton.

Last year, two Muslim cattle herders aged 15 and 35 were brutally tortured and hanged on their way to a livestock fair. The assailants are believed to be Hindu radicals who strongly opposed cattle trading.

Despite its stringent laws on cow slaughter, India paradoxically remains the world’s largest exporter of beef. The beef industry claims that this is all buffalo meat, which is not prohibited in most states. However, many suspect that at least some cow meat is being smuggled out of the country.

This is certainly the case along the India-Bangladesh border, where the beef ban has indirectly resulted in the establishment of an illegal cattle smuggling trade. The high demand for beef in Bangladesh means that those willing to endanger themselves (and their cows) by navigating the dangerous river crossing fetch a high price on the other side. This is not only resulting in numerous human fatalities, but is also a counterproductive outcome of the laws aimed at protecting cows.

Whether or not they are achieving their purpose, there is no doubt that the newest regulations will impact thousands. And worse, the beef ban disproportionately burdens poor and disadvantaged groups for whom affordability renders beef a dietary staple.

By widening the gulf between Indian communities, the new regulations have inadvertently created a chasm into which humans and cows alike are liable to fall victim.

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Engaging Iran: Time for a new approach

Benjamin Clarke

Politics | Central Asia


Iran and the US have been at loggerheads since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Despite concerted efforts to force Iran into submission, the Islamic Republic has persevered and grown even stronger. It is now a major player in Middle Eastern geopolitics and wields substantial influence across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As the regional power structure undergoes pivotal change amid the fallout of the Syrian war, the US is making renewed attempts to weaken Iran. However, threats and demands are counterproductive. Instead, the US must swallow its pride and engage with Iran respectfully to reduce confrontation by allaying its fears.

Simply put, Iran feels threatened by a hostile US and its regional partners after military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, combined with anti-Iran rhetoric. Its political and military interventionism stems from a need to maximise its own security. So long as it perceives an existential threat, Iran will continue to bolster its military capacity and counter its rivals’ interests.

Whether the US likes it or not, Iran is here to stay as an influential power, and regional stability requires its assent.

Iran’s fears and resentments did not emerge in a vacuum. A seminal moment was the 1953 coup engineered by the CIA, when a democratically elected Iranian government was toppled for trying to establish control over its own oil resources. This sordid affair contributed to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and remains a source of national indignation.

Relations were further strained by the destructive Iran-Iraq War. Invaded by Saddam Hussein, Iran faced embargoes while Iraq was funded and armed by Western and regional states. Particularly bitter memories surround the many chemical weapons attacks Iran suffered. Not only did the international community fail to reprimand Iraq for their use, but US intelligence helped target Iranian forces. Iranian deaths from chemical attacks rival those inflicted during World War 1, and many still live with permanent health problems.

Despite these grievances, moderates in Iran have since tried to establish better relations with the US. After 9/11, Iran and the US found a common enemy in the Taliban. Then under a reformist government, Iran hoped to adopt a new foreign policy and align with the US. It supported the US invasion of Afghanistan and pledged to help rebuild the country. Yet in return, George Bush infamously condemned Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil”, imposing sanctions and threatening invasion.

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Afghanistan’s game of horses and headless goats"]

With the sanctions and the sabre-rattling, a golden opportunity to repair relations was lost and domestic indignation returned a hardline government to power. Relations between the two countries have since been tense, with Iran’s nuclear program a major sticking point.

However, there is now another window of opportunity for a rapprochement. As in the days after 9/11, there is a moderate government in power and a common enemy in violent extremism.

The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal saw sanctions lifted, with Iran eager to break its isolation and economically engage with the world. If there is to be any hope for a lasting thawing of relations, the US must now honour the nuclear deal, understand Iran’s security concerns and engage with it in a respectful manner. This should include easing remaining sanctions, consulting Iran on Syria’s future and recognising Iran’s right to develop missiles for self-defence.

Taking these steps would improve the perception of the US inside Iran and strengthen the platform of reformists who seek to steer Iran away from confrontation. Iran’s population is young, urbanised and educated, with many having little or no recollection of the revolution or the Iran-Iraq War. While patriotic, many dislike the conservative aspects of their country and there is much potential for this new generation to respond well to positive treatment from the US.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen, though. The US still refuses to constructively engage with Iran. Instead, hatred of Iran seems institutionalised within US politics and at times borders on irrational. The new Trump administration has threatened Iran and branded it the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism. This spurious claim ignores that even many in the US believe the worst forms of extremism and jihadi violence are financed by US partners like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran actively fights against such forces. Including Iranians in US travel bans on the pretext of preventing terrorism is simply illogical.

Of course, Iran has also been involved in some dubious activities (including holding US diplomats hostage and attacks on Israeli personnel) - but few countries haven’t, and dwelling on these will not serve any constructive purpose.

This latest aggressive rhetoric has raised tensions and fanned anti-US sentiment. It certainly hasn’t persuaded Iran to change its course, and there is no reason to expect it would. Iran has proved remarkably resilient, managing to defend and develop itself for decades even as an international pariah. The current US stance serves only to legitimise hardliners and the powerful Revolutionary Guard’s aggressive outlook. This is especially important with Iran’s presidential election looming this month.

If the US wishes to defuse tensions and protect its own interests in the Middle East, it needs to improve relations with Iran. This can only be done by building confidence through sustained positive engagement.

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How to end ‘Tawuran’ in Indonesia

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat
Dikanaya Tarahita

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


Tawuran, the phenomenon of street fighting between high school gangs in Indonesian has placed student’s lives danger. Dikanaya Tarahita and Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat report on why the Tawuran is now large among Indonesian students, and what must be done to end the dangerous school tradition.

The number of cases of street fighting in Indonesia has increased in recent years. For instance, in Yogyakarta, a city that has the largest number of students in the country, there has been a rise in student violence, with 43 cases reported in 2016 . A more recent example is a bloody brawl that occurred among some students in Ciputat earlier in April 2017. Based on police reports, students threw stones at each other. In its aftermath, police confiscated these from involved students, along with Celurit, machetes, and swords in order to prevent another outbreak.​

A fight that has been broadly reported on involved students from SMK Adi Luhur and SMK Bunda Kandung. One student fighter died in the incident, while the other sustained major injuries. The fight was recorded and uploaded with a witness’ mobile and shared widely on social media platforms.

The increase in Tawuran fights is a serious cause for concern. High school students bring their collection of weapons to school, including knives, machetes and sickles in order to be prepared for when a brawl occurs.

This anarchic behaviour has a negative impact not only on victims and perpetrators of the violence, but on the wider community. Tawuran incidents often occur in spaces open to the general public. The gangs will sometimes vandalise public and private property.

[caption id="attachment_5905" align="aligncenter" width="500"] The arsenal of weaponry displayed by on Tawuran fighter boastfully on Twitter  [/caption]

What causes Tawuran?

There are many reasons why Tawuran continues in Indonesia.

It is argued that juvenile delinquencies has flourished due to the degradation of moral ethics amongst some Indonesian students. Scholars have identified that the spread of Tawuran is due to schools paying little attention to character building and student thought, failing to foster mature approaches to treating each other with respect.

Most cases occur between schools that share a long history of street fighting. Starting from Orientation day, new students are taught to hate students from enemy schools. This disharmony is implanted as part of a tradition inherited from senior classmates to junior classmates. Nowadays, not even the root cause for two schools to be fighting against each other is of importance, only the knowledge that a students from an adversary school is their enemy.

Students perceive winning a Tawuran fight as a demonstration of strength and toughness, placing them higher up into a chain of school hireachy in which the those at the top are feared by the rest. Senior students will ask first years to join their gang. In the case where a student refuses, they will be branded as someone with no solidarity to their Almamater. The gang will threaten them by saying that unless the student joins them, they will not defend the student from pursuit by an adversary school’s fighters. Peer pressure is often the strongest reason for Tawuran’s existence in Indonesia.

Joining the school’s gang earns the adoration of fellow classmates who encourage them to use violent methods to defend their Almamater. This harmful perception leads to a lack of respect for sportsmanship among students. At various inter-school sports competitions, the winning team may have their school’s pride tested by follow up street fighting against an opposing school.

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Increasing boys prostitution in Indonesia"]

Tawuran may be conducive to the environment in which a student lives in. This has been the case for those living in densely populated areas. Provided only with low levels of education in families that are financially strangled or living in the slums of Jakarta, some students join Tawuran gangs as a means of survival.

Solutions to ending Tawuran

It is undeniable that concrete efforts are needed to end the continuous phenomenon of street fighting in Indonesia. The government must issue a law prohibiting Tawuran with stern penalties to both the students and the schools involved in the brawls. Strong warnings must be given to students who perpetrate violence and incite hatred among other students. A possible tactic is participating student’s suspension from school.

Enforcing punishments should be complimented with efforts to promote and educate Indonesian society about the dangers of Tawuran. This can be carried out through public seminars and announcements, and in mainstream media. Media production industries need to consider the impact of serials or movies that depict gang violence and street fighting in a glorified and unrealistic manner on its young viewership.

Education that pays attention to both academic achievements and character building should be promoted by the Ministry of Education. Studies on moral ethnics could be incorporated into standard curriculum, and given equal priority and time as other studies such Science and Mathematics. The government must realise that to develop the country’s next leaders, it is not sufficient enough to only emphasis academic qualifications. Respect for other people must also be taught if the country is to sustain a peaceful and dignified Indonesia.

Schools should foster closer communications with pupils’ parents, as efforts to develop students’ characters take place not only in school, but also at home and with their families.

Tawuran is a serious problem affecting the peacefulness of everyday life in Indonesia. Efforts need to be made by different sectors of society in order to promote a culture of respect among high school students, lest they grow up to continue the volatile practice of Tawuran into adulthood.

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