Asean must be prudent on Islamic State

With a few hundred fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines active in the Islamic States (IS) in Syria and Iraq, Asean must take concrete action now to tackle the issue of their activities head-on and in comprehensive ways.

Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation February 23, 2015 12:09 am

Since the last Asean Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, the grouping has issued four statements in less than four months on the rise of IS – a record in responding to a specific problem – reiterating its determination to fight against violent extremism and promote moderation.

At the retreat last month, Asean issued a statement, which said the ministers “condemn and deplore the violence and brutality committed by extremist organisations and radical groups in Iraq and Syria, whose impact increasingly poses a threat to all regions of the world.”

With a 47 per cent Muslim population among the 625-million Asean people, the grouping must form sustainable and effective policies to prevent its citizens from joining the IS and stemming extremism and militancy.

That would mean political, socio-economic and other issues must be addressed holistically. The role of civil society, youth organisations and media, social media in particular, are pivotal and must be looped in otherwise the government efforts would be in vain. In Asean, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei are predominately Muslim. Over half of Asean citizens are Malay-speakers.

Given the Asean diversity and individualism, it is also difficult to keep track of their citizens overseas. Asean is very concerned that the returned fighters could spread their experience around the region. Worse, they could use some of the grouping’s territory for training grounds. Currently, the Philippines has the largest number of overseas workers in the Middle East. The numbers over there of other members such as Indonesia and Thailand, which used to be huge, have dwindled. There are at least 300,000 Thai-Malay dual citizenship holders criss-crossing the border. The pool of Asean students studying in the Middle East is large – but fortunately most return home after graduation.

For the time being, each Asean member has its own plan to fight violent extremists, especially the home-grown groups. Their cooperation is limited to intelligence exchanges and some training. More diversified cooperation should be encouraged. For instance, Singapore has a good programme on de-radicalisation of extremists. Indonesia and Malaysia are engaging in inter-faith dialogue with various moderate Muslim groups. Thailand is struggling with its own preventive measures to ensure that the IS ideology would not penetrate into its southern provinces.

What Asean needs to do now is work together and come up with common and doable action plans that leave no holes for the IS to take advantage of. Malaysia, the current chair of Asean, must take the lead in forceful ways. All best practices deriving from the local environment must be studied and considered whether they could be shared, retaining the unique circumstances of each Asean member. Kuala Lumpur is planning a ministerial meeting on violent extremists in October.

As a regional peacemaker, Malaysia has been active in the peace process in Mindanao, the Philippines. Current efforts in the southern provinces of Thailand are also still a work in progress. It remains to be seen how the chair will utilise the Global Moderate Movement, which morphed into an Asean agenda in 2011, as a key tool in promoting moderation and inter-faith dialogue.

Following the September 2001 attacks, Asean has been identified as the second front for the fight against the terrorists, which prompted Asean members to work together. The Asean Convention on Counter Terrorism (2007) was completed in 90 days as the Asean leaders pushed for such a challenging document. Implementation so far has been unsatisfactory.

The rise of IS and new recruitment inside the region has forced the policy-makers to dwell on domestic conditions and find ways to mitigate them. In the past decade, for instance, there have been numerous incidents of religious intolerance and prosecution in the member states, especially in Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia. According to the latest study by the Jakarta-based Human Rights Resource Centre, Asean has to do more to promote religious tolerance, which has been its hallmark. The study concluded there is a close connection between violent religious persecution and conflict, which affects more than religious communities.

Asean’s five-decade history has shown that whenever the grouping is faced with external challenges – in whatever form – its leaders would come together and form common coalitions. The Paris Peace Agreement, the Chiang Mai Initiative, the SARS campaign and the Convention to Counter Terrorism were testimonies to their joint efforts that made the grouping what it is today. No doubt the IS is now the grouping’s biggest challenge.

To be effective, any resolve must be addressed as an Asean issue, even though half of the grouping is more active than the other half. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore have their counter-extremist plans but still lack coordination. Other members such as Cambodia, which used to be a transit point for terrorists, must also be brought in. Porous borders and inefficient controls with non-Southeast Asia – as well as those within Asean members – allow undetected movement of potential extremists.