Saturday, January 22, 2011

Multidimensional Causes of Terrorism in Southeast Asia

By Rommel C. Banlaoi

            Terrorism in Southeast Asia, and elsewhere in the world, has complex and dynamic underlying causes.  Though poverty (economic marginalization) and ignorance (lack of education or illiteracy)  have always been identified as major causes of terrorism, this view is being challenged by some scholars as there are countries in other regions where poverty and illiteracy abound but terrorist threat is low, if not totally absent.  Moreover, profile of notorious terrorist personalities in Southeast Asia and elsewhere indicated that they were not poor or marginalized in economic sense but rather well-to-do, educated and relatively had a comfortable life prior to being identified as terrorists.

Thus, pointing at poverty as the root cause of terrorism, though still popular, does not have convincing empirical evidence from a strictly scholarly perspective.  In fact, a review of existing evidence offers little reason for optimism that poverty reduction or an increase in educational attainment would meaningfully reduce the threat of international terrorism.[1]  It is argued:

Any connection between poverty, education and terrorism is indirect, complicated and probably quite weak. Instead of viewing terrorism as a direct response to low market opportunities or ignorance, we suggest it is more accurately viewed as a response to political conditions and long-standing feelings of indignity and frustration that have little to do with economics.[2]

Although economic marginalization has not provided compelling evidence as the major cause of terrorism, governments in Southeast Asia continue to regard poverty as the root cause of terrorist threats in the region.  This view is evident from the greater emphasis of ASEAN states to prioritize regional economic integration rather than regional counter terrorism cooperation. While terrorism may have several causes beyond the issue of poverty, there is a strong belief in Southeast Asia on the need to pursue  development intervention and  to promote socio-economic reforms in order to ensure that the root causes of terrorism and insurgency are adequately addressed.[3]  A scholarly study asserts that while poverty as the root of terrorism is under question, a global quantitative analysis of relevant factors indicates that the root causes of terrorism are indeed related to poverty and lack of democracy.[4]

Political exclusion with concomitant state repression also provides a convincing explanation on the causes of terrorism emanating from Islamist forces in Southeast Asia.  This view is gaining adherents among terrorism scholars and experts in the region as this cause is also found throughout the Muslim world.  In his study of Islamic violence in the Muslim world, for example, Muhammed Hafez observes:

Muslims become violently militant when they encounter exclusionary states that deny them meaningful access to political institutions and employ indiscriminate repressive policies against their citizens during periods of mass mobilization.  Political exclusion and state repression unleash a dynamic of radicalization characterized by exclusive rebel organizations that isolate Islamists from their broader society and foster anti-system ideologies that frame the potentially healthy competition between secularism and Islamism as a mortal struggle between faith and impiety.  The cumulative effect of political repression, exclusive organizations, and anti-system ideologies is protracted conflicts against secular ruling regimes and ordinary civilians who are perceived as sustaining those regimes.[5]

Historical factors caused by Western colonialism and the forcible subjugation of Islam in Southeast Asia have also been identified as causes of current Islamist terrorist threats in the region.  John T. Sidel’s alternative approach in understanding Islamist threat in Southeast Asia underscores these historical factors when he writes that the intrusions of the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, French, and American empires in Southeast Asia “divided Muslims through the erection of state borders and other barriers that divided them administratively” and “reinforced existing linguistic and cultural differences among them.”[6]  Legacies of Western colonialism created social and political cleavages in a region already marked by diversities.

There is a need to point out that specific causes of current Islamist terrorist threats in Southeast Asia vary in every country in the region.  

In Indonesia, for example, which is home to the largest Muslim population in the world, the rise of Islamist terrorism is attributed to the emergence of global jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the fall of Suharto regime in the 1990s.  Though Islam in Indonesia is generally peaceful and tolerant, militant brand of Islam has penetrated Indonesia through the veterans of the Afghan war who became very active in the country in the Post-Suharto era.[7] 

In the Philippines, on the other hand, radical Muslim terrorism is traced to the four centuries of struggle of the Bangsamoro people for self-determination.[8]  But the threat emanating from the ASG is also traced to the Afghan war.  When Muslim resistant groups from the Philippines sent fighters to Afghanistan, they acquired a violent extremist ideology of Al-Qaeda, which also penetrated Muslim radicals in Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

[This piece is taken from Rommel C. Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures in Southeast Asia:  How Effective Are They? (Manila: Yuchengco Center, 2009)].
[1] Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova´, “Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?, Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 17, no.  4 (Fall 2003), pp. 119–144.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Andrew T.H. Tan, “The New Terrorism:  How Southeast Asia Can Counter It?” in Uwe Johannen, Alan Smith and James Gomez (eds), 9/11:  September 11 & Political Freedom, Asian Perspectives (Singapore:  Select Publishing, Pte., Ltd, 2003), p. 108.
[4] Timo Kivimäki, “Can Development and Democratization Address the Root Causes of Terrorism in Southeast Asia?”, The Pacific Review, vol. 20, no.  1 (March 2007) , pp. 49-73.
[5] Muhammed M. Hafez, Why Muslims Rebel:  Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2003), pp. xv-xvi.   Quoted in Sidel, The Islamist Threat in Southeast Asia, p. 10.
[6] Sidel, p. 11.
[7] Noorhaidi Hasan, “Transnational Islam in Indonesia” in Peter Mandaville, Farish Noor, Alexander Horstmann, Dietrich Reetz, Ali Riaz, Animesh Roul, Noorhadi Hasan, Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Rommel C. Banlaoi and Joseph C. Liow, Transnational Islam in South and Southeast Asia:  Movements, Networks and Conflict Dynamics, p. 123. 
[8] See Rommel C. Banlaoi, “Radical Muslim Terrorism in the Philippines” in Andrew T.H. Tan, Handbook  on Terrorism and Insurgency in Southeast Asia, pp. 194-224.

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