A sudden pressure wave reverberated in my chest while I readied for work. My three-year-old daughter, dressed in her pre-school uniform, rushed to the window and pointed to a plume of smoke. Two suicide bombers had struck almost simultaneously at an adjacent pair of upscale hotels in Jakarta, not far from our 27th floor apartment.
It was July 17, 2009, just when some had started to feel that the recession caused by Global Finance Crisis was over. A plot that had been months in the making had come to an explosive end, killing nine and injuring more than 50. While the world was distracted by the economic downturn, extremists in Indonesia with violent intent hadn’t gone away.
While many see the current pandemic as a unique moment in history, I feel we have been here before. The virus and the corresponding economic recession is already consuming the bandwidth of governments near and far. There is pressure to prioritize. Across the world, societies are still hunkered down, isolated, and avoiding travel. The world is ever-increasingly inward looking and not seeing around corners.
But as those who watch regional conflicts know, in crisis there is opportunity for those with violent plans. Peace deals, such as the landmark peace agreement in the Philippines that lead to the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), are fragile. As the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis on Conflict (IPAC) has observed, the key to reducing the appeal of Islamic State in the Philippines is to produce a more attractive alternative for Mindanao’s Muslims and this is one of the many hopes vested the new political entity, now only one year old.
As COVID-19 continues to dominate the headlines, ISIS remains a threat in Indonesia, with its members still stuck in Syrian camps and pro-ISIS extremists active across the archipelago. In recent analyses, IPAC notes the health crisis has also intensified anti-Chinese rhetoric, heightened the potential for unrest in Indonesian prisons and raised tensions in Papua.
Responses by extremists seen elsewhere could soon arrive in South-East Asia. Inadequate responses to the crisis will aid attempts to undermine government legitimacy. COVID-19 provides opportunities for disinformation and propaganda by blaming the West and other governments. Extremists could prove more adept than governments in handling responses in some communities.
Dealing with COVID-19 is a priority, but let’s not forget the world that is meeting us on the other side of this crisis.
As part of the Entry and Exit Points: Violent Extremism in South-East Asia report, I looked at a series of persistent conflicts in South-East Asia. These include violence in Aceh, Ambon Maluku, and Poso, Central Sulawesi, in the Indonesian archipelago as well as Mindanao in the southern Philippines. This is a look in the rear-view mirror, but it is intended to inform decisions that are being made today.
History has taught us that resolving conflict helps address violent extremism in this region. To do this, we need to be able to distinguish in rhetoric between ethno-nationalist and extremist groups. Each deserves its own policy response. The peace agreements we have in the region need to be defended. Regional governments need to provide political processes that offer to an alternative to extremism. Enhanced monitoring of how extremists respond to COVID-19 should be a priority. Resolving a conflict politically has many advantages, including aiding disengagement from extremist groups.
In such a diverse region, there will always be some conflict. The goal is to manage it, not extinguish it; to choose politics over violence. This is a history lesson of South-East Asia that must not be forgotten.
Jim Della-Giacoma is an Independent Research Consultant for UNDP. He has been reporting on and researching about conflict, insurgencies and violent extremism in Asia for the last 25 years. He is a co-author of the recently published "Entry and Exit Points" report, investigating factors that contribute towards violent extremism in South-East Asia, and the actions required by states to prevent it.