More than a year’s worth of disruption and reactive measures against the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a stop. Thus unsurprisingly, when discourse surrounding vaccines and more robust recovery measures gained ground, so did the hopes for a rebound in the near future and a return to some semblance of the ‘old’ normal.

Whether such optimism is warranted given the current outlook, it carries the implication that matters previously sidelined will be juggled alongside all things concerning the pandemic, both the good and bad.

One of the notable concerns have been violent conflicts re-emerging once the severity of the pandemic is believed to be contained. On 23 March 2020, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres declared a global ceasefire so that states can focus on caring for its citizens and engaging the international community through cooperative diplomacy. While this symbolic gesture was endorsed by 180 countries, the Security Council, regional organisations, civil society groups and peace advocates, it would be counter-intuitive to expect meaningful change can happen without undertaking the necessary measures to tackle key issues underlying any given conflict. 

This is especially relevant for Southeast Asia, where not only is there the struggle to tackle the pandemic’s negative impacts, but its own history of conflict can pose potentially complicating effects. Although the region has not faced a traditional conflict since the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, it is still home to unresolved territorial disputes and low-intensity conflicts that remain to be conclusively resolved.

While it cannot be discounted that the levels of violence have indeed declined throughout 2020, it cannot be expected to remain that way. For example, while insurgent and counterinsurgent activities may seem to be restrained, it did not remove these armed groups from their communities nor the threat they carry. Groups like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Southern Philippines have worked to manage an effective COVID-19 response within their autonomous region, but they and other smaller groups still draw foreign fighters into the region and conduct attacks against local security forces. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) in Thailand’s Deep South declared a unilateral ceasefire from April to July 2020, but insurgent attacks and security force raids resumed soon after.

The continuation of violence highlights potential obstacles decision-makers will face once the pandemic threat is believed to be manageable. Sentiments towards the emergency measures by governments and a growing intolerance for political violence have pushed thresholds lower, and further missteps can inadvertently become new contributing factors. The arrests, crackdowns and emergency measures imposed by the Thai military-based government carries implications for the future of their Deep South policies and the outcome of their Malaysian-facilitated peace talks. Similarly, police brutality and misuse of the new counter-terrorism law in the Philippines shows the inattention and lacking political will over their southern region, which carry negative effects to the fragile Bangsamoro Transitional Authority and the likelihood of new incentives for armed groups to retaliate against the government.

Turning inwards to focus on immediate threats is not inherently bad, but it should not be done to the point of debilitating near-sightedness. When it comes to addressing the latent concerns of violent conflict in the region, political engagements with armed groups need to be incorporated in part of the future long-term pandemic recovery measures. It should not be treated as an unexpected disruption, hastily put together only when the situation demands it. This also means that existing peace agreements and dialogues need to be supported and strengthened. Such efforts, especially when external mediators are already involved, can become opportune areas for regional governments and institutions such as ASEAN to collaborate and facilitate dialogue. Past experiences in the region, while contrary to popular belief of inaction and ‘talk-shops’, have shown the region’s method of conflict resolution to be constructive.

The start of a new year often brings time for reflections and reassessments, such mindset should be adopted to prepare states for yet another pandemic-stricken year sooner than later.

This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 20 February 2021.

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