(Note: This post was completed in conjunction with Will Vogt, another Notes on the Periphery contributor and the beloved “obscurity” columnist.)
On April 8, the three most fun weeks of the year ended, namely NCAA college basketball’s final tournament. For those of you who might not know: each year, 68 college teams (annoyingly bumped up from 65 a few years ago) compete for the national title in a single-elimination bracket. The “bracket” is broken down into four regionals, with each regional consisting of teams seeded 1-16 (under the new format, there are two of one of the seeds in each regional). The winners of each regional advance to the Final Four, then the prevailing two meet in a final championship game, and a winner is crowned in early April. (Unfortunately my Georgetown Hoyas, like usual, flubbed in the first round.)
In the spirit of March Madness (though over now, but bear with me), as it is often called, I thought I would try out the bracket concept as it relates to Notes on the Periphery. This time, instead of basketball teams, I will use 64 “forgotten” conflicts around the world—including active insurgencies, long-standing “frozen” conflicts, and tense territorial disputes.
The 64 flashpoints are arranged into four regionals (Middle East & Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas). Each regional includes 16 conflicts—ranked roughly by how likely (in our completely subjective opinions) each is to escalate in the coming year.
Of course, this March Madness analogy is not meant to be an exhaustive nor testable model of prediction. (It’s more of a cheap trick to combine two of my interests—conflicts and basketball.) But the idea is to provide a brief introduction to a multitude of different disputes you may not have previously been familiar with!
This post, the fourth in the series (see here for the first, second, and third) will take a look at the “Asia-Pacific” regional. The intensity of violent conflict on the continent is much lower than it once was, but a multitude of unresolved territorial disputes, ethno-religious rebel movements, and Islamic extremist groups persist in select pockets. While the high-stakes threats in East Asia (e.g., North Korea, Senkaku/Diaoyu islands) are well-covered in the press, less is known about persistent challenges in South and Southeast Asia, where the majority of the bracket will focus.
Note: sticking with the “forgotten” theme, we have excluded several present disputes you are likely already familiar with—Afghanistan, North-South Korea, Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, South China Sea, Taiwan, and Tibet.)
So: see below for the 16 flashpoints, in order of least to most likely of escalation in the coming year. The bracket below:
#16 – Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh (Map) (India-China)
Primary belligerents: People’s Republic of China vs. Government of India
Like many disputes in Central/South Asia, the impact of (British) colonialism is still being felt. Here, it forms the basis for a particularly controversial dispute between two large countries and emerging powers (China and India). Given the complicated history of territorial claims and conflicts, the best way to present a background is through a short timeline:
- 1842- Sikhs and Chinese fight a war in Tibet, sign a peace treaty which solidifies border between Tibet/Jammu.
- 1846- The British defeat the Sikhs and inherit their territorial claims.
- 1865- Johnson line established, delineating Aksai Chin as part of the British claims to Kashmir.
- 1899- Macartney-Macdonald line established, outlining the current Line of Control in Kashmir (which gives control of most of Aksai Chin to the Chinese).
- 1911- Revolution overthrowing Chinese dynastic government makes the British switch to the Johnson line as the basis for their claims. This will be used by India after its 1947 independence.
- 1913-1914- Macmahon line is negotiated with Tibet. This would later be invalidated by China due to Tibet’s lack of sovereignty.
- 1947- India and Pakistan become independent states, ending British colonial presence in South Asia.
- 1957- India learns that China has been building a road through its Aksai Chin claims.
- 1959- Tibetan uprising leads to greater crackdown and Chinese presence in Tibet. During this time, the Dalai Lama sneaks out to India, where the Tibetan Buddhist establishment persists today.
- 1962- Sino-Indian War begins with Chinese invasion of disputed territories and ends with Chinese-imposed ceasefire that gives China de facto control over Aksai Chin. The war is defined by its harsh conditions and skirmishes that persist until 1967.
- 1993-1996- Peace treaties between China and India are signed, pledging to respect the Line of Control.
- 2006- Politicians in Arunachal Pradesh express concerns about growing Chinese influence. Also, a Silk Road pass in the disputed areas is reopened.
- Today- Territorial status of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh still undetermined. Rather than increased trade, China and India are fortifying their military presence near the disputed areas.
For more: Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger provides an in depth analysis of the Chinese perspective of the Sino-Indian 1962 war in his book, On China, and The Economist provides a short summary.
#15 – Ferghana Valley (Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Uzbekistan)
Primary belligerents: Uzbekistan vs. Tajikistan vs. Kyrgyzstan
The breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s had enormous implications for Central Asia. Much like the calamity that ensued in neighboring Afghanistan, arbitrary borders combined with a political identity crisis (these non-Russian peoples were part of the Moscow-led USSR but did not identify with the new Russian state that emerged post-Soviet Union) created a host of issues for countries in the region. Of the many areas affected in Central Asia, the Ferghana Valley may have had the most acute impact for several reasons. First, the countries laying claim to the valley (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) had their borders drawn by Stalin’s regime in the 1920s, but they were insignificant until the fall of the USSR (to which they all formerly belonged). Secondly, these borders were not only drawn in an area with an extremely dense population (bringing with it serious resource crises—especially when it comes to safe/secure water access), but they also ignored the vast ethnic diversity of the valley. Third, since independence, Central Asian governments have had to delicately negotiate on behalf of their (roughly ethnically-defined) states in a way that preserves a modicum of peace in a tight space. This has proven difficult, as seen in examples such as the unpopular 2001 Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan land swap (which connected an Uzbek enclave to the rest of the country) and the purported rise of radical Islamic militant groups (such as the IMU, or Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) that have caused states to place lethal mines across their ill-defined borders (killing civilians in the process).
For more: Detailed overview and solution proposals (from 2002).
#14 – Islamic extremism in Indonesia
Primary belligerents: Islamic extremists vs. Government of Indonesia
The once-mighty Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) of old—the Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group responsible for the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings—is all but defunct. But pockets of Islamic extremism remain, both in the form of secret cells-in-training and militant wings of “above ground,” legal Islamic organizations. A police raid that exposed a large militant training camp in Aceh in February 2010 served as a wake-up call that extremists with homegrown roots continued to pose a threat. Plots have since surfaced linked to this group that once operated in Aceh. Meanwhile, perhaps more concerning are offshoots of legal organizations that engage in illicit activity. For example, members of the Harakah Sunni for Indonesian Society (HASMI), a legal organization, were linked to an uncovered cache of dangerous bomb-making equipment found in October 2012. Though the practice of Islam in Indonesia is thought to be relatively “milder” than its counterparts in the Middle East or Pakistan, the extremist threat in this vast island country persists.
#13 – Xinjiang (China)
Primary belligerents: Uighurs and East Turkestan Liberation Organization vs. Government of China and Han Chinese
A central concern for Chinese sovereignty today, the area of Xinjiang is situated at a crossroads of the ancient and famous Silk Road. Once a province of the late Qing Dynasty, the People’s Republic of China has claimed the region as its territory since its inception in 1949. Indeed, since the 1950s, China has promoted a resettlement and repopulation policy in Xinjiang whereby Han Chinese have come to establish a major presence in the traditionally Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighur areas. This, combined with the Uighur’s own claims to the land (which includes a short period of 20th century independence during as the 1930s Islamic Republic of East Turkestan in the 1930s) and policies restricting their freedom of religion, has brought tensions to a head in recent years. In addition to the presence of internationally-classified terrorist organizations like the East Turkestan Liberation Organization, Xinjiang is today defined by periods of intense ethnic violence. The most notable recent episode came in the form of tit-for-tat riots in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, in 2009.
For more: TIME magazine produced “A Short History of the Uighurs,”which provides more details on the conflict.
#12 – Islamic extremism in Central Asia
Primary belligerents: Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and others vs. Governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan
Since the despots of Central Asia tightened their grip on their respective countries in the 2000s, the threat of real Islamic extremism in the region has declined. The IMU, once a genuine threat to Uzbekistan, has overwhelmingly moved to Afghanistan and Pakistan since the 2001 US invasion, fighting alongside Al Qaeda and local Taliban fighters. Nonetheless, Central Asian governments, with a raging Taliban insurgency next door in Afghanistan and a history of Islamic violence, remain extremely paranoid. Weak state control, particularly in Kyrgystan and Tajikistan (fresh off dealing with a secular insurgency of its own), threatens to compound the insecurity. After 2014, when the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, countries of Central Asia worry that the Taliban will have more room to maneuver, which may involve exporting Islamist fighters back to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc.
#11 – Naxalites (India)
Primary belligerents: Radical Maoists vs. Government of India
The Naxalites are far left-wing radical communists from the less-developed regions of central and eastern India, subscribing to the rural-based ideologies of Mao Zedong and his early government of the People’s Republic of China (where they were once widely praised during the Cultural Revolution in that country). Their name comes from the region of Naxalbari where they first came onto the scene in 1967 by staging an uprising in West Bengal. Though splintered and weakened by the government in the 1970s, the Naxalites (mostly under the banner of the People’s War Group) have been fighting a de facto guerrilla war in remote, poor areas of central and eastern India. In many ways, this has been a provincial-level war between the Naxalites and the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, complete with assassinations, kidnappings, and targeting of (Western “capitalist”) foreigners. Since 2009, the conflict has intensified thanks to the Indian national government’s public recognition of the scope of the problem, which began an aggressive counter-terrorism campaign. In response, both the government (through Operation Green Hunt) and the Maoists (through Operation Peace Hunt) have launched aggressive operations aimed at weakening one another.
For more: A look at “Naxalism” from the perspective of India’s economic inequality.
#10 – Kashmir (India-Pakistan)
Primary belligerents: Government of Pakistan and Pakistan-based extremist groups vs. Government of India
Kashmir has been at the heart of a decades-long Indo-Pakistani rivalry, including as the center of at least three (arguably more) direct conflicts between the two states. Today, both countries (plus China) lay claim to the greater Kashmir region, though the primary debate today centers around India-administered Jammu and Kashmir state. Predominantly Muslim but governed by Hindus after partition in 1947, the state has faced numerous local insurgencies as well—often fueled by Pakistani weapons, rear bases, and other support. A flurry of militant groups (LeT, HuM, HuJI, JeM, etc.), many operating freely from Pakistani territory, periodically assault Indian forces and civilians in Kashmir or elsewhere. An attack by Hizbul-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) militants in March served as an ominous reminder of Kashmir’s continued status as potential powder keg lodged between three nuclear-armed states.
#9 – Sultanate of Sulu (Malaysia)
Primary belligerents: Royal Army of Sulu vs. Government of Malaysia
A Muslim group (the Royal Army of Sulu) recently invaded (with the support of some Filipino nationals) a municipality in Eastern Borneo, the location where their territorial claims for a “Sultanate of Sulu” are located. These claims are based on the group’s interpretation of the aftermath of the British withdrawal of its claim to Northern Borneo in the 1880s. Currently, the invasion forces have been mostly subdued or have left Sabah after the Malaysian government’s aptly named “Operation Sovereignty.” One interesting fact of note: if created, the Sultanate of Sulu would be a thalassocracy, or a sovereign state based primarily on maritime territories like islands and coastlines (like the Roman Empire).
For more: Will recently wrote a blog post about this.
#8 – Balochistan (Pakistan)
Primary belligerents: Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) vs. Government of Pakistan
Despite being resource-rich and well-endowed with a deep water port at Gwadar, Balochistan has long been Pakistan’s most neglected province (excepting the FATA). Native Balochis have historically been deeply skeptical of a Punjabi-led government seemingly intent on suppressing local calls for greater autonomy. For by no means the first time, the BLA launched a deadly insurgency against Pakistani forces in 2005 that has so far succeeded prompting only a more deadly counterinsurgency. While other conflicts in Pakistan receive more attention, the Baloch issue is perhaps the most eternal and unlikely to improve as the state’s enormous resource interests in the province necessitates an even-more powerful grip over Balochistan.
#7 – Philippines
Primary belligerents: Abu Sayyaf Group and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) vs. Government of Philippines
The Philippines is an outlier when it comes to East Asian states. It is, unlike its Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Singaporean “neighbors,” very violent. In fact, violence—and its cousin, corruption—is so bad that the Philippines ranks as one of the most dangerous states to be a politician; in 2010 alone, over 1,200 political figures were assassinated. Adding to the violence and instability is the presence of terrorism in its southern islands, especially Mindanao. There, Islamic extremism of the Al Qaeda variety has been mixed with the desire of self-determination for the Moro people. This combination has contributed to the formation and strength of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, whose violent tactics are infamous. During a period between 2000 and 2010 in which the government in Manila government pursued a more aggressive strategy to the conflict (which has been simmering since 1976), over 40% of households and nearly 1,000,000 people were forced to flee the island due to the increased violence. At the height of this intensely violent time, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front kidnapped and beheaded Filipino marines in the wake of promising peace/autonomy negotiations. Consequently, today the Philippines suffers from seriously destabilizing proliferations of weapons proliferation throughout its southern sector, making political developments and elections increasingly dangerous, even as the government and the Moro insurgents agreed to a framework peace deal in 2012.
For more: The TV series Vice recently took a look at the tenuous and violent situation in the Philippines, emphasizing the scary availability of guns in the area.
#6 – Southern Thailand
Primary belligerents: Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) vs. Government of Thailand
Malay Muslim separatists living in a predominantly Thai-speaking Buddhist nation, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) has been at the forefront of an Islamist insurgency to expel Thai authorities from the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat since 2004. The conflict has thus far cost more than 5,300 lives and, despite the beginning of peace talks last month between the BRN and Thai government, fighting is likely to continue unabated unless real autonomy is provided for the three provinces. Part of the problem is that the BRN is simply one of many resistance groups operating the region, and the others show no signs of easing up in their struggle.
#5 – Bangladesh
Primary belligerents: Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefajat-e-Islam vs. Government of Bangladesh
Unlike many of its South Asian neighbors, Bangladesh has been largely spared from serious civil strife since independence in 1971. But the economically-booming nation is now at risk of serious instability. The death sentence of a prominent leader of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party in February has provoked outrage among the party’s followers—leading to a series of violent clashes that have left more than 60 dead. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Islamist supporters of Hefajat-e-Islam have rallied to demand anti-blasphemy laws. While not an organized armed resistance, Islamist agitation, coming at the same time as growing resentment over government corruption and other abuses, threatens to plunge the country into chaos à la a so-called “Bangladesh Spring.” Government decisions in the coming months on how to accommodate the growing Islamist movement will be crucial in determining whether the challenge will devolve into an armed conflict.
#4 – Kachin insurgency (Burma)
Primary belligerents: Kachin Independence Army (KIA) vs. Government of Burma
Modern-day Burma is undergoing an unprecedented liberalization and is rather quickly opening up to the rest of the world after decades of isolation. However, the ruling military junta has been either unwilling or unable to stop a concurrent development: ethnic/religious civil conflict. In one instance, the Buddhist state is pitted against a Christian minority group which has been fighting for independence for more than 50 years. The main rebel group, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), was created in the early 1960s following the declaration of Burma as a Buddhist state and the overthrow of Kachin President-elect Sama Duwa Sinwa Nawng in 1962. From that time until 1988, the KIA was able to maintain de facto control of Kachin state (its traditional homeland). Then, in 1994, it signed a ceasefire with the ruling junta. However, the military nearly doubled its presence from that time until 2007, adding 24 battalions stationed in Kachin. The current struggle dates back to 2011, when the military broke the 1994 ceasefire, ordered air strikes, and committed alleged human rights abuses. The two parties are currently in renewed ceasefire talks, as countries like China are increasingly concerned over growing instability in Burma.
For more: An analysis in The Economist about the reputational damage the Kachin conflict could give the Burmese military junta.
#3 – Anti-Hazara violence in Pakistan
Primary belligerents: Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) vs. Hazara (Shi’a) population
Since 1999, more than 1,300 Hazaras—an ethnically distinct Shi’a minority based primarily in Balochistan and Karachi (as well as Central Asian countries)—have been killed by terrorist groups in Pakistan intent on brutally eradicating them. The primary, though by no means only, perpetrator has been Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a US- and Pakistani-listed terrorist group that has nonetheless enjoyed relative impunity within the Pakistani state. Two particularly devastating bombings in Quetta in January and February of this year captured the nation’s attention, with prominent politicians and citizens for the first time seriously demanding the Pakistani government to crack down on LeJ and like-minded groups. The results thus far have been mixed—as many believe the government is still unlikely to take the threat seriously.
For more: I speculate for Notes on the Periphery on the LeJ in the aftermath of the early 2013 attacks here.
#2 – Muslim-Buddhist violence in Burma
Primary belligerents: Muslim Rohingyas vs. Buddhists
Muslims have been frequently targeted over the last century in Burma, particularly during British rule (pre-World War II). More recently, deadly anti-Muslim riots in this majority-Buddhist country took place in 1997 and 2001. The most immediate source of instability dates back to May 2012, when a Rakhine (Buddhist ethnic group) woman was raped and murdered in Rakhine state, Burma. Residents of that state blamed Rohingya Muslims for the crime. Later, ten Muslims were mistaken as the criminals and were killed. This led to violent protests from Burmese Muslims, which in turn spurred nation-wide anti-Muslim sentiment and targeting. By June 10, the military junta declared a state of emergency and a return to martial law across the country to calm down a situation defined by such extreme measures as burning neighborhoods to the ground, spurred on by Buddhist monks, among others. By the end of the June riots, more than 80 people were killed and more than 90,000 were displaced. Violent riots returned in October 2012, raising the total number of displaced to over 100,000. During that time, international aid workers’ safety was threatened due to their focus on treating Muslims affected by the conflict. Currently, the country is reeling from the 8 dead in an Indonesian detention center after a Muslim-Buddhist brawl…and more worrying, serious sectarian violence has gripped the country’s heartland. Cities like Meiktila and Mandalay have been so damaged by the violence so as to threaten the country’s vital democratization process.
For more: Harvard Political Review article citing examples of Muslim-Buddhist violence as well as Buddhist militarism.
#1 – Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan
Primary belligerents: Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) (or Pakistani Taliban) vs. Government of Pakistan
No other insurgent group, excepting maybe the Afghan Taliban, poses such a grave threat to an Asian state as the TTP (or Pakistani Taliban). Created in 2002, the TTP, thought to be headquartered in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the Afghan border, has gradually become the Pakistani army’s primary concern (surpassing even its hated rival, India). Unlike other militant groups operating in the country, the TTP is deeply committed to overthrowing the Pakistani state, though a vast number of its attacks have been aimed at civilians. In 2010, the group was just a few minutes away from inflicting serious damage and loss of live in the United States. In recent weeks, the TTP has conducted near-daily terrorist attacks aimed at intimidating politicians and voters ahead of national elections next month. At the same time, a present Pakistani army offensive has made progress in dispelling the TTP and allied groups from a key hideout in Khyber Agency, though at great cost.
Other potential candidates: Aceh (Indonesia), Assam (India), East Timor (Timor, Australia, Indonesia), Fiji, Karachi violence (Pakistan), Kuril Islands (Japan-Russia), Liancourt Rocks (Japan-South Korea), Maldives, Papua New Guinea, Preah Vihear Temple (Thailand-Cambodia), West Papua (Indonesia).
And so that completes the four-part series. Stay tuned shortly for another post with the entire bracket—putting the four regionals (Europe/Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia) all together!