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The initial period of democratization produced little change in levels of violence, because it had been mostly sporadic, localized, and of low intensity. Aside from occasional larger-scale operations under authoritarian rule, most state violence involved few soldiers in isolated areas, or violent crackdowns on demonstrators in main cities. On the Papuan side, the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM) occasionally attacked military outposts or isolated soldiers. The main change, therefore, was a reduction in large-scale operations, except in border areas.
he absence of large-scale violence can be explained in large part by insurgent groups’ weak organizational capacity and lack of weapons. Furthermore, along with Papuan organizations more broadly, insurgent groups have been strongly divided. The OPM remained composed of divided factions under competing leadership.
Jacques Bertrand offers a comparative-historical analysis of five nationalist conflicts over several decades in Southeast Asia. Using a theoretical framework to explain variance over time and across cases, he challenges and refines existing debates on democracy's impact and shows that, while democratization significantly reduces violent insurgency over time, it often introduces pernicious effects that fail to resolve conflict and contribute to maintaining deep nationalist grievances. Drawing on years of detailed fieldwork, Bertrand analyses the paths that led from secessionist mobilization to a range of outcomes. These include persistent state repression for Malay Muslims in Thailand, low level violence under a top-down 'special autonomy' for Papuans, reframing of mobilizing from nationalist to indigenous peoples in the Cordillera, a long and broken path to an untested broad autonomy for the Moros and relatively successful broad autonomy for Acehnese.
The peoples of the Cordillera developed new forms of mobilization after the end of the Marcos regime. Having previously fought alongside the communist New People’s Army (NPA) against authoritarian rule, Cordilleran leaders developed a new sense of Cordilleran “nation,” based on shared experience of the various peoples of the region. This new nationalist movement, represented primarily by the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) and the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance (CPA) began to make demands for “autonomy.”
The movement prompted the state to respond with significant promises. Motivated to show democratic credentials and to consolidate its broad coalition of support for the People Power revolution, the Aquino government agreed to a constitutional clause that enshrined autonomy for the Cordillera, as it also did for Muslim Mindanao. At first therefore the 1987 Constitution heightened the credibility of the state’s commitment by enshrining the principle of autonomy, but it became difficult to sustain its credibility with subsequent legislation.
Nationalist conflict is widespread and often highly violent. Because of its association with secessionist objectives, it triggers fierce responses from central governments. States place the inviolability of their borders at the core of their foundation and are rarely open to negotiating compromises that threaten the status quo.
Democracy regulates conflict through institutional channels and, in theory, can best address deep divisions. Democratic politics allow a plurality of viewpoints to be expressed, a wide range of interests to be represented, policies on a broad set of issues to be debated, and resources deployed to meet demands and needs of a large number of groups and a broad segment of the population. As Schmitter and Karl state: “Modern democracy, in other words, offers a variety of competitive processes and channels for the expression of interests and values – associational as well as partisan, functional as well as territorial, collective as well as individual. All are integral to its practice.”
After democracy returned to the Philippines in 1986, the Moros and the Philippine state entered into multiple phases of negotiation. The 1996 peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was seen as a landmark, yet its reach and effectiveness were very limited. Subsequent attempts to reach a new peace agreement, this time with the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), proved particularly difficult as the MILF sought even deeper concessions. The MILF finally reached in 2014 a peace agreement with the Philippine government, yet it took four more years before the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro was enshrined as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) and ratified by parliament in 2018.
At each stage of negotiation, past commitments were deemed insufficient and lacked credibility. It is characteristic of commitment failures, by which the state obtained written agreements but either failed to implement them or sought to undermine its own commitments through other means.
During the last three decades, the pattern of mobilization in Thailand shows an unclear relationship to democratization. In the first instance, “democratization” itself is somewhat difficult to pinpoint, since there were periods of more open politics followed by military coups. A long decade of semi-democratic rule gradually eased Thailand toward a full electoral democracy and, while many strong characteristics of democracy prevailed for several years, nevertheless it faltered as the armed forces repeatedly intervened to prevent deep reform.1 Second, Malay-Muslim mobilization has been weak, and even somewhat difficult to identify, as unknown perpetrators were the most frequent instigators of violent attacks, against the backdrop of an apparently quiescent Malay-Muslim majority. The worse violence, after 2002, coincided with a relatively stable period of democratic governance when the Constitution of 1997 had made possible the election for the first time of a majority government led by Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai in 2001.
Democratization in Indonesia was accompanied by an unprecedented surge in Aceh’s civil war. Yet, by 2006 Acehnese had obtained broad-based autonomy, secured through the Law on Governing Aceh (LoGA, 2006) that reflected a peace agreement between the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) and the Indonesian state. The LoGA was the most detailed and elaborate piece of legislation for autonomous governance in Southeast Asia.
The democratic transition, combined with the state’s strategic missteps, created conditions for an escalation of violence. Initial attempts to appease Acehnese through state-led recognition of Islamic law and promises of local investment were poor concessions relative to demands for a referendum on independence. The sequence of poor state concessions, repression in response to heightened civilian mobilization, and uncertainty from the democratic transition rapidly closed the window of opportunity for a peaceful settlement. Combined with GAM’s mobilizational capacity to launch a new insurgency, these factors set the stage for the rapid escalation of violence.
Tamils, Acehnese, Moros, Tibetans, Abkhazians, and Basques seek more power and control over their territorial homeland. Over time, some groups have gained new institutions and financial resources while others remain embroiled in episodes of violent conflict. All of these groups are territorially concentrated and seek self-determination. As a result, these nationalist conflicts strike at the core of a state’s identity, its boundaries and its unity. They pose deep challenges to a state’s territorial integrity.
The deep divide between nationalists and the state often appears unbridgeable. The gap separating the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state and Tamils, for example, appears just as wide even after the Tamil Tigers’ defeat. Papuans in Indonesia feel marginalized and excluded while migrants threaten to outnumber them in their claimed homeland. Civil war in Sudan ended with the creation of a new state of South Sudan, but it caused thousands of deaths and vast destruction while laying the basis for new territorial claims.
This book began with a relatively simple question, whether democracy tends to increase or reduce nationalist conflict. Such a question raises a host of objections and qualifications that render its answer immensely complex. Democratic regimes are quite varied in their character and quality; a large number of them can even be questioned on the basis of their democratic credentials or objectionable on the basis of measurable criteria. Similarly, there are no objective criteria to identify nations. As constructivist scholars have conclusively defended, nations are self-identified and mostly recognized by their claims and political goals. Finally, conflict takes on a variety of forms; while the literature more recently focused on its violent expression, there are other modes that are also relevant to assess but more challenging to measure.
Vietnam's regime has been stable and strong since 1975. After the country was split and mostly at war for three decades, it was reunified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War. While the regime has been officially communist, it gradually reformed its economy in favour of open markets, private property and capitalist investment. Its economy shows few remnants of its communist past. Its political institutions, however, retain the main features of communist regimes. Political reform has occurred but has been much slower. Overall, the regime has transformed itself since 1975 but has remained stable and firmly entrenched.
Prior to 1975, Vietnam constitutes a somewhat exceptional case. Not only was it divided into two, but also North and South Vietnam were almost continually at war with each other. The international context of the Cold War played a crucial role in determining the types of political regimes and their sustainability. In the South, successive governments were highly dependent on French and then American support. They failed to gain strong local support among the population. They were consequently vulnerable to the ideological appeal and promises of the communist North. In the meantime, the communist regime in the North used anti-colonial nationalist ideology as well as promises of a more egalitarian society to gain widespread support among the rural masses. Similarly this appeal grew in the South as war ravaged the countryside and its regime showed few attempts to address the population's needs.