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Asian Military Drift

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
February 5, 2007

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Four months after promising power would be “returned to the people,” leaders of a military coup in Thailand remain in charge, with half the country under martial law. Talk of a coup is also in the air in Bangladesh, amid a political crisis (The Economist). In Sri Lanka, the revival of the country’s lengthy civil war has raised the prominence of military voices on its political scene.

Fledgling democracies in South and Southeast Asia appear to be swinging back toward militarism. The events leading up to the changes differ: While former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra faced widespread protests and allegations of corruption before the bloodless coup, Dhaka has become a violent battleground for a feud between political parties whose leaders—both former prime ministers—despise one another. However, Thailand and Bangladesh share the problem of having to deal with rising extremism within their borders. As this new Backgrounder explains, in Thailand, the military junta faces attacks by insurgents in its southern Muslim provinces that have caused nearly two thousand deaths in the past three years. The new government blamed Thaksin’s confrontational approach to the separatist movement. But the junta has made little headway in stopping the violence and the insurgents “ have shown absolutely no interest in negotiations or in the possibilities accorded by the change in government,” writes Zachary Abuza, a Southeast terrorism expert at Simmons College in Boston, on Counterterrorism Blog.

In Bangladesh, Islamic militant extremists have gained a foothold in the vacuum left by political chaos, explains Sumit Ganguly in a report for the United States Institute of Peace. On the rise is the number of Islamist political parties with links to Bangladeshi militant groups, including one linked to synchronized nationwide bombings in 2005. If the United States continues to ignore the crisis in Dhaka, “Bangladesh could become another Afghanistan—a base for regional terrorism—and damage America’s growing relationship with South Asia,” write Joshua Kurlantzick and Anirudh Suri of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in The New Republic.

Backtracking on democracy in Asia is not new: General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's current president, seized control of the government there in a 1999 coup. Thailand and Bangladesh, along with other countries in the region, have followed the example, increasingly relying on the militarism while facing attacks by rebel groups. Over the past few months Sri Lanka, ravaged by a three-decade civil war that ended with a peace treaty in 2002, has experienced a resurgence in violence as the government has squared off once again against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This Backgrounder looks at the history and renewal of the conflict. A new commentary by the Indian think tank South Asian Analysis Group says the lines between the government’s military and political agendas have been blurred. The government is “pursuing a military agenda while avowing a peace process” and “military operations have become an important part of [President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s] political strategy advantage, unlike his predecessors.”

The Philippines has also pursued a militaristic approach to handling its extremists; U.S.-trained Filipino military chiefs have embarked on ground operations that led to the January death of a senior commander of Muslim separatists Abu Sayyaf. But even as the military touts its success over terrorist groups, human rights organizations have raised concern over military involvement in nearly eight hundred extrajudicial killings of activists since 2001. Amnesty International takes a look at the political killings. A January report (Manila Times) released by a government-appointed commission confirmed the military’s involvement in the deaths.

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The Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand

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Amid political uncertainty in Bangkok, a violent insurgency continues in the country's majority Malay Muslim provinces in the south, with no...