One small bright spot amidst the gloom of the global pandemic can be found in the far south of Thailand, a region blighted by over fifteen years of bloody and seemingly intractable conflict. In April 2020, the main rebel armed group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional or the National Revolutionary Front, announced a ceasefire until the COVID-19 crisis abated and offered their support for the public health response. While this gesture has not been reciprocated in full by the Thai Government’s armed forces, it has reduced levels of violence and set a promising precedent for further progress towards peace.
Other good news from Asia’s conflict zones in the wake of COVID-19 is hard to find. Some cooperation across conflict lines is emerging in Myanmar as the Government reaches out to ethnic health organizations affiliated with some of the country’s many armed movements. But the collaboration is partial, primarily engaging those movements which are already part of a faltering peace process. Fierce clashes have continued in Rakhine State, killing civilians and hindering the response to the pandemic.
In conflict zones across the continent, competing sides have cynically looked to gain strategic advantage from the health crisis. Ceasefires have repeatedly failed and even in areas where violent conflict has abated, armed forces have looked to expand territorial control or provide health assistance purely as a way to build their local reputation. ISIS and other extremist groups have also sought to spread propaganda and promote new recruitment on the back of the pandemic response.
Some of the most vulnerable groups are already suffering. Refugees have been hit by the closure of borders and a hardening attitude towards migrants, especially those who travel unregistered. Boats of Rohingya have been turned away from Bangladesh and Malaysia, two countries which had previously shown great tolerance. Dozens, probably hundreds, of Rohingya have died at sea.
The effect of major shocks – natural disasters, revolutions, economic crashes, or pandemics – is like turning up the gas on a pan of simmering milk. For COVID-19, existing trends and longstanding tensions have been exacerbated and in cases boiled over, from civil war in Afghanistan to endemic gender-based violence. When considering the pandemic’s impact on ethnic conflicts, the same logic applies.
Two types of ethnic conflict are considered here, starting with subnational conflict. These are persistent yet low-level violent disputes which continue to trouble many remote corners and border regions. One report counted 26 subnational conflicts in South and Southeast Asia, affecting half of the countries in this region. This form of violence typically arises when members of a minority group resist their continued assimilation into and perceived domination by a nation state. Rapid rates of development often only make the situation worse as disparities grow and the central government exerts more authority, causing local grievances to deepen.
Although the pandemic is unlikely to bring a sudden peace to entrenched subnational conflicts, its impact has been felt in complex and sometimes subtle ways. Border closures are especially difficult for groups whose livelihoods depends on trade or regular migration, and a pause in remittances from relatives working in cities or overseas hits the economy of these areas especially hard. Poor health services in many conflict zones are often compounded by a lack of trust in the state which reduces the impact of health promotion campaigns. In the far south of Thailand, civil society networks have played a vital role by persuading local religious leaders, and even insurgents, to encourage people to pay attention to public health messages, and to follow testing and quarantine procedures which might otherwise be ignored.
Power balances are also shifting. Some armed groups, including the Taliban in Afghanistan, have looked to prove their legitimacy by reaching out with health information and basic medical care. Around Myanmar’s borders, ethnic armed groups have been essential to maintaining border controls and quarantine regimes. These groups will be looking to consolidate their reach and the popular support base which sustains them as the pandemic unfolds.
The second type of ethnic conflict is identity-based violence. Fears unleashed by the pandemic-generated waves of ethnic prejudice as people turned against minority groups or migrants accused of spreading infection. In some cases, specific “super-spreader” events triggered online hate speech and led to physical attacks. Infections caused by mass gatherings of religious groups, notably various events held by the conservative and apolitical Muslim Tabligh movement, triggered an especially strong reaction in India, where a recent pattern of communal violence had already been drummed up by Hindu chauvinist political leaders earlier in the year.
Identity-based tensions have not escalated out of control, however, even in countries with a history of unrest. The reasons why are quite straightforward. Communal tensions, an ever-present in many countries, generally escalate into campaigns of violence when leaders encourage it for political gain. By polarizing communities and castigating a minority group, aspirational politicians can strengthen group solidarity and present themselves as natural leaders. Since in this case the violence was triggered by fear and rumor rather than by political mobilizers and their networks, it has mostly remained in check and public order has been upheld or rapidly restored. What is more, as the pandemic becomes increasingly widespread its association with any specific group has weakened and the search for a scapegoat become decreasingly credible.
The longer-term impact of the pandemic on these types of conflict remains unknown. Big shocks tend to increase the likelihood of further change as stalemates are broken and entrenched path dependencies are jolted, generating unpredictable results. It is not yet clear how the relative strength of armed actors will be affected by a deep recession, by the rediscovered capacity of governments to intervene massively in the economy and to impose new border controls, and by increased surveillance through mobile networks. Legitimacy gains by those governments, civil movements, or armed groups who manage to play the pandemic response effectively may also tip the balance on the ground and disturb established patterns of territorial control or influence.
As the pandemic plays out, violent protest may emerge in areas where newly empowered governments are confronted by ethnic resistance movements or democracy campaigners. Across Asia, expectations of progress along liberal democratic norms have faltered in recent years and the pandemic may further accelerate the trend. The current growth in populist leadership is likely to drive ethnic nationalism, which in turn could further conflict and spark unrest as its effects are vigorously and in cases violently opposed.
These shifts will play out differently from place to place depending on specific interests and shifting incentives. In an environment of change, the risks of new violent confrontations are greatly increased, but so are opportunities for ceasefires, dialogue and negotiated solutions.