Global Voices

Southeast Asia: Home to the World’s Longest Ongoing Civil Wars

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Southeast Asia is more than just white sand beaches, temples and resorts: it is also one of the most war-ravaged regions of the planet. Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, for example, were among the most heavily bombed countries in the world over the past century. Nearly a third of the cluster bombs dropped by the United States in Laos between 1964 and 1973 failed to detonate and are still scattered across the country. Anna MacDonald, head of Oxfam International’s Control Arms Campaign, outlines the quiet but dangerous rural scenery of Laos:

“Stepping off the plane at Xieng Khuang province we were in a very rural area. Fields with water buffalos and rice paddies abound, and the hilly countryside is criss-crossed with farmer’s fields and small traditional wooden houses. It’s a gentle, peaceful setting that belies the deadly war-time legacy which is all around – 100% of villages here have UXO (unexploded ordenance) in their fields and surroundings.”

While the Vietnam War continues to haunt the region, there are also fresh wounds of war that need to be taken care of throughout Southeast Asia. For instance, the world’s longest ongoing civil war involves the Karen National Liberation Army, which has been fighting for independence from Myanmar for the past 60 years.

Burma Matters Now shares the impact of the war on innocent civilians living on the border between Myanmar and Thailand:

“For many, it has become routine to leave home before the soldiers arrive three or four times per year with whatever few possessions can be carried on their backs. Thousands of villagers each time are forced to travel ever deeper into the hostile jungle where they cannot be found by the arriving soldiers. In hiding, these families have severely limited access to food, and live under the most rudimentary shelters.”

According to The Irrawaddy, there are an estimated 450,000 internally displaced civilians currently located in Eastern and Southeastern Myanmar due to civil wars. And while the Karen National Union and the Myanmar central government signed a ceasefire last January both parties have accused each other of constantly violating the agreement.

Meanwhile, the Maoist-influenced Communist Party of the Philippines has been waging an armed revolution in the countryside since 1969, making it the world’s longest communist insurgency.

Below are photos of women fighters of the Red Army and a celebration of the party anniversary in a remote village in the island of Mindanao.

Women fighters of the Red Army in the Philippines. Image from Philippine Revolution Web Central.
42nd Communist Party anniversary in the Northeast Mindanao region. Image from Philippine Revolution Web Central.

Peace negotiations between the Philippines government and the communist rebels are currently suspended. The government blames the rebels for the continued underdevelopment of the country. It also accuses them of resorting to criminal activities like extortion and kidnapping to finance their operations. Meanwhile, the rebels claim they have survived the numerous military offensives of the government in the past four decades because they have enjoyed public support.

The war in Mindanao in the Philippines has forced thousands of residents to flee their homes. Refugees are called ‘bakwit’ (slang for evacuate). Fr. Felmar Castrodes Fiel, from the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), narrates the familiar story of problems facing bakwit :

“…the rebellion had killed at least at least 50,000 people, driven 2 million people out of their homes, destroyed more than 500 mosques, 200 schools and 35 cities and towns.

In Mindanao, “bakwit” is a popular word. It refers to displaced residents who are caught in the cross-fire between “lawless elements” and the military and have no choice but to flee from their homes to avoid being sandwiched in the battle.”

Separatist movements are also thriving in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. Thailand’s Islamic insurgency, in particular, has intensified in recent years, and some analysts believe it could soon become Asia’s biggest insurgency.

Global headlines seldom mention Southeast Asia’s ongoing wars. This is unfortunate since it prevents global dialogue and understanding of the various conflicts and – ultimately – their resolution.

For further information on the topic, please view the following publications from our partners:

Inside Southeast Asia: First Annual Conferencefrom the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi , India.

Migration Between South and Southeast Asia: Overview of Trends and Issuesfrom the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), Singapore, Singapore.

Resolving Southeast Asian Territorial Disputes: A Role for the ICJfrom the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi , India.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Security Watch and Editorial Plan Dossiers.

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