Future Regional Conflicts:
Myanmar and Papua New Guinea.
Decades of relative peace and prosperity have allowed the new democracies of Southeast Asia the latitude to pursue economic cooperation and relatively stable domestic policies. But while the reasonable stability of ASEAN has allowed its members to support each other’s traditional security interests while settling disputes through non-violent channels (Dosch 2007, p. 211), regional membership in this pluralistic community does not necessarily negate internal conflict of individual members. In fact, at least two low-level ongoing disputes—the Karen-led insurgency in Myanmar and the effective collapse of civil order in Papua New ...view middle of the document...
In 2005, roughly 540,000 Karen and other rural people along the Thai frontier had been internally displaced by ongoing military activity in the area (South 2007a, p. 58), and by 2010, a further 100,000 were living in camps on the other side of the border (Thailand Burma Border Consortium 2010). While reports from 2003 (Checchi et al. 2003, p. 74) and 2007 (Hull 2009, p. 89) indicate that the refugee population has been fairly stable over the last several years, increased exploitation of non-combatants by the ruling SPDC apparatus and the inability of the weakened Karen insurgency to defend them could easily fuel a wider exodus:
Depleted food and fiscal provisions resulting from extortive demands have, in turn, led to worsening humanitarian conditions across much of SPDC-controlled Karen State, and indeed much of rural Burma […] Villagers living in SPDC-controlled areas therefore confront a difficult choice. They can try to eke out a living under the persistent demands […] they can flee into situations of displacement as a means of evading this abuse (Hull 2009, p. 12).
If these exiles are radicalised and strike back into Myanmar from over the border, several scenarios for wider conflict emerge. First, a revived Karen insurgency could easily become the new focus of armed resistance to the current regime (South 2007b, pp. 1-2), destabilizing the country, inaugurating a new phase in its long civil war, and possibly prompting a humanitarian response. Second, counter-strikes against rebel positions along the border could provoke the Thai military to respond in self-defense, especially if the natural gas pipelines that run across the frontier are damaged, or Myanmar makes an incursion into the disputed Three Pagodas Pass region (Rajah 1994, p. 91).
Still, “the ASEAN way” does not allow for interference in the internal affairs of a member state (Mondejar and Chu 2005, p. 223), especially if it means pitting members against each other:
At the core of ASEAN’s diplomacy and order building in Southeast Asia stand six norms: sovereign equality; the non-recourse to use of force and the peaceful settlement of conflict; noninterference and nonintervention; the non involvement of ASEAN to address unresolved bilateral conflict between members; quiet diplomacy; and mutual respect and tolerance (Dosch 2007, p. 218).
As such, ASEAN is more likely to pursue mediation between all parties (as during the 1968 dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah; see Anthony 2005, pp 66-9) than to mobilize in any way except in self-defense. Despite Thailand’s historical willingness to at least rhetorically back the Karen movement, this support has long since waned (Thawnghmung 2008, p. 30)
However, other players in the region are more open to the idea of intervention in a neighbor’s affairs, especially if it means propping up a state that is on the verge of civil war or outright failure. India shares a long border with Myanmar and the...