EAP commentary

Table of contents:

Uppsala 18 January 2013

The year 1979: a turning point

The East Asian Peace Program aims to explain why the East Asian region has become so remarkably peaceful (in comparison to other regions and times) since 1979. If we look at the statistics, the year 1979 appears as a turning point: after that the region experienced a dramatic drop in battle-related deaths, with fewer and notably less lethal conflicts. This had much to do with changes in China, where Deng Xiaoping had come to power the previous year. Normal diplomatic relations were established between China and the USA on 1 January 1979, so Deng could make his famous travel to America.  It also had to do with the fact that communist revolutionary movements began to peter out. The last successful revolutions leading to the establishment of Marxist regimes happened in Nicaragua 1979 and Surinam 1980.

Yet, the year 1979 is also remarkable from another perspective as this is the year when religion re-entered the political scene. Around the world, major events happened that represented a turning point bringing religiously based actors into the spotlight. 1979 was the year of the Iranian Revolution through which an Islamic popular uprising created a constitutionally Islamic state. In the US, the Moral Majority was created by Jerry Falwell and thereby the so-called ‘Christian Right’ started to get politically influential in American politics (with foreign policy implications not the least for US support to Israel). 1979 was also the year when Egypt and Israel concluded the Camp David agreement, a turning point in the Middle East that also led to frustrations for political Islamists. Lastly, 1979 was also the turning point in Afghanistan when on 24 December 1979 Soviet troops invaded. All these events aided religiously based groups, in particular but not exclusively Islamists groups, into the political arena. And in Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged, and the new military dictaor Zia Ul-Haq introduced his Hudood Ordinance, meant to implement Islamic Shari’a law.

Are these turning points related? In other words, is the growth of political and militant religious ideologies in the Middle East, the US and Asia related to the decline of violence in East Asia? Can it help explain the East Asian Peace? I think a good case could be made for  a positive answer. East Asia did at a later stage get a small share of religiously based violence in, places like south Thailand, Mindanao in the Philippines, Rachine State in Myanmar, and the Malukus in Indonesia. There was also some religiously based terrorism in Indonesia but Southeast Asia never became a new “front” in the terrorist war that some analysts predicted. Overall East Asia has experienced much less religiously based conflict than other world regions, such as South Asia, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Africa’s Horn.

The fact that the religious-secular divide became so contentious can help explain why the rest of the world experienced increased levels of violence in the 1980s. As communism faded as an ideological driver of rebellion and international conflict, religion took over but not so much in East Asia. East Asia’s relative resilience against religious militancy may help to explain why it developed in a more peaceful direction.

Isak Svensson

Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University and member of the East Asian Peace Program. Author of the book Ending Holy Wars: Religion and Conflict Resolution in Civil Wars, (University of Queensland Press, 2012). 

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Uppsala 16 November 2012 

Peaces agreements in “holy wars”

How can armed conflicts that take place in the name of God actually be resolved? We see a number of such conflicts today. Several armed conflicts in East Asia have religious dimensions that are at least part of major incompatibilities. Two recent examples are Thailand (Pattani), and the border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia.

There is a widespread assumption that religious conflicts are fundamentally insoluble. Both in political debate and within the social sciences, there is a widespread belief that when religion enters the conflict dynamics, the ability to peacefully resolve conflicts disappears. If you follow that thought to its end, the only logical solution is to combat religious radicals with violence. If compromises, horse-trading and concessions are excluded as conflict resolution mechanisms to religiously motivated conflict parties, religious conflict can reasonably only be resolved by victory by one side. In other words, if religion makes conflict insoluble, the logical implication is that they can only be terminated on the battlefield, not on the negotiation table.

From this perspective, the recently reached peace settlement in the Philippines is particularly interesting. 15 October 2012 was a historic day in the Philippines. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is considered the most militant of the two liberation fronts that have been in conflict with the Philippine government since the 1970s, reached a peace agreement setting the framework for a final settlement of the conflict. The framework agreement was reached through mediation from Malaysia. A new territorial self-governing entity, to be called 'Bangsomoro', is planned to be established in the Mindanao region and should receive a high degree of autonomy.

The Islamist insurgents in the Philippines thus reached an agreement with the government in an attempt to end one of the world's longest civil wars. It is thereby creating an interesting peace model for other conflicts around the world. The peace agreement shows how religious differences can be resolved through negotiations and agreements. It shows that parties that once took up arms in the name of God can actually come to the table and compromise on their (originally God-given) requirements.

Isak Svensson

Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University and member of the East Asian Peace Program. Author of the book Ending Holy Wars: Religion and Conflict Resolution in Civil Wars, (University of Queensland Press, 2012).

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Uppsala 17 July 2012

Armed Conflicts in 2011: No progress towards the East Asian Peace

The Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) has just released the data for armed conflicts worldwide in 2011. How does the picture look like for the East Asian region?

There were 7 armed conflicts in East Asia in 2011. In 2011, there were 37 armed conflicts around the world (and armed conflict here means a conflict that involves at least one government and which results in at least 25 battle-related deaths per year). This means that East Asia has 19% of all armed conflicts during 2011.

  • East Asia has the only interstate armed conflict that occurred in 2011: the border conflict between Cambodia-Thailand.
  • There were two armed conflicts that were initiated (or rather restarted) in 2011 in East Asia: Myanmar (Kachin) and the Cambodia-Thailand conflict. The other five East Asian conflicts have all started previously: Myanmar (Karen) in 1949 and Myanmar (Shan) in 1996, Philippines (Mindanao) in 1972 and the governmental conflict in 1969, and Thailand (Patani) in 2003.
  • All armed conflicts in East Asia in 2011 were minor armed conflicts (with more than 25 but less than 1,000 battle-related deaths).
  • Almost all armed conflicts in East Asia in 2011 were fought over contested territory – only the conflict in the Philippines between the government and the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) involved an incompatibility over government.
  • None of the rebel groups in the armed conflicts have received direct military support from another country – none of the intrastate conflicts in the region were internationalized in that sense.
  • No armed conflict ended in 2011 in East Asia.

The border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia does cut against the general trend of the increase in interstate peacefulness (the ‘East Asian Peace’) and will be an interesting conflict for the program to follow closely. Beyond that, this data shows that armed conflicts remain a problem for East Asia, in particular low intensity intrastate conflicts fought over the issue of territory. With two conflicts restarting, none ending, and five continuing, we can summarize that the year of 2011 was sadly not one of progress towards the East Asian Peace.

Isak Svensson

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Uppsala 27 March 2012

Democracy and Crisis in Thailand – prospects for reconciliation?

As a warming-up exercise for our own program workshop in Bangkok in the beginning of March, we attended an international conference entitled  ”Democracy and Crisis in Thailand” at Chulalongkorn University.  This was a useful warming-up indeed, as our workshop also focused a lot on the Thai exception to the East Asian Peace.

Six years after the military coup, two years after the violent end to redshirt mass-demonstrations in Bangkok and almost one year after the last round of elections that brought Puea Thai and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to power, the word on everyone’s lips is reconciliation. But are there any real prospects for reconciliation? Or is reconciliation just the latest of buzzwords, without any real meaning to it?

An editorial in the Bangkok Post is pessimistic: “there is no hope yet for national reconciliation since all the opposing parties are still stuck resolutely to their political agendas and refuse to accept the other side’s concerns” . This editorial is based on a recent reconciliation report produced by the King Prajadhipok’s Institute (KPI), where 47 stakeholders from different sides of the conflict have been interviewed.

The conference at Chulalongkorn gave a rich and varied background to who the different opposing parties are, but it also offered some clues as to what it would take to bring about real reconciliation. Three different arenas were discussed: Elections, Social Movements, and the Monarchy.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak offered a slightly optimistic view on the importance of elections in Thailand. There is no exit from democracy and elections, he claimed. While Thailand in modern history has a dire average of four years between every coup, there were 15 years between the three latest successful coups. Coups are decreasing in frequency, there is a return to elections and – importantly – nowadays elections in Thailand actually matter. On a more pessimistic note, what is lacking, according to Thitinan, is an efficient opposition party as well as – on both sides – “sportsmanship” when finding oneself on the losing side and political restraint when it comes to pushing through controversial legislation when on the winning side.  On the same note, Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee argued that Thailand need political actors that help to further institutionalize electoral competition instead of demeaning it.  She also argues that there is a democratic awakening among people in the sense that although money, canvassers and local leaders still influence voters’ electoral preferences, this influence is steadily declining, and people tend to rely more and more on themselves when deciding whom to vote for.

The democratic awakening and increasing self-reliance is also evident in the new social movements in Thailand, commonly referred to as the “yellowshirts” and the “redshirts”.  Political parties in Thailand have never been mass-based and instead, political organization takes place in loose social movements.  Although it was argued that the “reds” and the “yellow” only understand themselves in relation to each other, the panel unfortunately focused entirely on the redshirt movement.  This movement, panelists Pinkaew Laungaramsri and Somchai Phatharathananunth agreed, is not steered from Bangkok and is horizontally organized. Each node of the heterogeneous network is autonomous and mobilization and communication are made possible through radio stations. The increasing political consciousness of rural villagers is of course the backbone of this political movement, but it can also be seen as a weakness in terms of communication strategies. Rural villagers refuse to have political strategies dictated to them from above. Radio stations are now working to bridge the gap between the urban middle class and the rural villagers within the redshirt movement.

Finally, the difficult subject of the monarchy was discussed. This was possible because of the academic seminar-like setting, but also because it was rather skillfully discussed within an international framework and with an indirect focus on the lèse-majesté law. Benedict Anderson set the stage for international comparisons with his keynote address on modern monarchies in a global comparative perspective. The increasing number of lèse-majesté cases and the use of this law as a political tool were issues touched upon by several panelists.

Taken together, insights from the conference points to several important issues for reconciliation – both positive and negative. There are many different and heterogeneous stakeholders, and neither parties nor movements are organized in a manner to facilitate communication between them. At the same time, this reluctance to submit to a hierarchical organization should, at least on the part of the redshirts, be understood as a rising political awareness and, as such, it should be safeguarded. The conference also further emphasized the findings from my own research: that there is a lack of respect for democratic institutions in Thailand and, as a consequence, a lack of acceptance of election results. Constitutions and laws are too often used as short-term political tools.

It should thus not come as a big surprise that the aforementioned KPI reconciliation report also has been criticized for being a political tool, and the government is accused of having dictated its suggestions. Just like the Bangkok Post editorial points out, it is sad that the one of the main messages of the report, that the root causes of the conflicts in Thailand have to do with power inequalities, is not discussed in the political debate. The conference pointed to important issues of inequalities of different kinds in three important arenas of Thai politics. If political actors started to address and discuss some of these issues, instead of using the reconciliation report as another short-term political tool – then there might be a real prospect for reconciliation.

Elin Bjarnegård

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For more EAP commentaries: 

China’s maritime claims and deep intentions

The Decline of Violence and the East Asian Peace

War and Four Levels of Peace

The Jagland Paradox

Peace from East to Middle East

Eight Points on the East Asian Peace

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Daniel Finnbogason & Isak Svensson (2017): "The missing jihad: Why have there been no jihadist civil wars in Southeast Asia?", The Pacific Review, DOI: 10.1080/09512748.2017.1325391 (published online 15 May)


On 2 May 2017, the Danish ThinkChina published a policy brief by Stein Tønnesson: Can the East Asian Peace Survive? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZLQ0vmxi68)


Sino-Russia relations

EAP Program Leader Stein Tönnesson and Research Associate Pavel Baev publish "The Troubled Russia–China Partnership as a Challenge to the East Asian Peace" in the Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences. 


South Korea-US relations

EAP Research Associate Jong Kun Choi was interviewed in an article titled "Korea should avoid getting stuck between US, China" in the Korea Herald.


Can the East Asian Peace Survive under Trump?

Norwegian public radio interviewed program leader Stein Tønnesson about this question on 5 January 2017, together with Dr Eirik Torsvoll, (PluriCourts program, University of Oslo), and  Professor Nils Petter Gleditsch (Peace Research Institute Oslo, PRIO). Professor Gleditsch has recently published a book in Norwegian, entitled Towards a More Peaceful World? During the discussion, Stein Tønnesson presented findings from the East Asian Peace program and predicted a crisis in Sino-US relations but he also saw some win-win opportunities in connection with a reset of Sino-US terms of trade. He thought the East Asian Peace would hold - because everyone knows how catastrophic  the alternative could be.

If you understand Norwegian, you may listen to the discussion here.


War or peace in East Asia?

Stein Tönnesson will participate in a seminar titled "War or Peace in East Asia?" at NIAS-Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, University of Copenhagen. More information can be found here.


US-Asia relations

EAP Advisory Board member Bates Gill publishes "Can Trump keep his balance in Asia?" in the Pacific Forum newsletter published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies


The East Asian Peace: Can it Last?

EAP Advisory Board member Börje Ljunggren will give a talk titled "The East Asian Peace: Can it Last?" Co-sponsored by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and the Harvard University Asia Center. More information can be found here. 


Our film screened in Cambodia

Our 16 minutes film East Asia's Surprising Peace  was screened at the 5th Annual Peace Practitioners Research Conference in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on 25 November 2016.

Afterwards, Stein Tønnesson gave a keynote address about the East Asian Peace and how it can be made more viable. The artist Chan Wai made the drawing here, summarizing the main points. It includes an illustration used in Japanese schoolbooks from 1947 onward to show Japan's renunciation of war.


Trust and Distrust in Sino-American Relations

Professor Steve Chan will give a talk titled "Trust and Distrust in Sino-American Relations" at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University. The talk will be held in Sal. 2 from 15:15-17:00 on 23 November.


The East Asian Peace – in Swedish!

Stein Tønnesson, Isak Svensson and Elin Bjarnegård gave a 30 minute presentation of the East Asian Peace programme at the Göteborg book fair on 22 September 2016, emphasizing the disagreements among themselves as to how the peace may be explained, and whether or not the region can be considered peaceful. See their presentation here.


Is the East Asian Peace threatened?

The 4th of July 2016 China Day at the annual Swedish Almedalen week in Visby, Gotland, includes a panel at 1 pm about the East Asian Peace, where program core group members Joakim Kreutz and Isak Svensson, and Advisory Board Member Börje Ljunggren discuss (in Swedish) if the East Asian Peace is under threat. For the full program of the China Day, see: https://www.facebook.com/events/1712190189030851/


South China Sea

On June 3, 2016 the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) published online the report Sense and sensibility: adressing the South China Sea disputes, edited by Eva Pejsova. It includes chapters by two of the East Asian Peace program’s researchers: Liselotte Odgaard, “How to defuse Sino-US tensions in the SCS?” (pp. 17-23) and Stein Tønnesson, “UN Compulsory Arbitration: A tough test for China” (pp. 25-30).


Conflict in East Asia

EAP Program leader Stein Tönnesson publishes ‘Will Nationalism Drive Conflict in Asia?’ in Nations and Nationalism journal. 


EAP-Can it last?

EAP Program leader Stein Tönnesson participated in a roundtable discussion titled "The East Asian Peace: Can it Last?" at NIAS-Nordic Institute for Asian Studies in Copenhagen on 26 April. 



EAP Program leader Stein Tönnesson publishes "Myanmar’s ethnic minorities marginalised more" in East Asia Forum with Marte Nilsen.


EAP Advisory Board member Börje Ljunggren publishes "Växande oro för Kinas framtidsdrömmar" in Svenska Dagbladet. 



EAP Research Associate Ashley South publishes "Schooling and Conflict: Ethnic Education and Mother Tongue-based Teaching in Myanmar" with Marie Lall. 


China-Taiwan relations

Scott L. Kastner publishes "Is the Taiwan Strait
Still a Flash Point? Rethinking the Prospects for Armed
Conflict between China and Taiwan"
based on EAP Fourth Annual Conference paper in International Security. 



EAP Core Group member Isak Svensson publishes "Manufacturing Dissent: Modernization and the Onset of Major Nonviolent Resistance Campaigns" in the Journal for Conflict Resolution with Dr Charles Butcher.


North Korea

EAP Research Associate Jong Kun Choi publishes "The Perils of Strategic Patience with North Korea" in the Washington Quarterly journal.