By Tejas Vir Singh
Research Intern at Jindal Centre for the Global South

Pathways for Irregular Forces in Southeast Asia: Mitigating Violence with Non-State Armed Groups is a book by Atsushi Yasutomi, Associate Professor at the Department of Social System Design, Eikei University of Hiroshima, Japan; Rosalie Arcala Hall, Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines, Visayas; and Saya Kiba, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, Japan and published by the Taylor & Francis Group in 2022. This book talks about irregular forces in Southeast Asia and sheds light on both violent and non-violent forces. By using the examples of Indonesia, Timor Leste, Philippines and Thailand, it analyzes the unique situations of various irregular forces in the form of essays from editors and authors.

The authors aim to dispel the generalization of irregular forces as elements that produce disruption in a country or region, especially when it comes to their image as spoilers of peace in post-conflict situations. The authors here have demonstrated how such groups tend to get support from civilians and also aid in the building of local security, especially in cases where an effective police force tends to be absent. In such cases one can say they are ‘included’ in the community as opposed to facing repulsion from communities. The book also delves into the political angle of these irregular forces and how politics and violence may be interlinked, sometimes even in collaboration with state institutions. It, thus, gives a unique approach on irregular forces by analyzing their contribution of security provisions and political environment in the Southeast Asian region.

The first chapter, ‘Characterizing irregular forces’ by Atsushi Yasutomi, is quite interesting and pivotal as it answers the introduces us to the concept of irregular forces, meaning “forces that are independent from statutory authority” (Yasutomi, p.17). For an instance, the military is not an irregular force, given its statutory nature. Irregular forces tend to challenge the power of the state, and compete for influence in the society. This can be done by providing for alternate means of security, which then challenges the state’s monopoly of power and violence. The chapter also talks about irregular forces that may be supportive of the regime, i.e. would be informally associated with each other where the irregular force would carry out operations for the state who can thus avoid the blame. In some cases, they might even be recruited for the purpose of protecting civilians against rebels. However, in some instances, such groups might turn violent against civilians, as in the case of Sierra Leone (Yasutomi, p. 23).

The chapter also is essential in demarcating the differences between the terms ‘paramilitaries’, ‘militias’, ‘vigilante groups’, and ‘gangs’, all of which tend to be interchangeably used. Paramilitaries are supplementary to statutory forces like the military; Militia are a less formal form of paramilitaries that can either be pro-government or anti-government, and is formed for monetary and/or ideological benefits. These groups tend to be the most violent of the five aforementioned groups, and pro-government militias tend to have a free pass from the government to unleash violence on minority ethnicities. The best examples used by the author here  are of Bosnian Serbs in the Yugoslav War and the Sudanese Janjaweed. Anti-government militias on the other hand tend to be politically motivated, and most include the issue of poverty as a basis for their motivation, such as Marxist movements in Nepal and Liberia. Vigilantes, according to the author, are formed as a reaction to threats against a particular community, and function as community centric security providers. Gangs on the other hand focus on anti-social activities like drug and human trafficking and tend to be a result of corruption in the state institutions; despite their violence, they tend to be providers of finance and security like in the cases of Colombia or the favelas of Brazil (Yasutomi, p. 24).

Chapter 2 ‘Pathways for irregular forces’ by Rosalie Arcala Hall explores the three main pathways that irregular forces tend to take in order to function. The first pathway focuses on gaining legitimacy in the eyes of not only the civilian population, but also the international community, even by violent means. An example the author uses is of Hezbollah (Hall, p.33) a Shi’a militant group based in Lebanon which combines military and politics with institutions like universities, unions, and providing social and health services. The second pathway is linked with the disarmament phase, where the militaristic nature of the irregular forces is shut down. Fighters in the irregular forces enter a phase of reintegration with society, although, the author notes that they may end up having unique problems, like in Cambodia where ex-Khmer Rouge combatants were given good employment in strongholds, but were seen with suspicion elsewhere (Hall, p.38). The third pathway is described as a trajectory towards democratic politics, and usually takes place due to internal characteristics and external environments.  The author uses the Communist Party of Nepal as an example (Hall, p.40), which once undertook guerrilla warfare against the monarchy, but soon formed a shadow government by instilling a positive perception of itself in people’s minds..

The next chapters then delve into the situation in individual countries in Southeast Asia. Masaaki Okamoto’s essay on ‘Non-state violence and political order in democratized Indonesia’ revolves around the Pancasila Youth, an organization that played a central role in the violent dismantling of the Communist Party and how the subsequent democratization of Indonesia has led to violent organizations like Pancasila Youth to assert its influence in modern governance, with as many as 25 Ministers of Parliament being past members of the organisation. The element of ‘Pancasila’ (five principles) nationalism has been emphasized by the current government too, especially with the rise of conservative Islam in the country. The case of Indonesia is quite interesting as it shows a violent nationalist group asserting its ideological dominance in the shadows of a democratic government.

Yuji Uesugi’s chapter on ‘Irregular forces in Timor-Leste’ revolves around the post-independence time of Timor-Leste, after gaining independence from Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 2002. This chapter gives an insight into the crisis that affected this much-ignored country, where a third of the population was internally displaced, according to the author (Uesugi, p.73). The author also analyses how the irregular forces in Timor-Leste did not rely on sophisticated weapons, but mostly on knives and hatchets, and even had its own martial arts group division (Uesugi, p.75), which in the opinion of the book reviewer shows the flexibility of irregular forces when it comes to lack of resources like firearms and training equipment.

Jennifer Santiago Oreta talks about the Philippines in the chapter ‘The gray zone of irregular forces.’ The chapter navigates the gray zone of ‘legal’ versus ‘illegal’ where many irregular forces tend to exist given the low level of regulation. Most of Philippines’ provinces are affected by conflict, and poor infrastructure and connectedness which leads to certain areas to be safe havens or ‘gray zones’ for irregular forces. An interesting link that the author here makes is of President Duterte’s drug war with irregular forces, as this war aims to eradicate such forces from the country as they are seen to be promoting drug and terrorist activity (Oreta, p.109). Rosalie Arcala Hall’s chapter on ‘Between legal and legit: local security arrangements between state security actors and irregular forces in Bangsamoro region, Philippines’ acts as a complementary chapter to Oreta’s chapter by giving an in-depth analysis of the situation in the Bangsamoro region in southern Philippines.

Paul Chambers and Srisompob Jitpiromsri’s essay talks about paramilitary forces in southern Thailand in the chapter ‘Frontline informality.’ This chapter gives an insight into situations where the state itself can be complicit in violence which tend to be looked over. The authors here analyze the role of the Thai military, paramilitary and police forces in fighting insurgency in the deep southern region. This chapter seems like an unexpected revelation about the role of the Thai state in state-sponsored violence, given Thailand’s ‘democratic’ reputation in Southeast Asia.

Before concluding, Saya Kiba discusses Security governance in Southeast Asia and the security sector reforms (SSR) taken so far. The analysis of  how Southeast Asia has taken a different approach in dealing with these irregular forces by  including them in the SSR dialogues instead of keeping them out of it, was quite interesting to me, as it is unlike the approaches shared by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Development Assistance Committee, which simply labels these forces as spoilers of peace. The chapter quite wonderfully links individual essays to the purpose of the book, holding that SSR dialogues with irregular forces is possible, and such an inclusive nature is more practical for reform.

The book goes into detail about the various types of irregular forces and uses examples from around the world to aid in understanding irregular forces better. From defining the scope of what consists of ‘irregular’ each chapter then proceeds to give an extensive discussion on the security situation in the selected countries, using tables and flowcharts to better explain the topic. Overall, the book is quite comprehensive and well researched upon, and while it can be an extensive read, for someone interested in learning more about International Security this book gives an elaborate study of the same. It also provides for a different perspective on international affairs, to see such irregular forces as a part of society rather than as destructive elements of it.

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