Asean needs a comprehensive response to ISIS

Asean needs a comprehensive response to ISIS

As the world gears up for what may well become a prolonged international campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) movement, there is growing concern about what to do with militants who may return to their countries of origin. That such an outcome has grown increasingly likely is harrowing for policymakers and laymen alike, particularly in South-east Asia.

Next year, the countries of ASEAN will enter a new phase in the development of the regional group, relaxing border controls further and deepening economic ties between each other.

By most accounts this would be a positive step towards building closer regional ties and enhancing state-to-state confidence, while also creating new opportunities allowing millions of ASEAN citizens to reap the benefits. Yet at the same time those in the security community are worried that this very same process of regional integration may be hijacked, by others who wish to disrupt deve- lopment in the region.

ASEAN is thus left in a bind: While the realities of the world today point to the need for greater economic integration and social mobility, genuine security concerns cannot be neglected. Something needs to be done to ensure that ASEAN's destiny will not be pushed off course by the malevolent actions of small, yet dangerous, militant groups.

Dealing with the multiple challenges of economic integration and regional militancy at the same time will require deft and agile thinking.

Militancy not a new challenge

South-East Asia is no stranger to such complexities. During the middle decades of the 20th century, it was practically the second front in the war against communism - long before it was dubbed the "second front in the war on terror".

The experience of the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) comes to mind, as well as the numerous campaigns that were waged in other neighbouring countries then. Back in the 1950s and 60s, social engagement, public outreach and education, and rehabilitation campaigns were part and parcel of the wider campaign to prevent the whole region from falling into the Soviet bloc.

One reason why the counter- terrorism campaign across South-east Asia in the 50s and 60s succeeded was because the alleged militants were given a halfway house option that did not paint them into an existential corner, forcing them to fight to the end - despite the claim of some die-hard militants that they would "fight to the death".

Many of those who had turned to militancy were seeking integration, representation, and a sense of place and belonging in a society that they felt had alienated them. Dealing with such existential angst went hand-in-hand with the anti-terror campaign then.

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