Softer approach critical to counter extremism in Asia
The recent bombing of the Erawan shrine in Bangkok has exposed serious security threats for Southeast Asian countries. It has highlighted the risks of illegal human trafficking, in this case in Asia’s Uighur community, and the rise of terrorist militancy.
In a classic case of hard-line measures proving counterproductive, the Uighur, an ethnic minority in China, have been increasingly using Southeast Asia as a transit zone in their bid to travel to Turkey to escape the Chinese government. China has long been criticized for the curtailment of the Uighur’s religious freedom, and the Uighur say the hard-line actions by authorities have driven their dissent and exodus.
The subsequent rise in the Uighur’s presence in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, has led to their linkups with local separatist militants in the region with similar grievances. This movement was said to be the driver of the bombing in Bangkok, with allegations that the attack was revenge for the deportation of 109 Uighur Muslims back to China the month before.
It is vital that, in view of this terrible incident, we take stock to consider what we can learn from it. One observation backed by growing evidence is that soft measures have become equally, if not more, important than hard measures in addressing the region’s extremist activities. More engagement and advocacy efforts are required.
In recent years, Indonesia and Malaysia have taken positive measures to combat the rise of terrorist groups domestically. Laws have been strengthened and efforts to disrupt terrorist plots and prosecute perpetrators have stepped up.
While these punitive approaches have been successful, authorities are also now focusing on preventive measures by reaching out to those who could potentially be involved in extremist activities before they become at risk.
Evidence shows that one of the key ways to nullify messages promoting extremist and violent activities is to engage the community. For example, following the bomb attack in Bangkok, engaging the community in this region could help raise cultural awareness and promote understanding of the Uighur ethnic identity and their plight. These kinds of advocacy efforts at a national level can prevent more individuals from being radicalized and help avert similar attacks from occurring again.
Similar engagement activities are already in place in the region, and they have proven effective. The Religious Rehabilitation Group in Singapore is one group that helps rehabilitate militants and their families to prevent them from being led further astray and drawn to the idea of self-radicalization.
Meanwhile, Indonesia’s National Counter-terrorism Agency initiates dialogue and reasoning with imprisoned and potential terrorists to help denounce their radical thinking.
The rise of social media in today’s digital age makes these approaches even more important as the threat of radicalization can come from a local or international source. Through the Internet, any person in any country can now have access to the messages from terrorist groups with the click of a button.
Digital media also afford endless options for innovation in communication methods, which can be harnessed by organizations promoting terrorism. In the recent explosions in Bangkok, investigators have found that social media techniques were used by members of the bomb network to communicate despite them not knowing one another. There is a need for contextualized engagement and advocacy efforts by each country, in responding to the rise of extremism and terrorism.
Thus, regional and multisectoral collaboration is key. While the right balance of hard and soft measures will be vital to successfully combat terrorism activities in Southeast Asia in the future, in the face of an increasingly complex security landscape, more cooperation between countries and companies in the region is also needed.
The region’s governments and private sector must look to how they can increase the surveillance of extremist activities together and share information to safeguard our communities. This will be a core focus of Asia’s inaugural Asia Pacific Homeland Security conference and exhibition that will take place in Singapore later this month.
The first forum of its kind in Asia, it will bring together leaders from across the globe to look at, debate, and analyze the security threats in the region and how the public and private sector can work together to combat the rise of extremist activities.
Stefanie Kam, associate research fellow at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, is a speaker at the inaugural Asia Pacific Homeland Security conference and exhibition that is scheduled on Oct. 27-30 in Singapore.
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