The Debate

Who Is a Terrorist?: Lessons from Thailand and the Philippines

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The Debate

Who Is a Terrorist?: Lessons from Thailand and the Philippines

In Thailand and Philippines, it’s worth digging into the precise definitions of “terrorism.”

Who Is a Terrorist?: Lessons from Thailand and the Philippines
Credit: Steve Allen via

The 2015 Global Terrorism Index was recently launched by the Institute of Economics and Peace. The timing of the report, released just three days after the Paris attacks, was sadly opportune. The main message—that terrorism is on the rise and its reach is widening—chimes with a new assertiveness from political leaders who have competed to emphasize that the values of liberty must be preserved and, somewhat in contradiction, that terrorists should be rooted out by military or other means. This may portend an era of liberal interventionism, with participants including unlikely bedfellows such as Russia and China. The GTI, which ranks countries by their experience of terrorism, purports to point to those where anti-terrorist efforts should focus.

Problematically, this is based on a flawed understanding of what terrorism is, who does it, and what it looks like. The report employs a definition of terrorism that conflates many types of violence by many types of non-state groups, including sub-national secessionist movements, ideologically-motivated insurgents and political protesters. This, accompanied by inconsistencies in what is deemed a terrorist act and what is not, leads to misleading findings.

This is dangerous given how states, particularly since 9/11, have consistently used counter-terrorism rhetoric to repress dissent at the expense of finding political solutions to complex problems.

Thailand and the Philippines: Where the Terrorists Roam?

The issue is perhaps best reflected in the inclusion of Thailand and the Philippines high up in the GTI rankings. Thailand comes tenth in the GTI with the Philippines following in eleventh, higher than Egypt and South Sudan, for example.

According to the report, two-thirds of Thailand’s terrorist incidents in 2014 (234) took place in the country’s Deep South. There, an insurgency has ebbed and flowed for more than a decade, claiming over 6,000 lives. The GTI categorizes violence by the several separatist groups, which include the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and the splinter Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), as acts of terrorism. Around half of the remaining incidents occurred in Bangkok, in the form of various sniper attacks and small explosions that accompanied the anti-government protests early that year. (The 2015 bombing of the Erawan shrine, which claimed 20 lives, falls outside the time period covered by the report.)

The GTI notes that deaths from terrorism fell in the Philippines in 2014 but that they were still the second highest on record. While the report claims that Filipino terrorism is tied up with separatist sentiments in the country’s south, the New People’s Army (NPA), a longstanding armed communist group operating nationwide, was responsible for 32 percent of the year’s terrorist deaths.

Terrorism and Insurgent Wars

Should the acts of groups such as the NPA and BRN be classified as terrorism? The GTI defines terrorist acts as those where violence or force is used by non-state groups for political, economic or religious purposes. Battle and other related deaths that occur in the context of conflict are not counted. (Most of the deaths in Syria, for example, are counted as being scars of war and are not included in the GTI.)

Yet there appears to be significant inconsistencies across countries in what is counted as terrorism. The NPA and BRN are non-state groups that use violence to try to achieve political goals—to overthrow the Philippines state and to achieve independence or more autonomy for Thailand’s Deep South, respectively. But both are fighting wars against the state. Why would deaths from these conflicts be included as terrorist acts whereas those from the Syrian war are not?

Coders for Syria clearly have major challenges in separating out what is a battle-related death and what is a terrorist act. Yet this becomes even more difficult in places like southern Thailand (or, in the case of the NPA, areas scattered throughout the Philippines), where civil wars are asymmetric and non-conventional. Rather than armies battling to control territory, violence tends to take the form of guerilla attacks and state counter-insurgency operations. Sometimes citizens are targeted to instill loyalty through fear, but operations more often focus on hard targets such as military personnel or government officials. If these acts of violence are excluded, the incidence of terrorist acts in the Philippines and Thailand plunges.

Terrorism and Violent Political Action

The other large block of terrorist incidents recorded for Thailand comes from the anti-government protests that eventually led to a coup d’état. Such incidents are deemed to be terrorist acts because: (a) they are violent; (b) they involve non-state actors; and (c) the objective is political, in this case the removal of the government.

But such a wide definition includes many incidents of violence that should not be classified as terrorism. The Bangkok protests differ in both scale and objective from many of the genuine terrorist incidents—conducted by groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and Pakistan’s TPP—detailed elsewhere in the report. Rather than purging domestic or global society of infidels or modern beliefs, they were manifestations of an (albeit unsavory) strategy aimed at securing domestic political power. A quick reading of Thailand’s modern political history, where cycles of protest and low intensity violence have typically and frequently preceded changes in political power, shows both how normal and effective such strategies are. Indeed, the use of violence, or threats of it, are a common strategy for securing political and economic power in much of the developing world and beyond—at both the national and local levels. Inter-communal riots in India, organized crime in Guatemala, local land conflicts in Indonesia: each involves the use of violence by non-state groups for political-economic purposes. If one is to include such acts in a definition of terrorism, and consistently code them as such, the number of terrorist acts would rise exponentially in most countries.

Labels and the Search for Peace

One of the enduring impacts of the 9/11 attacks was the labeling by governments of subnational movements and political dissenters as terrorists. The language was used, for example, to legitimize violent state crackdowns against secessionist groups in Xinjiang (China), Aceh (Indonesia), Sri Lanka, and anti-government parties in Cambodia.

Yet experience has shown that it is only when such groups are seen and accepted as legitimate political players that progress towards peace can occur. Peace tends to require negotiation and negotiation requires recognition.

In Aceh, this was necessary for peace talks to commence, which ultimately resulted in 2005’s successful Helsinki peace accord. In the Philippines, the government has repeatedly had to state that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who (with other separatists) fought a long war for autonomy in Mindanao, are not a terrorist group to bolster peace talks. This eventually led to a comprehensive peace agreement and sharp drops in violence emanating from separatism. In 2011, the Government of the Philippines delisted the NPA from its list of terrorist groups as it sought to make progress on a peace process, which has been stalled on other grounds. In Thailand, the refusal of the government to recognize southern separatists as negotiation partners was a factor in the failure of 2013 talks and may well halt current dialogue.

Rather than classifying particular groups as ‘terrorist’, it is more helpful to think of terrorism as one tactic amongst many others that some groups use at certain points as they push their agenda. Labeling the BRN and NPA as ‘terrorists’ blocks opportunities to find solutions to violence.

Toward New Understandings of ‘Terrorism’

Conflating different forms of violence and political action—and inappropriately labeling various groups as ‘terrorist’—can counteract attempts to build peace. With the specter of fresh terrorist attacks real, in Europe and beyond, it is increasingly important that we develop new ways to talk about and measure terrorism. As Andrew Glazzard and Raffaello Pantucci argue in their useful expert contribution to the GTI report itself, the group of actors deemed terrorist in the report is so broad as to lose coherence. There is a need to find new ways to disaggregate forms of political, ideological, separatist, and religious violence—by motives, tactics, targets, and geographic scope. Only then can differentiated approaches be adopted that will lower terrorism risks without creating new grievances or undermining prospective peace settlements.

Patrick Barron is Regional Director for Conflict and Development at The Asia Foundation. The views here are his alone and not those of the organization. He can be reached at [email protected].