How to Better Understand Violence in Southeast Asia

A new approach to tracking violence reveals just how widespread violent incidents are in Southeast Asia.

By Calin Brown for
How to Better Understand Violence in Southeast Asia

Police chase a protester who tried to cross a police barricade in Surabaya, East Java (August 6, 2014).

Credit: Reuters/Sigit Pamungkas

The assumption that violent incidents are sporadic events with a clear beginning and end has given many the comforting illusion that non-violence in Southeast Asia is the norm, and incidents like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s current, grisly campaign against drugs is a break from the usual peace. The reality is that violence has often been, and remains, a tool for change in Southeast Asia.

Violence has often unfolded alongside politics in a region with a long history of struggle against foreign colonizers. The foundation of many of the ASEAN countries’ sovereignty included mass violence, such as the bitter struggle against Dutch colonists in Indonesia following World War II, and the bloody wars fought by the Vietnamese and Laotians to free their countries from foreign influence. Many Southeast Asian countries have since experienced decades of armed conflict between the state and insurgent groups fighting for their own independence. The countries’ histories of political violence have left wounds that continue to shape the political landscape, leaving some domestic institutions built upon these graves unable to rectify age-old grievances and thereby perpetuating episodes of violence.

Targets set by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 16 calls for an end to violence globally. But the lack of data and a focused definition of what constitutes violence has made it difficult to understand the wide range of violence in Southeast Asia and accurately measure progress in eliminating it.

Global datasets on violence such as the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) use a selective definition of what’s considered violence, “simplifying” violence to strictly armed conflicts. Other datasets, like those used by the Geneva Declaration’s Burden of Armed Violence reports, limits the concept of violence to homicides, which ignores many manifestations of violence like injuries caused by mob violence in Indonesia – one of the most prominent forms of violence on the archipelago. Moreover, existing cross-national databases like the UCDP project collect information using data sources far removed from the location where the events occurred, for instance English-language or national-level newspapers, which rarely cover non-lethal incidents and tend to under-report violence.

In a paper published last year as part of the Asia Foundation’s Cross Regional Violence Monitoring Knowledge Exchange project, co-authors Patrick Barron, Anders Engvall, and Adrian Morel claim that our limited understanding of violence has constrained the development of policies to prevent and manage violence. Morel, a program manager for the Asia Foundation, told The Diplomat that there has increasingly been an appetite for and interest in violence data because of the UN’s SDGs. “People are looking at ways to get the right instruments to measure our progress, and that’s when people started to realize there are a lot of gaps in our understanding of violence currently,” he said.

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Violent incidents monitoring systems (or VIMSs) may fill many of these gaps. In several countries in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Timor-Leste, the Philippines, and Thailand, locally operated VIMSs have begun to capture much of the data that’s missing by drawing from local-level sources and adapting a broader definition of violence. Similar systems are being developed in Myanmar and Nepal.

In their paper, the Asia Foundation highlights three such systems: Indonesia’s National Violence Monitoring System (NVMS), the Philippines’ Bangsamoro Conflict Monitoring System, and Thailand’s Deep South Incident Dataset. In each of the countries where VIMSs have been set up, practitioners identified organizations and government departments already tracking violence at the local level. “Very often these people are already tracking violence, but they focus on certain subsets of violence or the data can’t be easily incorporated with global violence measuring systems,” Morel explained. “So we’re just identifying who is already doing the work, but just wants to do it a little bit better.” The practitioners then provided the funding and technical expertise to help standardize the methodology, as well as aggregate data.

VIMSs use local data sources, which improves data accuracy and ensures that smaller-scale incidents are recorded. Indonesia’s NVMS team retrieved data from 115 subnational newspapers and two national papers, a variety of academic papers, as well as NGO reports. The UCDP noted 20 violent deaths in Indonesia since 2006. The NVMS database, in contrast, captured 18,904 deaths for the same time period.

Also, by adapting a broader characterization of what constitutes violence, VIMSs capture the many varieties of violence that can take place beyond armed conflict, ranging from electoral violence to incidents sparked by land disputes. And by recording more types of violence than global datasets like the UCDP’s, VIMSs facilitate comparisons of the factors that drive violence in different parts of the country as well as between countries.

By using a broader characterization of violence paired with local-level data sources, VIMSs reveal the evolution of violence in post-conflict areas and generate evidence allowing for more effective policy responses. For instance, violence data collected from Indonesia’s easternmost province of Papua showed that more deaths in Papua are related to drug trafficking than separatist activities. Moreover, a more nuanced take on violence shows that in some of the post-conflict locations, new types of violence disproportionately affect women. According to data gathered by NVMS, after the 2005 peace accord, crime rates and domestic violence in Aceh, Indonesia rose and women began to account for a larger share of deaths. This more comprehensive dataset makes it clear that policy decisions to reduce violence need to focus on more than just separatist violence, and requires policymakers to recognize how women are disproportionately affected by violence.

Violence in Southeast Asia, including the many extra-judicial killings taking place in the Philippines right now as a result of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, could lead to broader political insecurity and have economic ramifications across the region. Preventing and responding to violence requires an understanding of the violence that’s occurring, and all of this requires good data. Without a broad understanding of violence in the Philippines, it may be easy to see the Philippines’ ongoing crisis as an isolated incident. A more comprehensive dataset that reveals where and what type of violence is occurring throughout the Philippines would shed light on events like the so-called “war on drugs,” and according to Morel, allow us to have a baseline understanding of where more high-profile violence comes from.

“From looking at the more comprehensive datasets, it’s clear that the distinctions often made between armed violence and other kinds of violence were academic in purpose, and in reality violence is a lot more fluid than that,” Morel said. “If you want to understand how these different incidents of violence feed into each other, you have to collect the data more broadly.”

Calin Brown is pursuing an M.A. in International Economics and International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) with a concentration in Southeast Asian Studies.