Human Insecurity: A Critical Issue in a Rising Region

Shangpo Hsieh

Southeast Asia is a suitable region for the exploration of human insecurity matters. Democratisation which has taken place in several countries in this region facilitates demands for justice against discrimination, and also for the protection of rights which are sacrificed in the name of development, territorial integrity, or others reasons. At the same time, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the main prime intergovernmental organisation in this region, has also shifted its attention to human security matters in recent decades. In such a context, questions regarding what threats there are to human security; why they exist; and how current mechanisms deal with such threats arise, and answers to these questions are offered in this book.

This book, under the editorship of Paul Carnegie, Victor King, and Zawawi Ibrahim, is a collection of papers contributed by experts mostly from the University of Brunei Darussalam. One chapter elucidates concerned concepts and two chapters focus on the role of the ASEAN, the other chapters discusses cases which were happening in four Southeast Asian democracies, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Philippines. While it is human, not state, insecurity in question, threats to security are no longer limited to foreign countries, but include governments which usually act as guardians against foreign threats. This book offers a detailed discussion of why and how governments may threaten human security in Southeast Asia’s transitional democracies.

In Chapter 3, Ibrahim explains concerns of two indigenes in Malaysia, Orang Asli and Penan, about losing lands where they have lived for generations under the New Economic Policy initiated by the Malaysian government in the name of development in the early 1970s. In Chapter 5, through studying the case of the 2013 Sulu Intrusion Incident and its aftermath Gordon Carson explains why and under what conditions measures taken by the Malaysian government to protect national security may have harmed those who are living within territories. In Chapter 8, Rommel Curaming explains the roots of separation movements which have existed in Mindanao, the southern area of the Republic of the Philippines, for decades. The author argues that such roots originated from historical injustice created by a series of measures by colonial governments to exert control and from half-hearted efforts of political leaders in the Republic of the Philippines to answer local demands which further strengthened separatists’ determination. In this regard, it is the government that shall bear the blame for human insecurity problems in Mindanao, not separatists who resort to violence. Also focusing on the Mindanao, Eliseo Huesca, in Chapter 11, explores reasons for poverty, food insecurity, and other problems in indigenous communities after a series of agricultural development projects initiated or supported by local governments. The author argues that local governments which endeavoured to attract investments and to maximise agricultural production, at the expense of rights and well-being of indigenous people, shall be to blame for the precarious plight in the Philippine uplands. Unlike in chapters which emphasise on the actions of government, in Chapter 6, AKM Ahsan Ullah, Yusnani Mohd Yusof-Kozlowski, and Maria D'Aria demonstrate how ‘non-actions’ may also lead to human insecurity. Based on testimonies of 94 female migrant workers in Thailand and Malaysia, the authors show how migrating to other countries in Southeast Asia for work is risky, costly, and dangerous, and also implicitly criticise the concerned governments for failing to build up mechanisms for safe migration.

Differing from chapters above, Chapter 4 and Chapter 9 include a discussion of threats originating from societies in two Southeast Asian countries. Carnegie correctly puts it that ‘specific and contingent historical experience is important for explanatory purposes because often a recourse to violent militancy rests on questions of identity’ (p. 56). With this notion, in Chapter 4 he traces the origins of militant Islamic activism in Indonesia, and in so doing explains how the identity is formed, and also how it gains reproductive capacity. Government officials bear the obligation to protect citizens against such threats, and Carnegie suggests that in Indonesia’s cultural context a soft approach is more feasible than a hard one which exclusively relies on punitive means. In Chapter 9, Nichan Singhaputargun explains why and how controversies around the former Prime Minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra have given rise to hostility and confrontation between two camps within the Thai society. The author believes that such conflict, rooted in ‘the contestation over different visions of democracy’ (p. 148), leaves little room for a middle path, and thus led to violence in several forms which endangers Thai people’s political and personal security.

While the authors above endeavour to identify threats to human security within borders of some Southeast Asian democracies, Mikio Oishi and Ta-Wei Chu attract audience’s attention to the ASEAN. The discussion in their papers is on the premise that the role of such an intergovernmental organisation has shifted, from regime incubator to human security incubator, after the end of the Cold War. In Chapter 7, Oishi first explains why such shift took place, followed by an overview of its initiatives aimed to address human insecurity issues in Southeast Asia. Through this study, Oishi identifies the gradual development of a human security infrastructure and thus argues that the ASEAN ‘has been transforming itself … into a human security [organisation] albeit considerably retaining its old elements’ (p. 117). Complementing to Oishi’s argument, in Chapter 10, Chu states the ASEAN way, featuring non-interference and of non-use of force, is one of the old elements currently retained, and he believes it is a significant impediment to achieving a people-oriented ASEAN shortly.

This book certainly deserves praises for the contributors’ efforts to introduce a rarely-discussed concept through in-depth analyses of cases happening in several Southeast Asian democracies. Accordingly, I believe this book can be a valuable reference collection of papers for students with interest in such an issue. At the same time, I also believe this book could have contributed more if some minor shortcomings were solved.

Firstly, there is room for modifying this book’s chapter structure. As mentioned previously, two sorts of threats to human security are identified in this book. One is about ‘actions’ and ‘non-actions’ of the governments; the other is conflicts within societies on matters such as understandings of democracy and identity and others. However, chapters that give a discussion of the governments’ role are not grouped together. Neither are chapters that highlight threats originating from the society or the role of the ASEAN. As a result, audiences need to make such categorization on their own, leading to a waste of time and unnecessary misunderstandings. Proper chapter structure enables the reader to make a comparison and also to have a better understanding of individual chapters.

Secondly, there is little discussion of how the ASEAN deal with or respond to threats to human security identified in several chapters. One merit of this book is bringing the ASEAN into the discussion of human insecurity matters, but such a merit is overshadowed by the absence of in-depth discussion of how such an intergovernmental organisation deal with threats to human security, especially ones that take place between countries. Both the 2013 Sulu Intrusion incident and the inhuman treatment migrant workers face require the ASEAN to demonstrate its stance, but its response has not been included in the two chapters concerned, though the changed role of the ASEAN is highlighted in this book.

As a reader whose interest in the theme of human insecurity is aroused, I expect to read more publications on human insecurity shortly, especially ones explaining local initiatives to address threats to human security matters. Here are some suggestions.

My first suggestion is to consider corruption as a threat to human security in Southeast Asia. In this region, except Singapore, most countries are facing rampant corruption problems, as shown in reports released by the Transparency International. As several scholars stress corruption in Southeast Asia is not merely the result of accountability deficit, but a syndrome of blurred public–private boundaries that is embedded in the local cultures. Whatever the roots of corruption are, impacts of corruption on human security are by no means minor, as evidenced by a variety of studies of negative impacts caused by corruption. While many accidents are outcomes of poorly-maintained infrastructure, political corruption is also deemed a cause of such incidents in a sense that it endangers human security. Given the fact that corruption has attracted wide attention from scholars in the last two decades, inviting papers on the impacts of corruption on human security, and also on ways to address them, will quickly receive replies.

Furthermore, I would suggest to attend to responses to demands for addressing threats to human security. There are reasons to believe such demands exist in a democratising context, and several questions deserve attention. Are there attempts made by local civil society organisations to build up human security protection mechanisms? Which narratives do activists use? What do they achieve? What impediments do they encounter? To answer these questions requires follow-up studies, suggesting the publication of another collection of papers in the future.

Lastly, I strongly suggest giving attention to religion-related threats to human security. Two reasons underpin such a suggestion. One is that religion continues to be a cause of several conflicts in Southeast Asia; the other is that several countries in this region are undergoing further Islamisation, a process that complicates solutions to threats to human security. Given these reasons, religion-related threat cases are not hard to find. Further analysis of such cases not only brings the discussion of human insecurity up to date to rising dynamics in Southeast Asia but is also conducive to the formation of solutions.