Getting rough in the South China Sea

Tensions are rising across the region and politicians must keep their heads

On Saturday 30 April seven Thai soldiers were killed in a double bombing by suspected rebels. A day later insurgents shot dead two Buddhists in a drive-by in the southern region of Yala. In total, more than 4,500 people have died in the last seven years in the south of Thailand, as suspected Malay Muslim militants fight for greater autonomy. It is a number that has gone unnoticed across much of the world, in a region quietly infamous for violent but sporadic insurgency and politico-religious strains. Also calling for more devolution are Vietnam’s Hmong ethnic minority, from a mostly Christian area up in the far north-west of the country and very close to the border with Laos. A recent protest was fiercely quashed by soldiers.

Another worrying situation that has been brewing for decades between Thailand and Cambodia had its most recent twist in the story at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Sunday 8 May. The area up for debate was the Preah Vihear temple which stands in the Dangrek mountain range that straddles the Thai-Cambodia border. In 1954, Thai troops stormed the temple but withdrew eight years later. The ancient Hindu complex then fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. And this year forces from both sides have exchanged fire, with reports suggesting that two Thai soldiers died in the incidents.

An unhelpful sideshow to the event is the fact that Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister who is wanted back in Bangkok on corruption charges, has been appointed as an economic adviser to the Cambodian government. Because of their reluctance to tell member-states how to run domestic affairs, the ASEAN leaders failed to come to an agreement on what to do about the temple issue. This is not surprising, however, seeing as the matter has been simmering away since France left as colonial power at the turn of the last century.

There are some positives. The ASEAN hopes to form a single economic community by 2015 and already has lots of free trade agreements in place. Indonesia is growing in stature and is taking up the role of the region’s mover and shaker on the world stage. Late last year Burma held its first national elections for 20 years.

But the Philippines is wobbling: corruption is rife and political assassinations continue. Malaysia has to take the lead on the other Indo-China nations’ religious shoot-outs. A regional stand-off would heavily affect the commercial arrangements the ASEAN has fought hard to secure. India and China stand quietly in the background and the region must be careful not to split along superpower allegiance lines. But for now, the tourists still have faith in the Thai beaches and the Indonesian surf and they must not be dissuaded from visiting the temples in the mountains as well.

Kicking sand in their face

Western Sahara is caught between Moroccan overlords, the Sahara desert and an uncertain future

The Arab Spring has so far not reached the nomadic Muslims of El Aaiun. Or Semara or Bir Gandus. Or in fact any town at all in Western Sahara. And it looks likely that it will be blown off course as it tries to reach down to the desert coastal territory.

When Spain left in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania both rushed in for a land-grab and the local Polisario Front declared Western Sahara to be the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Mauritania has since retreated, leaving only an anomalous section of its national railway in the far south-eastern corner.

Morocco has done more than roll a few engines through the dunes in the last 36 years. The UN-supported republic only has legitimate administration in the thin eastern slice of the country that is not governed by Morocco. The rest, including El Aaiun, the capital, is run by Rabat. For those from Tangier down to Agadir, the Southern Provinces are considered a fundamental part of the kingdom.

The UN disagrees and sees Western Sahara as a part of an ‘incomplete decolonisation’. On 15 April, the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that despite the repeated stalling of talks over the dispute (10 rounds of UN discussions have taken place in the last four years), the international community must make more effort to find a solution to the problem.

A ceasefire has been in place since 1991 and Morocco has floated a proposal to devolve more autonomy to the 500,000 Sahrawis. The Polisario Front have rejected this idea and Mr Ban admitted that:

“While both emphasise their full commitment to the search for a solution, a total lack of trust continues to haunt the negotiating process, and each party harbours deep suspicions of the other.”

Sahrawis, spread out across a large, arid (but rich in phosphates) country, will not be able to remove Morocco in the same way the Tunisians and Egyptians kicked out their presidents. They cannot organise a rendez-vous on Facebook. The nomadic version of Islam that had developed there means they cannot get together on Fridays to plot the latest post-prayer protests.

They will have to rely on the UN coming to a definite agreement with Morocco to hold the long-postponed referendum on self-determination and try to garner firm help from the 50 or so countries which have formalised foreign relations with the republic. South Sudan recently became Africa’s newest independent nation. The dream for Sahrawis is that it does not take them too much longer to capture that title.