From War to Peace: Examining the Political Roots and Transitional Challenges of Civil War in Southeast Asia

From War to Peace: Examining the Political Roots and Transitional Challenges of Civil War in Southeast Asia

In this interview, Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Southeast Asia Jacques Bertrand discusses his research into the legacies of war in Southeast Asia and his current book project on war-to-peace transitions, which is largely focused on the region.
Jacques Bertrand

In 2021, a military coup in Myanmar brought an end to the prospects for democratic reform that the country had sought to establish following the 2011 general election. Any constructive dialogue between ruling junta and ethnic minorities dissipated, and the country fell back into civil war. Meanwhile, in ostensibly democratic Indonesia and the Philippines, rebellions by the Moros and Acehnese were resolved. These developments bring several questions to the fore: Does democracy necessarily foster peaceful outcomes? What is the interactive process between the state and its opponents? And how might democratic institutions be used to manipulate and undermine insurgent ethnic minority groups?

These are some of the questions Dr. Jacques Bertrand has sought to answer in his research. Bertrand, a professor at the University of Toronto's Department of Political Science, is the Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Contemporary Southeast Asia at APARC for the 2022 fall quarter. The fellowship, which is hosted jointly by APARC’s Southeast Asia Program (SeAP) and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore, raises the visibility, extent, and quality of scholarship on contemporary Southeast Asia. The fellowship is now accepting applications for the 2023-24 cycle.

For Bertrand, the fellowship afforded the opportunity to advance his research into civil wars and war-to-peace transitions. He recently presented his work in a SeAP seminar entitled “Can Democracy Handle Ethnic War? Evidence from Southeast Asia.”

In his talk, Bertrand discusses how democracy helps to create credibility,  set terrain for negotiated agreements, and establish a framework for settling grievances. There is, however, an unresolved debate about the overall merits of democracy in  addressing secessionist or nationalist conflicts. According to Bertrand, the question of whether democracy can handle ethnic war needs more attention, as do less visible dimensions of peace agreements, negotiating forums, and post-legislative regulations.

We caught up with Dr. Bertrand to discuss his research and experience at Stanford this quarter. The conversation has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

How has your time at APARC as the Lee Kong Chian Stanford-NUS Fellow aided your research?

My time at APARC allowed a relatively short but rewarding experience to discover a new community of scholars working on Asia, finalize some writing commitments, and move ahead on a new project on War-to-peace transitions. After several years of heavy administrative load, it was nice to have the time and space to step away from my regular duties and teaching at the University of Toronto. The events and informal gatherings at APARC allowed me to exchange perspectives with a new set of scholars and engage a community deeply embedded in the academic and policy issues in Asia today. My webinar presentation also allowed me to draw from two of my recently published books, Winning by Process on Myanmar and Democracy and Nationalism in Southeast Asia,' to tease out some broader themes relating to democracy and ethnically based conflicts in the region.

I had the time and space to finalize a writing commitment on Nationalism in Southeast Asia as part of an Elements Series with Cambridge University Press. But I was also able to devote much of my time to further develop and work on my exciting new, large project on war-to-peace transitions, with a strong focus on Southeast Asia. After publishing two books on ethnic and secessionist movements in the region, this new project is concerned more with understanding the strategic decisions that non-state armed groups make to adhere to peace or return to war. The project has many components, including a large-N data analysis of our themes across regions over the last three decades, which is primarily led by my colleague Noel Anderson. I have been focused on the qualitative component of the project, primarily analyzing these strategic dimensions in Myanmar, the Philippines, and Indonesia. 

Another writing project I have been working on is a conceptual paper that draws understudied dimensions of why some groups choose to return to war while others preserve ceasefire and peace agreements. We examine closely armed group structures, their relationships to communities, and their paths in relative peace settings. I have been analyzing interviews that I conducted with team members on the Thai-Myanmar border in June, and planning our next phase of research to understand the evolution of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), especially since the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law in 2018.

What other aspects of your time at APARC have you benefited from? 

I enjoyed the engagement with the scholar community at APARC. SeAP Director Don Emmerson has been a great host of the LKC fellowship, and I certainly appreciated his comments and those of Oksenberg-Rholen Fellow Scot Marciel on democracy and ethnic conflicts in the region. I had the opportunity to discuss closely the work of APARC postdoctoral fellows and several other visitors, and to engage some of the fascinating members of this year’s cohort of the Global Affiliates Program . 

While I am very grateful for time at APARC to remove myself from my usual busy environment, and have time to reflect more deeply on this project, there are still some positive by-products of our increasingly online and connected lives that platforms like Zoom intensified during the pandemic. In my case, I was able to continue regular contact with team members to coordinate and advance on these various aspects of the project, including to regularly meet with team members conducting fieldwork. 

What are your plans for the second part of your fellowship in Singapore? Are there any special collections at NUS you look forward to accessing?

During my time at NUS, I will continue to work intensively on the war-to-peace transitions project. The project will be moving rapidly into fieldwork in the Philippines. I will spend much of the time at NUS evaluating and assessing the fieldwork data that we’ve obtained so far in Myanmar, planning and adapting interview instruments for the context of the Philippines, working with secondary literature, and coordinating research assistants’ work that will help to bolster our understanding of the evolution of the MILF during the last two decades. I will be joining one of my doctoral students and team members for two weeks to conduct interviews and calibrate our approach.

An important aspect of our project is policy-oriented. With funding from the United States Institute of Peace, I am also looking at how multilateral interventions can be better targeted to enhance non-state armed groups’ adherence to ceasefires and peace, based on our close analysis of these dimensions in Southeast Asia and more broadly. I will be writing a draft paper with one of my PhD students who is taking the lead on this particular aspect of the project.

NUS has a very large number of colleagues who work on similar issues in Southeast Asia., I look forward to benefiting from their insights, with a view of enriching our mutual understanding of complex conflict issues in the region.

What is on the horizon for you? What's next?

After this rich year, I will be returning to regular teaching at the University of Toronto in Fall 2023.  I will continue to coordinate and develop the collaborative work that I have been pursuing this year, and new work that we are also fostering through my Post-Conflict Reintegration Lab (Postcor Lab).

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