Wealth gap spurs revolts across Asia
Peasants left out of region’s economic miracle are rising up against their rulers, creating widespread security threats
By Jonathan Manthorpe
While Thailand’s “Red Shirt” rural poor have been in bloody confrontation with troops in central Bangkok for nearly three months, there have been similar rebellions all over Asia by people who believe they have been left out of, or excluded from, the region’s economic miracle.
On Monday, India’s Maoist rebels known as Naxalites ambushed a bus and killed 24 civilians and 12 special police officers.
Early in March, guerrillas of the Philippines’ Maoist New People’s Army killed 11 soldiers in an ambush.
At the beginning of this month, 100,000 Maoists from rural Nepal invaded the capital Kathmandu and brought the city to a halt as they demanded the government be replaced.
The Maoists, who won power in 2008 elections after a long civil war and subsequently withdrew from a coalition government, are now preparing for May 28, when the political dispensation expires.
And, of course, in China there have been the usual “mass incidents,” which average over 250 a day, as rural and urban poor protest the predations and sheer thievery of corrupt Communist party officials and their entrepreneur allies.
Some of these uprisings are holdovers from a previous age. The Philippines’ rebellion by the New People’s Army, for example, is about to celebrate its 41st anniversary and has its roots even further back than that in the fight against the Japanese occupation during the Second World War.
What these uprisings have in common, however, is a reaction to the massive inequality and disparity between the poor and the wealthy elites that have grown up since Asia set out on market economy reforms 30 years ago.
Even where there have not been sustained insurrections, such as in Indonesia and Malaysia, there has been civil unrest in protest at inequity and the perceived efforts by ruling cliques to limit democratic reform.
Organizations such as the Asian Development Bank have warned again and again of the potential in many regional countries for social upheaval stemming from the gap in investment between the urban and rural areas.
In several reports over the years, the bank and other international organizations have catalogued dangerously widening rifts between the expectations and quality of life between the cities and the countryside.
In most cases, these divides have arisen because the political classes and their allies have been fixated on crude economic growth and the benefits to their partisan interests.
There has been little attention to institution-building or ensuring benefits flowed to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society.
In India this neglect has led to the Naxalite insurgency, which started as a peasants’ revolt in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari 40 years ago, becoming by far the greatest security threat to the nation.
We hear a lot from India about Muslim terrorists, homegrown or from Pakistan, and separatists in Kashmir. These do not begin to match the threat posed by the Naxalites who now operate in 20 of India’s 28 states and control large areas of eastern India.
Much of the area under Maoist control is densely wooded or mountainous and home to tribal and other low-caste peoples who are losing their land to development. But increasingly the Naxalites are moving into urban areas, especially in Bengal, where they find a sympathetic audience.
This week’s ambush, coming soon after the killing of 75 reserve policemen by the Naxalites last month, has prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to order a review of the government’s strategy of countering the uprising.
His government has also said it will begin peace talks with the rebels if they will halt all attacks for 72 hours. Until now the policy has in theory included firm policing and development projects for the rural poor. The reality has been harsh policing and very little focus on development by either the central or state governments.
Last month there were several reports from India and from the Philippines’ capital Manila that the New People’s Army has sent experienced guerrilla fighters to help train the Indian Naxalites. The reports stem from information obtained – doubtless none too gently -by Indian police from two captured Naxalites in the western state of Gujarat.
There have also been reports of Filipino NPA members being spotted in Thailand, though no obvious link to the Red Shirts has been observed yet.