Hurdling The Adverse State-Civil Society Relation Against Terrorism In Southeast Asia? – Analysis


In the United Nations (UN) Security Council’s meeting in April 2020, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres acknowledged that in spite of the current COVID-19 pandemic, “the threat of terrorism remains alive.” Terrorist groups see a “window of opportunity” to violently attack governments while their attention is turned towards addressing the pandemic. Likewise, in the opening of the 2020 virtual Counter Terrorism Week in July 2020, Guterres states that the pandemic has highlighted the use of “new and emerging forms of terrorism, such as misuse of digital technology, cyberattacks and bioterrorism,” hence calls for vigilance.

Evidence from the ground had shown that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations is real and serious. The European Union’s (EU) Counter-terrorism Coordinator, Giles de Kerchove, says in a confidential briefing to EU member states that terrorists and Islamic militants seek to exploit the crises to “change societies and governmental systems through violence.” Meanwhile, Norway’s top military official in Iraq confirms that attacks by Islamic State in the Middle East are on the rise as the region grapples with the pandemic. 

The situation in Southeast Asia is not much different. Between February and March 2020, the International Police (INTERPOL) led an operation of law enforcers coming from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines (BIMP)  that resulted in the arrest of 180 individuals suspected to be members of terrorist groups including the Abu Sayyaf Group. Captured with the suspects were high-powered firearms, illegally assembled explosives, and illicit goods. The operation also rescued 130 human trafficking victims. The operation confirmed that COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped terrorist and organized crime groups from carrying out their activities. 

Terrorism continue to be a global challenge in spite of the global health crisis. It is real and serious. Islamic militants and far right-wing extremists have been emboldened to pursue their activities as governments have concentrated their efforts in addressing the pandemic in their own national domain. 

Given this predicament, UN Secretary-General Guterres suggested in his address on the Counter-Terrorism Week that one of the key counter-measures in resolving terrorism is the vital participation of “civil society representatives,  the private sector, women and young people” not only in preventing terrorism but also in “building (an) inclusive and resilient societies.” 

Civil society organizations (CSOs) and terrorism

Generally, civil society is associated primarily with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or groups, and charities. It is oftentimes referred to as the civic or “third,” community, and non-profit sector, in contradistinction to public (government) and private sectors. It consists usually of a range of voluntary associations including political parties, trade unions and professional bodies, private foundations, educational and research institutions and think tanks, religious, faith‐based, and community‐based organizations, and women’s, human rights, social and environmental groups working on a definite and defined interest and aspiration of a particular sector of society but operating outside of governmental and private (commercial and for-profit) sectors or spheres.

As early as 2006, the UN has already recognized the role of CSOs in mitigating terrorism through the General Assembly’s adoption of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (Resolution 60/288) (UNGA 2006a). The Strategy affirms the determination of UN member states to “further encourage non-governmental organizations and civil society to engage, as appropriate, on how to enhance efforts to implement the Strategy” (UNGA 2006 par 3[e]). The vital role of non-governmental and civil society organizations (NGOs/CSOs) in the global strategy against terrorism has likewise been highlighted by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in his April 2006 report entitled “Uniting against Terrorism: Recommendations for a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy”. (UNGA 2006b A60/825).

In Southeast Asia, its regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), had recognized the role of CSOs in abating terrorism only in 2017 on the occasion of the 31st ASEAN Summit. It endorsed the Manila Declaration to Counter the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism . The Declaration was further adopted at the 11th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (hereinafter referred to as the AMMTC) as ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter Terrorism . The Plan of Action (POA) was elaborated at the 12th AMMTC  in 2018 and updated at the 13th AMMTC  in 2019 to cover up to 2025.

The late recognition of the CSOs in addressing terrorism lies on the peculiar characteristics of CSOs in the region as well as the lukewarm appreciation of the state on CSOs’ potential, capability, and key role in resolving terrorism. 

Peculiarities of civil society in Southeast Asia (SEA)

Southeast Asia’s diversity in terms of state system, type of regime, societal structure, stage of economic development, cultural framework, and breadth and depth of peoples’ activism, makes the region an excellent case in which to interrogate the scope and limits as well as ascertain the quality of civil society. Understanding civil society in Southeast Asia would give us a better appreciation how it would be able to contribute in mitigating if not eradicating the roots of terrorism in the region. 

Unlike in Europe or in North America where civil society is highly distinguishable from the state, civil society in Southeast Asia is less distinct. Schak and Hudson (2003) argue that the dividing line between the spheres of civil society on one hand and public and private sectors on the other hand in Asia is blurred; the state plays a central, if not domineering role, in the formation and establishment of CSOs. They are not just autonomous non-state voluntary organizations but intricately intertwined with the power and function of the state. The independence of CSOs from the state is therefore dubious.

Johan Saravanamuttu (1997), using his survey of civil societies across the region, declares that CSOs are weak compared to the power of the state because they “have had their incipient features shaped primarily by the economic milieu engendered by a dominant state structure,” rather than having grown organically out of politics (p. 2). Ben Kerkvliet (2003) says that while there are several budding and emerging CSOs in Vietnam, they continue to be highly constrained by the state. In spite of their peaceful advocacies for reforms in government institutions, laws, and communication and media, they are not allowed to criticize Communist Party leaders or officials, the military, and national policies, and thus cannot be unreservedly “political” lest they lose what space they have (pp. 15-16).

David Brown and David Martin Jones (1995) avow that the dominant party regime in Singapore has effectively restrained the political participation and free exchange of ideas among the middle class. This renders the process of democratization in illiberal democratic Singapore “the expansion of political participation and consultation within the limits defined by the state” rather than the project of an adversarial civil society. (p. 84; also in Jones and Brown 1994). In a later study of Jones (1998), he finds out that a “modular civil society” – one premised on the differentiation of political and socioeconomic spheres – is not emerging in the region but a “political change reflects a conservative, managerial strategy to amplify political control by forging a new relationship with an arriviste middle class (p. 163).

The proliferation of NGOs since the 1980s until late 1990s in Malaysia allowed them to perform a central role in both electoral and informal politics. The active participation of NGOs in politics outside the state pressured the latter to open a wider democratic space notwithstanding the presence of institutional constraints that inhibit the promotion of human rights and advancement of the rule of law – less independent judiciary, controlled media, and employment of the Internal Security Act (ISA), among others. 

Francis Loh (2003) argues that Malaysians disillusioned with political parties and electoral politics precipitated CSOs to engage in informal politics. The political mobilization of CSOs did not only offer the venues for participation outside the channels of electoral politics, but also permit them to work with opposition political parties that eventually helped “to enrich those parties as well as hasten the process of political reform” (see also Weiss 2006). However, Saliha Hassan (2002) warns that NGOs need to beware of both exclusionary tendencies and state co-optation to enjoy the expanding space for democratic participation,

Gerard Clarke’s (1998) in-depth study of the Philippines notes that NGOs both strengthen and weaken civil society. He illustrates how state-civil society collaboration fortifies the state and expands civil society political participation. His study shows that civil society is less concerned with its autonomy from the state when they can achieve their objectives through a strategic alliance with the state.

Indonesia, according to Robert Hefner (2000), is as an Islamic state that supports “democracy, voluntarism, and a balance of countervailing powers in a state and society” (pp. 12-13). He notes the emergence of a Habermasian public sphere in Muslim Indonesia by highlighting “civil pluralist Islam.” 

Overall, civil society in the region may not be so consistently a force for democratization or so staunchly independent of the state as most Western literature presumes, yet may still be an important space, among others, for political engagement and transformation. This recalibration of the concept “civil society” offers a clearer lens on the notion of civil society-state nexus in the region more generally. 

Furthermore, Alagappa (2004) concludes, among others, in his volume Civil Society and Political Change in Asia that Asian civil societies bear features of both neo-Tocquevillian/liberal democratic (associational) and neo-Gramscian/New Left (cultural and ideological frames with the former gaining ascendancy as state institutions gain legitimacy.

Although there has been a proliferation of CSO, it has not resulted in the institutionalization of non-state public sphere. CSOs generally have yet to establish themselves as independent and autonomous entity from the state. While CSOs have checked the power of the state on the one hand, and influenced the political dynamics of communities on the other hand, interactions between these two spheres vary significantly in contemporary Southeast Asia. 

The opportunities for civil society to engage or enter into partnership with government may be limited in countries where civil society structures are weak or non-existent and conversely, may be boundless in countries where civil society is robust and vigorous.

CSOs and state relations

Given the colonial history of Southeast Asian countries, except Thailand which served as a buffer state between the British and French empires, and difficulties encountered by leaders to building their nation-state after their respective independence owing to numerous rebel groups seeking power, relationship between state and civil society is tainted with mistrust. Many governments are deeply suspicious of civil society, and would actively resist any national or international effort to boost its power relative to the state.

Sumpter (2018) opines that security forces engaged with counterterrorism are not accustomed to working with community stakeholders and civil society organisations. This predicament results in a poor engagement between civil society and state. Cooperation, co-ordination, and exchange of information related to terrorism between civil society and government cannot materialize in a hostile environment. It was even accounted that a number of CSOs in Indonesia having CVE programmes are not being coordinated nor harmonized with the efforts of the state, hence lead to wastage of resources.

The dilemma in establishing a working relationship between civil society and state is compounded when one operates in a less democratic and less politically open society, in an authoritarian or anocratic states. In such situation, radicalization is not atomized but open and widespread — deepening the conflict between contending forces and widening the fissures of society amid parties, ethnicities, social groups, and ideologies. 

The inability of autocratic and anocratic regimes in SEA to accommodate civil society or provide CSOs reasonable democratic space to engage in socio-economic activities and political reform endeavours on the notion that they threaten the stability of the state does not rest on any material basis. Gnanasagaran (2018) says that there is a disconnect between the state and CSOs. He cites that in 2016, under Lao PDR’s chairmanship of ASEAN, Vientiane refused to host the ASEAN People’s Forum (APF). 

Tadem argues that from 2005 to 2015, individual ASEAN states have consistently resisted CSO participation and engagement in ASEAN critical issues, including terrorism. Despite the rhetorical emphasis on participatory regionalism, Allison and Taylor (2016) contend that regional CSOs and non-state actors have limited capacity to influence ASEAN.

Generally, Southeast Asian political elites have restrictive attitude towards CSOs as the latter speak out against human rights abuses, demand resolution of local grievances, and clamour for social justice. However, it has been an established fact that restricting CSOs from undertaking their legitimate functions simply exacerbate the risk of future terror. Jeong-Woo and Murdie (2018) study yielded no evidence proving that legal restrictions on civil society diminish the number of terrorist attacks within the country.

Greer and Watson (2016) claim that traditional “retributive” anti-terror approaches — which include military/police action and legal imprisonment – though urgently needed, “aggrieve or isolate populations vulnerable to radicalization.” They claim that “retributive approaches do little to reduce recidivism rates or disrupt the underlying cycles of anger and grievance central to radicalization.”

Singapore’s multi-stakeholder collaboration and grassroots approach, despite a less democratic society, is worth mentioning. Its Religious Rehabilitation Group  is a voluntary group of ulama and asatizah (Islamic scholars and teachers) in Singapore, has been deemed successful in countering extremism through “restorative” approach. Its mission is to restore and rectify the “misinterpretation” of Islamic concepts and disrupt or counter the narratives assumed central to radicalization. It works within the “hearts-and-minds strategies which aims at understanding one’s personal motivations and refocussing them to a more constructive venture. 

Similarly, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiya, two of Indonesia’s largest Muslim civil societies, launched programs to counteract Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) narratives. Following the January 2015 Indonesian terror attacks, NU denounced ISIS through the social media under the hashtag #KamiTidakTakut (#WeAreNotAfraid).


It is important to understand that civil society engagement is about participation and partnership with the state.  Contracting an institutional relationship, either formal or informal, with the state is complementary, not a rival, to parliamentary democracy or representative democracy. Citizen participation carries its own legitimacy; it does not need to borrow its legitimacy from representation, not even to any institutions or instrumentalities of government. Its legitimacy emanates from what it does. 

The legitimacy of CSOs and their networks are bolstered by the validity and integrity of their ideas, by the values and interests they promote, and by the issues and programmes they care about. CSOs provide the platform and channel to variegated voices of social groups and causes of marginalized sectors which the state needs to hear and act upon. Rosand (2009) moreover imparts that CSOs can promote a culture of tolerance and pluralism and play a strategic role in protecting local communities, countering extremist ideologies, and dealing with political violence.

CSOs are important to every society, regardless of regime and state system not only because they reflect peoples’ concern but also due to their potential of filling in the imperatives of socio-economic and political development. And through them society can get things done better either by offering an alternative system of delivering public goods and services or providing unorthodox strategies in achieving development goals and objectives. 

CSOs are not only effective agents and facilitators of change agents but also effective institutions in mitigating politico-cultural exclusion and socio-economic marginalization of the poor.  Although CSOs are neither elected, thus not accountable to the electorate, nor have any contractual relationship with the governed and cannot claim any form of representation, their limitations constitute a comparative advantage since their sense of virtual independence, in whatever manner or form give them relative freedom, flexibility, and space imperative in national and good governance. 

*About the author: Rizal G. Buendia, PhD (Political Science)Independent Political Analyst in Southeast Asian PoliticsWales, UK


Alagappa, M. (2004). Civil Society and Political Change: An Analytical Framework. In: M. Alagappa, M. (Ed.), Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space (pp. 25-60)California: Stanford University Press.

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Saravanamuttu, J. (1997) Transforming Civil Societies in ASEAN Countries (with special focus on Malaysia and Singapore). CIS Working Paper 1997-8, Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto.

Schak, D., and Hudson, W. (2003). Civil Society in Asia in D. Schak and W. Hudson (Eds). Civil Society in Asia. Hampshire, England and Burlington, USA: Ashgate.

United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) (2006a). The United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, Doc. A/RES/60/288, 8 September. 

UNGA (2006b). Uniting against Terrorism: Recommendations for a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy – Report of the Secretary-General, Doc. A/RES/60/825, 27April.

Rizal G. Buendia

Rizal G. Buendia, PhD, is an independent consultant and researcher in Southeast Asian Politics. Former Teaching Fellow in Security and Southeast Asian Politics and Governance at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London and former Chair and Associate Professor, Political Science Department, De La Salle University-Manila, Philippines.

One thought on “Hurdling The Adverse State-Civil Society Relation Against Terrorism In Southeast Asia? – Analysis

  • July 14, 2020 at 4:26 am

    This is the most outrageous article I have read in years.


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