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Security sector governance and reform in Southeast Asia

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Jennifer Santiago Oreta-125

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Security Sector, according to the United Nations, is a broad term often used to describe the structures, institutions, and personnel responsible for the management, provision and oversight of security in a country. Security institutions include defense, law enforcement, corrections, intelligence services, border management, customs, elements of the judicial sector, management and oversight bodies, and other non-state actors and civil society groups.

Security Sector Governance (SSG) and Security Sector Reform (SSR) are buzzwords that describe the desire to bring good governance and a reform agenda to the heart of the sector.

It is a process that targets primarily the core security forces — i.e. the military and the police — to ensure that they are accountable to the democratic civilian authority, are respectful of human rights and international humanitarian law, and are bound by the rule of law. The process also looks at the civilian institutions in charge of management, support, and oversight of the security forces, to ensure that they diligently perform their function.

In the Philippines, reform, particularly in the military and the police, started as far back as post martial law/post Marcos dictatorship. Under the 1987 Constitution, the military was ordered “back to the barracks” and out of the halls governance. It was not an easy process. To use the analogy of the late Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., involving the military in politics is like squeezing the toothpaste from the tube — once the paste is out, it is difficult to put it back in. It was indeed a painstaking process for the institutions. The military organization was deeply divided between those who heeded the new Constitution and those who resisted giving up power. Those who tried to resist initiated several coup d’état attempts during the time of President Corazon Aquino. These attempts at grabbing power further eroded the people’s confidence in the military. Note that since the institution was used by President Marcos during the dictatorship, the military was regarded with disdain by the people, the very same people that the institution was supposed to “protect and defend.” In opinion surveys, the military and police ranked as among the most corrupt and least trusted by the people.

These events forced these institutions to take a hard look at themselves and what their role should be in a country transitioning to democracy. The “professional soldiers” heeded the recommendations of civilian oversight bodies to fully operationalize the “back to the barracks” order of the Constitution. On the other hand, the Philippine National Police, separated from the military by virtue of Republic Act 6975 (1990), likewise initiated reforms within the institution. These efforts eventually paid off when, in the Social Weather Stations survey conducted from March 30-April 2, 2016, the trust rating for the Armed Forces was at 75%, and that of the Philippine National Police at 69%.

Security Sector Reform (SSR) became a popular concept when President Benigno Aquino III included it in his social contract with the people. While the term may be new, the process is not. The reforms in the security sector largely coincide with the broader democratization agenda of the country, and the intensity to which it was pursued is contingent on the strength of the democratization process.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, our neighbors also caught wind of the SSR process.

Indonesia started with their process at almost the same time as the Philippines, coinciding with the end of the New Order regime of President Suharto. Its SSR process followed almost the same trajectory as the Philippines’, focusing on the separation of the police and military function, especially relative to their internal security issues.

The controversial implementation of the Internal Security Act in Malaysia and the people’s negative reaction to it contributed to the clamor for greater democratic space.

In Myanmar, the military leadership slowly but carefully began as early as 1988 to open up power to civilians, albeit on a limited scale. The process eventually found momentum with the Constitution of 2010, showing its steady ascent to instituting democratic reforms in the country.

Thailand suffered a setback when the military took over power in 2006. The democratization of the country, in fact, has always suffered set-backs with the military’s involvement in politics.

Indeed, the agenda for security sector reform is tailgating the larger democratization process in the region. But in a context where internal armed conflicts continue to beset a country, SSR/SSG is not only an agenda to institute good governance principles. Measures have to be instituted to ensure that the security forces prevent atrocities from happening, and, much more, to ensure that the security institutions do not contribute nor perpetrate abuses on peoples’ rights. In countries that continue to address internal armed conflicts, SSR and SSG must fulfill three main goals: to establish a professional, accountable and modern security force that is capable of addressing the broad security demands of the state and the people; to ensure that the security forces will not be instruments of atrocities and abuse of the rights of the people; and, to establish an effective, critical, and constructive civilian oversight mechanisms over the security forces.

These are the crux of the matter. SSG is a political and policy decision. Its success requires the commitment and dedication of policy makers, as well as the resilience of the institutions to the reform process. Reform and good governance don’t happen overnight. It requires dedicated leadership, communication, and consultation with all stakeholders, and commitment and political will of process owners to see the reform through

On Oct. 7 to 9, the DCAF Geneva Center for Security Sector Governance and the Ateneo de Manila University, through its Ateneo Initiative for Southeast Asian Studies (AISEAS), will convene the Southeast Asia Forum on Security Sector Governance, to be held in the Philippines. Nine countries from Southeast Asia are represented in the forum. The forum hopes to provide a venue where the different countries in the region can discuss the SSR agenda of their countries as well as the SSR agenda in the region; and to formalize the establishment of a Southeast Asia network on SSR.

 

Jennifer Santiago Oreta, PhD, is a faculty member of the Department of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila University, and the current Director of AISEAS. She is also a member of the Human Security Advocates, a civil society group focused on security governance and community development.

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