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May 8, 2014 | Commentary

Southeast Asia makes for an interesting area of study as it provides us with a number of case studies where security sector reform (SSR) has not been imposed as a result of external interventions – with the exception of Timor-Leste. Instead SSR has made inroads as part of the socio-political and economic transformation processes, dubbed the ‘third wave of democratization,’ from the late 1980s (Thailand, Philippines) and 1990s (Indonesia, Timor-Leste).

More so, these cases can provide insights on the role of local agency in designing and implementing SSR. Questions over agency are of particular relevance to the wider debates on SSR. Proponents of SSR have all strongly emphasized the importance of ‘local ownership’ for the sustainability of SSR-related reforms; albeit without clearly outlining who should ‘own’ reforms locally and to what end.

In our study of SSR in Southeast Asia, which examined a variety of different policy fields and different countries, we found that the (often contending) interpretations held by domestic actors of the aims and objectives of SSR are a major explanatory factor for the trajectory of reform processes as well as their outcomes. The concomitance of different interpretations of SSR, we argue, stresses the existence of local ownerships rather than, as (often indirectly) widely assumed, a single, shared understanding of SSR which is then seamlessly implemented on the ground.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, actors generally chose to support or curtail SSR on the basis of their (perceived) particular interests and their institutional embeddedness. Moreover, the trajectory of SSR-related reforms has to be understood in the context of the wider national and/or local power politics. The preservation or attainment of access to resources and prerogatives – be they social, political or economic – has had a profound impact on the trajectory of reform processes.

To give an example, the decision by Manila to provide the Philippines’ military with a carte blanche to engage in counter-terrorist operations under the Arroyo government from 2002 onwards, thereby effectively reversing previous reforms, needs to be understood in the context of wider attempts to purchase the loyalty of the armed forces. Equally, moves to push for reforms have often been driven by attempts to curtail military autonomy. This can be seen in the ‘reform’ of the Thai army’s promotion system in 2005 to promote then Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s allies into key army positions.

Likewise, security agents themselves have become supporters of SSR-related reforms when reforms appealed to their perceived interests (i.e. modernization of equipment or improvement of their public image). Under strong reform pressures after the fall of Suharto, the Indonesian military withdrew itself from any formal involvement in day-to-day political activities and severed its ties with Suharto’s Golkar party. As part of its reformasi internal(internal reform), it also established a new military doctrine, laying out the new role of the armed forces in a democratic Indonesia.

The logic of ‘where you stand depends on where you sit’ can also be applied to understand the role of external actors in SSR in the region. A good example is the changing policies of international donors supporting CSOs (Civil Society Organisations) engaged in SSR in Indonesia. While donors have channelled vast sums of money to CSO’s in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Bali bombings in 2003 and the shift in donor attention towards counter-terrorism led to dwindling support for CSOs paralleled by a courting of state security forces.

It first needs to be noted that a plurality of local interpretations of SSR prevailed, essentially revealing SSR to be a fundamentally contested concept. Secondly, these often competing interpretations rarely matched what Albrecht Schnabel has called the ‘SSR gospel.’ The United Nations, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and others often define security sector reform as a holistic, comprehensive, whole of government approach. Yet, contrary to such conceptualization, analysis of SSR on the ground first and foremost illustrates the partial and contested nature of SSR-related reforms in reality.

Indeed, the outcomes of reforms are patchy and incomplete at best, too. In Indonesia, various authoritarian prerogatives of the military remain largely unchanged, from its impunity to its business involvement. In the Philippines, the Congress continues to exercise little oversight on security policies and no major overhaul of the security sector has taken place so far. Even worse, SSR in Thailand has gone into reverse following the 2006 coup, while Timor-Leste has witnessed repeated outbreaks of violence by disgruntled army and police officers.

However, a number of reforms did materialize and have led to changes in security sector governance. For example, in Timor-Leste, the ‘gender-blindness’ of the UN police enabled local women’s rights activists to take ownership of the process and successfully push for the implementation of a number of important gender-related reforms in the Timorese police force. Other examples include a ban on active-duty military officers to hold posts in government or the administration in Indonesia, and the drafting of a national SSR agenda and the development of new teaching modules for the police and the military in the Philippines.

Despite often unequal power resources between civilian and military actors, it is clear that reforms rarely produced ‘winner get all’ scenarios. Quite the contrary, they were usually the result of long bargaining processes resulting in (often unintended) compromises. Police reform in Timor-Leste championed by the UN, for example, has been regarded by various local actors as a form of neo-colonialism, due to a lack of collaboration with local officials. Calls for a ‘Timorization’ of the reforms, as well as open resistance to the UN-led reform process, produced numerous shared responsibilities for reforms on the ground as part of a poorly conceived UN mandate. For example, while the UN was in charge of the registration of police officers, local authorities where in charge of certification and promotion. Nepotism and lack of political will on the part of the Timorese government to investigate human rights abuses and criminal behaviour by police officers compromised reform objectives established at the onset of the reforms.

Coming from there, when emphasizing ‘local ownership,’ proponents of SSR clearly need to take into stronger consideration the differing interpretations, institutional practices, and particularistic interests of local actors involved in SSR. The resulting push and pull between different actors involved in SSR – rather than a neutral, technocratic set of reform policies pursued seamlessly over time – are inseparable from changes in security sector governance. This implies, however, that a linear transfer of policies from the international to the local sphere rarely (if ever) materializes. This is, we argue, often because of ‘local ownerships’ of SSR, rather than a lack thereof.


Felix Heiduk is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham, UK. He is also editor of Security Sector Reform in Southeast Asia: From Policy to Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).