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How Australia Can Be a Catalyst for Civil-Military Cooperation in Southeast Asia

25 Feb 2022
By Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA, Chris Gardiner and Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller
An Australian plane provides aid to Indonesia after the 2018 Sulawesi Earthquake/Tusnami. Source: Flickr, DFAT, Timothy Tobing,

With the prevalence and intensity of natural disasters on the rise across Southeast Asia, more effective civil-military responses are needed. An appropriate strategy abroad will require Australia to rethink its approach at home.

Australia has an important role in promoting civil-military collaboration in Southeast Asia. In part this is a practical issue — in a time of disasters and crises, it is in Australia’s interest to strengthen the region’s whole-of-nation responses to humanitarian and security issues. But it goes beyond this. Australia can model effective civil-military engagement as a way of contributing to an open and stable region.

Civil-military cooperation in disaster and crisis

Enhanced civil-military integration and interoperability is a priority to meet complex emergencies, including disasters. Climate-induced disasters are forecast to increase in prevalence and magnitude, as will the need for emergency response. The climate change outlook for many parts of coastal Southeast Asia is dire.

As humanitarian assistance and disaster relief requirements grow, there is a risk that responses will become over-militarised. Southeast Asian armed forces remain the first responders to natural disasters due to their C4 abilities (command, control, communications, and computers) and air and maritime strategic lift. If not guided and managed proactively, this could weaken civil society capabilities and distort the role of military institutions and priorities.

Australia has a direct interest in working with Southeast Asian nations to support them in strengthening their capacity to manage crises that require integrated whole-of-government response. There are four key stakeholder groups responsible for crisis management — armed forces personnel, police and paramilitary personnel such as coastguard and aviation security, civilian government personnel at both national and subnational levels, and civil society actors such as NGOs, faith-based organisations, local community-based organisations, private citizens, and volunteers.

Interestingly, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are areas where Southeast Asian governments are potentially open and inclusive of civil society actors, for example, Indonesia’s large faith-based organisations such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama. Australia can work with its neighbours to ensure the right frameworks are in place to facilitate balanced civil-military engagement in responding to increasing humanitarian crises.

Civil-military cooperation for good governance

More broadly Australia has an interest in fundamental questions regarding the role of the military in governance, society, and social order, and the relationship of the military with citizens, communities, and nonmilitary institutions. There is marked variation across Southeast Asia, from Myanmar, which has no civilian oversight, to Indonesia and the Philippines, which have far greater civilian oversight of their security forces. Civil-military cooperation provides an opportunity for closer interaction, discussion, and debate on these issues.

Rising authoritarianism is challenging governance in the region and causing increased civil unrest and instability. In Myanmar, last year’s military coup has limited media freedoms and weakened civil society. In 2021, Freedom House ranked four Southeast Asian countries “partly free” — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore — and six countries “not free” —  Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Only one country, Timor-Leste, was “free.” In light of these trends, it is important that civil society continues to be supported as a key part of promoting a stable and inclusive region.

Australia’s interest is in shaping a region where a vibrant civil society supports good governance. The weakening of democratic governance, civil society, and human rights poses a challenge to Australian interests in preserving a secure and prosperous region that supports human freedoms and social and economic flourishing. While Australia has sometimes been cautious about emphasising liberal values of democracy and human rights in its foreign policy, Australia’s strong civil-military collaboration and governance framework represents an avenue through which Australia can enhance and expand its engagement in Southeast Asia. The Australian Defence Force can model an appropriate culture of the military moving in and out of partnerships with civilians. Australian civil society organisations can develop strong partnerships with local civil society organisations to promote civilian oversight.

So, what should Australia do?

A recent report by the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue sets out pathways for how Australia can act as a catalyst for Southeast Asian civil-military cooperation. First, strengthened coordination is required between Australia’s various capacity-building programs under the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Defence, and other agencies such as the Department of Home Affairs. Each do great work, but consultations with those involved suggest that, for a range of structural and practical reasons, they don’t collaborate to a great degree.

It is not productive to have military, civilian government agencies, and civil society institutions disconnected from each other. Different institutions need to connect, understand, and influence each other’s thinking and behaviour. Australia should develop a flagship civil-military-focused short course program designed for participants from military, security, civil society organisations and civilian agencies, promoting empowerment for all civil society representatives.

Second, Australia should implement a Regional Military/Civil Society framework to manage humanitarian assistance and disaster relief across the region. Australia has played a significant role in this area and would be well-placed to work with partners to develop a regional framework of national, bilateral, and multilateral policies, operational guidelines, and capabilities. This program would include collaborative scenario development, simulations, and risk assessment, the identification of the whole-of-government operational requirements for capability development and deployments, and capacity-building partnerships for regional government, military, police, and civil society personnel in both policy development and integrated operations.

On issues like the appropriate role of the military, there will be a range of views between — and within — Australia and Southeast Asia. Programs like these can become a mechanism for discussions to occur, with Australia and Southeast Asian civil-military cooperation creating new opportunities for consensus-building. Through such programs, Australia can promote a model and culture for a defined role for regional militaries within their civil societies and be a positive force in shaping a region where effective and engaged civil society supports good governance.

AIIA Queensland is hosting a talk on this topic on Monday 28 February: “Building Australian Partnerships in Southeast Asia: Coordinating Development, Defence and Diplomatic Instruments for Effective Security Governance.” Click here to register.

Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA is Program Lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D), a new platform for constructive dialogue, fresh ideas and future-focused debate across the development, diplomacy and defence communities. She served as National Executive Director of the AIIA for 13 years.

Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller is a Research Fellow at The University of Queensland’s Centre for Policy Futures. She is a Council Member of AIIA Queensland.

Chris Gardiner is Chief Executive Officer of The Institute for Regional Security, an independent, not-for-profit organisation serving a community of practitioners and researchers who help government, business, academia, and the broader community to identify, discuss, and assess the security challenges confronting Australia and its region in the decade ahead.

Melissa Conley Tyler, Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller, and Chris Gardiner were involved in an AP4D working group looking at “What does it look like for Australia to be a … Catalyst for Southeast Asian Civil-Military Cooperation.” They thank all the organisations involved in consultations to produce this report.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.