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Asiaweek: The War Of The Worlds
By Penny Crisp

30/9/2001 6:06 pm Sun

SEPTEMBER 28, 2001

The War Of The Worlds

Asian leaders are in a bind. As the U.S. calls for help in its fight against terror, an anti-American backlash is taking root


Sometimes, opposition emerges from the least expected quarters. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo probably thought she was on safe ground last week by offering the U.S. access to her country's ports as transit points or even staging grounds for its "crusade" against terrorism. After all, the main Muslim organizations in the southern Philippines had been quick to condemn attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Yet the most scathing criticism came from a Christian group. "Arroyo . . . is a total puppet of U.S. imperialists in their warmongering ways," said Amie Dural, deputy secretary-general of the Promotion of Church People's Response, a national grouping of clergy and lay workers.

In Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's unabashed enthusiasm for the U.S. cause drew only murmurings of concern from the Muslim community, but national politicians were less restrained. "The U.S. did nothing to help when the economic crisis started with Thailand," said Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the senate foreign affairs committee. Added opposition whip Jurin Laksan- avisit: "The government should take care where enemies may turn against us."

This is Asia's clash of civilizations, sparked by a horrible act of terrorism on the other side of the world. Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington coined the phrase, warning of a historic clash between Islam and Christianity. But the conflict Asia confronts right now, as the drumbeat of war grows louder, is far more complicated than that. Not only are the region's moderate Muslims caught in a bind, forced to take sides as their governments pledge support for Washington. Buffeted by painful economic reforms, other Asians are divided over how to react, too. As their economies slide further, many aren't altogether sure they want to leap to the defense of the world's champion of globalization. Most Asian countries welcome the U.S. as a security presence, as an investor, as a trading partner and, in some cases, as a friend. But if, as seems likely, U.S. retaliation turns the region into a battleground, the economic, humanitarian, and political consequences will be brutal.

Forgive Asians for feeling ambivalent. Despite the expressions of solidarity by their governments, some Asians believe that the U.S. has at times engaged in misguided policies in Asia and the Middle East. They feel anger toward a superpower that promotes globalization as a balm, regardless of the pain it can inflict. They understand that if Washington does not exercise restraint and is indiscriminate in its reprisal, Asia will suffer in terms of counter-retaliation.

All over the region, people are revisiting a nest of grievances. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The pain caused by having to swallow prescriptions from U.S.-controlled multilateral agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. America's unpaid dues to the United Nations. Its refusals to sign nuclear test-ban treaties and chemical weapons protocols - while punishing other countries that demur. And overall, there's the burgeoning perception of an arrogant imperialist unable or unwilling to comprehend the rising tide of helpless misery outside its borders. Indonesian Vice President Hamzah Haz made an awkward stab at the mood. "Hopefully," he said, "the [terrorist] tragedy can cleanse the sins by the U.S."

What can Asian leaders do about this backlash, apart from attempting a near-impossible balancing act? South Korea's Kim Dae Jung, with about 37,000 U.S. troops in his country, probably thought that of all Asians, he would easily garner domestic support for his stand. "The Korean government will give all forms of support and assistance to the U.S. as an ally and will join any coalition to eradicate terrorist activities," he said. But when one newspaper asked 184,461 citizens if Korean forces should join a U.S.-led campaign, only 21% said yes. A nationwide minute of silence called by the government for Sept. 14 was widely ignored. "Why should we mourn?" queries Seong Joo Myung, 32, a retail display designer. "When the Sampoong department store collapsed in 1995, the government didn't call for a moment of silence. Korea is still a colony of America and shouldn't mourn dead American citizens."

As well, about 50 people from 21 nongovernment organizations demonstrated in front of the U.S. embassy, criticizing the U.S. for an array of misdeeds. Student protests across the country decried U.S. imperialism and the "threat to world peace." The Defense Ministry's website received about 250 postings, nearly all opposing U.S. military retaliation. "We'd be better to collect a fund for Afghan children and suffer, rather than help rich America," read one. The Korea Muslim Federation requested and received armed guards at the Korea Islam Mosque in Seoul, but quickly discovered that its members were not the focus of anger. Says Yoon Young Mo, a spokesman for the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions: "Korea knows what it's like to be bullied by the U.S. The U.S. and the IMF pushed us to do things that made people lose their jobs. We feel very bad about the attacks, but the U.S. has to think about the other side and about being fair."

North Korea is busy keeping its head down, though it uncharacteristically denounced the attacks. Japan is enmeshed in a familiar quandary about how to provide military support without damaging its pacifist constitution. China, with a restive Muslim minority in Xinjiang, says it supports all efforts against terrorists - but adds that there should be concrete evidence before action is taken. It also wants any proposals to be discussed at the United Nations Security Council before it agrees to help the U.S. "My feeling is if they give the Taliban a good blasting, the Chinese couldn't care less," says Brendan Smith, a political science professor at Beijing's Foreign Affairs College. "But the idea of U.S. troops in [neighboring] Central Asia worries them." Adds Laurence Brahm, a U.S. lawyer, author and adviser to China's leaders: "The Chinese government will likely provide positive logistical support to the U.S., but will not offend the Islamic world. Given the enormous prism of colors in Muslim religions, China does not wish to activate any color."

In countries with large Muslim populations, reactions to U.S. "recruitment" efforts are even more complicated. Malaysian authorities have been arresting alleged Muslim extremists for some time, but few believe the moves are much more than a political gambit. The leading opposition group, an Islamic party called Parti Islam seMalaysia (PAS), has long been a target of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Zulkifli Sulong, editor of Harakah newspaper, the official party organ of PAS, says Muslims around the world condemn terror attacks. "If they hit only the Pentagon, then it may be fair," he says. But now, "the Americans must behave like a true superpower and give justice to all." Arch U.S. critic Mahathir has decried the attacks, but remains wary of providing any fuel for Islamic community leaders who largely shape moral opinion.

For Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, headaches were inevitable. New President Megawati Sukarnoputri flew to the U.S. this week, where commentators expected her to ask for a resumption of the military support that was suspended after Indonesian militias trashed East Timor. While overwhelmingly in the moderate Muslim camp, Indonesia still houses the most radical factions in Southeast Asia. Most are consumed by domestic agendas, but one small group has vowed to attack the U.S. embassy in Jakarta if America follows through with strikes against Islamic countries. Another group promises to declare jihad (holy struggle) against the U.S.

The overwhelming sentiment, however, is that the U.S. should simply back off its war agenda, or at least stop trying to pressure Muslim countries to become its allies. "We understand and can feel their anger," observed an editorial in leading Indonesian newspaper Kompas of the U.S. mood. "But, like everyone says, including America's friends, we have to choose the way to fight against terrorism and avoid, at all costs, causing more innocent people to be victimized."

By taking America's side in this clash, Muslim countries run the risk of being seen as puppets of the George Bush administration. Moreover, if U.S. strikes against Afghanistan go ahead without tangible proof of Osama bin Laden's guilt, authorities in Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia could become the targets of their own Muslim populations. Terrorists everywhere will find a new rallying point. What goes around, comes around - and, as Asia may learn, comes around again.

Reported by Allen T. Cheng /Beijing, Warren Caragata/Jakarta, Arjuna Ranawana/Kuala Lumpur, Mutsuko Murakami/Toyko, Shai Oster/Hong Kong, Roger Dean du Mars and Gina Chon/Seoul, Raissa Espinosa-Robles/Manila

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