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Muslimedia: S/E Asian Muslims the losers again at regional summit
By Abd Rahman Koya
20/11/2001 2:14 am Tue
Southeast Asian Muslims the losers again at regional summit
By Abd Rahman Koya in Kuala Lumpur
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), long
regarded as a powerful regional pact that served as an
independent voice for the region, ceased to be so on November 5
when its leaders caved in to western pressure.
Signs of disunity and the rich-poor divide surfaced when leaders
of the ten countries in the region gathered for the summit in Bandar
Seri Begawan, Brunei, on November 5. They were expected to take
a united stance on events since the attacks on the Pentagon and
WTC on September 11. In the past, ASEAN has stood successfully
on regional and transregional issues, such as the conflicts in
Cambodia and the repression in Burma (Myanmar). Such unity is
displayed, however, obviously only when the issue in question
does not involve Muslims.
So, not surprisingly, the organisation, which supposedly represents
500 million people (more than half of whom are Muslims), failed to
make a unanimous declaration to condemn the American military
aggression against Afghan civilians, despite its Muslim populations'
strong condemnation of the air strikes. Like Israel in the Arab world,
it was tiny Singapore that called the shots, rather than its giant
Muslim neighbours Malaysia, Indonesia or Brunei, the tiny but
wealthy colonial creation. Both Singapore and the Philippines have
sided openly with the US on the strikes against Afghanistan.
Having the world's most populous Muslim country and a
"tough-talking Muslim leader" like Mahathir Mohamad were not of
much help to sway the tone of the declaration either. Leaving the
summit, Mahathir explained that only Indonesia and Malaysia had
called for an end to the bombing campaign, while the others
ignored the calls. He insisted that he brought up the issue of
terrorism three times with the leaders, urging the summit to "identify
the terrorists and define what terrorism is."
In the end, ASEAN issued a meek declaration reiterating the
familiar rhetoric: condemning the attacks on New York, vowing to
fight terrorism but stopped short of even criticising the indiscriminate
attacks on Afghanistan. Asked later why he did not persist in
calling for a condemnation of the US military strikes, Mahathir
replied: "We defer on this and we prefer not to insist on that
because there were some differences in our views."
To be fair, Mahathir has been quite outspoken, threading carefully
to avoid angering either Uncle Sam or the Muslims back home, who
are against the strikes. His performance is reasonable, coming as it
did when he was desperately seeking to get back into the West's
good books. Most will agree that his standing at home improved a
little after September 11, as happened to Colonel Qaddafi, whose
popularity thrives on international crises. But most think his
anti-west criticism this time was mild, and was made only out of
fear of yet another domestic backclash because of the rocky
Malay-Muslim support for his government. So whatever mileage he
gets out of the current western air raids against Afghanistan may be
temporary. Sharing this dilemma is his Indonesian counterpart,
Megawati Sukarnoputri, who had to succumb to intense pressure
from Muslims to condemn the airstrikes. Eager to get western
support (Indonesia's economy is still on life-support and had
recently been awarded US$3 billion from the World Bank and
others) Megawati had earlier even refused to criticise the US
action. Now she is calling for an end to the bombardment.
But such calls from Muslim leaders, however secularised they may
be (hence 'credible' in western eyes), fall flat in a region where
western capitalist interests matter most. This is even so when the
issue involves the west's policies against Muslims. One only has to
see the different reaction to the Indonesian rampage in East Timor
and Aceh. In the case of the latter, there has not been any outcry.
Countries in this region, like the oil-rich Arab world, have always
been politically servile to the west. Muslim public opinion does not
count at all. This can be seen in the willingness of Singapore to
allow American military bases in its territory, as well as diplomatic
and military ties with the state of Israel, ignoring protest from its
surrounding Muslim population. The Chinese-dominated regime
has also not made secret its fear of Muslims' voices gaining weight
across the archipelago, lecturing its Muslim counterparts to stem
this tide. But this state of affairs may well become a time-bomb and
eventually turn the region into another Middle East.
In a way the ASEAN leaders have been left with little choice.
Barring Indonesia and Thailand to a certain extent, all the ASEAN
member states are essentially dictatorships and have got many
skeletons in their closets. The Burmese regime have been brutally
suppressing dissent, with little western outcry, as is also the case
elsewhere; it is also ill-equipped to handle any terrorism issues.
Manila is getting direct military help from the US in its campaigns
against the Muslim heartlands; while Malaysia, Singapore and
Brunei are all ruled by police governments which cannot take the
risk of hurting the west.
Ask the Malaysian prime minister: he once pointed his fingers at rogue Jews over the currency crisis; months later he had to issue an apology to Jewish lobbies in the US.