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FEER: A Questionable Strategy
By Barry Wain

24/1/2002 4:13 pm Thu

A Questionable Strategy

As the war on terrorism comes to Southeast Asia, governments are joining in for their own gain. The consequences will not be benign


Issue cover-dated January 31, 2002

AS THE UNITED STATES completes its military mission in Afghanistan, it is turning to Southeast Asia, convinced that the region is riddled with terrorists. The approaching campaign to weed out Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, while regarded as necessary by Southeast Asian governments, is causing them considerable apprehension.

Still smarting from the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. and buoyed by their swift demolition of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Americans are opening a second front in their global war on terrorism. Initially, they'll send more than 650 troops to the southern Philippines to train local forces and join them on patrols against Muslim rebels. The fear is that the U.S. will lack the patience and subtlety needed to end the regional terrorist menace without destabilizing fragile administrations and disturbing religious and ethnic sensitivities.

The storm that is about to break couldn't have come at a worse time, as countries in the region struggle with the second serious economic downturn in four years, while in some cases trying to cope with rapid political change and instability. Investors are likely to find new reasons to shun the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the anti-terrorism drive creates more political problems for Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines and generates tensions within Asean.

"This is a very unwelcome development for Southeast Asia, politically and strategically," says Alan Dupont, a strategic analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The full impact of the anti-terrorist campaign, seen by some as a new Cold War, won't be clear for some time, but it is certain to make a region of profound diversity even more complicated. It already has altered the geopolitical landscape in East Asia-for example, by reducing friction between the U.S. and China, at least temporarily.

Other unintended consequences aren't so benign. They include a setback for democracy and human rights, as Washington befriends countries that embrace its current cause rather than those that adopt the ideals America usually espouses. And while the impulse to protection, security and even vengeance remains ascendant, the grievances of domestic groups committed to separatism are unlikely to be heeded. Witness Aceh, where Indonesia's army has begun using increasing force-which fanned separatist sentiment in the first place-in a turn of events made easier by relative U.S. silence.

Adding to the confusion, governments and private organizations alike are jumping on the anti-terrorist bandwagon. "Everybody is making use of it for their own political benefit," says Jusuf Wanandi, a board member of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia.

The extent of terrorism in Southeast Asia is the subject of sharp debate, if only because investigations are far from complete. Not everyone agrees with the dire threat seen by President George W. Bush's administration. In fact, Mohamed Jawhar Hassan, director-general of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia, says terrorist activity has "declined dramatically" in the region over the past few decades.

Since September 11, Singapore has uncovered what it says is an international Al Qaeda-linked organization, jailing 13 men who allegedly plotted for years to blow up U.S. and allied targets there. Singaporean authorities say the clandestine Jemaah Islamiah has cells in Malaysia and Indonesia, but both countries deny it.

Beyond that, radical Islamic groups in neighbouring countries have members who trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and received funds, and these groups are developing closer contacts with each other. "All these others are essentially home-grown-a domestic phenomenon-with external links," says Jawhar. They tend to be poorly armed, unclear about their strategy and pursuing unrealistic objectives, such as establishing an Islamic state by force, he says.

Sceptics demand evidence that movements such as Indonesia's Christian-fighting Laskar Jihad are allied with Osama bin Laden and represent a clear and present danger to international order. "It's like communists under the bed," says Harold Crouch, who heads the International Crisis Group in Indonesia. "You're ignorant about them and you find them everywhere."

It is also hard to gauge the seriousness of the terrorist presence because of the blatant manipulation of the issue for political ends. Take Malaysia, the most egregious offender. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad early last year began jailing alleged Islamic militants supposedly planning to overthrow the government by force, most of them members of the main opposition party, Pas, which advocates the introduction of an Islamic state.

The government's continuing attempts to associate Pas with extremism appear to have succeeded. Significant numbers of ethnic Chinese and Indians, as well as some urban Malays, have deserted Pas for the government, according to a senior official of the Democratic Action Party, another opposition party. In addition, Mahathir has won high praise from Bush for contributing to the war on terrorism, without having to endure constant U.S. carping about the frequent use of the Internal Security Act, which provides for indefinite detention without trial.

Yet independent authorities point to inconsistencies that suggest the Malaysian government is taking advantage of the climate of fear over terrorism to discredit its legitimate opponents. For one thing, police and government officials say most of the dozens of detainees belong to a single outfit, split into two sections. They first identified it as the Malaysian Mujahideen Organization, but later switched-without explanation-to Malaysian Militant Organization, keeping the group's Malay initials, KMM.

"I find it difficult to imagine an organization calling itself such a name," says John Funston, an Australian political scientist who specializes in Malaysia. And the various "crimes" attributed to the KMM, he says, "don't seem to me like the work of one group."

Into this arena step the Americans, viewing Southeast Asia much as they did in the 1950s and 1960s in the lead-up to their involvement in Vietnam-as a problem. Today, the U.S. again has military advisory groups in the region-one based in Thailand to combat drugs, another preparing to train Filipinos and help them hunt down the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf kidnap gang.

Indonesia is under strong U.S. pressure to follow the example of Singapore and Malaysia and act decisively against Islamic militants, but President Megawati Sukarnoputri worries that a crackdown would be seen as an attack on Islam. Her dilemma showed up early, when she travelled to the White House in September to condemn terrorism forcefully, only to return to Jakarta and do little, as local sentiment opposed the U. S. bombing of Afghanistan.

When the Bush administration took office early last year, Southeast Asia fretted about being ignored. Now, front-line governments in the fight against terrorism, with the exception of the Philippines, are concerned to keep their distance from the U.S., or risk losing legitimacy. They have all made it clear that they don't want American combat forces on their soil. Any trampling on sovereignty, even in the Philippines, would likely provoke a nationalistic backlash.

The challenge for the U.S., say Southeast Asian officials, is to structure an approach that goes beyond military action and takes into account the complexity of dealing with terrorism, including its root causes. Particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, it must mean sticking around to ensure economic development and institution-building, says one official.