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
By Barry Wain/SINGAPORE
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
"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
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
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
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
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.