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ATimes: Terrorists under the bed
By Anil Netto

31/1/2002 2:06 pm Thu

January 30, 2002


Terrorists under the bed

By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - As United States troops pour into the southern Philippines to help in tracking down the armed Abu Sayyaf group, focus in the war against terrorism has clearly extended to Southeast Asia.

The US troop deployment coincides with a Newsweek magazine report citing secret Federal Bureau of Investigation data that apparently showed that Malaysia was a primary operational launch-pad for the September 11 attacks on the US. Ironically, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, where more than 40 alleged militants have been detained without trial since last May, forcefully denied the report.

The episode illustrates the delicate tightrope act that is being played out by several governments in the region. On the one hand, they are ignoring human rights norms and detaining dozens of alleged militants, and in certain cases, wittingly or unwittingly, indirectly tainting legitimate opposition parties with a militant hue.

On the other hand, the rhetoric is ill timed as it is bound to alarm investors and tourists in a region that is struggling to ward off or come out of recession. Increasingly, the region appears to be suffering from an image problem as a terrorist haven - something that bears little resemblance to the peace and stability prevailing in large swathes of the region.

The war against terrorism is also allowing the US military "a window of opportunity" (as one local analyst put it) to re-enter the region and increase its profile after the closure of the military bases in the Philippines in the early 1990s. Until now, the only other significant presence the US military has had is its advisory role in the war against drugs in the Golden Triangle (Thailand, Laos and Myanmar) - a war that is now largely forgotten.

Malaysian police said last Thursday that they had detained 23 alleged Muslim militants supposedly with links to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda and other terror networks. The police say that 19 of the 23 detainees in Malaysia had received military training outside the country - 10 in Afghanistan and nine at Camp Abu Bakar and Camp Udaibiah in Mindanao, southern Philippines.

Authorities in neighboring Singapore, meanwhile, say that they have uncovered further evidence of links between Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah militants arrested on the island for allegedly planning to attack US targets in the city state. Thirteen suspects have been detained under the Internal Security Act over the past month.

Governments in the region are claiming that these alleged militant groups have regional links. But such claims have been almost impossible to verify in the absence of trials in open court of those accused of militant activities or hard evidence made available to the public.

"Camp Abu Bakar is a military camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)," said Malaysia's police chief. "We found that they have links in Indonesia, Singapore and the southern Philippines. They perceive their activities in a wider perspective, regionally and not confined to Malaysia," he said.

Malaysian police said that they had identified three Indonesian preachers as responsible for religious and militant indoctrination within the Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM) group, one of whom was identified as Ustad Abu Bakar Ba'asyir. Abu Bakar denied during police questioning that he was associated with Al-Qaeda, but hailed bin Laden as "a true Muslim fighter".

On Sunday, the MILF separatist group denied having links with the "KMM militants" alleged to have received training at their military camp in the southern Philippines. MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said that the group did not allow foreigners into its training camps.

What is clear is that the authorities in the region are now working more closely than ever in their efforts to counter these groups. The Malaysian police also say that they will now press on with operations to "neutralize" all the estimated 200 suspected members of the KMM.

In the process, human rights have unfortunately taken a back seat as public insecurities are fed on a daily diet of arrests and revelations of alleged terrorist networks and links. Human rights groups have expressed grave concern over the use of Malaysia's harsh Internal Security Act (ISA) to rein in the alleged militants. Under the ISA, the detainees have no access to lawyers during the initial 60-day interrogation period. Neither is there a trial where they can defend themselves.

"The government should not hide conveniently behind the ISA," said the Kuala Lumpur-based human rights group, Suaram. "The public has a right to see justice being administrated and cannot accept convictions based on suspicion and convenience." If the prime minister had concrete evidence of such terrorist links and networks, then he should present it during a fair court trial, asserted Suaram.

Opponents of the ISA were bemused to learn that Malaysia on Friday sent an official protest to the US embassy over the inhumane treatment of Taliban and Al-Qaeda detainees held at a US naval base in Cuba. Rights activists, while also expressing dismay over the treatment of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, have noted that the Malaysian government itself has flouted human rights conventions in its use of the ISA on detainees locally.

In Indonesia, the war against terrorism has overshadowed human rights violations in Aceh. Last year was one of Aceh's bloodiest, with close to 1,700 people being killed in separatist-related violence, according to human rights workers. The fatalities were double that of the previous year and an estimated half of the deaths took place after the present Megawati administration began its term in the middle of last year.

The arrival of the war against terrorism in Southeast Asia has been greeted with some degree of skepticism. In the absence of open court trials where hard evidence is presented and argued, it will be difficult for governments to convince large sections of the populace as to the seriousness of the threat.

Instead, the mainstream press has confined itself to regurgitating the official line while avoiding any attempt to analyze probable causes or investigate if such links are true. For instance, to what extent have political repression of the legitimate opposition, injustice, income inequalities and a lack of outlets to express grievances bred extremist tendencies? In the 1980s, many Muslims across the region flocked to help in the war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. To what extent has that link been used against those arrested?

For some older analysts, there is a sense of deja vu. For them, international terrorism has replaced communism - the "green threat" replacing the "red" one - as the latest bogeyman for the more authoritarian governments in the region.

The way in which they seem to be finding militants under every bed appears reminiscent of the crackdown on communists in the 1950s and 1960s, a political scientist, who declined to be identified, told Asia Times Online. Among those detained without trial for long periods then were not only hardcore communists but also many leftwing political opponents of pro-Western ruling elites.

There are lessons to be learnt from that era. In overcoming the communist threat, the battle was not only against the enemy in the dark dense jungles, but also for "the hearts and minds" of the people. In the same way that Mahathir is asking Newsweek for evidence that Malaysia was a launch-pad, leaders in the region should present their evidence of local terrorism-related activities in open court so that those detained will have an opportunity to defend themselves.

Indeed, if the governments in the region want to convince those skeptical as to the extent of the threat posed by the terrorists, they will have to start taking the public into their confidence and allow due process and the rule of law to take center stage.