Southeast Asian Countries Cooperate Against Terrorist Threat
July 7, 2008 - 8:10 PM
Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - In a flurry of diplomatic activity, southeast Asian countries considered vulnerable to Islamic terrorist activity are stepping up regional cooperation to counter the menace.
Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are central to the efforts, which also involve seven other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Visiting Indonesia Tuesday, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo urged ASEAN to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation, carry out joint response exercises to terrorist threats, and impose tighter border controls.
Arroyo said in an address to the ASEAN secretariat terrorism could jeopardize not just the safety but also the livelihoods of many in the region, by impacting on investment, tourism and trade.
During her two-day visit to Jakarta, the Philippine leader also agreed with her Indonesian counterpart, Megawati Sukarnoputri, to arrange joint naval patrols in the two countries' adjoining waters to counter illegal arms trafficking and other criminal activity.
"In this time of crisis and opportunity, there is nothing more natural and more correct than for regions to get together for common defense and action," Arroyo said.
Arroyo, who will make her first state visit to Washington this week, has taken a lead in encouraging regional cooperation against terrorism.
In the latest initiative, the Philippine Army will Thursday be host to a meeting of ASEAN army chiefs, aimed at drawing up counter-terrorism plans.
Officials in Manila said the conference would discuss "modes of action to ensure the protection and security of the people, states and societies against threats caused by global terrorism."
Apart from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Both Thailand and Myanmar, Buddhist countries with Muslim minorities of just four per cent each, are also facing small Muslim separatist rebellions, by the Patani and Arakan Muslims respectively.
In further diplomatic activity relating to counter-terrorism, Malaysia's deputy prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, discussed concerns about Muslim militancy with the premier of Singapore, Goh Chock Tong.
Because of its location - off the tip of the Malayan Peninsula - Singapore is keenly affected by developments in its much larger neighbor. Abdullah assured Goh that Malaysia was closely monitoring and acting against extremist groups.
Western intelligence officials have warned of the danger posed by Islamists to moderate Muslim governments in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as in the Philippines.
The Philippines has faced the most obvious threat, with a drawn-out struggle between government forces and Islamic militants intent on establishing an independent state in the predominantly Muslim southern Philippine region of Mindanao
There has been growing evidence of collaboration between militant groups in the three countries, which are spread over a huge area and whose land masses include between them more than 20,000 islands, making policing and border surveillance difficult.
Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) terrorists in the southern Philippines have at least twice crossed into Malaysia to seize foreign hostages for ransom. The ASG was also accused last August of smuggling weapons to Indonesian militants fighting for a separate state in Aceh, northern Sumatra.
In other signs of possible militant collaboration, Malaysian and Philippine interests in Jakarta, Indonesia, have been targets of terror attacks. A car bomb in front of the Philippine ambassador's residence last year killed two people and injured several others, including the ambassador.
Just last week, a leading member of a militant Malaysian group, the KMM (Kumpulan Militan Malaysia), was deported to Malaysia under guard from Indonesia.
Zid Saharani was held on suspicion of involvement in the bombing of several Indonesian churches and a shopping mall earlier this year.
He and another KMM member were arrested on August 1 after a bomb they were carrying exploded prematurely at a Jakarta mall, blowing off the other man's legs.
They are also suspected of being among a group of Malaysian militants participating in a "holy war" against Christians in Indonesia's Maluku province. Around 5,000 people have died in the clashes since January 1999. Foreign human rights groups and other observers attribute much of the violence there to an extremist Indonesian group called Laskar Jihad.
Laskar leader Jafar Umar Thalib recently confirmed his group's association with the KMM.
The specter of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network also looms large in the region, with alleged links to militants in all three countries.
The ASG in the Philippines was reportedly set up in the early 1990s with bin Laden's help and funding. Western intelligence officials say Laskar Jihad in Indonesia has links to al-Qaida - a claim denied last September by Laskar leader Jafar Umar Thalib, although he admitted having met bin Laden when both men fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
And Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has claimed that KMM members have trained in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and idolize bin Laden.
Mahathir has gone as far as to claim a campaign is being waged to set up a huge, radical Islamic state comprising his country, Indonesia and Mindanao.
At the weekend, he repeated the charge, saying militants who had graduated from fundamentalist religious schools (madrasahs) in Pakistan planned to set up an Islamic state after toppling the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Mahathir warned of rising radicalism in Malaysia, saying the government was cracking down because it did not want the people of Malaysia to be oppressed like those in Afghanistan.
Some government critics, however, are skeptical of Mahathir's claims, accusing him of exaggerating the threat to undermine his political opponents. Some KMM members have close links with the main opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which is pushing for a stricter adherence to Islamic norms in government.
Since August 16 alleged KMM members have been detained without trial, including the son of the spiritual leader of the PAS. They are accused of involvement in a spate of attacks on churches and a Hindu temple.