Southeast Asian Leaders Meet in Terror-Scarred Bali

July 7, 2008 - 7:14 PM

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A year after Bali's reputation as a carefree tourist paradise was shattered by terrorists, Southeast Asian heads of state are meeting on the Indonesian island for a summit Tuesday whose location is intended to signal that terror will not be allowed to succeed.

Terrorism is expected to be an important topic on the agenda of the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathering, which brings together leaders of 10 countries.

Jakarta has taken unprecedented security measures, deploying 5,000 troops and policemen to guard the two-day meeting at an exclusive resort.

The deployment will extend over the weekend, when memorial services are scheduled to mark the anniversary of the bombing of two nightclubs last Oct.12, which cost 202 lives.

Indonesia, which holds ASEAN's rotating chairmanship, chose Bali as the venue to illustrate the region's determination to fight terrorism.

Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda was quoted as saying the meeting was a "vote of confidence in the stability and security in Indonesia, in particular Bali."

If anything, however, the heavily-secured summit may serve as a reminder of the continuing threat in a region whose tourist industry has already suffered as a result of terrorism fears and resulting travel advisories by Western governments.

Just days ago, the U.S. envoy to the Philippines warned that Muslim separatists in the south of that country continued to collaborate with Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the radical network behind the Bali bombings.

Ambassador Francis Ricciardone warned that unless the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) - which is shortly to resume peace talks with Manila - cut its ties with JI, its deprived region would forfeit pledged U.S. aid.

The warning was echoed a day later by Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, who urged the MILF to purge its ranks of terrorists.

In Thailand, meanwhile, the government has confirmed police are hunting half a dozen surface-to-air missiles suspected to have been smuggled into the country by extremists.

JI's continued threat was also underlined by a bomb attack at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August, and by recent warnings by the Indonesian police that terrorists, with large bombs in their possession, remain at large.

Some of JI's most dangerous members are the subject of manhunts in both Indonesia and the Philippines.

On the other hand, others have been convicted for their roles in the Bali attack, with three men sentenced to death.

JI's operational chief, Riduan bin Isomuddin, also known as Hambali, was captured in Thailand last August, and is in U.S. custody.

Hambali, who is in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location, is believed to be an important go-between between JI and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda.

Several Southeast Asian countries have won praise from Western governments for their counter-terror successes and improved levels of inter-state cooperation in the security field.

At the same time, some governments -particularly those in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines - are accused of taking advantage of the war against terror to punish political opponents and promote their own agendas.

Regional human rights groups are holding an "alternative" summit in Bali to highlight those concerns.

ASEAN members range from capitalist democracies to communist countries and a military dictatorship. They are Brunei, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand.

The grouping has long been criticized from outside for its strict adherence to a policy of non-interference in members' domestic affairs.

The Bali summit may provide an opportunity to edge away from that policy, over the question of Burmese opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi's continued detention.

Suu Kyi was placed in "protective custody" last May, and was eventually allowed to return home last week after undergoing surgery. She remains under house arrest, however.

Last July, ASEAN members in an unprecedented step called for her release, but with little improvement in the situation since then, some governments may seek to take the matter further in Bali.

The summit's agenda will also cover talks on trade-related issues.

ASEAN members were Tuesday to sign a protocol envisioning moving towards a European Union-style economic community, with a regional free trade zone by 2020.

Singapore and Thailand, the wealthier members promoting the idea, have expressed frustration with the slow timetable for the proposed change, and said Monday they would pursue bilateral economic initiatives in a bid to speed up the broader process.

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