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Mixed Reaction in E. Asian Countries to US Terror War - 2002-09-06

The governments of East and Southeast Asia quickly expressed their sympathy to the United States following the September 11 attacks and pledged cooperation in the U.S. led anti-terror campaign. Some countries in the region have their own problems with radical Muslim groups, so they have domestic interests in stopping international terrorism.

When U.S. air strikes began against the Taleban regime and al-Qaida terrorist targets in Afghanistan, anti-American demonstrations erupted in predominantly Muslim Indonesia and in Muslim areas of the southern Philippines. In addition, some Muslim politicians in Malaysia accused the United States of engaging in terrorism against Afghanistan.

Analysts agree those domestic political and religious pressures have influenced the way Asian governments have responded to the war on terrorism after September 11.

The most dramatic response came from Malaysia, a mostly Muslim country where Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was known for his disdain for Washington and the west. Southeast Asia policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Paolo Pasicolan says after September 11, there was a 180 degree change in the tone of relations between Kuala Lumpur and Washington. "When Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad came to Washington earlier this year, it was such a great meeting of minds, because he had so much good news on the war on terrorism front to report to President Bush," he said. " Specifically, Malaysia has arrested some 62 terrorists with global links, including Jemaah Islamiyah, which is an Al Qaida cell that planned to bomb U.S. embassies in Southeast Asia."

Mr. Pasicolan says Malaysia has contributed to the war on terrorism because it is a proudly moderate state and Mr. Mahathir has political interests in cracking down on Muslim extremists who are a threat to his secular government.

Singapore, which has traditionally cooperated with Washington, has arrested more than a dozen people suspected of links to al-Qaida. Southeast Asia specialist Charles Hirschman, at the University of Washington, says Singapore's crackdown on terrorism is not surprising. "Singapore runs a very tight ship and anybody who questions anything in Singapore I think is at risk of being branded as disloyal and very likely to be imprisoned or charged in court," he said. "And so I think when they were able to infiltrate and discover that there were people actually planning terrorist activities within Singapore, there was no hesitation about locking them up."

The Philippines also has been actively pursuing Muslim radicals - both suspected terrorists with links to al-Qaida, as well as Abu Sayyaf rebels who have conducted kidnappings in the southern Philippines. After September 11, the government in Manila requested U.S. military help for the Philippine army in its battle against the Abu Sayyaf.

Paolo Pasicolan says Indonesia is the one country in the region that has not done enough to combat terrorism. "Most people in the United States and in Southeast Asia recognize that Indonesia is kind of the weakest link in this war on terrorism," said Mr. Pasicolan. "Just basically the law and order situation in Indonesia - because of the corrupt military and police force and because radical muslim groups have so much influence over politics - I think is one of the reasons that people are concerned about terrorism or terrorists, specifically al Qaida terrorists, going into Indonesia. For instance, the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a cleric named Abu Bakar Bashir, resides in Indonesia and he's not even being investigated or charged with any crimes. And Singapore has just recently requested extradition for 13 members. However, Indonesia has kind of dragged its feet."

Thomas Reckford, president of the World Affairs Council of Washington, says Indonesians don't feel the same sense of urgency about terrorism as their neighbors in Malaysia and Singapore do. And he points to the political reasons behind Indonesia's reluctance to act decisively. "President Megawati is facing a presidential election in 2004," he said. "Her own political position is still rather tenuous and she depends significantly on some Muslim parties to keep her coalition in power. She has been extremely cautious in doing anything that would upset these Muslim parties. This means that if there is a good deal of evidence that an Indonesian cleric is running a school that is training terrorists, nothing is really done about it. Or, at most, the cleric might be called into a police station for some questioning and then let go. So, it's a significant political problem for Megawati."

Paul Cleveland, president of the U.S. -Indonesia Society, says President Megawati made clear during her visit to Washington last year and in subsequent statements that her government opposes international terrorism. And Ambassador Cleveland says U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have acknowledged Jakarta's help in the anti-terror effort. "Indonesia is a particularly challenging case," said Paul Cleveland. "It is 17,000 islands scattered all over. I believe Indonesia is working to identify terrorists who may be living in their country, but it's a hard job. And it's not clear from the evidence that's been produced that terrorists live there or exist there."

Mr. Cleveland served in the foreign service in Indonesia and was Ambassador to Malaysia. He says Indonesia does not have an internal security law, like the laws in Malaysia and Singapore that give authorities there special powers to crack down on suspected terrorists