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Widespread War Opposition in Asia, But Mostly Small Demonstrations - 2003-03-24

The war in Iraq has sparked massive demonstrations in cities around the world but, with a few notable exceptions, much of Asia has not seen the large turnout at protest rallies that had been expected. There is still widespread opposition to the war despite the scale of the protests.

Some of the largest protests have taken place in Pakistan. In the eastern city of Lahore alone there were some 100,000 assembled in a peaceful demonstration on Sunday, the third such day of demonstrations against the American-led war. And more protests are expected.

Anti-American sentiment is growing in Bangladesh where the government warned foreign diplomats on Monday not to venture out of their compounds without police escorts. There have been no incidents of violence in several days of anti-war protests, but more are planned and security forces have taken precautions with police and troops deployed around American, British, Australian and other foreign diplomatic missions.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Monday called the U.S.-led invasion the action of a "cowardly, imperialist bully," and said it would lead to a system of dictatorship through puppet governments. He said Washington's decision to act without U.N. approval had undermined world order and threatened to make the world body and international law meaningless. "We have now returned to the stone age where might determines justice," he said.

Street protests in the world's most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, have brought thousands into the streets in the days since the war began but the turnouts have been, by most accounts, relatively small by Indonesian standards.

Here in Thailand only small groups, no more than several hundred, have gathered in front of the American Embassy in Bangkok, while several thousand have protested in the southern part of the country where most of the Muslim population lives.

The consensus is that most people here, as elsewhere in Asia, oppose the war but find their governments not wanting to take any action that might jeopardize relations with Washington.

Thai Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, who sits on the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the muted response is a result of being put in a difficult position: not wanting to offend traditional ally, the United States, while not wanting to endanger important economic ties with Iraq. "The Thai government has always allied with the U.S. on all issues except for this one," he said. "Although quietly they might be, you know, supporting, but openly the Thais are saying that we would rather have any intervention taken by the United Nations rather than the U.S. coalition."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard was heckled by a group in the public gallery inside Parliament on Monday, while protestors tried unsuccessfully to break past police and enter the building. Some four thousand people marched to Parliament in Canberra on Sunday while 40,000 gathered in the streets of Sydney. There have been dozens of protests in Australian cities in the past month.

But a survey out Monday shows, that since hostilities began, public opinion against the war has shifted dramatically. A week ago some 70 percent of those polled were against the war. Monday's result showed 47 percent opposed and 45 percent approving military action. The shift is seen as the public rallying behind the two-thousand troops that are part of the coalition.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Helen Clark said Monday that the war in Iraq is putting the world at greater risk of terrorism and is undermining international institutions. New Zealand has opposed military action against Iraq, saying the threshold for force had not been reached, and action outside the U.N. framework had set a dangerous precedent.