US Secretary of State Colin Powell recently attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN regional security forum in Cambodia. Thomas Cynkin, Director of the Office of Indonesia and East Timor at the US State Department, said the focus of the forum was on "counter-terrorism and promotion of regional security."
Since September 11, US intelligence agencies working with allies in Southeast Asia have uncovered several plots against American targets in the region. Dozens of men with reported links to Islamic terrorist groups have been arrested throughout the region.
Dana Dillon, Senior Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington research organization, says the United States and other western countries have long been aware of terrorist activities in Southeast Asia. "We've known about terrorist groups operating in Southeast Asia for a number of years, but we have considered it mostly a regional problem and not an American problem, and now we view terrorists as a threat directly to the United States. Even terrorists that might be living and working in Southeast Asia, nonetheless, they have contacts with outside groups such as Jemaah Islamiya and al-Qaida."
A telling sign of the United States' interest is the American military presence in the region. US Navy ships patrol the region and particularly the Malacca Strait, the busiest international shipping lane in the world. As such, its security is of concern to the United States.
As the United States begins to work more closely with its Southeast Asian allies on counter-terrorism measures, some Americans question cozying up to regimes with dubious human rights records.
Mr. Dillon agrees there is a problem. "Some human rights [problems] have been neglected, or I don't want to say neglected, but overlooked for the first year or so after September 11. I think they're beginning to gain new prominence namely in Burma and to some extent in Malaysia, but not that much. They haven't totally ignored it, but for a while they kind of brushed over countries that were very cooperative. Human rights were kind of brushed over."
Frederick Brown, Associate Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, says "the question of combating international terrorism has to be at the forefront of American policy in that part of the world."
He believes economic concerns and human rights are an important aspect of US strategic goals in the region, but they will be raised with individual countries on a case-by-case basis. Some analysts ask if the dialogue the United States is having on terrorism will somehow diminish the importance of other issues. Mr. Brown says "it probably does to a certain extent. In terms of human rights, that always plays a certain role in the US relationship with individual countries. In a country like Indonesia it has to be factored into other bilateral issues we have with Indonesia."
Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, is a prime example of the delicate balance the United States must strike between fighting terror and promoting human rights.
The vast archipelago was the site of last October's terrorist attack on a nightclub in Bali. More than 200 people were killed -- most of them Australian tourists who were enjoying the area's appealing beaches. A previous attack in August 2002 killed two Americans and wounded eight staff members at an international school in Papua, Indonesia.
Preliminary reports from Indonesian police implicate members of the country's military in the attack. Mr. Cynkin says "everybody in the US government is determined to raise with the Indonesians at the highest levels repeatedly, which we have, the seriousness with which we view the grave nature of this horrible crime, and to emphasize that we need full cooperation in pursuing justice in this case. And we've also made very clear that if we do not receive such cooperation, this will have the most serious impact on overall bilateral relations."
While somewhat critical of Jakarta's handling of the Papua investigation, Mr. Cynkin praises the government's prosecution of the Bali bombers. "The Indonesian police have been following up very vigorously in this bombing and in pursuing the terrorists have made numerous arrests, and I really commend their actions. And we also are very pleased to be working with them and cooperating on a police counter-terrorism unit. We're providing assistance for that as well. So I think there has been a real sea change in Indonesia on counter-terrorism and we welcome that."
Indonesia receives some 140 million dollars in annual US aid, four million of which funds counter-terrorism training for Indonesia's military and police. All other US military aid to Indonesia is on hold. Former President Bill Clinton suspended it in 1999 after widespread abuses by the military and associated militias were reported in East Timor, following the territory's vote for independence from Indonesia. Mr. Cynkin says such programs can be helpful, but there are no present plans to reinstate full US military education and training in Indonesia.
Many members of the US Congress have voiced concern about restoring the training. Instead, they would like the Bush Administration to increase the pressure on Indonesia to improve human rights.
Alan Romberg, Director of the China Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, says that in today's climate, fighting terror is important but so are furthering other American goals like democracy and freedom. "My sense is that the counter-terrorism dimension has become an intensified dimension, but that maintaining stability and economic dynamism in a lot of these countries is a significant American objective. So turning away from either economic or social or health care issues would not be a sensible way to go. After all, one of the key issues in preventing development of terrorist recruitment areas is to make sure the countries where the possible recruits live provide opportunities for advancement and satisfaction and so on. And if you neglect all those other issues, it's self-defeating."
As the United States weighs the imperatives of its war on terror and other high-priority objectives regarding human rights and the rule of law, observers say its handling of Indonesia will serve as a model for the rest of the region and indeed for the world.