South East Asia has enjoyed relative peace since the end of US involvement in Vietnam two decades ago. Border disputes have been largely controlled, with governments maintaining a neutral zone through the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has been hailed as a model regional pact.
This is beginning to change: the return of US involvement in the region after its bombing campaign in Afghanistan has resurrected tensions among neighbours. Through its allies, Singapore and Manila, Malaysia and Indonesia have been forced onto the defensive, retracting their earlier claims of the existence of ‘terrorists’ linked to Usama bin Ladin and al-Qaeda, after realising the implications. The US’s allies now openly intimidate Muslims in the region.
On March 12 the Malaysian government announced that there were no al-Qaeda cells in the country, brushing off claims that Malaysia is a hotbed of terrorism. At the same time Singapore, one of the US’s staunchest allies in the Pacific, has accused Indonesia of the same, and of not doing enough to counter militancy. This has angered Indonesian Muslims, who have made numerous protests against the Chinese-dominated regime.
The FBI has accused Malaysia of being a “primary operational launchpad” for the September 11 attacks; Malaysia had to take pains to prove its worth in the US-led ‘war against terrorism’. The allegations appeared to back claims by Singapore that, had Malaysia taken appropriate measures, the attacks would not have occurred.
The panicky reactions of Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur are understandable. Since September 11 direct American involvement in South East Asia has increased. It has sent troops to the southern Philippines and reinforced its presence in Singapore by equipping it with sophisticated spying and military devices.
Encouraged, Singapore is now going ahead with a controversial land-reclamation project, provoking a border dispute with Malaysia. Investigations have shown that the project will divert commercial shipping from the Malaysian port of Tanjung Pelepas to Singapore. Singapore has been losing billions every year as more and more ships prefer to come directly to Malaysia to cut their costs. Other problems between Malaysia and Singapore, such as water and the use of Malaysian airspace by Singaporean aircraft, now threaten to come out. Analysts have not dismissed the possibility of open war between the two.
Since last year, and more so since September 11, Mahathir has been conducting an anti-Islamic-militancy campaign, targeting dissidents, academics and the Islamic party, PAS. Trying to discredit PAS, his regime rehashed the Kampung Memali massacre(1985), with pictures broadcast on TV of Memali villagers confronting security forces. Mahathir had ordered the police to arrest Ustaz Ibrahim Libya, a teacher and member of PAS. Ibrahim refused to submit to the ISA. The government sent thousands of soldiers into the village, who killed 14 villagers and dragged almost all of Memali’s residents into police trucks. The replay of the Memali incident, however, proved a grave miscalculation; Muslims in Malaysia decided long ago that Ibrahim and his followers were martyrs. This forced the government’s ulama to issue ‘advice’ in early March, requesting all parties to stop using the Memali issue.
Mahathir initially treated the ‘war on terrorism’ as a godsend, as it could improve his image in the west. This hope ended when the US’s plans to expand its hegemony became clear. To make matters worse, the CIA has reportedly requested that one Yazid Saari, accused by Mahathir’s regime of having ties with militants abroad, be extradited to the US. Yazid, who is currently detained without trial by the Malaysian authorities, has also been accused of hosting and financing Zacarias Moussaoui, a French Muslim who, the US government now insists, must be sentenced to death. The political consequences if such a request is granted would be disastrous, not only to Mahathir but also to the National Front’s claim that it defends Malaysia’s ‘sovereignty’.
In Indonesia, reports confirm that Jakarta has been working with the CIA and FBI to extradite suspects. One such case is that of Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madnim,24, of Pakistan, who also has an Egyptian passport, who came to Indonesia to settle a family inheritance matter. The FBI informed Indonesian officials that Iqbal was an al-Qaeda operative. Two days after being arrested by Indonesian police, without a court hearing or a lawyer, he was hustled aboard a US-registered jet at a military airport in Jakarta and flown to Egypt.
A report in the Washington Post (March 11) quoted Western sources as revealing that the US government has transported dozens of people like this. They have been taken to a third country, such as Egypt or Jordan, whose intelligence services are effectively under CIA control, where they can be subjected to inhumane interrogation methods, even torture. The report added that surrendering suspects to a ‘Muslim country’ helps to defuse concern in countries where the government is under strong pressure from Islamic groups. Extraditing to the US could provoke objections from officials who fear that such actions might provoke Islamic groups. That, however, has not stopped the US from demanding that Yazid Saari be made available to its interrogators, and if possible extradited to the US. Prime minister Mahathir, who now maintains that the detainees have nothing to do with al-Qaeda, is refusing. Mahathir cannot afford to grant such a request; the most he can do is to engage in another round of arrests of ‘Islamic militants’.
Governments in the region will soon realise that time may not be on their side. The US is fast moving in. ASEAN is proving useless against the US, and is no longer referred to even in bilateral disputes.