KONGThe "war on terror" in southeast Asia is looking increasingly
muddled, despite the recent pledge by 22 countries at the ASEAN regional
security forum to step up the fight.
The International Crisis Group, a
conflict resolution group headed by Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign
minister, has concluded in a detailed report that contrary to most impressions
given in the media, there is scant evidence of links between Al Qaeda and a
long-established network of Indonesian radicals. A witch-hunt of nonviolent
fundamentalists was more likely to incite sympathy for their cause.
Meanwhile last week the United States
declared the New People's Army in the Philippines to be a terrorist
organization. This classification of one of Asia's oldest Communist rebel groups
followed Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Manila. It pleased President
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is eager for U.S. backing for her recently
announced "war" on the NPA, which has been growing in strength.
However, Arroyo was criticized by Vice
President Teofisto Guingona, who favors continuation of dialogue with the
National Democratic Front, the NPA's political wing. Where all this leaves the
dialogue is unclear. The NDF's leader, Jose-Ma Sison, who lives in the
Netherlands, responded to Arroyo with suggestions that the NPA step up attacks
on government and military installations. With the Philippines split on how to
deal with the NPA, U.S. involvement in this particular "war on terror" may not
The renewed attention to the NPA has
underscored how preoccupation with Abu Sayyaf has benefited the larger and more
ideological rebel movements. The NPA, which reached its peak in the last days of
the Marcos era, has seen its fortunes revive. Under Presidents Joseph Estrada
and Arroyo, military attention has been diverted to Muslim areas - and hopes
that democracy would lead to alleviation of rural poverty have been dashed. Some
leftists who had abandoned the gun for the ballot box are again espousing
Meanwhile in the south, the effort needed
to pursue Abu Sayyaf, a small gang confined to the Sulu archipelago, has enabled
the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to consolidate its hold over a large area of
western Mindanao. The MILF has now recovered the ground lost to Estrada's
offensive against it.
Pinning terror labels on rebel groups
will help Manila get U.S. material support. But it is highly unlikely that the
Philippines military will succeed in crushing them, and closer involvement of
the U.S. could make political solutions or extended truces more difficult.
Independent observers are taking a
cynical view of aspects of the Philippines-U.S. relationship. The ICG report
accuses Manila of planting explosives on an Indonesian radical, Agus Dwikarna,
who was arrested in March. It also notes that there is limited evidence to link
Al Qaeda with members of the "Ngruki network" a loose Indonesian group founded
by the preacher Abu Bakar Baasyir.
The ICG report traces the roots of the
network to the Darul Islam movement of the independence era. Suppression of
Islamic state proponents in the 1980s took Baasyir into exile. Back home after
Suharto's downfall, Baasyir has been advocating an Islamic state and a vague
idea for a revived caliphate. This not illegal.
The United States has urged the arrest of
Baasyir, but the ICG report argues that "preventive arrests without hard
evidence could be counter-productive." While individual members of the network
may have committed crimes, association with it is not tantamount to supporting
The ICG report concludes that Indonesia
is not a hotbed of terrorism, implicitly rejecting Washington's suggestion that
Southeast Asia is the "second front" in the war.
In Indonesia there are domestic
perpetrators of communal violence, some of them well organized. But the ICG
report and renewed attention to the NPA both underline the domestic origins of
radicalism, peaceful or violent, Islamic, Marxist or separatist, in southeast
Asia. Internationalization of them through the "global war on terror" may
exacerbate the problems rather than suppress the symptoms.