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Terror in Southeast Asia

The US-led war on terror, according to recent intelligence reports, has bolstered the ranks of Muslim radicals, particularly in the Middle East, since September 2001. What this means for Southeast Asia, where several Muslim insurgencies have escalated in recent years, remains unclear

By Bertil Lintner/Chiang Mai

Five years after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington, DC, US intelligence agencies have been forced to admit what many critics warned would be the case when "the war on terror" was launched. The American invasion of Iraq has been counterproductive. According to a classified 30-page National Intelligence Estimate compiled in April this year and leaked to the media in September, the war in Iraq has inspired a new generation of Islamic radicals and, hence, the overall terrorist threat has grown--not diminished--since the attacks in the US five years ago.

Similarly in East and Southeast Asia, the region has become more volatile and dangerous four years after the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing, in which 202 people died, and the capture of the mastermind behind the attack, Indonesian militant Riduan Isamuddin, or Hambali, in August 2003.

Following US President George W Bush's famous January 2002 speech, in which he banded North Korea, Iran and Iraq together as an "Axis of Evil," North Korea began to speed up its nuclear weapons program, saying it did not want to face the same fate as Iraq. And, on October 9, it defied international opinion and conducted its first underground nuclear test. In Indonesia, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines, various militant groups are still active and show no sign of weakening their resolve.

Indonesia's troubled Aceh province, where a peace accord between rebels and the government in Jakarta has ended a 30-year separatist insurgency, provides the only example of major progress in reducing the threat of terror. The accord was achieved by political means, not by violent suppression, and could--if it holds--serve as a model for other insurgencies in the region.

Somewhat paradoxically, the coup in Thailand in September could pave the way for a similarly political, rather than a military, approach to the problems in the southern Muslim-majority provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Like the Iraq war, the heavy-handed approach of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra proved counterproductive. It exacerbated the problem, spawned more retaliatory violence and made the southern provinces resemble a war zone. More than 1,700 people have died on both sides since the long-simmering conflict escalated into an outright insurgency in January 2004.

On September 18, the day before he staged the coup, Thai army chief Gen Sonthi Boonyaratgalin stated that he was determined to hold talks with "the masterminds behind the separatist violence" in the South. But an army spokesperson admitted to the Bangkok Post: "We have no idea who their real leaders are. We only have names but don't know their whereabouts. Most of them are abroad, but we don't know if they will come to talk to us."

This new approach by Sonthi, himself a Muslim but not from the South, differs considerably from that of Thaksin, who always ruled out any talks with the insurgents. And the other side did respond positively to the statement and the coup. In an emailed response to The Associated Press, Lukman Lima, a southern separatist leader who lives in exile in Sweden, said the coup could help resolve the insurgency, and that the conflict could never be solved as long as Thaksin was in power because his heavy-handed tactics had alienated the local population in the southern provinces.

Insurgency Groups in Thailand's South

At least three main militant groups--and some smaller ones--operate at present in the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. These groups use the Malay spelling "Patani," with a single "T," in their group names to refer to all three Muslim-majority provinces, while the town and province of Pattani uses two "T's" in Romanized Thai.

Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani-Melayu-Koordinasi, the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate, usually referred to as BRN-Coordinate in English. The original BRN was established in 1960 but later split into three factions: "Congress," "Coordinate," and "Ulema" (Arabic for "clerics"). Today "Congress" and "Ulema" are more or less defunct, and "Coordinate" is the main group active on the ground in the south. BRN-Coordinate maintains a number of underground cells, known as Runda Kumpulan Kecil, or "small patrol groups." These are not a separate organization, as some have assumed, but simply the operational arm of BRN-Coordinate.

The Patani United Liberation Organization, or PULO. Formed in 1968 by Tengku Bira Kotantila, aka Kabir Abdul Rahman, PULO was the most active group in the 1970s and 1980s. It now operates mainly from exile in Syria, where Tengku Bira lives, and Sweden, where its foreign affairs department is located. The group split for a while into "Old" and "New" factions, but now appears to be reunited. Exiles in Sweden maintain a number of websites that carry news from the region as well as political statements.

Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani, GMIP, or the Islamic Mujahidin Movement of Patani, was formed in 1995 by Afghan war veteran Nasoree Saesaeng, and derives its name from an earlier group, at that time inactive, called the Gerakan Mujahidin Patani. According to Thai sources, the GMIP is linked to the Malaysia-based militant organization Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, or the Mujahidin Group (or Association) of Malaysia, which, in turn, is believed to have close ties with the mainly Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiya. It is, however, uncertain how much remains of the KMM following a massive crackdown by Malaysian authorities in 2001.

Barisan Bersatu Merdeka Patani, or the United Front for the Independence of Patani, is more commonly known as "Bersatu" (meaning "united" in Malay). The group was formed in 1989 from four smaller groups: BRN-Congress, PULO, the then GMP (now defunct) and Barisan Islam Pembebsan Patani, the now largely defunct Islamic Front for the Liberation of Patani. Bersatu is believed now to be defunct or to have been replaced by a less formal arrangement between currently active groups.

Pemuda means "youth" in Malay and has been adopted as the name of a youth movement closely associated with BRN-Coordinate. According to Jane's Information Group, Pemuda members rarely, if ever, have access to firearms, but they assist the BRN-Coordinate with logistical support and intelligence gathering, while occasionally spraying separatist slogans on walls or taking part in arson attacks.

Other, smaller groups also exist, but it is difficult to ascertain whether this abundance of insurgent organizations reflects actual factionalism or just a division of labor in the struggle for a common goal.

Sources: Jane's Information Group and the International Crisis Group

However, even if negotiations are held, the Aceh model may not be applicable to the situation in southern Thailand. Aceh is the northernmost tip of an island without any international borders, and the population shares the same religion, Islam, with the majority of other Indonesians. Thailand's southern provinces are Muslim and Malay in a Buddhist-majority nation, and they are more closely related to the people south of the border in Malaysia than with their fellow Thai citizens to the north. Thais would, quite naturally, be far more reluctant to grant autonomy to the southern provinces than Indonesia has been in regards to Aceh.

Indeed, it is important to stress that there is no common denominator for "terrorism" in East and Southeast Asia, and that the various armed conflicts have different roots and histories. There is not, as some assume, a region-wide network of Islamic militants tied to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida and other international terror organizations. The problem in the Thai South is an ethnic conflict, not a jihad. Being Muslim is part of Malay identity, but protecting Malay culture and language is the main driving force behind the insurgency. Some smaller fringe groups (see Sidebar) may be more radical than others, but they do not represent the mainstream.

In the southern Philippines, the problem is similar. Local Muslims feel that their land is being colonized by Catholic Filipinos from the north, and that they are being neglected by the central government. But in the Philippines, the situation is further complicated by the emergence of a group such as Abu Sayyaf, or "God's Sword," which is alleged to have links with al-Qaida. Others would argue that Abu Sayyaf is little more than a bunch of juvenile delinquents who use the name of Islam to engage in extortion rackets and kidnappings for ransom. And militancy in the Philippines is not an entirely Islamic affair; the Communist Party of the Philippines is still active in many parts of the country.

According to the Congressional Research Service in Washington, the Bush administration has "pressed the Philippine government to move more assertively against Abu Sayyaf," and US forces, in a non-combat role, cooperate with the Philippine army in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, where the insurgents are active. But the CRS also cautioned: "Filipino Muslim leaders warned of a Muslim backlash on Mindanao...that the [local] people...would not support a US combat role, partly because of the history of US military involvement. During the...wars following the US annexation of the Philippines in 1898, US forces...conducted extensive combat operations against Muslim forces [in the south], inflicting thousands of civilian casualties." Seen in a more contemporary perspective, a US combat role in southern Philippines could lead to what now is suspected but far from proven: links between local groups and international terror networks.

The terrorist threat in Indonesia is entirely different in scope and nature. There, disgruntled youths feel neglected and confused in a world that is changing rapidly. Encouraged by some older religious fanatics, they have turned on the West, which they hold responsible for the country's economic woes. Islamic militancy has grown rapidly in Indonesia since the near-collapse of the economy in 1997-98. Islam has become part of a new pride and identity, although it should be remembered that these militant groups are small and lack support from the population at large. But, as two Bali bombings and attacks against targets in the capital Jakarta show, they can be extremely violent.

And, in general, anti-American sentiments have grown even among ordinary Indonesians since the "war on terror" began. According to opinion polls, 79 percent of Indonesians had a favorable view of the US in 1999. Three years later, that figure dropped to 61 percent. In 2003--the year the US invaded Iraq--only 15 percent of Indonesians viewed the US in a favorable light.

In an effort to shore up its sagging popularity, the US launched an impressive relief operation in Aceh after the December 26, 2004 tsunami, which devastated the province. US helicopters flew water and food to affected areas, and evacuated injured villagers. But it is uncertain if that had any lasting impact; the images from Abu Ghraib, released in April 2004, were still fresh in people's minds, and much stronger than those of US rescue helicopters.

The Indonesian groups, mainly the Jemaah Islamiyah, together with a much smaller, associated Malaysian group, Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, want to create a mega-Islamic state comprising Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and the Muslim-inhabited areas of Thailand and the Philippines--a goal that runs contrary to those of the ethnic-based separatist movements of southern Thailand and the Philippines. Jemaah Islamiyah may have some contacts in those areas, but different policies among mainstream local leaders would make any actual cooperation difficult to achieve. Jemaah Islamiyah is a jihad-based extremist organization; most groups in southern Thailand and the Philippines are not.

And then there are state-sponsored terrorism and acts of provocation. North Korea's nuclear test has heightened the tension in the entire region, and the confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington has certainly not made the world any safer. In Burma, the military has jumped on the "anti-terror" bandwagon to justify its own repressive actions, accusing all its opponents and critics--including NGOs and the National League for Democracy--of being terrorists.

When five former student leaders, including Min Ko Naing, a hero of the 1988 uprising who later spent more than a decade in solitary confinement, were arrested on September 27 this year, the government's mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, said that the authorities had to take action against them "to prevent unrest and terrorist attacks" in the country. Charm Thong, a well-respected Shan human rights activist, has also been labeled a terrorist.

Accusations of terrorism leveled against Burma's principal opposition groups constitute a rather transparent attempt to legitimize the government's actions and perhaps even to garner sympathy from the international community. Others might argue that rape, murder, the destruction of villages, forced relocation of civilians and other acts of violence being carried out by government forces and their allies--ceasefire groups such as the United Wa State Army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army--are more appropriately called terrorist attacks.

In contrast, Thailand's campaign against terror is both more substantial and more complex. If Thai authorities proceed with their plans to talk with the insurgents, it would mark a major departure from previous policies and could bring peace and stability to the South. But it would not solve problems like the Jemaah Islamiyah, which would have to be tackled in an entirely different manner. Terror, in one form or another, is here to stay in the new world disorder that has emerged after the attacks in New York and Washington five years ago.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, November 2006

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