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Southeast Asia counts its costs
By Richard S Ehrlich

BANGKOK - Two years after suicidal hijackers slammed passenger planes into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, people on the other side of the world fear that bomb-savvy, al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists are advancing across Southeast Asia.

Thailand, a strong US ally, is worried about protecting President George W Bush when he arrives next month to meet regional leaders at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

Police are also tightening security for Thailand's notorious monthly "Full Moon Party" on the isle of Koh Phangan, which regularly attracts swarms of foreign backpackers who have lunar-lit drug experiences amid techno music and dancing on Hat Rin beach. The upcoming public rave coincides with the second anniversary of the attack on the US and may be a target for terrorists.

"We have sought cooperation from [tourist] bungalows to help monitor the activities of tourists from Middle East countries, particularly those wearing untidy beards" during the Full Moon Party, Koh Phangan's district police chief, Colonel Komol Wattraporn, told Thai reporters.

Last month this traditionally placid, Buddhist-majority country stunned the international community by helping the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) capture alleged Indonesian terrorist mastermind Hambali in central Thailand. As a result, Thailand became a new front line in the US-led "war on terrorism" in a region plagued by recent deadly bombings.

"I feel like a sitting duck out here," said a United Nations employee in an interview about her work inside the UN's large building in Bangkok, after the UN headquarters in Baghdad was bombed in August. "We might as well have a big target on us," the UN employee ruefully added.

Thailand has agreed to send more than 420 soldiers to Iraq. Most of the troops hope for extra protection from lucky Buddhist amulets forwarded to them by the military, but their assignment has not pleased everyone.

"Why should our Thai peacekeepers have to risk their lives in order for the [US] 101st Airborne troops to go back home to their families in the US?" an outraged Thitti Siamwalla, director of the Islamic Social and Economic Development Foundation of Thailand, wrote in a published opinion piece.

Many Thais support "growing anti-Americanism", especially because domestic media publish commentaries "alleging that the US knew all along there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the only reason to attack Iraq was simply Washington's desire to control Iraqi oil", said Kavi Chongkittavorn, an editor at the English-language Nation newspaper.

Harsh laws stripping away civil liberties and allowing lengthy imprisonment without trial - similar to the US Patriot Act and other legislation - have been hurriedly enacted in Thailand, Indonesia and other neighboring countries amid jingoism about terrorism, further alienating many Southeast Asians.

Embassies, tourist traps, shopping plazas and other places have meanwhile upgraded security in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere - with mixed results. In many cases, guards diligently check vehicles and frisk visitors for a few weeks after a bombing makes news, but they then slack off as the tropical torpor and easy-going nature of life in these developing countries loosen discipline.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, security forces were quick to name the extremist Jemaah Islamiya organization for the October 2002 car-bomb attacks on Bali that killed 202 people, and for last month's car bomb in front of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, which killed 12.

But unlike the US network linking drivers' licenses, credit cards, telephones and other data, much of Southeast Asia remains mired in the 20th century's reliance on typewriters, hand-written notations and ink-smeared rubber stamps - which are difficult for investigators to trace. Porous land borders and thousands of kilometers of relatively unguarded coastlines allow terrorists, criminals, gun smugglers and others to sail from beach to beach similar to pirates of yore, but now bolstered by motorboats, assault weapons and corrupt officials who turn a blind eye.

Investigators tracking Hambali, for example, indicated he might have sailed north from urbanized Malaysia to Myanmar's jungle-clad south coast and then trekked north through anarchistic territory where minority ethnic guerrillas have been fighting for the past 50 years. He then may have crossed from Myanmar into the rugged, isolated, opium-rich mountains of Laos before skipping across the Mekong River into northern Thailand.

Hambali, whose real name is Riduan Isamuddin, reportedly chilled out in Cambodia earlier for several months in a cheap guesthouse alongside pot-puffing backpackers in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Muslims inspired by Osama bin Laden see much of Southeast Asia as a would-be Islamic "caliphate" uniting the Muslim-populated zones of southern Thailand and the southern Philippines with Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia. They base their claim on historic Islamic sultanates and other Muslim regimes that were crushed when Christians and foreign colonialists seized partial control of Southeast Asia during the past several centuries.

Muslim nationalists, however, often avoid mentioning that their religion arrived here from distant Arabia and was not indigenous to Southeast Asia. This area's ancient, original inhabitants held mostly animist beliefs - which were repressed by Muslims as deceptive superstitions.

Today, using widespread Internet facilities and a sophisticated underground industry producing forged documents, Muslim extremists apparently hope to use Southeast Asia as a makeshift substitute for Afghanistan, where countless Muslim guerrillas trained throughout the 1980s while financed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others, and during the 1990s under the former Taliban.

Indonesia and the Philippines are of special importance to Osama bin Laden. In his "Sermon for the Feast of the Sacrifice", delivered in March and broadcast on al-Jazeera TV, bin Laden called on Muslims to "maintain the current jihad and support it with all its might, which is very difficult, as we can see in Palestine, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Indonesia, the Philippines and other Muslim lands".

But many of Southeast Asia's Muslim guerrillas were struggling for autonomy or independence long before Osama bin Laden became a household name, and they are riddled by factions, rivalries and parochial concerns.

(Copyright 2003 Richard S Ehrlich.)
Sep 11, 2003

Unhappy anniversary for US-Indonesia ties

Jemaah Islamiya 'damaged but dangerous' (Sep 4, '03)

Terrorists regroup in southern Thailand (Aug 19, '03)

The Roving Eye: Jihad virus attacks Pentagon logic (Aug 7, '03)

Thailand: Terrorists and spin doctors (Jun 20, '03)

The overblown pan-Islamic threat (May 22, '03)
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