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  January 10, 2002  

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Terror crackdown opportunism

It's fashionable, it's opportune, it no longer runs the risk of serious reprobation by Western governments and human rights watchdogs. As the US-led campaign against terrorism spreads, more and more governments in Asia and elsewhere are jumping on the bandwagon and cracking down on suspected terrorist groups. The trouble is that in the process the definition of terrorism is continually getting widened to include everything from ethnic separatism and religious extremism to plain old determined political opposition. The lines are becoming blurred, to say the least.

On January 4, Malaysia announced that between December 9 and January 3 it had arrested 13 people with suspected links to Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person to be charged so far in connection with the September 11 attacks on the US. They are also accused of membership in a wing of the Kumpulan Militan Malaysia, an Islamic militant group that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad says aims to topple his government and establish an Islamic regime.

On January 5, Singapore announced that between December 9 and December 24 it had arrested 15 suspected militants for allegedly plotting bombings of American installations in the city state. Thirteen of the suspects are said to belong to a clandestine organization called the Jemaah Islamiah, with links to Malaysia and Indonesia. In response to the terrorism threat, Singapore has set up a new national security secretariat in the defense ministry to coordinate the activities of the security services.

On January 7, the foreign ministers of the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, met in Beijing and agreed to set up a regional counter-terrorism agency, and vowed a stepped-up campaign in Central Asia against the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism and extremism. "When we talk about fighting the 'three forces' we mainly focus on the terrorist groups in Chechnya and East Turkestan and the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement," explained Zhou Li, a Chinese foreign ministry official.

The Singapore arrests were accompanied by the most specific allegations and the government has little to gain from creating a climate of fear or uncertainty. We'll let that pass in the expectation that formal charges will be filed in due course and will not stretch ad infinitum under the Internal Security Act.

We are less sanguine about the arrests in Malaysia. The charges put forward against the alleged Kumpulan Militan Malaysia members are vague. A dozen or so members of the group were detained last year prior to September 11 and they have yet to be brought to trial. Several of those are members of the main opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). The Mahathir government has launched a TV "information" campaign accusing the PAS of wanting to establish a Taliban-like government. We are no admirers of the PAS - but neither are we admirers of Dr Mahathir's track record on dealing with political opponents.

We are less sanguine still (and by a mile) when it comes to the anti-terrorism stance of the Shanghai six. There were, to be sure, significant numbers of Chechens (in the hundreds) among the Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. There were (and are) undoubtedly connections between Al-Qaeda and Chechen separatist leaders. But that does not justify branding the entire Chechnya problem an issue of terrorism pure and simple. Similarly, there may well have been ethnic Uighurs among Al-Qaeda fighters. But China's problems with the "splittist" Uighurs in Xinjiang are certainly broader than anti-terrorist action would indicate. Lastly, to pick just one of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, terrorist activities by the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement admittedly constitute a problem that the government of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov must address. But the former head of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan in Soviet days is no angel and has time and again used the fight against Islamic terror as a ready excuse for brutal suppression of the political opposition.

Thus beware that the big anti-terrorist stick will likely come down hard in months and years to come on the heads of more easily identified legitimate political opponents, while it may miss murderous hard-core militants.

This said, what should be the world community's attitude toward such free-riding on the anti-terrorist train? There is something to be said for looking the other way for a while, accepting some collateral damage and bending the stick the other way. For too long have numerous governments and leaders, especially in the Middle East, not merely tolerated Islamic extremist rhetoric, but also terrorist action. For too long as well have terrorists been allowed to afford themselves of the constitutionally guaranteed liberties of democracies to carry out their evil deeds. But temporary tactical alliances in the war on terror with oppressive regimes and a degree of toleration of their activities must be just that: temporary. The required crackdown on terrorism must not be permitted to become the tool of choice and convenience for wholesale political oppression.

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