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  May 24, 2002  

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Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia tackles crime without borders

By Alan Boyd

SYDNEY - When Malaysia deported a Philippine Muslim separatist leader in January for suspected involvement in terrorist activities, it appeared that Southeast Asia might finally be taking the hard decisions on transnational crime networks.

Four months later, the Philippines threw out a Jordanian for allegedly setting up a network of Islamic extremists that would help funnel cash from the elusive Osama bin Laden and Abu Sayyaf groups.

Yet these actions owed more to judicial expediency than a genuine attempt to cooperate against the murky undertide of illicit drugs, money-laundering and cross-border smuggling that keeps the wheels of terror turning.

Kuala Lumpur was cleaning its own house after a rash of domestic arrests. Manila didn't take legal action because it couldn't: there are no specific laws in the Philippines governing financing networks for extremists. Such are the constraints that have dogged Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) security ministers since they first acknowledged the need to confront the life-support systems of terrorist organizations in 1997.

While extremist activity reaches unprecedented levels in states with a large Islamic population, the "consolidated regional action" that was sought between politicians, crime enforcement agencies and the legal and financial sectors has not advanced much beyond hopeful talk. A draft plan of action for coordinating security resources was drawn up in 1999, but in practical terms it is still at the formative stage, despite a flurry of committee hearings into the commonality of immigration laws, narcotics statutes, extradition treaties and technical assistance.

The focal issues are terrorism, drug-trafficking, the smuggling of women and children, piracy, international economic crimes, cyber crimes, smuggling of arms, and money-laundering. Cooperation will take the form of information and intelligence sharing, coordination of legal actions, institutional capacity-building, training exchanges and extra-regional liaisons with ASEAN’s "dialogue partners" such as the United States and the European Union.

But the breakthrough will probably come at a more modest grass-roots level as the one thing in evidence since 1997 has been increased levels of consultation. Narcotics agencies are working, somewhat ambitiously, toward a drug-free region in 2015. Consular and immigration officials are trying to mesh visa and travel protocols. Senior law officers are looking at technical issues. Legal experts are studying exchange rules and extradition treaties.

Yet, diplomats observing the latest workshop by ASEAN officials in Kuala Lumpur last week noted that while the terrorist attacks on the US in September had hardened political resolve within the region, they had also put a sharper focus on the formidable barriers to be overcome. Host nation Malaysia complained that anti-terrorism laws, even when they did exist, were not harmonized to allow easy extradition of suspects. Behavior that might attract a prison sentence in one country doesn't even merit investigation in another. Singapore and Malaysia are the only two countries with internal security laws. Thailand and the Philippines rely on civil emergency and military decrees, while Indonesia no longer has any relevant legislation.

Extradition treaties often are tied to one particular type of criminal activity. So a drug-trafficker can be deported and tried for dealing in heroin, but not prosecuted for carrying weapons across in the same consignment. The bottom line is that ASEAN countries need to beef up their own legal structures before they can expect them to work effectively on a broader plain. Equally, they need to set up better checks and balances.

Regulatory systems have been improved markedly since 1997, but suffer from weak institutional backup. Thus, money-laundering legislation is having little impact because central banks are ill-equipped to monitor thousands of daily financial transactions for "hot" money. Only Singapore has the capacity to respond with any great impact to cyber crimes, which are widely viewed as the next security frontier likely to be exploited in a big way by organized networks. At a deeper level, ASEAN needs to tackle the pervasive role played in business, government and society by the gray economy, as it provides a platform for terrorists to easily move cash and other resources between their various cells.

Organized crimes, including those with a multinational profile, conservatively contribute 10-20 percent to regional GDP, according to estimates by some anti-corruption organizations. Most diplomats and research groups believe that these gangs owe their perfidious growth to the protection offered by Southeast Asia’s notoriously secretive banking systems and high-level political influence.

Even if it had workable domestic anti-terrorism laws in place, ASEAN would have a hard time applying them on a regional basis as there are glaring gaps in the transnational judicial fabric, especially at the extradition level. Indonesia's sole bilateral treaty for drug-trafficking suspects in Southeast Asia is with the Philippines. Brunei can deal only with Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore, Myanmar and Vietnam have no treaties at all within this region.

Multilateral agreements, especially those brokered by the United Nations, offer a possible solution. Kidnapping, hostage-taking and insurrection are covered by the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Crime, which confers an obligation on member states to hand over suspects for trial. But Malaysia, Brunei, Laos and Myanmar are not signatories, and there are inevitable let-outs for other states. Only offenses punishable by at least four years of imprisonment under domestic law are covered, while the suspect must belong to an "organized criminal group" of at least three members.

Relatively few of the terrorist offenses that have come to light in recent months in the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia would have been covered, and none of their criminal activities.

ASEAN countries have also undermined their case for closer regional cooperation by displaying a lukewarm commitment to more specific UN treaties on transnational crime. Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Myanmar have not ratified a protocol on people-smuggling and a narrower accord on the illegal trafficking in migrants. No ASEAN state has signed a protocol on the illicit manufacturing or trafficking of firearms.

Similarly, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) lists Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar as countries that are not doing enough to suppress the laundering of assets from organized crimes, though Manila is working to fill the gaps in its legislation. Significantly, the communique issued by security ministers at their summit on transnational crime in 2001 called for "the early signing/ratification of or accession to all relevant anti-terrorist conventions, including the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism". So far that has not happened.

Ultimately, the grouping intends to integrate these treaties into its own conventions on terrorism, which will enable ASEAN to work from a common legal platform for the first time. The whole process will be overseen by a joint liaison office staffed with specialists in the different fields. When this will happen is anyone’s guess as the transnational crimes task force is not due to meet again until 2003.

All of these developments will require a change in the mindset of government officials, law enforcement specialists and politicians, who have shown little inclination to share the terrorism burden around. When Malaysia was asked by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to hand over a group of terrorism suspects for questioning, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad responded that they “are directing their attacks at us, and we can take care of them”.

The message coming out of Kuala Lumpur last week was that transnational crime was now everyone’s problem. And everyone’s solution.

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