Anger over Iraq invasion slowly evolves into action as western interests targeted in south-east Asia

Developing Just Leadership

Abdar Rahman Koya

Safar 14, 1424 2003-04-16

South-East Asia

by Abdar Rahman Koya (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 4, Safar, 1424)

As American and British forces ‘mop up’ the pockets of resistance while ‘cruising’ through Baghdad, the protest and anger generated before and during the war are taking on a new dimension that may not be so easy to deal with as Saddam’s regime: the hatred of anything Western in the minds of people; such is the anger generated and felt as Muslims watched the American aggression in helpless anger. In southeast Asia, the greatest concentration of Muslims after the Arab world, millions are taking to the streets, with calls growing each day for volunteers – both humanitarian and military – to go to Iraq. On the governmental level, the region has ended its decades-old commitment to the so-called "zone of peace and neutrality", as Singapore and Manila were called by Colin Powell as part of the "coalition of the willing" at the start of the invasion.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, the anti-war and anti-West sentiments have been on "pitch high", as one western observer put it, though president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s government has not been as explicit as her Malaysian counterpart in naming the US as aggressors and terrorists. Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and (to a certain extent) Bangkok have condemned the warmongering in Iraq from the start. Such official condemnations, however, pale into insignificance in comparison with the millions of people who have turned up for various protests before the war and since.

The most forceful condemnation has been coming from none other than Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad. Doubts among critics that he could gain any political mileage from his stance in the war were resolved when, on April 6, he told al-Jazeera television that the Western triumvirate who talked about the "rebuilding of Iraq" were hypocrites and aggressors, only out to steal Iraq’s wealth, subjugate its entire population, "and mainly to remove any threat to Israel".

Mahathir has also called on UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to resign. He has called the "allied troops" cowards bullying a weak nation, and showed his disbelief of CNN and BBC propaganda by sponsoring thirty Malaysian reporters to go to Iraq and report from a non-western perspective. The ruling party, led by the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), has been competing with opposition parties to mobilise crowds to attend its anti-war demonstrations, although these staged protests look less genuine than the outpourings of anger at numerous demonstrations called by the opposition, led mainly by the Islamic Party (PAS).

Notwithstanding their genuine anger at the US-led atrocities in Iraq, both opposition and ruling parties have been eager to gain political mileage, with PAS flags seen more than any placards at its anti-war rallies, and the party sending highly publicised "humanitarian aid" (something it knew was almost impossible to deliver) to Iraq; Mahathir’s party, on the other hand, were setting up aid funds and hanging up pro-Palestine banners at various spots in the capital. However, the opposition is clearly overwhelmed from the beginning, with only the Islamic Party coming out strongly against the US. That is not the case with the jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and some of his close aides, who still appear to be hoping that the US will pressurise Mahathir’s regime to correct its judicial flaws. Even more damaging to the opposition’s image is Anwar Ibrahim’s mild statement of "regret" for the misery of the Iraqi people, while joining in the western rhetoric against Saddam’s tyranny – something he had not advocated while he was nurtured by the Saudi lobby during the Iraq-Iran war.

Mahathir, for his part, can be credited with galvanising and reinforcing his country’s public opinion against US propaganda, transcending religious and racial barriers. Malaysian television news, controlled by the ruling government, have constantly used the term "invaders" and "aggressors" to refer to American and British troops in Iraq, and mainstream dailies in both Malay and English have criticised the US in a way comparable to Islamic Iran’s perception of the ‘Great Satan’. Television news-bulletins have been giving headlines to Iraqi successes and downplaying US claims. Qatar-based al-Jazeera’s footage and reports have been used extensively, in preference to CNN and BBC. Even in English-language dailies which are read mostly by non-Muslims, Bush is referred to as a "war criminal", "bully", "cowboy" and so on, reflecting the Malaysian media’s recognition of a rare time when every section of society and government is in agreement about an issue. Yet the government cannot want to seem too eager to condemn the US, and balances its acts by dispersing opposition protesters who converge near the American embassy or British and Australian high commissions. Mahathir was praised by Washington for arresting scores of Muslims last year under the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA) after US allegations of a ‘terror’ network in southeast Asia. Early this month, the FBI announced plans to set up a local office in Kuala Lumpur to cooperate with Malaysians in the ‘war on terror’.

Rhetorical or not, the Malaysian stance on Iraq is making Manila and Singapore uncomfortable, especially because the latter has been playing a key role in the ‘war against terror’, providing military bases and espionage facilities for American agents in the region and arresting scores of Muslims on ridiculous charges. Coupled with this is the volcanic explosion of protest by Indonesian Muslims, with some rallies drawing millions in Jakarta, Makassar, Bandung, Surabaya and other large cities. But the reaction in Indonesia has not been limited to placards and slogans: Islamic-based groups there are not beholden to any political leadership, and operate independently. Scores of businesses generally perceived as American symbols have been targeted since the war build-up began early this year; McDonalds outlets in some cities have been vandalised or forced to close down. There have also been calls for the government to withdraw from the UN, and support for calls that Jakarta cut diplomatic ties with the US has increased manifold. A poll by Tempoweekly – the most widely read political weekly in the archipelago – showed that 52 percent of Indonesians support the idea of severing ties with the US, while the rest disagreed; "but [this] does not mean that they agree with the US brutal attack to Iraq", it commented on April 7.

The extent of hatred against the West – especially the US, Britain and Australia – can be seen clearly: one organisation, the Islamic Youth Movement (GPI), is reported to have advocated bombing the US embassy if the invasion continues, and has threatened Western nationals – with the exception of a few European countries, such as France and Germany – who refused to sign a petition against the war. Members of this civilian group have also visited restaurants and franchises that display western symbols and pictures, and taken them down. But GPI has denied making people’s lives miserable, saying that "If they refuse to sign the petition, that means they support the aggression of the US against Iraq. We give people like that two days to pack up and leave the country. If not, we are concerned that another group could take stronger action than we would," said GPI chairman Suaib Didu, who is now being charged with intimidation.

Elsewhere in the city of Bandung, the Ka’bah Youth (AMK) warned 17 cinemas that Hollywood posters and films should be removed, or its members would take them down. On March 28 a popular McDonalds outlet was sealed off by students of Bandung Islamic University. But members of the well-known Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have taken a further step: destroying American products and signing volunteers up to fight against US-led troops. More than 650 men have registered with FPI, some as old as 75. Although most of them do not have any experience, some have served in Bosnia and southern Philippines. The signing up is not just for show: an FPI statement quoted by Tempo on April 7 confirmed that dozens of volunteers out of the hundreds who signed up to serve in Afghanistan in 2001 were martyred.

In Thailand, protests erupted as the war entered the third week, with about 100,000 people in the Muslim-majority south demonstrating, led by thirty Muslim organisations in a march through the streets of Pattani on April 4. Large-scale protests have also erupted in Manila, where Filipinos from all walks of life condemned the American invasion. The anti-war heat has forced president Arroyo’s regime to call off US involvement in its war against Muslim fighters in Mindanao.

Whether the people of this part of the world will transform slogans into action will be seen in the weeks to come, and the result can only be visible once western interests are hit where they hurt most: their pockets. Things are clearly not working out in the US’s favour, despite the initial cooperation secured from Malaysia and Indonesia for its ‘war against terror’. Perhaps the US will blame the British and Dutch colonialists for not dividing this part of the Muslim world into tiny kingdoms, as others did in the Middle East.

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