US’s political and military build-up in South East Asia

Developing Just Leadership

Abdar Rahman Koya

Dhu al-Qa'dah 18, 1422 2002-02-01

South-East Asia

by Abdar Rahman Koya (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 23, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1422)

US allies in South-East Asia have been quick to seize the opportunity offered by the West’s anti-terrorism campaign to act against Islamic activism among the region’s ocean of Muslims. Few now bother to deny that the US is working towards a direct military role in the region.

In early January the ‘war on terrorism’ officially arrived in the Far East, with the deployment of more than 600 American troops in the Philippines for combat against Moro Muslims in the south. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, president of the Philippines, has increased the demonisation of the Moro Muslim fighters, who have been fighting for their Bangsamoro Muslim homelands for decades, using the Abu Sayyaf menace in much the same way as the US has used Usama Bin Ladin to control Afghanistan.

Elsewhere, another sinister campaign to consolidate US interests in the region is in full swing. Recent signs from Singapore (another of the US’s allies, which provides facilities for the US military machine in the region) suggest a consolidation of what were long-term plans by the US. The tiny Chinese-dominated regime has openly acted as the American voice in regional forums, and informs the US about potential ‘hot spots’ where it can play a role in the fight against ‘terrorism’.

Singapore has also been arresting its Muslim citizens and shutting down even the mildest criticism, with facist-style arrests of Muslims without trial or access to legal counsel. The extent of its Islamophobia can be seen in the way the regime reacted to, a little-known Muslim-run Singaporean website, that showed rare courage by criticising ‘Muslim’ government leaders for their silence over the demonisation of Islam and Muslims in the media. When Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, fateha’s spokesman, said that Usama bin Ladin was a better Muslim than any of the ‘Muslim’ government leaders, the regime warned its citizens of ‘poisonous’ materials on the internet.

Singapore is already established as a US naval base with all the support facilities an invading army needs. Its militarism, its economics and its pro-US stance in a Muslim region have led commentators to compare it with Israel in the Middle East. Its government has also openly opposed the Islamic party PAS in Malaysia, saying that PAS’s rise to power would be a ‘security risk’.

The Malaysian regime, far from tackling such a security threat from its neighbour, digs its own grave when it boasts of fighting local ‘militants’ with links to al-Qaeda, giving the US ample excuse to intervene, should it wish to do so. “Singapore will have the right to cross the border in hot pursuit of the ‘terrorists’,” warns the PAS paper, Harakah in its February 1 edition. “An excuse to annex Johore [in Malaysia] can be orchestrated with international approval... in such a scenario, the Malaysian army will collapse even faster than the Taliban’s.”

Eager not to be outdone by Manila and Singapore, Malaysia wants to be seen as taking the necessary ‘anti-terror’ steps, worried that its neighbouring US ally will capitalise on its inaction. And so for the past two months Mahathir has been arresting everyone from academics to businessmen. By January 21, 38 were in custody. As we go to press, more people are being abducted from their homes without any explanation except that they are ‘militants’.

In the meantime, Jakarta is also under pressure to crack down on ‘Islamists’: but there appears to be a difference in the Indonesian Muslim ‘fundamentalism’. In fact, the ‘extremists’ with whom Washington is unhappy are more interested in tidying up their own backyard, ensuring that the hitherto ‘de-Islamised’ country will be united under Islam, and challenging the lingering ‘pancasila’ secularism. Megawati Sukarnoputri, caught between ‘Islamist’ political allies and Christian advisers, is already finding it difficult to link these homegrown Muslim groups with foreign ‘terrorist’ groups.

On January 21, moreover, the Indonesian Mujahidin Council, accused of having terrorist links, warned that Megawati would be “playing with fire” if she ordered police to move against Muslim activists in the country.

Political observers no longer view with scepticism the ‘far-fetched’ theory that the US is eyeing the region’s vast oil reserves. With their economies, almost totally dependent on the US and its erstwhile ally Japan, these can be secured with a few official trips and a little patronage.

The sending of troops to Mindanao is therefore merely the first step. In the meantime, clearer signs are emerging: the Washington Post, for example, quoted US officials on January 18 as saying that the next face of ‘terror’ might not be Arab, “but an Indonesian, Filipino or a Malaysian face”. Slowly and steadily, a Vietnam-style scaling-up of American involvement (this time directed at Muslims) is on the cards.

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