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ASEAN and Terrorism in Southeast Asia

ASEAN and Terrorism in Southeast Asia

Some Islamic extremists envision a new pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia, Chinese scholar tells UCLA audience.

By Leslie Evans

"Extremist groups are using Southeast Asia as an operations base and attack target."

Radical Islamists in several key Southeast Asian countries are dreaming of carving out a new pan-Islamic state in the region, according to Professor Xinsheng Wang, chair of the Department of International Relations at China's Zhongshan University and director of that university's Center for Asia-Pacific Studies. Currently Wang is at UCLA as a Fulbright scholar. Professor Wang outlined his views of the situation and its implications for ASEAN at a May 13 talk in Bunche Hall sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. The extremists, he said, hope to include Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and southern Thailand and southern Philippines in their project to redraw the map. Wang said Southeast Asia is emerging as the most important center of Islamic terrorism outside of the Arab East.

The most important of the extremist groups, Wang said, is the Jemaah Islamiya of Indonesia. "In a report from today's Australia Enews it is said that Jemaah Islamiya of Indonesia is suspected of having links with the Madrid bombers. The emergence of JI has brought the region into the spotlight in the war against terrorism. The Bali bombing of October 12, 2002, was an important terrorist attack in Southeast Asian countries. On August 5, 2003, there was the horrible bombing of the Marriott hotel in Indonesia. Terrorist attacks have become more and more dangerous in the region."

Why Southeast Asia?

"Extremist groups are using Southeast Asia as an operations base and attack target," Wang said. Why Southeast Asia and not the former Soviet republics of Central Asia? Professor Wang gave six reasons.

First, political-religious violence is already well established in several Southeast Asia countries, mainly Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, "including armed activities against the governments." This violence "has its roots in Islamic groups. There was a separatist Islamist movement already active in the 1980s, in southern Thailand, southern Philippines, and in Indonesia. Radical Islamists have as their intention to separate from the country to which they belong." The Jemaah Islamiya has ties with Al Qaeda, Wang said, and a number of its leaders have undergone training in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "The Afghan experience was also central to the Moro group in the Philippines."

Second, the economic crisis of 1997 and subsequent reductions in social spending produced further support for radical Islamic groups. Cuts in spending on education in the region raised the profile of private schools run by Islamic radicals. "The Islamic groups give some benefits to families, especially with their religious schools."

Third are favorable geographic factors. "The borders are porous, immigration controls are weak. Malaysia only recently required visas for visitors from Muslim countries. It is easy for foreigners to marry a Philippine citizen and change identity.

Fourth is "widespread corruption of the governments," which permits terrorist groups to buy off local officials.

Fifth are the long-standing economic and trade links between Southeast Asia and the Middle East. "These are often not monitored by governments, which has facilitated the transfer of materiel to Southeast Asian groups. Criminal activity is widespread in the region and can assist a radical group."

Sixth is the extensive funding of mosques and madrasas in the region by Saudi Arabia, institutions that promote the Saudis' anti-Western and puritanical Wahabi sect of Islam. "Combined with increased media reach of satellite TV and the Internet, this makes Southeast Asian Muslims more like their brethren in the Middle East. They come to have the same outlook on world affairs."

What Do the Islamic Extremist Groups Want?

For the radical Islamists, Professor Wang said, "An important target is to build Islamic states in Southeast Asia, to create Muslim states, to include Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, southern Thailand, Indonesia, and the southern Philippines. Most of these Islamic groups are concentrating on regional, not worldwide issues, as with Abu Sayyaf and the Moro groups in the Philippines. The leader of JI, Abu Bakar Bashir, also saw their fight as being only against Jakarta authorities. A minority of them focus on global Islamic issues, such as opposition to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq."

A number of the major groups have begun to establish ties with each other with a view toward an eventual regional Muslim federation or unitary state. "Southern Thai Muslim groups are said to have close ties with the Moro National Liberation Front and even with Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. There is cause for concern as many young Thai Muslims have been schooled in Muslim religious schools, and some young Thais were trained in Afghanistan during the Taliban period."

In Malaysia, Wang said, "in the northern provinces a fundamentalist Muslim party is building up strength."

Xinsheng Wang conceded that poverty provides a breeding ground for terrorism and that "some Southeast Asian countries need to do something about that," but he pointed out that equally poor countries in the region that lack a large Muslim minority, such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, "don't have terrorists." Why? "The rise of radical Islamic groups is more important than the economic factor."

Response of the Governments

The governments of the region have taken steps to rein in the Islamic radicals, but have often been cautious, Wang said, for fear of alienating their Muslim citizens. The Arroyo government in the Philippines has mounted the strongest response. "Arroyo accepted the offer of U.S. advisors for the military. She has received millions in military equipment, and the Bush administration has sent 600 military advisors to Mindanao to support to the war against Abu Sayyaf. Arroyo at a meeting with Muslim minority leaders has announced a plan to create a task force of Muslim police to hunt terrorists in the capital."

But Indonesia has not been so resolute. "Why was Jakarta so passive toward these militants?" Professor Wang asked, adding his own conclusion, that "Indonesian nationalism and anti-American sentiment is the reason for the passive policy toward local terrorists." Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri is also trying to avoid alienating her country's Muslim majority, he said. "The Megawati government displays some tolerance of terrorist activities. Abu Bakar Bashir was arrested last year and put in jail. Firstly for four years, but now he is released from prison. First his sentence is reduced to 18 months, then he is released."

Wang said that Jemaah Islamiya has the deepest ties with Arab Islamic radicals. "There are Indonesian alumni of the Chechen war. Al Qaeda claims in Karachi to have 100 Indonesians in training. The JI is not restricted to southern Asia."

The Indonesian government feels itself vulnerable because it sits on the largest Islamic population in the world, "but it is not really an Islamic country. The constitution separates religion and political administration."

Indonesia and Malaysia "may want to support the worldwide antiterrorism war," Wang said, "but they don't want to be a target of this war. Malaysia has been more active than Indonesia. They have gone after religious schools as breeding grounds of terrorism. But the Malaysian government has opposed any action in ASEAN backing U.S. military operatioins, even in the name of antiterrorism. They say groups should only endorse a UN General Assembly resolution, not a U.S. action."

He concluded that "ASEAN unity is more important to Southeast Asian countries than the war on terrorism. There is a fear of dividing along Muslim/non-Muslim lines."

China and Islamic Terrorism

Turning to his own country, Xinsheng Wang said that China plays an active role in regional antiterrorism activities, because of its geography. "It is very close to terrorism's center, with Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Central Asia. China also has close relations with surrounding countries including Pakistan and South and Southeast Asian countries."

He also noted that within China's borders "separatist groups are active in the northwest part of China. A pan-Eastern Turkistan group makes a lot of attacks in the border areas. Between 2000 and 2001 more than 200 terrorist attacks took place in that area." He also pointed to the May 3 car bombing in the Pakistan port city of Gwadar that killed three Chinese engineers. Professor Wang concluded that China "wants to play a greater role in regional affairs, and it would be a real benefit for China to develop cooperation with ASEAN on security issues."

Center for Southeast Asian Studies