TCS Daily

A Beach Head in the Second Front?

By Alan Oxley - June 23, 2004 12:00 AM

JAKARTA -- Analysts of the War on Terror refer to Southeast Asia as the Second Front. There were terrorist bombings last year in Bali and Jakarta in Indonesia by Jemaah Islamiah, an affiliate of Al Qaeda. This year, over 200 people have been killed in religious violence involving Muslims in southern Thailand. There is an armed truce with Muslim insurgents in the southern Philippines and only the military prevents Muslims and Christians massacring each other in Sulawesi in Northern Indonesia.

Yet the view in southeast capitals is that all this is more armed street protest than a major campaign and is manageable. The recent arrest in Sweden of two little known insurgents from little known Aceh, Indonesia's most westerly province, is a more important pointer. Aceh is the strategic beach head in this Second Front.

History has woven Islam into the political fabric of South East Asia. Until the fifteenth century the dominant culture was Indian. The leading religions were animism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Then the great empire at Angkor went into decline and Arab traders brought Islam to the region. The Mogul conquest of India showed how Indianized Kingdoms could be become Muslim Sultanates. This religious legacy shapes politics today in Southeast Asia.

Thais, Laos, Cambodians and Burmese worship Buddhism. Half of Malaysia's population and the biggest ethnic group (the Malays) are Muslim. Indonesia has the largest number of Muslim worshippers in the world (over 200 million), but there are powerful and ancient Indianized values in Indonesian culture. Most Filipinos are Christians, but a significant minority in the area bordering Indonesia and Malaysia are Muslim. There is also a Muslim minority in the south of Thailand where it borders Malaysia.

Arabic is the language of instruction in the mosques and Islamic schools throughout Southeast Asia. It is the cultural pipeline from the Middle East for all the leading trends in Islam: fundamentalist and radical variants and even Islamic terrorism. Al Qaeda's Southeast Asian partner is Jemaah Islamiah. This group bombed the Kuta tourist area in Bali and the Marriot Hotel in Jakarta. A plot to blow up the US, British and Australian Embassies in Singapore was foiled. It developed its cells quietly in Islamic Schools in rural Malaysia. Its leader has just been rearrested in Indonesia after release from jail after being convicted for minor offences.

All Governments in Southeast Asia are uneasy about Islamic fundamentalism. The Muslim military rebellion in the southern Philippines has been on-again, off-again for several decades. Two years ago foreign aid workers were beheaded. Violence erupted in Thailand's Muslim south in January. Two hundred have died since in random violence and clashes with Thai authorities, one hundred were killed alone in a Thai army assault on armed rebels holed up in a mosque. In Sulawesi in Northern Indonesia only a permanent military presence stops Muslims and Christians slaying each other.

Is this the Second Front erupting? No one is saying so. They are in fact remarkably relaxed. There is currently a truce in the Philippines. The violence in southern Thailand is reckoned to be another, regular flare up. Resentment there is long-simmering and deep-seated about neglect by the (Buddhist) national government and heavy handed treatment of Muslims by government military and police.

This seems fertile ground for Islamic terrorism. But that is not automatically the case. Malaysia's new Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi just won an handsome political victory on a moderate Islamic platform, drawing poor rural Malays, traditionally resentful about corruption and big city wealth, back into the political mainstream.

Indonesia is in the midst of a Presidential election campaign. A measure of the limit of the political appeal of Islamic extremism in Indonesia is that no major Islamic political party, and there are two, will campaign nationally to introduce Shari'a, Islamic law. This is a touchstone of radical Islam around the world, but an election loser in Indonesia.

This is not to say all is well. Aceh -- at 4.3 million, one of Indonesia's smaller provinces and its most Westerly -- is effectively in a state of contained civil war. Thirty thousand Indonesian troops have it under their heel. Aceh has history. It was an independent Muslim state for over 400 years. The Dutch ruled Java for 300 years. But they did not conquer and incorporate Aceh into its colonial empire until 1910. The Acehnese are an obdurate lot. Not only did they resent the Dutch, they resented the nationalist Indonesian Government who threw the Dutch out in 1945. In 1976, evidently with support from Libya's Colonel Gaddafi, a military insurrection began in Aceh. It continues.

What is significant about that? Three things. First, Aceh's rebel movement, GAM, wants not only an independent Aceh, but an Islamic state -- Shari'a law and the works. Second, Indonesia's massive natural gas fields, the ones that were the major source of global profit for Exxon for several years, are in Aceh. Third and most importantly, Aceh sits smack on the southern edge of Malaysia and just a little further away from Thailand and the Philippines.

Timor illustrated that military rebellion can produce independence. Its insurgency carved a new, independent mini state out of Indonesia. The central Government in Jakarta did not want that result, but events overran it. Indonesia's national government has been weak under President Megawati. If she is reelected, this could continue. The risk is that Aceh will spiral out of control.

If Aceh secured independence or a high level of autonomy, the consequences could be drastic. It would be a radical Islamic state smack in the middle of the region of Muslim discontent in Southeast Asia. It would be a cultural haven and political refuge for Islamic radicals and a natural beach head for Islamic terrorism.

The principal weapon in the battle on the Second Front is sound government. All the Governments in Southeast Asia have demonstrated they can catch terrorists. When there is Islamic rebellion, it is not because of Al Qaeda, it is the result of neglect of regions or heavy handed military control. And if by design of default Aceh secures independence, heaven help us.

Alan Oxley is chairman of the Australia's national APEC Centre and Host of the Asia Pacific home page. He has recently traveled in Thailand, the Philippines and Jakarta.


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