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Southeast Asia and the U.S. War on Terrorism

Sheldon W. Simon


The reaction by Southeast Asian states to the U.S. war on terrorism ranges from enthusiastic endorsement to quiet backing. Amidst concern over the domestic political sensibilities of the Muslim members of their populations, Malaysia and Indonesia are hesitant to unequivocally back U.S. efforts. The support of Southeast Asia is complicated by the quid pro quo terms under which U.S. activities are often structured, as well as the inability of ASEAN to function as an effective body to facilitate counter–terrorist efforts. Fortunately for the United States, terrorists in Southeast Asia are largely homegrown, with few concerns beyond their own national borders and limited resources with which to achieve their aims. Despite some ties to Al Qaeda, terrorist groups are not operating in a coordinated fashion in the region as they are elsewhere in the world. The challenge for Washington will be to operate effectively in a region where some states do not want the United States to cast too long of a shadow, while not compromising U.S. foreign policy stances on human rights and appropriate standards of democratic governance. Ultimately the U.S. war on terrorism attacks only the symptoms of a much larger disease. Regional governments must do more to combat the economic and social conditions that give rise to terrorism in the first place.

Southeast Asia's political and economic variety covers the gamut from powerful and effective governments (Singapore) to the early stages of state–building, national identity, and cohesiveness (East Timor, Laos, and Cambodia) and points in between where political pluralism is still fragile (the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia). Although ten of Southeast Asia's eleven members form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), this organization has been of limited utility in recent regional crises such as the 1997–98 financial crisis, the 1999 secession of East Timor from Indonesia, and the current U.S. war on terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States. (East Timor only achieved formal independence in May 2002, emerging from a UN Protectorate and has not yet affiliated with ASEAN.)

Southeast Asian states have displayed a range of reactions to U.S. President George W. Bush's call for international support for the war on terrorism. Enthusiastic endorsement characterized the Philippine response as well as a more quiet backing from Singapore. Thailand's support was slower and more tentative. Both Indonesia and Malaysia, while deploring the September 11 attacks on the United States...

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