American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

July 2002

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Southeast Asia Today

Amb. Palmer presents in this extended a tour d’horizon over an extended area of the world, drawing together an assessment of the region country-by-country both pre- and post-September 11, 2001. He adds a fascinating account of regional counter-terrorism intelligence activities in the wake of the 9/11 attack.— Ed.

"[T]he local security environment [in Southeast Asia] has changed substantially since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Communism was an external influence. The rise of the concept of an Islamic ummah or community stretching potentially from the Muslim provinces of Southern Thailand, through Malaysia, Singapore, the Southern Philippines and Indonesia is homemade."

I was among the observers of Southeast Asia who complained in 2001, before September 11, that the region had received inadequate attention by the 1991-2000 Clinton Administration. The complaint was that the United oStates had shifted its previous keen national security focus on the region to mere economics and reliance on the market forces of globalization that paid little attention to the underlying political, economic, and institutional weaknesses of the region. In doing so, the United States appeared to assume that the high economic growth rates of the region would somehow automatically promote democracy, human rights and better governance. Southeast Asia was a success story.

However, the 1997 financial crisis demonstrated that the region's rapid involvement in the world economy carried risks as well as rewards. Southeast Asia's still post-colonial, patrimonial -- even feudal ô -- political, economic, and financial institutions could not stand up to the onslaught of globalized capital markets and the IT Revolution. More dangerously, standard U. S.-backed IMF and World Bank free market-oriented standard solutions of deflation, deregulation, privatization, deregulation, and savage cuts in government spending had little apparent relevance to local leaderships that viewed these nostrums as politically destabilizing at best and evidence of unfeeling U. S. disinterest and cynicism at worst. Southeast Asia, which had been the prized U. S. godchild in the Cold War came to feel like the scorned U. S. stepchild in the post -Cold War period.

The human rights emphasis of U. S. policy toward Indonesia and Malaysia in particular appeared to ignore or to take inadequate account of the basic fragility of the socioeconomic situations in these nations. The authoritarian political systems the Unit çed States had previoualy tolerated, even encouraged, became the focus of U. S. human rights criticism.

U. S. standoffishness toward the region changed abruptly after September 11, 2001. Before detailing the changes, I will analyze the situations in individual countries in 2001 before the United States declaration of war on terrorism.

Before commencing that analysis, however, it is uaeful to recall that acts of political violence, including the use of terror, have a long history in the region. There was the 1948-1960 Emergency in British-ruled Malaya and Singapore caused by the power-seeking Chinese-led communist terrorists. Vietnam has been plagued by rural-urban and north-south tensions dating back at least to the eighteenth-century Nguyen Dynasty. These tensions were exploited by the communists during French rule, but persist under communist rule. Similar rural-urban tensions were exploited b 'y Thai communists from 1945 until the 1970s, when Peking withdrew its support of the Thai communist party. The Philippines has had three areas of historic strife: Luzon, the Visayas, and the Muslim South, including Mindanao. The Huk movement in Luzon arose from farmer dissatisfaction with landlordism. The Huks have been succeeded by the New People's Army. The islands of the central area of the Philippine archipelago are called, collectively, the Visayas, and were the victims of annual bloody raids by Muslim Moros from Mindanao in the Spanish era after Christianity was introduced in the fifteenth century. Christianity pushed south relentlessly, however, and by the beginning of the twentieth century American era, Mindanao was reported to be twenty-five percent Muslim. Muslims now reportedly still r Iepresent only twenty-five percent of the Mindanao population. Muslims have been in rebellion in the south since the President Ferdinand Marcos Administration of the early 1970s. Indonesia has a modern history of rebellions including the Communist-inspired 1926 and 1948 Madiun Rebellions and the September 30, 1965, Rebellion. However, the 1948-1963 Darul Islam uprising resulted in the most death and destruction. Burma (Myyanmar) has had virtually continuous anti-government armed opposition by political groups of all stripes, including communists.

I'll stop there. The point is that political Islam is the current face of violence in Southeast Asia but it is only the most recent expression of historical forces with complex roots.


Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad became Malaysian prim Ûe minister in 1981 and began an aggressive program of attempting to transform the nation, particularly to uplift its ethnic Malay core, constituting fifty-eight percent of the population (Chinese are thirty-eight percent of the nation.). Malays were still predominantly rural subsistence farmers in 1981. The Chinese were mainly urban dwellers and they dominated the economy. By 1999, after eighteen years of rule, Dr. Mahathir's affirmative action education and economic programs to create "Malay Millionaires" had successfully transformed Malay status and enabled them to command the heights of the economy. The political vehicle through which this had been accomplished was the Mahathir-led United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which dominated t he Barisan Nasional (National Front) of the three conservative communally based ethnic parties: UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

Mahathir led the National Front to a smashing victory in the 1995 elections, its fourth in his tenure, maintaining as usual a two-thirds parliamentary majority. However, the shock of the 1997 financial crisis emboldened Mahathir's deputy Anwar Ibrahim and his supporters to challenge the prime minister politically. Mahathir's response was to jail Anwar in 1998 on questionable charges. The United States vigorously challenged the jailing. However, Mahathir was determined to stay in power and rejected American and other protests over his treatment of Anwar.

Meanwhile, the Islamist PAS party bec Éame the leading challenger of UMNO for the Malay vote. PAS opposed the secularist UMNO and proposed instead the establishment of an Islamic state based on Muslim religious law. Other more militant Muslim factions also challenged UMNO. There were perhaps as many as forty or so groups, some of which advocated and practiced terrorism.

Mahathir called elections in November 1999 and PAS made spectacular gains, emerging as the parliamentary leader of the opposition. PAS and UMNO split the Malay vote and PAS won control of two northern Malaysia states. However, the non-Malay MCA and MIC voted heavily for the National Front, which was able to maintain a reduced two-thirds majority.

The significance of a two-thirds majority has been that UMNO has been able to amend the constitution freely to advance the Mahathir program.

Concerned by the Islamic threat to UMNO secularism, Mahathir began a wid &Mac2-ranging campaign to associate PAS with Muslim extremists. Arrests were made amid accusations that Muslim militants, including PAS leaders, were under the influence of outside extremists groups. Mahathir also demanded that PAS clarify the policies it would follow in setting up an Islamic state. PAS was unable to do so and Mahathir declared in July 2001 that UMNO had already created an Islamic state under his secular leadership.

This strategy of outflanking PAS was designed to appeal to an increasingly Islamicized Malay population. The Dakwah Islamic revivalist movement had been active at least since 1969 in promoting more rigorous observance of Islam and had made a strong impact on the emerging Malay middle class, which qu estioned the neo-liberal materialist thrust of Mahathir's policies, even while benefiting from economic, political, social and cultural uplift. In part this paradox resulted from revulsion at the perceived corruption of leading Malay capitalists, especially the chart of Mahathir cronies who were conspicuous beneficiaries of UMNO political and economic support.

Dr. Mahathir has fought the Islamic resurgence for years. His goal has been to create a modern secular state under Malay political and economic control. His strategy was to coopt Islam, that is, to out-Islam PAS. UMNO built mosques and social and educational facilities and other infrastructure especially in rural areas. UMNO sponsored Koran reading contests. It provided financial support for pilgrimages to Mecca. UMNO created an w Islamic Bank and an International Islamic University. Mahathir led Malaysia in played a leading role in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. These efforts have been accompanied by effective use of coercion. Malaysia has retained colonial British laws designed to combat subversion and Mahathir has used them ruthlessly to put down opposition, including Islamic dissidence.

The United States watched Mahathir's growing authoritarianism uneasily. U. S.-Malaysian relations were strained on September 11, 2001.

President Suharto's thirty-two-year rule ended in 1998 amid widespread dissatisfaction with despotic use of the military and police to maintain his power. Indonesia went from a closed authoritarian society to a wide-open society virtually overnight. A period of political instability ensued, with first B.J. Habibie (1998-1999) and Wahid Abdulrahman (1999-200 ‡1) as presidents. Both were spectacular failures, but Wahid failed even more spectacularly than Habibie and was replaced in July 2001 by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the inexperienced daughter of Indonesia's first President Sukarno (1945-1966).

The unstable political situation worsened the severe effects of the financial crisis and Indonesia drifted in the post-Suharto period. The central government and the judicial and legal systems lost authority in the 17,000 islands of the archepelagic nation. There were regional insurgencies in Atjeh in northern Sumatra, Sulawesi in the northwest, Borneo in the center, and the Spice Islands of Ambon and Maluku in the east, as well as in Papua, the Indonesian portion of New Guinea. The military K appeared to be encouraging some of this disorder, particularly Muslim-Christian fighting in Sulawesi and Maluku

This was the atmosphere in which East Timor voted in September 2000 in a referendum to stay in Indonesia or to choose independence. President Habibie had blithely offered the referendum in the confident belief the voters would choose continued association with Indonesia. This arrogant misunderstanding of the East Timorese dissatisfaction with Indonesian "colonial" rule since 1975 colored all subsequent events. The East Timorese firmly rejected continued Indonesian rule in the UN-sponsored referendum. The Indonesian military reacted violently, goading pro-Indonesians in East Timor and Indonesian West Timor into murderous attacks on independence supporters. The central government was distracted by other problems and faile Md to comprehend foreign revulsion to the savage spectacle of the vengeance being wreaked by the Indonesian military. Jakarta was stunned by to the angry U. S. reaction, which included the suspension of military-to-military contacts.

Yet the discredited Indonesian military was the only effective nationwide organization even though its morale and moral standing were so low it began avoiding even the appearance of exercising extra-legal political authority at the Jakarta level. Nevertheless, it retained awesome power through its organization which paralleled the civilian bureaucracy. While the military had traditionally opposed political Islam but it began to dabble in local conflicts between opposing Muslim and Christian factions, even arming Muslim groups in an apparent strategy of demonstrating its continuing security importance.

There has always been tension between the tolerant, inclusive, secular Muslim majority and small militant groups which have pushed for more orthodox, conservative, literal interpretations of Islam including demands for an Islamic state. Such advocates led a 1947-1962 Darul Islam rebellion against the central government in which at least 100,000 people died. That insurgency resulted from local factors. Present militant Islamic groups also have basically local agendas but also have international connections which some evidence indicates contacts with terrorist groups.

Political Islam—that is, political parties espousing Islamic ideology, remain weak and in disarray, especially after the failure of the Wahid Abdulrahman government. There –is no support for an Islamic state even though there is a Muslim majority of ninety percent, but Islamic leaders remain opposed to declaring Islam the official religion for fear it would result in further political instability.

Megati had been president of a confused and unstable Indonesia for less than three months on September 11, 2001.

Continued: The Philippines
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July 9, 2002

Ambassador Ronald Palmer, a member of the American Diplomacy Publishers board of directors, frequently contributes analyses and commentaries to this journal. During a long and distinguished career as a Foreign Service officer, he served as U. S. ambassador to Malaysia from 1981 to 1983. Additionally, he served as American ambassador to Togo, 1976-78, and Mauritius, 1986-89. He is now Professor Emeritus of the Practice of International Affiairs at George Washington Univeristy in Washington, D.C.

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