Region: Asian Media Commentary on The War In Iraq


Professor Tony Milner

As the war in Iraq continues - and casualties mount and the impact on the Iraqi civilian community worsens – the battle over public opinion becomes as important as the military battle itself. This battle over public opinion in Asia has potentially significant implications for Australia and others in the 'Coalition of the Willing'.

Opinion (including government opinion) varies across the region. The Malaysian government is at one extreme, taking an antagonistic posture towards US actions; Thailand is more neutral (it did expel Iraqi diplomats); South Korea and Singapore are more sympathetic to the US; and Japan is considering sending self-defence forces to help with logistics.

Whilst we have heard a good deal from Malaysia’s eloquent Prime Minister, it is interesting to note Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's recent statement in which he condemns the war, but goes on to emphasise the importance of maintaining communal harmony in Malaysia. Protests, he says, have to be 'orderly'. Visitors and tourists must be given no cause for fear; foreign investors must be told the country is safe for their investments. Opposition to the US-led attacks is widespread in Malaysia. Acting leader of PAS (the Islamic party, which won half the Malay votes in the last election) has described the Iraq war as the beginning of the self-destruction of the United States. He has also announced that the Party will be sending volunteers on a humanitarian mission to refugee camps in Iraq. The leader of the largely non-Malay party, the DAP, also condemns the war; as does the distinguished Chinese Malaysian commentator, Lee Poh Ping, who says (in the New Straits Times) that the attack on Iraq 'has no convincing legal cover' and is the first time since World War II that the US has acted militarily without legal cover.

The Chinese government has opposed military action in Iraq, but has not used the type of extreme denunciation that we saw at the time of the Chinese Cultural revolution. Chinese television talks of US ‘invasion’ and ‘aggression’ and puts a spotlight on the Iraqis themselves and their military struggle. An article in the People’s Daily (27March) is worth quoting; under the heading ‘War Against Iraq – the Evil Example in Pre-Emptive Strike’, the article argues that the war damages the norms of civilization in international affairs. It compares the US pre-emptive attack with the German attack of Soviet Russia and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The article also states that Australian Prime Minister Howard supported pre-emptive strikes last year, and this support led to strong protests across Southeast Asia.

In South Korea, as might be expected, attitudes to the US-led war on Iraq are coloured by the developing crisis in the North. Varying newspaper reports suggest that some 48-58 per cent of South Koreans support sending non-combatant units to the War. Conservative papers in South Korea support the United States, but often without great enthusiasm. The stress is on the importance to South Korea of the US alliance. In the words of Choson Ilbo, an influential right-wing paper: 'with a heavy heart our Government decided to support the US war efforts and now it must do everything to strengthen the US-Korea alliance'. Papers on the left take a different view – there is considerable anti-American feeling, including talk of ‘American aggression’. Hangeri Sinmun, for example, says that 'it is time to get rid of the idea that the alliance with the United States means unconditional obedience to the United States'. In general in South Korea, there is much talk of the need for ‘careful approaches’ and diplomacy, given the problem in the North.

In North Korea, there is of course condemnation, but this is couched in brief statements by North Korean standards. The government may not want to draw too much attention to the Iraq situation, fearing perhaps the possibility that a US success could increase insecurity and instability in North Korea itself.

However sympathetic to the US the Thai government may be, the Thai media contains plenty of critical reporting and analysis. Some of the concern has a local focus, for example, regarding the likely impact of the War on the Muslim population in Thailand's south. The popular paper, Naew Naa (25 March), noted that 'the government has to be aware of the internal situation and plan to deal with problems with the Islamic movement in the south, which is clearly opposing the USA'. The more upmarket paper, Maticham, has focused on what it sees as the violation of international treaties and sovereignty that it considers has taken place in the Iraq war. The US, the UK and Australia, it says, have followed the 'laws of the jungle'. The English language paper, The Bangkok Post, also contains a good deal of critical comment, including outrage with respect to pre-emptive war. It also reports on Islamic activities in southern Thailand, noting plans for a mass prayer meeting in Songkhla and a boycott of US goods.

Turning to Indonesia, observers are struck by the diversity of the reportage – especially the use of Arab material as well as the CNN. On Televisi Republik Indonesia (the state television) there is a clear sympathy for the people, army and government of Iraq. Iraqi soldiers have been called 'heroic', and are said to have offered 'fierce resistance', even though they are poorly armed compared with the Coalition troops. The Indonesian television news is also indicating a sensitivity to the danger of damage to Holy Cities in the region, for example at Karbala. Another feature of the Indonesian reporting is a concentration on the suffering of ordinary civilians, including vignettes depicting suffering - of a woman digging a hole for shelter with her bare hands, after her husband and son have been killed by a Coalition bomb; another of an Iraqi civilian undertaking a suicide jihad attack on a tank (described by Televisi Republik Indonesia as a tank belonging to the 'American aggressors'). However, a striking aspect of this Indonesian television coverage of the war is that Australia gets very little mention. When condemnation is meted out, it is largely directed at the US and UK.

With respect to Japan, one report in the Yomiuri Shimbun (a fairly conservative paper) says 76 per cent of Japanese support the United States. The Japanese PM is reported as saying that: 'the base of the post-war development in Japan is the Japan-US alliance'. America, he adds, is the 'only country that has clarified its position that an attack on Japan is an attack on its own country'. Nevertheless, Koizumi adds, 'we will never use military force'. It is also true that some Japanese papers, such as Asahi Shimbun and Nihon Keizai Shimbun, have been critical of the US-led war, and Japanese public TV has given much attention to civilian casualties. As elsewhere in the Asian region, the Japanese media has been concerned about the likely impact of the Iraq war on the domestic economy.

Analysis of the variety of views on the Iraq war needs to pay attention to local factors, for instance: - the country’s dependence on the US for trade and investment (and many fit that category); - the percentage and nature of the Muslim population in the country concerned. - possible relationships, at least at the level of perceptions, between developments in Iraq and such local issues as the threat from North Korea or the presence of separatist movements in the country. - the relative independence of media from government in each country.

In attempting to generalize about Asian opinion, the first point to note is its variety – the 'many Asias', if you like. Secondly, there is a certain tentativeness, a degree of wait-and-see, in media comment. The US, we should remember, was able to foster a fair amount of goodwill across the region in the post-September 11 ‘War on Terror’. However, the attack on Iraq without Security Council support has sent shock waves across Asia. People are pondering what such unilateral American action might mean for the future of the international community, for the future of their own domestic economies and the likely future status of their relations with respect to the world’s superpower. Some countries in the Asian region may be wondering whether they might be added to the United States’ list of ‘rogue states’. Just how the Iraq war is fought and how the Iraqi people are treated will likely have an enormous influence on the way public opinion develops regarding the war and even regarding any American plans for a post-United Nations world system.

WATCHPOINT: The media battle for the hearts and minds of people will become even more crucial as the war goes on.


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