Special Report: REGION: Some Responses to the War Against Terrorism


Professor Richard Broinowski

In Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila in mid-October, I was able to compare reactions in the three countries to President Bush’s War Against Terrorism. In none of the three was there evidence of anything as unqualified as Australia’s moral and military support. In none of them was the threat of terrorism a source of alarm. On Thai Airways out of Sydney, plastic cutlery was used to satisfy strict Australian anti-terrorist guidelines, but steel knives and forks took its place on flights on the same airline around the region.

In Bangkok, public support for Bush’s war was equivocal, and overlaid with concern about how Thai government involvement could affect domestic stability. In particular, the print media linked two things - the potentially adverse reactions of its Muslims to Thailand’s involvement, and the use the Americans are making of their naval air base at U-Tapao in southern Thailand. The Government’s response, from Defence Minister Chavalit, has been to affirm that the base will not be used to stage an attack on a ‘third country’. Whether this means it is actually being used for logistic support for the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, or whether such a vague assurance will satisfy Thai Muslims, is not clear. Meanwhile, the Thai government remains nervous.

In Jakarta, there was, predictably, strong public opposition against bombing Afghanistan, but this has not so far been accompanied by much public protest, at least in Jakarta. In October, some Muslims from Jogjakarta were demonstrating outside the American Embassy, but not enough to disrupt either its routine activities or nearby traffic. The Australian Embassy had not been targeted since the burning of a Queensland mosque in late September. The common view held by senior Australian diplomats and a well-placed New Zealand journalist was that the situation was calm, and was expected to remain so. Many Jakarta business people were tired of demonstrators scaring away foreign investment and tourists.

Much will depend on President Megawati Sukarnopoutri. If she continues to offer mild condemnation of American military actions whilst continuing to inhibit public demonstrations through the use of a military-police force at present amenable to her commands, the situation may remain calm. But if the War against Terrorism is intensified, either by bombing Afghanistan through Ramadan in November, or by extending bombardment to neighbouring Muslim countries, the reaction throughout Indonesia against America and its closest allies could be strong.

In Manila, United States bases no longer remain as staging posts for America’s bombing campaign in the Middle East, but there is concern nonetheless about the southern Muslims, especially the extent to which they may be involved with the activities of Osama bin Laden or his Al Qaida network. A Defence undersecretary told me Philippine intelligence did not have an accurate picture, but the situation was ‘contained’ for the present. Meanwhile, kidnappings in Manila and at major tourist spots throughout the archipelago, both politically-motivated and for profit, have increased and remain an immediate concern to the government. President Macapagal-Arroyo’s reintroduction of the death penalty for kidnappers underscores the extent of the problem and the need to deter it.

WATCHPOINT: Will ASEAN countries be able to maintain their dissociation from the War Against Terrorism?


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