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Asia Comes to Grips With Terrorism

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

SINGAPORE, June 2, 2002 – The governments of Asia understand that terrorism is a threat to the well-being of the region. Getting their people to understand the threat is another story.

The sense at the Asia Security Conference here is that the nations of the region must do more to educate their populations on the dangers of terrorism and how it directly affects them.

"Terrorism creates fear and instability," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the senior U.S. representative at the conference. "East Asian governments know this and are taking steps."

Governments in the region are working with the U.S.-led coalition against terror in many ways. East Asian nations are providing military forces, diplomatic and financial pressure, and humanitarian aid in the coalition against global terrorism. But the people may be ambivalent to the threat terrorists pose to them personally. After all, the attacks of Sept. 11 happened 12,000 miles away. The vast majority of people condemn the attacks, but many of them believe terrorism is America's problem, said conference delegates from the region.

Many regional governments are cracking down on terrorist cells within their countries. Law enforcement agencies across the region are sharing intelligence and information about known or suspected terrorist organizations. But "there are problems with this," a Japanese official said. "Some of the countries of the region are using the fear of terror to crack down on legitimate opposition groups."

The official said this type of oppression has the opposite, unintended effect: It drives people into the arms of extremists.

The governments of the region understand the effect that terrorist acts have on their countries. Countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are working to explain these effects to their people. "The New York stock market took a tumble after the 9-11 attacks," said a Singapore military official. "If New York took a tumble, Far Eastern markets dove," he said, and noted the economy is still feeling the effects of a 1997 market crash.

This economic impact on the world adds to the physical damage of a terrorist attack. Terrorists know this. For example, one released tape of Osama bin Laden shows him bragging about the economic impact the Sept. 11 attacks had on the world.

Officials in the region agree that terrorism has a cycle, and it goes something like this: Terror creates fear and instability. Fear and instability drive away business and discourage investment. No investment means no jobs. No jobs mean a dissatisfied populace, which is a breeding ground for extremists.

Breaking this cycle is a tough thing to do, said a U.S. official. A Malaysian delegate to the conference made the point that it isn't the poor who commit terrorist attacks. "Most of the attackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were solidly middle class," he said. "Osama bin Laden is a rich man. He has benefited from the Muslim world's contact with the West."

He said these men bought into the extremist visions of radical Islamic scholars. To that extent, there is a cultural aspect of the terrorist problem that countries in East Asia with substantial Muslim populations will have difficulty dealing with. But there is no doubt, he said, that poverty allows extremists to gain support and cover.

Many delegates spoke of President Bush's pledge to win the war beyond the war on terror - part of that is to raise the standard of living worldwide. "People all over the world need the ability to earn money, care for their families and plan for the future," said an Indian conference delegate. Peace and stability allow families to have work and earn and keep their money. Stability allows families to plan - they know money they earn today will still be worth something in 10 or 20 years.

With this in mind, many delegates agreed that the region's nations need to look at themselves first. A free-enterprise system has proven to be the best creator of jobs and wealth. Governments must put in place systems so entrepreneurs can invest in economies and believe that money is safe and will return a profit.

Underpinning all this is not only the rule of law, but professional security forces that are answerable to the political leaderships. "The military and other security forces enable peace," said an Indonesian delegate. "In my country we are working to make the Army and police forces into professional organizations."

The Indonesian military -- which goes by the letters TNI -- has committed many human rights abuses. U.S. officials favor working with a reformed TNI. They feel that contact between the U.S. and Indonesian militaries can increase the level of professionalism of the Indonesian services and give them a model to follow. The TNI is also one of the few "unifying" groups in the country, said Australian Sen. Robert Hill, the nation's defense minister.

Placing the military under civilian control, ensuring the military respects human rights and giving the forces the logistics they need to accomplish missions are priorities for nations in the region.

Nations need to promote peace and to invest in their populations, delegates said. They need to examine processes to ensure that governmental and nongovernmental funds actually get to the people who need it. "Budgets are tight in this area," said a Singapore delegate. "And in many states, corruption is de rigueur."

Corruption discourages people from investing in those countries. "There will always be corrupt people," said a delegate. "But it must be the exception. It cannot just be an added business expense."

Closer ties will also help the region. The nations of Asia have many territorial and ethnic divisions. The Sprately Islands is a bone of contention, for example. Korea has had historical tensions with Japan. As recently as 1979, China and Vietnam fought a short border war.

Yet the various nationalities and ethnic groups have lived together a long time. A delegate from the region said one slang expression for a not-nice person is, "He's a (jerk) in five languages." He said this indicates a certain familiarity and comfort with other ethnic groups that he hasn't seen in other parts of the world.

The Asian nations are so interdependent that they should work together more closely. Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes said India wants to re-establish ties with the rest of Asia that colonialism and the Cold War had broken. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations meets at the head of state and foreign minister level but has just started a defense ministerial. "It is difficult to track down and capture terrorist suspects with all the borders in this region," said a European specialist in the region. "They simply must develop closer ties to one another and the United States is in a perfect position to encourage this multilateral action."

The expert noted that the United States has treaty ties with Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. "That's a good base to build on," he said. "Conferences like this one also help."

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