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Terrorism and Security high on Southeast Asia’s Agenda

Updated On: Dec 08, 2006

Security issues particularly counter-terrorism will take centre stage at the 12th ASEAN summit reflecting common security concerns among member countries.

Terrorism and the signing of the Convention on Counter-Terrorism (out of 24 draft documents to be taken up for discussion by ASEAN leaders) will dominate the summit in CebuPhilippines from 11-13 December. The convention would allow the 10 ASEAN countries – BruneiCambodiaIndonesiaMalaysiaMyanmar,Laos, the PhilippinesSingaporeThailand and Vietnam – to exchange information and to clamp down on the unregulated movement of arms and Muslim militants despite major differences in politics and development.

National security agencies would have to coordinate efforts to track down, arrest, detain and rehabilitate suspected militants as well as beef up border controls and suppress terrorist financing according to a draft document (Reuters).

According to Medardo Abad Jr. of the ASEAN secretariat, the proposed Convention is a major step forward. “As drafted, the A.C.C.T. (ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism) would make it an obligation for member countries to extend mutual legal assistance in criminal matters…including extradition or prosecution of perpetrators of terrorist acts,” he said.

ASEAN’s annual meetings and regular dialogues have helped lower tensions among states with lingering border and maritime disputes, thus, plans for improved military and police cooperation were seen as realistic especially since September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. Southeast Asian terrorist organizations such as JI and Abu Sayyaf have emerged as key players in the global network linked to Al-Qaeda leading to a focused on Southeast Asian governments and their handling of terrorism.

Since the adoption of the Declaration on Joint Terrorism in Brunei Darussalam in 2001, several initiatives have already been carried out by individual member states. In the Philippines, the Philippine Center on Transnational Crimes was established to cooperate with the various law enforcement centers in the region. Indonesia has also set up the Jakarta Center for Law Enforcement Cooperation, Thailand its Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok and Malaysia its Southeast Asia RegionalCenter for Counterterrorism in Kuala Lumpur.

Besides cooperation within the ASEAN framework, there are other bilateral agreements between countries such as the Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines tri-nation accord signed in 2002 which calls for cross border sharing of information on terrorism and other security issues although no specific measures were stated. More recently, Singapore and Vietnam have agreed to intensify cooperation in fighting transnational crime under a memorandum of understanding signed in Hanoi on 4 Dec 06. This includes close cooperation in bilateral matters as well as in forums such as the ASEAN Chiefs of Police (ASEANAPOL) and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL).

Despite the progress made in security cooperation, some regional governments have faced criticism for failing to cooperate effectively due to decades-old bilateral tensions or internal and domestic tensions.

For example, Muslim Malays in Malaysia have often been accused of providing sanctuary to insurgents in Muslim regions of southern Thailand and Philippines. However, such suspicions have given way to pragmatism according to intelligence officials.

Domestically in Indonesia, there has been a debate over whether its “soft” laws due to democratic reforms and the increasing number of human rights activists have actually hindered the fight against terrorism.  According Indonesia’s senior security officials, the establishment of democracy following the fall of President Suharto in 1998 has weakened the role of the country’s once-feared intelligence agencies, making them less effective.

“Frankly, I must say that Indonesia’s legal basis is one of the softest in the world…Singapore and Malaysia had not suffered major terrorist attacks thanks to tough legal measures, including Internal Security Acts,” said Mr Ansyaad Mbai, head of counter-terrorism desk at the security ministry.

Human rights activists, however, accused the global war on terrorism in weakening human rights foundation particularly through wrong applications of terrorism laws resulting in wrongful arrests, abuse and corruption. These issues may be brought up at the ASEAN summit alongside other sensitive security issues such as North Korea’s nuclear programme, military takeover in Thailand and human rights violations in Myanmar.

As the preparation for the summit is underway, Philippine security officials are staying on alert for possible attacks by terrorist groups against Asian leaders including the Chinese President, Japanese PM and Australia PM.  Britain has also issued a terrorist warning to its citizens against traveling to Cebu during this period.

Sources:

Security to dominate in annual Asian jamboree (Antara News, 6 December 2006)

Security to lead ASEAN agenda (CNN, 6 December 2006)

S-E Asian govts join hands in terror fight (Straits Times, 6 December 2006)

ASEAN Summit expected to tackle tough issues (VOA News, 5 December 2006)

Philippines to play major role in ASEAN anti-terror drive: official (People’s Daily Online, 6 December 2006)

Indonesian laws seen hampering fight against terror (Straits Times/Reuters, 6 December 2006)

Terror war undermining rights: Activist (Jakarta Post, 5 December 2006)

Singapore, Vietnam explore more ways to tackle terrorism (Channel News Asia, 5 December 2006)

Nation joins Singapore against transnational crime (Vietnam Net, 5 December 2006)

RP fears possible terror attacks during ASEAN summit (INQ7, 6 December 2006)