The US announced plans to boost its military presence in Southeast Asia and increase its cooperation with the region’s armed forces in efforts to boost counter-terrorism in the region.
It aims to upgrade America’s active military role beyond Iraq and Afghanistan by moving to smaller, more focused actions conducted with allied military forces in the region; meshing the skills of local troops who know the geography, language and culture, with the sophisticated techniques and equipment of the US. Under the new approach, increased numbers of US Special Operations troops and other personnel will be sent to the region. The plans call specifically for strengthening counter-terrorism measures in the Indonesia, Philippine and Malaysia maritime triangle as the former two are viewed as having inadequate capabilities to police the area.
The proposals are highly controversial and have met with objections from many Asia-watchers who believe that the measures may prove counter-productive. Citing the example of Indonesia, where police have captured some 200 suspected terrorists, and the TNI have captured none, they argue that indigenous police forces, not the national armed forces, are the best equipped to deal with terrorists. Results have been questionable, as in the case of the Philippines, where the US has spent more than US$200 million in Mindanao and returns have been far below expectations. Critics also contend that American military involvement will aggravate anti-American sentiment and fuel charges of creeping military imperialism.
Mr Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asian security affairs expert at Boston’s Simmons College said that much of the proposed US$100 million spending to boost the counter-terrorism ability of foreign militaries will be earmarked for the TNI and possibly for Thai forces, as Washington was getting increasingly nervous about the southern Thai insurgency.
On the Indonesian front, one of Southeast Asia's most wanted fugitives, Noordin Mohammad Top, has eluded capture yet again. Indonesia's most wanted terrorist suspect, Noordin is a top figure in the Al-Qaeda linked regional extremist network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).
This latest raid by Indonesia’s special police anti terror squad saw two of Noordin’s top aides killed, and the arrest of two other accused militants. National Police chief Gen. Sutanto said those killed and captured had played key roles in numerous terrorist attacks in Indonesia. Police identified those killed as bomb makers Abdul Hadi and Jabir. Abdul was a suicide bomber recruiter and instructor, while Jabir, believed to have been the top aide to Noordin, made the bombs used in the 2003 attack on the J.W. Marriott Hotel and the Australian embassy blast in 2004.
Analysts said the continual failure of Indonesian police to capture key militant Noordin Mohammad Top was a disappointment but illustrated the difficulty of arresting fugitives in the sprawling archipelago nation. Azyumardi Azra, rector of the state-run Jakarta Islamic University said the failure of police to arrest him was most likely due to shortcomings in their own intelligence networks. Although it had improved somewhat, Azyumardi pointed out that the Indonesian police intelligence force was still below par. Azyumardi considers Noordin's capture crucial for the fight against Islamic extremism in the world's most populous Muslim nation. He said, “Symbolically it will be very important because he has been on the run for a long time and could serve as a psychological deterrent to other militants.”
Meanwhile, experts say claims of torture by suspects rounded up in Indonesia's anti-terror campaign have given extremists a propaganda boost and threaten public cooperation with authorities battling Islamic radicals. Police deny any abuses have taken place, but have promised to investigate some cases. So far, no results have been released from any probes. While experts say there is little doubt that police - long accused of ill-treating detainees - have tortured terror suspects, they also caution that militants could be exaggerating or making up the claims for propaganda purposes.
In Thailand, Acting Prime Minister Chidchai Vanasatidya warned the media to be cautious and present only the facts, and to be more careful in presenting news about the Muslim majority provinces in southern Thailand. His comments came after Malaysian Defence Minister and deputy premier, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak became upset over a Bangkok Post report quoting an unnamed Thai military intelligence source as saying that Thai militants had set up a camp in Malaysia’s Kelantan state, where 50 Thai women had allegedly been sent for a one-month course to be trained in offensive strategies, bomb-making and intelligence gathering. The women were purportedly trained in order to replace male insurgents and sympathisers captured by security forces in restive southern Thailand, where a Muslim insurgency has been raging for over two years. The report said the female members were mostly ringleaders, wives of separatist sympathisers and hard-line students.
Malaysia has blasted the allegations and denied the existence of the camps, repeating their stand that Malaysia was not involved in the insurgency in southern Thailand. Najib labelled the report as "preposterous" and said it “…must be backed with facts”.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar criticised the Thai media for trying to create a rift between Malaysia and Thailand with these reports, adding that the Thai media had from time to time published reports that implied the insurgency in Muslim-majority south Thailand was supported by Malaysia.
Majority Muslim Malaysia and Thailand have an uneasy relationship over the Muslim insurgency, which has been raging since January 2004 and has claimed over 1,200 lives. Tensions were ramped up last year when 131 Thai Muslims from the south sought refuge in northern Malaysia, saying they feared for their lives due to the fighting. A diplomatic spat ensued, with Malaysia insisting the group should not be forced to return, particularly if their safety cannot be assured, and Thailand refusing to talk to Kuala Lumpur. Gen Chidchai said there had been no progress in the Thai government’s attempts to convince 130 Thai Muslims who were still taking refuge in northern Malaysia to return home.
US to boost counter-terrorism efforts in Asia (The Straits Times, 29 April 2006)
Police deny Noordin M Top among killed, arrested terror suspects (Antara, 29 April 2006)
Indonesia's Near-Miss Of Key Fugitive Underlines Difficulties (Antara, 30 April 2006)
Indonesian police miss most wanted fugitive militant (AFP, 30 April 2006)
Noordin gives police a slip yet again (The Jakarta Post, 30 April 2006)
Torture allegations hamper Indonesia's terror fight (AP, 30 April 2006)
Acting PM Warns Media To Report Facts On Southern Provinces (Bernama, 1 May 2006)
Chidchai warns press, Malaysia sees conspiracy (The Bangkok Post, 1 May 2006)
Malaysia says no training camps for Thai Muslim separatists (AFP, 1 May 2006)
Back terror claims with facts, says Najib (The Star, 30 April 2006)
Thai Media Criticised For Bid To Create Rift With Bangkok (Bernama, 30 April 2006)
Women training as insurgents in Malaysia (Bangkok Post, 27 April 2006)