Terrorism in Southeast Asia

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Terrorism in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is too often ignored in the global fight against terrorism. But its young people are vulnerable.

The arrest and extradition to Indonesia of Umar Patek, the man behind the 2002 Bali bombing who was seized in Pakistan in January, is a major accomplishment by the international community in the fight against terrorism. For almost a decade, Patek had roamed the region spreading hatred and terror, and the world can rest a little easier knowing that he is behind bars.

But the wider conflict is far from over. Indeed, in Southeast Asia, it has likely just begun.

The so-called war on terror exists in a dark, blurry bubble that few people, especially many Americans, fully understand. It’s probably better that way: to live in fear equates to the acceptance of defeat, which most of us can live without. Still, such a mindset also risks inadvertently creating a culture of apathy.

Mainstream US political, military, and media attention has disproportionately fallen on the Middle East and the fight against terrorism in that region. One need not look beyond Western media coverage of Patek’s arrest to this – an event that failed to make the front page of most major newspapers. While the media is only one source of information, this example still highlights a growing global disconnect from the war on terrorism in Southeast Asia.

As attention has been fixed on the Middle East, terrorist networks in Southeast Asia have been quickly evolving and expanding. If terrorism is to be fought effectively, greater attention needs to paid toward Southeast Asia, and how to address the concerns that have too often allowed fundamentalism to spread like wildfire in this region.

What cases such as those of Patek, Dulmatin, Abu Bakar Bashir and others in Southeast Asia have revealed is that Islamic fundamentalism is deeply rooted in certain parts of Southeast Asia. Places like Aceh, Indonesia and Jolo Island in the southern Philippines have been converted into training camps, where followers have been lured largely from the middle class and universities. Indeed, this is one of the interesting differences between militants in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, where the poor and rural populations have been targeted. Terrorist networks such as the Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf have a strong foothold in the region, recruiting disgruntled young men and women to join a network whose main goal is to destroy the ‘infidels.’

In October, US President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend the 6th East Asia Summit (EAS). This is the first time an American president has agreed to attend the forum, which will discuss key strategic, political, and economic issues with regional partners. This visit follows the 18th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which Secretary of State Hilary Clinton attended, demonstrating the United States’ growing (re)commitment to building confidence and trust in the context of military and security relationships in Southeast Asia.

But however welcome this is, one point of concern is that the EAS will also be held in Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, which raises serious security doubts. In the absence of clear security measures to ensure near-perfect, if not, absolute protection, should the United States really risk sending its president?

Regardless, US foreign policy on tackling terrorism needs to be rethought. For a start, US counterterrorism should include stronger medium- and long-term strategies beyond military operations. Military efforts are unquestionably important, but this only addresses the head of the problem, not the roots. Instead, more should be done to try to understand, from multiple perspectives, why so many young men and women are gravitating toward terrorist groups. From there, we should encourage local officials to think seriously about concrete solutions for quelling mounting frustration, while also providing education and workforce development opportunities. Doing this will require the United States to rebuild trust and confidence with locals whose cooperation is vital in winning the war on terrorism.

As a victim of the Cambodian genocide (1975-1979), in which fundamentalist ideology was used to brainwash young people to turn against their own families, leading to the deaths of roughly 2 million people, I would urge the global community to avoid short-term solutions to a fight that has existed for decades. With this in mind, it’s important to attempt to better understand the correlation between today’s actions and the next generation’s consequences.

We must never underestimate the power of young people. But to ensure that they are steered away from taking up arms with the terrorists, policymakers will be better served rejecting partisan politics and focusing on addressing this longstanding and long-term problem. 

Peter Tan Keo is the Secretary General of the Asia Economic Forum, a policy think tank that focuses on the Asia-Pacific region. He is also Vice President of the University of Cambodia, and is earning a doctorate from Columbia University.