- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

NEW DELHI — Bitter enemies India and Pakistan gingerly began talking peace this year, while across Asia governments dealt with terrorism, weak economies and the SARS outbreak.

In Indonesia, the August bombing at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta killed 12 persons and was blamed on a group linked to terror network al Qaeda that seeks to create a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia.

In Afghanistan, the deposed Taliban regime showed signs of resurgence. And the search for terror mastermind Osama bin Laden continued along the remote, mountainous border with Pakistan.

Tensions over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions remained high after the isolated communist dictatorship pulled out of a global nuclear weapons accord and said it was preparing to build a “nuclear deterrent force” — widely interpreted to mean its own atomic arsenal. Six-nation talks on the issue made little progress.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad set off a storm of Western criticism in the final days of his 22 years in power with his statement: “Jews rule the world by proxy.” New Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, a former Mahathir deputy, pledged a tough stance against Islamic militants in his country.

In South Asia, where India and Pakistan nearly went to war two years ago after an attack on the Indian Parliament by Islamist militants, the countries began talking. The steps by the nuclear-armed rivals, while limited, have been significant: reopening land borders, the expected resumption of train and air links, and scaling back forces along their border.

Sri Lanka’s efforts to forge a lasting peace with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels stalled, however, largely owing to a standoff between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The war has killed more than 65,000 people since 1983.

The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal grappled with the rebellion by a Maoist-inspired movement that has intensified attacks on civilian as well as government targets since peace talks broke off in August. More than 8,200 people have been killed in the conflict.

Indonesia prepared in the spring for its first direct presidential election — a milestone in its transition to democracy. In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was sworn in when Joseph Estrada was forced from power in 2001, made plans to seek her own six-year term in 2004, facing at least three other candidates, including an action-film star who is a close friend of Mr. Estrada.

In Singapore, the son of founding father Lee Kuan Yew was anointed to play an increasingly important political role. The government, which dealt with the severe acute respiratory syndrome, a slow economy, the worst unemployment in 17 years and continuing terrorism fears, announced that Lee Hsien Loong would take over as prime minister by 2005.

While Asian countries did not play leading roles in the war to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein, the deployment of troops to Iraq became a major issue in such places as South Korea and Japan. Early this month, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Cabinet approved sending about 1,000 soldiers to help in Iraq’s reconstruction — the largest overseas deployment of Japanese troops since World War II.

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