- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

In the next few weeks, militant Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir will be freed from prison in Indonesia after only 18 months behind bars. He is the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiya, the Southeast Asian affiliate of al Qaeda that conducted at least two of the most deadly terror attacks since September 11. Although Bashir was sentenced to four years, the Supreme Court in Jakarta reduced his time to 18 months — and prosecutors have accepted the decision. Indonesia’s release of a known terrorist exposes the growing internal political difficulties many nations face in fighting terror.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world. With a presidential election coming up in the spring, officials are seeking to reassure Muslim voters that the administration of President Megawati Sukarnoputri is not another official enemy of Islamists. During 32 years as Indonesia’s president, Suharto suppressed radical Islamic groups and forced separatist agitators into exile. Today’s military is still a prominent secular force in the country. For Mrs. Megawati, it is a precarious balancing act to try to keep the armed forces on her side and appease Muslim voters at the same time.

The political struggle in Indonesia is similar to antiwar complications across Southeast Asia. Although the region does not receive as much media attention as such South Asian trouble spots as Afghanistan or Pakistan, Southeast Asia eventually will be the epicenter of the war on terror. The population is half the size of China and is home to 25 percent of all the Muslims in the world. It is the largest recruiting ground for al Qaeda. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand all are fighting radical terrorist groups among their native Muslim populations.

Thailand is another country where there is serious division within government over involvement in the war terror. Immediately following September 11, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sought neutrality in the developing showdown between the United States and radical Islam. This posture was extremely unpopular with Thai military officers, who have maintained deep ties with the U.S. military for decades. (Thailand is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in Southeast Asia.)

The fundamental disagreement between the prime minister and the military brass came to a head last week when Mr. Thaksin fired three cabinet ministers — including hawkish Defense Minister Thamarak Isarangura — largely because of disagreements over how to handle Muslim rebellion in southern Thailand. Gen. Thamarak had commanded a tough crackdown on the separatists. His dismissal and replacement by an appeaser are unfortunate signs that the prime minister has successfully overruled the military in his desire to dialogue with the terrorists rather than fight them.

The war in Southeast Asia is far from lost, however. In an interview with The Washington Times over the weekend in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Maj. Gen. Anu Sumitra explained that there is an extraordinary level of intelligence-sharing cooperation among Southeast Asian nations and the United States. When asked what government was the most helpful, the general replied, “Malaysia, surprisingly enough.” With vocal Islamist political parties and a strong isolationist streak, Kuala Lumpur is generally perceived to be timid. Malaysia’s quiet dedication to undermining terrorism is a needed reminder that many victories in this war are not yet known to the public.

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