April 28, 2005 | Lecture on Asia
As a Member of the United States Senate who has traveled every year to Southeast Asia and met frequently with government leaders from that region when they visited the United States, I believe America has great interests in that region, and we are not paying attention here in Washington, D.C.
Too many of my colleagues seemed to be aware of Indonesia only because it was struck by the tsunami this past December. In fact, our interests in that region of the world go far beyond the humanitarian relief we provided to Indonesia and other countries hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami.
For years we have recognized the importance of our economic and trade relations with Southeast Asia, which is now our third-largest trading partner. In addition, the strategic location of Southeast Asia and the Straits of Malacca, through which our warships pass, provides great military importance to the region. The challenge of China seeking to extend its control over Southeast Asia should concern us both economically and militarily.
Beyond those interests, it is my thesis that we should pay attention to Southeast Asia--and particularly Indonesia--as the second front in the war on terrorism. Indonesia, with approximately 200 million Muslims, has the largest Muslim population in the world. Its neighbor, Malaysia, has nearly 15 million Muslims, and Thailand has a significant Muslim population in the southern part of the country.
They represent the best hope for fostering a "moderate" or "civilized" Islam that recognizes the true peaceful nature of that religion, in opposition to the radical, terrorist-inspiring Islam preached by Saudi-financed Wahhabism. In addition, those countries and the Philippines are moving forward on a path of democratic rule, and moving toward President George W. Bush's goal of respecting democratic human rights and becoming economically free.
A raid on two terrorist cells led to the first revelation that Southeast Asia had its own homegrown terrorist organization, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), with cells spanning the region, including in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines--all countries with an extensive Western presence and alliances. Unbeknownst to intelligence and law enforcement, JI had been planning the advance of its goal to establish Southeast Asia as an Islamic state, a goal viewed by some as unattainable without attacks on Westerners.
The unfolding investigation of the Singapore plot and the subsequent investigation of the Bali bombings brought to light a web of ties between JI and al-Qaeda. The Singapore plotters made a videotape of their targets, that was subsequently found by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which I have seen, confirming an al-Qaeda connection to the plot. The extent of the conspiracy gave insight into the expanse of JI, as the plot was organized out of Malaysia and co-conspirators were arrested as far away as the Philippines.
At the trial of cleric Abu Bakar Baayshir for his role in perpetrating the nightclub bombings in Bali, important information came to light about the organization and the activities of Southeast Asia's indigenous terrorist network, Jemaah Islamiyah. At the time, JI was a highly structured organization led by a five-member Regional Advisory Council, with the notorious terrorist Hambali sitting at the top. Baayshir and Abdullah Sungkar, who both preach radical interpretations of Islam and have been fighting for the imposition of sharia (Islamic law) in Indonesia since the 1960s, served as "spiritual advisors" to the council.
At the trial, launched in Indonesia in the spring of 2003, one of JI's regional commanders, Nasir Abbas, testified that he was installed in his position by Baayshir and that Baayshir had spoken to "graduating" JI members at a camp in the southern Philippines, where they had been indoctrinated and taught bomb-making and military tactics. The testimony was illuminating as to the role of Baayshir in JI, but deeply troubling in that it revealed JI had expanded its presence into what was before the territory of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) terrorist/separatist group and the vicious Abu Sayyaf (ASG) terrorist group.
Al-Qaeda's terrorist network has had a presence in Southeast Asia for some time. The 1993 World Trade Center bombers and 9/11 terrorists had connections and spent time in Southeast Asia, either planning attacks or fleeing from U.S. intelligence agents.
Although JI was born later than al-Qaeda and is a separate entity with its own ambitious goal, in a chilling development, the two networks have started to work together. They share members and have planned operations jointly. JI operatives have been trained at al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The two networks have shared expertise: The most troubling known example of this is the JI operative who possessed advanced scientific expertise and was sent to Afghanistan to try to develop an anthrax program for al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda has also provided JI with considerable financial support--starting with funding the Bali bombing. Apparently, al-Qaeda's leadership was so delighted with the murder of innocent Australian and American vacationers in Bali, that they rewarded Hambali with $100,000 to spend as he saw fit.
When JI stopped sending recruits to Afghanistan because of expense, they turned to the southern Philippines for training--in areas controlled by MILF and ASG. One could infer that it was with consent or cooperation.
In recent days, a bit of a controversy was sparked in the Philippines when our Chargé d'Affaires stated publicly that there are terrorist training camps operating in the southern Philippines. JI members in these camps are engaged in bomb-making training, and arrested JI operatives freely admit to having links with MILF and ASG.
Although the Philippine government has admitted no links between the groups, links between individuals are conclusive. There is a justified fear that the area is becoming a haven for JI. Of the 20 most wanted JI fugitives, several are thought to be taking refuge in Mindanao. So the web grows across Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia is potentially a very fertile area for expansion of Islamic terror networks. Indonesia has been troubled by sectarian violence and separatist movements, creating the unrest ideal for recruiting people who are open to extreme solutions to their personal difficulties. In fact, it is known that the sectarian conflicts in Sulawesi and the Malukus have been prime recruiting grounds for JI.
In Malaysia, the fundamentalist Islam political party, PAS, has at times, through the political process, controlled two of Malaysia's 13 states. The Philippines for years has contended with its own separatist conflict, which has spawned the extremist groups MILF and Abu Sayyaf, dedicated to the independence of the Muslim region in the south of the country.
Across Southeast Asia there are thousands of remote islands and expanses of jungles ideal for extremist groups to hide and train. The borders are difficult to patrol and visa requirements are minimum: The "9/11 Report" documents how easily those plotters moved across Southeast Asia to hold meetings and conduct planning.
The state of the banking regulations, the presence of Islamic banks, and money transfer entities create the opportunity to launder money across borders to fund operations, but even in their absence, the porous borders permit the easy transfer of funds person to person.
If you review the chart of the bombings, attacks, and murders in Southeast Asia, I think you will agree that the region has emerged as the second front in the war on terrorism. That is why I have been calling for increased engagement and more attention to the relations between the United States and our friends in Southeast Asia.
Unlike the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, people of Islamic faith live in democratic countries, their governments are secular, they live side by side with people of different faiths, they practice a moderate form of Islam--and the majority wants it to stay that way.
As former President Richard Nixon detailed in one of his last books before his death, developing strong and supportive relationships with moderate Islamic countries is of critical interest to the United States. He warned of the dangers of radical Islamic teachings even before we experienced the overseas terrorist attacks against Americans in the 1990s, culminating in the massive attacks of September 11.
In this area, the former president was eerily prescient and laid out an important principle for us to follow today. I think that principle and our interests align in Southeast Asia. With Southeast Asia and its large Muslim population, we have an opportunity through constructive engagement to help those countries win their war on terrorism without the need for massive military actions--such as those we have undertaken in Afghanistan and Iraq--to root out the terrorists and in those cases, the governments that harbored them.
In addition to supporting democracies and free societies and fighting terrorism, the U.S. has a very strategic interest in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is home to over 500 million people and 10 countries, many of which we enjoy close economic and security alliances.
Many leaders in that region have told me, privately, they believe United States active engagement and association with their countries is essential to stop China from extending hegemony over the region. China has made many recent economic moves to gain control over the markets of Southeast Asia, including offers of free trade and other inducements. In addition, China has flexed its muscle in the region by military maneuvers in the South China Sea in order to lay claim potentially to the significant petroleum reserves in that area.
States of Southeast Asia, notably Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, control the important Malacca Straits through which one-quarter of all the shipping in the world passes and one-half of the petroleum products carried by ocean-going vessels.
The Southeast Asian nations have been generally supportive of our stand on terrorism, in contrast to the People's Republic of China, which has long opposed our efforts against terrorism and may themselves be engaging in proliferation of nuclear and missile technology. The influence of China can already be seen in support for lifting United Nations sanctions and the arms embargo on China. There are many who feel that China may be building military capability, which could be a threat to world peace and security, as well as to the United States--all the more reason to prevent excessive Chinese influence or control in Southeast Asia.
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has passed Japan and is now the United States' third-largest trading partner: Two-way trade stands at $120 billion. In 2003, United States exports to Singapore were $19 billion and over $17 billion to Malaysia. Although Thailand, with $6.8 billion in imports from the United States; the Philippines, with $5.4 billion; and Indonesia, with $2.8 billion, are relatively smaller, they offer opportunities--with economic progress--to be much more significant trading partners.
Farmers in Missouri and in the Midwest can tell you of the importance of this market after feeling the severe pain of the collapse of the Southeast Asia markets in 1997 and 1998. Our previous $12 billion per year agricultural exports in the mid-1990s dropped to almost nothing during that period. The impact of that drop on farm prices in the agricultural heartland was extremely harsh. Farmers suffered significant losses of income, and rural communities dependent upon agriculture felt the pain, from equipment dealers to retails stores. Missouri farmers have been very relieved to see the economies, and thus, the demand for agricultural products, recover in the ASEAN region.
For starters, there is a major effort underway in Indonesia's mainstream, moderate Muslim population to promote a moderate, pluralistic, democratic Islam, both in Indonesia and throughout the region. Unlike the Middle East, in Indonesia Islamic organizations have been at the forefront of the country's struggle for a democratic society.
During my recent visit to Indonesia , I met Yenny Zannuba Wahid, one of the latest leaders in this movement. Yenny is the daughter of HE Abdurraham Wahid, also known as Gus Dur, a Muslim cleric and a leader in promoting religious tolerance in Indonesia. He was also one of Indonesia's first democratically elected presidents. Yenny is the founder of the Wahid Institute, a group dedicated "to espousing a moderate and tolerant view of Islam."
Islamist parties gained a sizable vote in the 1999 and 2004 Indonesian elections, raising the question of whether Indonesia will remain on the path of a moderate, pluralistic democracy or if a small but increasingly influential minority of fundamentalist Islamists will steadily gain ground with the people.
Yenny, through the Wahid Institute, is fighting this trend through the funding of scholars, the building of libraries, the promotion of inter-faith dialogues, and the education of the young--including young women--on tolerant Muslim thinking. This is one among many groups promoting Islam in this manner. The Liberal Islam Network and International Center for Islam and Pluralism have been hard at work at promoting a peaceful Islam for some time. I encourage all to become familiar with these groups.
In neighboring Malaysia, the recently elected Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, has emerged as a strong voice in promoting ethnic and religious tolerance and equality for women. Malaysia has been an economic success story and U.S. businesses consider it a great place to invest and operate. Yet the growing strains of fundamentalist Islam have emerged as a challenge. The new prime minister has confronted them, speaking eloquently about Islam Hadhari, which means "civilisation Islam," a message encouraging Muslims to undertake education and intellectual and personal development. He has also cham-pioned the equality of women in Malaysian society.
Islam Hadhari is an approach that empha-sizes development, consistent with the tenets of Islam, and focuses on enhancing the quality of life. It aims to achieve this via the mastery of knowledge; the development of the individual and the nation; the implemen-tation of a dynamic economic, trading and financial system; and the pursuit of inte-grated and balanced development to develop pious and capable people, with care for the environment and protection of the weak and disadvantaged.
Similarly, we have tried to ensure that the rights of women are protected and that they fulfill their potential without having to face artificial barriers constructed in the name of Islam. We know Islam to be just and fair, and that it honors the position and rights of women. But there are clear instances of prejudices being cloaked in religious teach-ings in the Muslim world, aimed at passing off gender discrimination as the accepted norm. This will simply not do.
In Singapore, a country that lies between two sizable Muslim countries, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong is leading the way to the creation of the Asia-Middle East Dialogue. Born out of an extensive trip to the Middle East, where he observed in many Middle East countries a mainstream society both diverse and inclusive, the first Asia-Middle East Dialogue, or AMED, will be held June 2005 in Singapore.
An event of great ambition, AMED will bring together officials, academics, religious leaders, and opinion makers from some 50 countries in the Middle East and Asia to forge closer political, economic, and security ties. As important, it will provide a platform for those fighting for economic and political reform and give a voice to those challenging the strains of extremist Islam in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
As I said, the United States is receiving critical cooperation from governments across the region. The instances are too numerous to name, but among the highlights, we have advanced a container security initiative with Singapore; our work with the Thais led to the arrest of Hambali, the JI leader; the Malaysians have been very active in stepping up the counter-terrorism activity in the region; we are working closely with the government of the Philippines to achieve peace in Mindanao; and the Indonesians have been eager participants in the Counter Terrorism Fellowship Program.
Finally, as a Congress, a government, and a people, we must recognize the accomplishments of the Indonesian people and congratulate them on a successful transformation to a democratic nation. Since the fall of President Suharto, the Indonesian people have elected three new presidents and impeached one, and experienced several peaceful transfers of power. Most recently, they held direct elections of a president for the first time.
In Congress, we seem to continue to look for every transgression to put our relationship on hold, but the truth is that as a country, they have made truly remarkable progress in a very short period of time. They deserve our congratulations.
The Honorable Christopher S. Bond represents Missouri in the United States Senate.