SE Asia tries 'shock and awe'
Indonesia and the Philippines, taking cue from Iraq, step up attacks on insurgents.
In the past week, two separate peace initiatives have collapsed in Southeast Asia: The Philippines' effort to end its war with Muslim rebels and the internationally brokered peace talks between Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).Skip to next paragraph
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Though peace was a long shot in both cases, analysts point to an unexpected trigger for the latest round of hostilities: America's quick victory in Iraq.
"This is the right time to go back to war," says Dr. Andrew Tan, an expert on regional insurgencies at Singapore's Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies. "In the context of the war against terrorism, there are few, if any, diplomatic costs to seeking a military solution."
The overwhelming use of force against a technically inferior foe made the US march on Baghdad one of the most successful invasions in history, and it's a model these countries are now seeking to use against their own insurgents. Senior Indonesian military officers have been telling visitors in recent weeks that they hope to emulate US success in Iraq.
Both countries are stepping up military operations against the insurgents, with rebel and civilian casualties rising to levels not seen in a year. On Sunday, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law in Aceh, while Filipino troops launched fresh assaults on Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels.
Indonesia says it hopes to bring 50,000 combat troops into the province to battle an estimated 5,000 rebels, who favor hit-and-run tactics and have the ability to blend in with the civilian population, among which they have broad support.
"I can't imagine any reason they'd be bringing this type of force to bear other than trying to generate a 'shock and awe' effect," says Sidney Jones, the head of the Indonesia project for the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank.
Meanwhile, US complaints about human rights abuses have been blunted by the Bush administration, determined to improve its military relationships in a region seen as crucial to the war on terror. But Dr. Tan and other analysts warn that the Philippines and Indonesia are making a mistake if they imagine a quick military solution is possible to the long-festering conflicts within their borders.
"The Indonesian military learned a lesson from Iraq, but it was the wrong lesson,'' says Ms. Jones of the ICG. "I don't see how a military operation could bring Aceh back into the fold. So what I see is a prolongation of resentment in the province that could feed independence sentiment."
Indonesia has been fighting GAM since the mid-1970s, and each military victory has come at the cost of civilian casualties which have, in turn, spurned a new generation of independence supporters. During the last martial law period in Aceh, which ended in 1998, about 10,000 people were killed, and human rights groups estimate that more than half of them were civilians.
The largely Catholic Philippines has been battling Muslim insurgents in the southern island of Mindanao even longer. But on-again, off-again peace talks with the MILF were broken off by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo this week.