SE Asia tries 'shock and awe'

Indonesia and the Philippines, taking cue from Iraq, step up attacks on insurgents.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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).

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."

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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.

As a reward for her early and steadfast support of the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ms. Arroyo was invited to Washington this weekend; she met with President Bush at the White House Monday. US military aid and training was extended to the Philippines for the first time in a decade last year, with US combat troops providing training to Filipino forces fighting the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim terrorist group.

Before leaving Manila, Arroyo suspended peace talks and then ordered air and artillery attacks against MILF positions on Mindanao, describing the offensive as an effort to root out "terrorist cells." The Armed Forces of the Philippines estimate 50 rebels were killed in the attacks over the weekend. Filipino officials are lobbying the US to consider naming the MILF an international terrorist group.

In Aceh, campaigns of the recent past included punitive burnings of villages accused of supporting the rebels and summary executions of independence sympathizers. Military excesses in Mindanao have also pushed Muslims on the island away from the government. While military action is popular with most Indonesians and Filipinos, analysts warn that there could be long-term repercussions.

"In the long term, you can weaken these groups, but leave behind so much bitterness and resentment that more radical ones take their place," Tan says.

In Indonesia, the military has been pressing for a return to all out warfare since a December peace agreement between GAM and the government. The deal allowed for unarmed international monitors to guarantee the peace. Indonesia's allies - especially Japan and the US - promised to pay for reconstruction in the province, which is home to large oil and gas deposits.

Senior generals warned that GAM would use a cease-fire to consolidate its strength, and that negotiating with them on an international stage would lend legitimacy to the movement. To a certain extent, the generals were right. GAM is probably stronger today than before the cease-fire was signed.

But analysts say the military was also worried that its political position within Indonesia would be compromised if negotiation, rather than combat, yielded results with separatists. They allege that the military mounted a campaign to scuttle the peace initiative, including organizing militias that burned the offices of the international peace monitors in at least two cities.

In recent months, Ms. Megawati has come to share the military's view that the war should be quickly resumed - telling aides that the rebels should be "crushed" - and her government demanded a unilateral GAM surrender as a precondition to future talks.

The Japanese government hosted last ditch talks in Tokyo last weekend. In a sign of hope, the White House issued a written statement by Bush. "I commend President Megawati for demonstrating her government's commitment to the Aceh peace process and for her willingness to go the extra mile in pursuit of peace." But the talks appeared doomed to fail before they started. Coordinating Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired general, said that GAM would have to renounce any designs on independence in exchange for an extension of the cease-fire.

Gam turned down the proposal - akin to Israel demanding the Palestinian Liberation Organization renounce designs on statehood as a precondition for peace talks. On Sunday, martial law was declared; on Monday, the Indonesian Air Force launched sorties against rebel bases with OV-10F Bronco warplanes bought from the US in the 1970s.

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