Fears of anti-Western terrorism linked to the Gulf war are sweeping Southeast Asia. The region, although far from the theater of conflict, is vulnerable because of a large foreign presence and easy international movement, Western and Thai officials say.

Thailand's military chief admitted last weekend that the country had been penetrated by international terrorists and that Thai security is ``not strict.''

The admission followed a widespread security alert in countries across Southeast Asia and an American news report that Bangkok is believed to be the nerve center for Iraqi-sponsored terrorism in Asia. Western diplomats say the Iraqis are trying to link up with organizations such as the Japanese Red Army and Communist insurgents.

``Our country has many foreigners coming to work and live. We are an easygoing nation. This is why these people can operate here,'' said Supreme Commander Sunthorn Kongsompong, as quoted in the Bangkok Post.

Already countries in the region have had a series of close calls. The Philippines has deported two Iraqi brothers linked to a foiled terrorist bombing at the American library in Manila. Thailand has expelled four Iraqis, including two diplomats.

Bombs were discovered and defused at the United States ambassador's residence in Jakarta and near US airline offices in other cities. Schools attended by American and other Western children have been closed for most of this month.

American, British, French, and Australian embassies in Southeast Asian capitals are guarded by Army troops and wrapped in a tight security cordon.

However, many in business-minded Bangkok have criticized the security alert as exaggerated. Thailand's crucial tourism business has been knocked for a loop with tourist arrivals down more than 20 percent since the Gulf war broke out on Jan. 16.

Pressed by powerful business supporters, the government of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhaven has sought to play down the threat and quiet tourist jitters.

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