Backlash Grows In Southeast Asia

IMPACT ON MUSLIMS. Saddam Hussein has called the Gulf conflict a holy war and tried to enlist Muslims around the world in the battle. How are they responding? In some areas with large Muslim populations, such as Pakistan and Southeast Asia, people are in turmoil over their governments' backing of the US-led coalition. At the same time, in some Western nations, Muslims are facing new forms of discrimination.

PRO-AMERICAN governments in Southeast Asia are nervously watching a Muslim backlash develop against the Gulf war. In a region known for its less dogmatic strain of Islam, large Muslim communities have been thrown into emotional turmoil by official support for the United States and the bitter schism within the Islamic world, western and regional observers say.

``The feeling against Mr. Bush and American policy is increasing,'' says Ridwan Saidi, an Islamic scholar in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation.

``In the west, we see many demonstrations against the war,'' he continued. ``We are very sympathetic to the struggle of the Arab nations and very much support the struggle to liberate the Palestinians.''

From the beginning, Southeast Asian countries were forced to juggle Muslim sentiments with support for the US and condemnation of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

The task has been particularly touchy for officially secular Indonesia, where almost 90 percent of the 185 million people are Muslims. The government has not denounced Iraq nor sent troops to Saudi Arabia. But as Asia's largest oil producer, Indonesia has enjoyed windfall oil profits and has observed the United Nations embargo against Iraq.

Observers in Jakarta say Muslims are torn by conflicting emotions. Indonesians have little sympathy for wealthy Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Many still harbor bitterness over the death of more than 600 Indonesians in a tunnel stampede last summer at the Saudi holy shrine of Mecca. Saudi Arabia was widely criticized for insensitive handling of the tragedy and for failing to compensate victims' families, Indonesian and Asian analysts say.

Elsewhere, other Southeast Asian governments, while backing the US war effort, are being forced to acknowledge growing Muslim unease.

In Malaysia, where Islam is the state religion and half of the 18 million people are Muslims, Islamic groups say hundreds of volunteers have signed up for Saddam's jihad, or holy war.

Last weekend, the government, which supported the UN authorization to use force to oust Iraq, said it was concerned about the escalation of the conflict and called for ``greater accountability of the actions by participating forces.''

``The countries concerned cannot assume to draw a blank check from the [UN] Security Council resolution to wage total war on Iraq,'' said Malaysian Foreign Minister Abu Hassan bin Omar at a press conference.

In multiracial Singapore and predominantly Buddhist Thailand, leaders of the Muslim minorities have denounced Saddam's actions.

In recent days, however, a split has emerged among Thailand's 1 million Muslims who mainly live near the southern border with Malaysia. Defying prominent Thai Muslims at a recent prayer meeting, some Muslims endorsed Iraq's holy war.

The public dispute worries the powerful Thai military, already uneasy over a widely publicized terrorist threat in the country. A senior Army officer in a newspaper interview urged the government to be sensitive to Muslim sentiments. He played down the controversial dispatch of Thai medical personnel, saying they are assisting Thai workers, not US troops.

In Singapore, the government not only scrambles to control Muslim sentiments, but also worries about anti-American outbursts, analysts say. Among all US allies in Southeast Asia, Singapore is the most concerned about the future of regional security.

``This may be a region removed from the conflict,'' says a Singaporean analyst. ``But if there is violence and anti-Americanism, that would be remembered by the United States in terms of the role it would want to play in the region in the future.''

Ultimately, political observers say Muslim reaction rides on the duration of the conflict and whether Israel stays on the sidelines.

``It's very hard for Muslims to react because there are two dimensions to their dilemma. One is the conflict between Islam and the West and the other is the Muslim-Muslim schism,'' says a Southeast Asian analyst, who asked not to be identified.

``If Israel were to get involved and become a major factor in attacking Iraq, that would be difficult for people to take,'' she continued. ``It all depends on the tides of war.''

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