SE Asia unites to smash militant cells
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have signed an anti-terror pact in a bid to smash militant cells operating in the region.
The pact, signed Tuesday at Malaysia's new administrative capital of Putrajaya, seeks to formalize security coordination between the three Southeast Asian nations.
It could also allow joint anti-terrorism exercises, greater intelligence sharing and involve combined operations to hunt suspected terrorists.
But it is not clear whether the pact would boost the powers of individual nations to crack down on alleged terrorists or whether it would compel a nation to act on information provided to it about suspects or possible terrorist activities.
Muslim militancy in Southeast Asia came under the microscope after Washington led a global war on terrorism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on America.
The region is particularly at risk because it has strong ethnic links, large Muslim populations and porous borders between the three nations.
While Malaysia and the Philippines have been at the forefront of the anti-terror moves -- with Kuala Lumpur nabbing dozens of suspects and U.S. troops helping Filipinos combat Abu Sayyaf guerrillas -- Indonesia has been accused of failing to take action.
The world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, has drawn criticism over a lack of arrests of extremists or members of religious groups with alleged terrorism ties.
Neighbors, notably Singapore, say the ringleaders of a network are based in Indonesia, while reports say the White House has evidence al Qaeda members have fled from Afghanistan to Indonesia.
Several Indonesians have been arrested in the Philippines this year, including a suspect with ties to Jemaah Islamiya (JI) -- a terrorist cell broken in Singapore last December.
The FBI has said that was only one cell of a much larger network and has ties to other countries including Malaysia and Indonesia.
But in a move that signals the three nations are willing to work together, and that Indonesia is willing to do more, the trilateral pact was signed after four months of negotiations.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and visiting Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo witnessed the signing of the accord.
A key part of the pact will be trying to curb the activities of a militant network they say is bent on carving out an Islamic state from the Malay Archipelago.
"I think this is good because we can exchange the information about the movement and the activities of these people," Mahathir told reporters ahead of the pact's signing in Kuala Lumpur.
"As you know, these people have this idea of creating what they called a single Islamic state out of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines," he said after opening a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference's religious ministers.
"But what is their Islamic state I don't know, because I haven't seen them do anything except do a lot of damage to people, carry out a lot of terrorist attacks."
Malaysia and Indonesia are moderate Islamic states while the predominantly Catholic Philippines has a sizeable Muslim community in the southern part of the country bordering Malaysia.
Willing to step up
The mostly Chinese, non-Muslim island state of Singapore, wedged between Malaysia and Indonesia is not a signatory to the pact, but says it is willing to step up cooperation with its neighbors.
Thailand, and possibly Myanmar, may join later, officials said.
Singapore arrested members of a militant cell in December that it said was planning attacks on U.S. targets on the island.
It discovered links with al Qaeda, the network run by Osama bin Laden, Washington's prime suspect in the September 11 attacks.
In April, Manila seized two Muslim guerrillas they said had been trained in bomb-making in Malaysia.
Indonesia says it cannot make arrests without hard evidence, and since switching to democratic rule a few years ago it no longer has the security laws that allow some of its neighbors to detain suspects indefinitely without trial.
Any moves to crack down on religious extremism or enact a more aggressive counter-terrorist policy runs the risk of an anti-government backlash and could also threaten to destabilize Indonesia again.
The 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed last November to co-operate to fight terrorism.
Mahathir goes to Washington next week to receive thanks from U.S. President George W. Bush for Malaysia's support for the war on terror.
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