Southeast Asia targets terrorism
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Closing a meeting on terrorism, Southeast Asian nations vowed to work closer together to deal with terror threats and to align internal anti-terror laws.
Many states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been struggling to lose the image as a haven for militancy following evidence of links to terror networks that have emerged since the September 11 attacks in the United States.
Bogging down any moves to combat suspected militants operating in the region have been disagreements over the definition of terrorism.
But during the two-day meet in Kuala Lumpur, the 10 ASEAN members agreed to disagree on what constitutes terrorism, instead focusing on forming a united anti-terror front and pledging to set up the strongest regional security framework agreement to date.
Under the plans, the nations will create agreements to introduce national anti-terror laws to govern the arrest, investigation, prosecution and extradition of suspects. Each nation would recognize and respect the other nations' laws, officials said.
The proposal will also include the exchange of intelligence information and the establishment of joint training programs such as bomb detection and airport security.
In their final statement, the ministers said there was "an urgency for a cohesive and united approach to effectively combat terrorism," the Associated Press news agency reported.
That urgency has been sparked by a noticeable rise in the threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia since September 11.
Bomb attacks have taken place recently in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia while alleged militants with suspected ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network have been arrested in Singapore and Malaysia -- sparking fears that the region has become an operational base for terrorist organizations.
The United States -- currently involved in war games in the Philippines against Abu Sayyaf guerrillas and also in joint military exercises in Thailand with Thai and Singaporean forces -- has vowed to crush al Qaeda terrorist cells in Southeast Asia.
U.S. military chief General Richard Myers said last month that al Qaeda had a presence in several countries in the region and "needs to be destroyed, wherever they are."
Despite commitments from nations to crack down on terrorism and those associated with it, the drafting of anti-terror laws has been hampered by the lack of a definition of "terrorism."
The main sticking point has been the search for a fair description of terrorism that does not automatically equate Islam with terrorism.
Though militancy among Southeast Asian Muslim militants has come under scrutiny in the wake of September 11, many nations have been cautious of a broad sweeping link between Islam and terrorist activities.
The region is home to the most populous Islamic nation in the world, Indonesia. Some high-ranking officials in Indonesia have expressed that terrorism should not be linked with Islam. A nation of over 200 million, Indonesia is recovering from years of economic, political and social turmoil.
Some nations have criticized Indonesia for failing to take significant action against terror suspects, particularly Singapore which claims that network ringleaders are based there. However, analysts say such moves may incite a popular backlash against the government.
Malaysia and the Philippines -- who have the region's next two largest Muslim populations – joined Indonesia in signing an accord last month to crush terrorism by sharing information and carrying out joint-anti terror operations.
Thailand and Myanmar are also expected to join the pact while Singapore has stated it is prepared to work closer with its neighbors.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
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