September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
Southeast Asia and the United States Since 11 Septmeber - Donald K. Emmerson Senior Fellow, Asia/Pacific Research Center Institute for International Studies, Stanford University; December 12, 2001



Donald K. Emmerson
Senior Fellow, Asia/Pacific Research Center
Institute for International Studies, Stanford University

[Statement prepared for a hearing on "Southeast Asia after 9/11: Regional Trends and U.S. Interests" organized by the Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC, 12/12/01]

The timing of this hearing is doubly symbolic. It is being held only a day after the three-month anniversary of the most deadly attack ever committed by foreigners on American soil. But it is also taking place merely two days after the observation of World Human Rights Day. The coincidence frames the question that I would like to make the centerpiece of these brief remarks:

What balance should be struck between security (e.g., destroying terrorist groups) and democracy (e.g., defending human rights) as America policy priorities in Southeast Asia?

There is, of course, more to U.S. foreign policy than security and democracy. Other aims include economic prosperity and environmental sustainability—Southeast Asia's and ours. Nor are democracy and human rights the same.[1] Nevertheless, in the wake of 11 September, the issue must be faced, not only as we debate how much of our own freedom we are willing to sacrifice for our own security, but also as Congress and the administration decide whether, and how much, seeking the cooperation of a foreign government in efforts to eradicate international terror should take priority over criticizing it for violating, or failing to protect, the rights of its own people.

This choice affects—bedevils?—American relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia, among other countries. Just as in the "Free World" during Cold War I the United States embraced anti-communist despots from Salazar to Suharto, so in Cold War II, if that's what we're now in, one can imagine a similarly pragmatic, anti-terrorist compatibility between "Enduring Freedom" and injuring freedom. [2]

I mention specific countries because an effective (as opposed to consistent) balance of priorities between security and democracy can only be worked out case by case. The centrality of a given state to the campaign against Al Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist networks that have "global reach" will greatly and necessarily affect our willingness to play down or even suspend official criticism of that state's record on free elections and civil rights. So will the extent and indispensability of what that state does to help in this effort. In these respects, it is no coincidence that Pakistan should have enjoyed the most rapid and far-reaching turnaround in its relations with the United States of any country in the world since 11 September, notwithstanding the undemocratic character of the Islamabad regime.

If centrality and indispensability were matters of geography alone—proximity to Afghanistan—this this hearing would not be underway. Southeast Asia would be considered too peripheral to the epicenter of the storm. The threat from Al Qaeda is, however, global in two senses: its proven ability to attack Americans in the United States; and its invocation of Islam, the religion of an estimated 1.3 billion people in 184 countries.[3]

Also, states anywhere in the world can now take advantage of what America's new preoccupation with fighting terrorists has created for them: an opportunity to offer their support in hopes of gaining leverage and earning rewards. The Bush administration's explicit refusal to preclude expanding its campaign beyond Al Qaeda is a further incentive to governments, regardless of their location, to seek the benefits of such alignment. Meanwhile, and comparably, military successes against the Taliban in Afghanistan to date have projected the image of a bandwagon increasingly worth boarding.

Not every state is equally free to sign up for this effort, however. Inside Indonesia, Muslims and Christians account for an estimated 88 and 8 percent of the population, respectively, compared with an estimated 5 and 92 percent in the neighboring Philippines.[4] Especially now that Indonesians have begun to democratize their political system, the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri cannot afford to ignore the views of domestic leaders and groups who identify with Islam. Just north of Indonesia, in her own far more institutionalized democracy, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is also constrained, but vastly less than Megawati with regard to political Islam.

President Arroyo visited the U.S. in the latter part of November, well after the assault against the Taliban and Al Qaeda had begun. In their joint statement, she and President Bush “reaffirmed that U.S.-Philippine relations are based on shared history, common values, [and] a commitment freedom and democracy,” and “declared that the American and Filipino people stand together in the global campaign against terrorism.” [5] President Bush “conveyed his deep appreciation” for his counterpart’s “leadership in the fight against terror, both within the southern Philippines and against international terrorist networks.” The two leaders singled out the Abu Sayyaf Group, noting its holding of American and Filipino hostages, as evidence of the need to maintain “a robust defense partnership into the 21st century”—a partnership whose 50th anniversary they also celebrated.[6]

Indonesian President Megawati also traveled to the U.S., but her timing was more delicate. She arrived a mere week after the attacks. Jakarta had considered postponing the trip, partly from sensitivity to American grief and preoccupation, but also because of hesitancy in some Muslim quarters inside Indonesia. In the end, the American side decided it wanted to proceed, knowing the public relations value of early and visible support by the ruler of the world’s largest Muslim population, and the Indonesians agreed.

Megawati’s visit went well. In Washington, she “condemned the [hijackers’] barbaric and indiscriminate acts against innocent civilians”; “pledged solidarity with the United States in this hour of grief”; and promised “to cooperate with the international community in combatting terrorism.”[7] Back in Jakarta, however, these expressions of rapport were undercut by her own vice-president, who leads Indonesia’s main Muslim party, when he was quoted as portraying the 11 September attacks as a response to American “sins.” And when she herself returned home she felt obliged to reaccent her own views for domestic (Muslim) consumption: to dissent from the American willingness to use of force and to regret the civilian casualties that, however unintentionally, resulted from it.

President Suharto would have lacked such qualms. In the heyday of his authoritarian New Order, when political Islam was something to be repressed not propitiated. In this sense, he would have been a more "reliable" partner of a security-focused American foreign policy toward Indonesia.

But "reliable" needs quote marks for a reason. The reason has to do with the domestic legitimacy of foreign commitment. Immediately helpful though an autocrat's cooperation on security may be, it is not derived from an underlying and ongoing sequence of public choice, political mandate, and legal accountability.

In tangible terms—access granted, funds provided or blocked, information obtained and shared—democracy-based cooperation is not intrinsically superior to cooperation that has been decided by fiat alone. But just as the appeal of Al Qaeda's jihad is rooted in conditions, issues, and resentments up and down the "Muslim street"—in the diverse settings in which Muslims diversely believe and behave—so must long-term success in uprooting such terror take those conditions, issues, and resentments into account.

Populist demagoguery aside, despotic states do not take their streets into account, except to quell them when they erupt. Opposition may be coopted through economic growth, or reduced by steps to resolve social conflicts or attenuate social ills. In the absence of such mitigating factors, however, an anti-terrorist state that denies outlets for the peaceful expression of dissent tends to stoke with domestic repression the very phenomenon that its international cooperation would overcome.

Time and again since 11 September, in conversation with moderate Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims, I have heard versions of the same request to the United States: Do not let your interest in encouraging political and economic reform fall victim to your interest in defeating international terrorism.

Nor is this opinion limited to Muslim Southeast Asians. A Thai colleague, for example, recently expressed concern that the US emphasis on the terrorist and the security questions, as a result of post 9/11, will mean that the US will neglect to support the efforts of political reform in Thailand and other countries in the region. There is also a concern that the military in these countries will be pampered at the expense of the civilian budget.[8]

The remark seems especially germane on the eve of the visit to Washington of another Southeast Asian head of government, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thailand is a parliamentary democracy. Last January Thai voters delivered an unprecedented majority to the new government. Arguably in part because he feels insulated by such support, Prime Minister Thaksin has allowed the pace of reform to slow. He has been accused of trying to curb dissent as well.

The United States should not hector foreign governments, or appear to be trying to micromanage their domestic politics. Thai politicians in particular are likely to bridle at such attempts. Nor does democracy come in a one-size-fits-all format. Yet corruption in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, is necessarily a transnational concern if host governments wish to attract foreign investment. There is no reason why American policies toward Southeast Asian states cannot incorporate both resistance to terror and support for reform.

The balance between these two priorities will be driven in part, of course, by the absence or presence of evidence that local elements are linked to transnational terrorists. Before rushing to conclusions about the prospect of Southeast Asia becoming a "second front" for the war on terror, it may be helpful to distinguish three very different possible kinds of linkage: biographical, attitudinal, and organizational.

Given the variety of nationalities represented among the mujahidin who were recruited with American support to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the decade-long duration of that conflict (1979-1989), it is not surprising that Muslims in Southeast Asia should include individuals with Afghan experience. But present activity cannot simply be inferred from past experience.

Nor does the existence of sympathy for Osama bin Laden among some Muslims in Southeast Asia necessarily imply willingness to imitate him by attacking Americans there. In Indonesia, despite isolated instances of Muslim hotheads threatening to "sweep" Americans out of local hotels, none to my knowledge was ever actually found and evicted. Similarly, so far as I know, the shouts of demonstrators outside the American Embassy in Jakarta were not matched by acts of physical violence against American citizens. Instead, in time, the demonstrators themselves were curbed or faded away—to the point that the State Department felt confident enough of local security to rescind, effective on 25 November 2001, its earlier willingness to let nonessential U.S. Embassy personnel and their families leave Indonesia.

Americans who will never forget the horror of 11 September may find it hard to understand that in a number of Muslim societies, including Indonesia, one can purchase t-shirts imprinted with pictures of Osama bin Laden. But buying and wearing one hardly turns one into a suicide bomber, any more than wearing blue jeans and drinking Coca Cola makes one a democrat, or than covering her hair should be taken as a sign that a Muslim woman hates America. As for the seller's motivation, an Indonesian friend of mine recently walked up to one and asked him why, alongside the bin Laden shirts on display, there were none with the face of George W. Bush. "Hey," the vendor immediately replied, "just give me his picture, and I'll make the shirt!"

Another matter entirely are organizational connections to the Al Qaeda network. And here the evidence as I understand it, while not entirely absent, is not compelling. In the Philippines, for example, the record of contacts and cooperation between Islamist terrorism and what we now call Al Qaeda appears to have been more substantial a decade or so ago than it was in the period just prior to 11 September.

We should be careful not to assume Islamist—religious—intent whenever a group of young men in Southeast Asia is reported to have commited violence while shouting "Allahu Akbar!" The Sulu archipelago in the southwestern extremity of the Philippine archipelago has for centuries been a frontier zone of endemic lawlessness—its seas and coves plied by pirates and smugglers more interested in turning a profit than entering paradise, notwithstanding the also long-standing proximity and grievances of the Philippines' Muslim minority on Mindanao.

As for the Islamic Defenders Front, a tiny group of bullies in Indonesia known for intimidating the owners of karaoke bars and other "sinful" establishments, they cannot be understood except in relation to corruption in the police. By muscling in on the owners of such enterprises, the Front made its victims want to pay the police for protection. From this revenue, the police were in turn glad to channel a portion to the Front to continue the intimidation. And so the racket went—thugs and cops cooperating to make and exploit a market based on fear. In this context, the adjective "Islamic" in the Front's name reflected public relations more than it projected piety.

The Laskar Jihad is different. Its mission was, and still is, to defend Muslims against Christians, originally in Maluku and more recently in Sulawesi as well. But its proven ability to raise the death toll in both places is not, so far as I know, consequentially connected to Al Qaeda. Rather it must be located, first, in the woeful record of communal violence inside Indonesia since Suharto's fall; second, in the circulation of horrific rumors and images of anti-Muslim violence through the no longer fettered media; third, in the weakness of the post-Suharto state in the face of challenges by nonstate actors; and fourth (and by no means least), the patronage of certain Muslim military officers whose influence can be traced back to Suharto's own willingness, in the latter years of his presidency, to authorize and even sponsor certain Muslim leaders and organizations and their sometimes assertively Islamic discourse.

Meanwhile, at the extreme western end of the Indonesian archipelago, the secessionist Aceh Freedom Movement (GAM), although it operates in a society that takes pride in its Islamic identity and history, has not entertained a radical vision of Islam of the sort that we have come to associate with the Taliban. GAM’s purpose is to obtain independence for the Acehnese nation, not to pursue bin Laden's project of creating a new global caliphate, i.e., a transnational Muslim nation to replace the once-great Ottoman empire.

Finally, in Malaysia, the All-Malaysia Islamic Party continues to operate within a parliamentary-democratic frame, contesting elections rather than fomenting insurrection. Nor can one be sure that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's crackdown against his Muslim opponents reflects their potential for violence more than his appetite for control.

Seen, then, in their unique and differing local contexts, one must seriously doubt if not dismiss Al Qaeda as a reason for the existence and activities of these various groups. Nor have I found convincing evidence that they are capable of, or even interested in, acquiring "global reach" in the sense of threatening the United States, despite the continued captivity of two American missionaries at the hands of Abu Sayyaf.

On both of these counts, therefore, I see no present reason to open a second, Southeast Asian front in the war on terror. Nor should the presence of a few American advisers in the Philippines be construed as the first step in such a direction, at least not without a significant escalation in the scope of terrorist activity there.

If Southeast Asia is not about to erupt in anti-American jihad, however, there are serious concerns worth keeping in mind:

First, we should be sensitive to the possible incremental drifting of Indonesian and Malaysian opinion toward greater sympathy with Islamist positions. These societies and their histories differ markedly from our own identity and experience here in America. It is vital in this context that American public diplomacy be reinvigorated and reoriented toward the future. Three months since the event, it is no longer enough to remind foreigners of how heinous it was, as if that evil were in and of itself monstrous enough to justify a possibly endless Cold War II against terror wherever it might rear its ugly head.

Second, we must realize that what happened on 11 September did not, in fact, change everything everywhere. Certainly it led to dramatic changes in American attitudes and policies. But for Southeast Asians, the world on 12 September was pretty much as it had been two days before, or two months before. What had changed for them was not their own, local reality, but the position and priorities of the United States.

Third, we should be aware of the ways in which Southeast Asians have reacted to our new focus on fighting terrorism. Among these reactions, two have been particularly common in my recent conversations and correspondence with Indonesian and Malaysian colleagues and politicians. In these differing responses, one can see the shift in American thinking construed alternatively as an opportunity or as a distortion.

An Indonesian analyst, Rizal Mallarangeng, who has written speeches for Megawati, makes the case for taking advantage of the opportunity created by America’s new preoccupation:

My personal view—and I have tried to convince some colleagues in the government of this--is—that we should ask the US for some kind of Marshall Plan. After all, this is precisely the right time. Putting it another way, we should do what South Korea and Taiwan both did; because of their strategic position during the Cold War, they both received lots of help, not only military assistance but also economic help. If the US really thinks that Indonesia is going to play an important role because of our strategic, social and cultural importance, then let’s make it clear that we demand a quid pro quo. This is international politics after all, and it’s in our national interest is to be a friend of the West. We have millions of people who are living in poverty and we have an economic crisis. So, why don’t we ask for help in return for our loyalty and our partnership?[9]

To American eyes, Rizal’s suggestion may appear somewhat blatant or unrealistic, but it is entirely understandable. If this is going to be Cold War II for us, we can hardly expect other countries not to respond in this way. Pakistan has set the example, and it has already been followed by the packages of help extended to Presidents Megawati and Arroyo on their recent visits.

With regard to Indonesia, of course, we have our own quid pro quo when it comes to military assistance. It would, in my judgment, be unwise if our long-standing desire (shared by many Indonesians) for progress on human rights in Indonesia, including the priority on making the Indonesian military legally accountable for past abuses, were sacrificed to our new desire for cooperation in the war against terror.

In private email conversation, an influential analyst in Malaysia who is in many respects sympathetic to American aims has interpreted 11 September very differently, by worrying that it will become a distorting “litmus” test for countries around the world—distorting in the sense that the problems faced by Malaysia (and, for that matter, Indonesia) extend far beyond the purview of a narrow, security-first focus on chasing down terrorists.

And that leads me to this final point:

In the abstract, security and democracy are compatible. In practice, however, the United States will have to work out, country by country, an appropriate mix of policies meant to promote these values. Pakistani-style compromises may be necessary on the borders of Aghanistan. In Southeast Asia, however, the United States faces a greater range of choices between these two priorites.


[1] If majority rule is essential to democracy, then defending human rights against abrogation by anyone, including a majority, is necessarily anti-democratic. That is one reason why, in the United States, the National Endowment for Democracy and the American Civil Liberties Union have such different agendas. In Thailand, human rights activists are well aware that their new prime minister’s electoral majority has not guaranteed his commitment to protecting civil liberties. If anything, the size of that democratic mandate has had the opposite effect: emboldening the new leader to act more like the CEO of a large corporation than the guardian of citizen rights. I allude to this problem further below.

[2] Whether or not 2001 does turn out to have inaugurated Cold War II—a prolonged global struggle against terror—will depend in large measure on (a) the occurrence, nature, and scale of further attacks on Americans or their allies, e.g., over the Christmas holidays; (b) the credibility of evidence that further attacks are being planned; and (c) American actions to widen the present campaign beyond Al Qaeda to include, e.g., the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. If the incidence or evidence of additional attacks are likely to increase international support for an American-led campaign against terror, however, widening the war to include Iraq could have the reverse effect, especially in Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. As for the analogy with Cold War I, unlike the Sino-Soviet focus of that conflict, Al Qaeda is not a state and is not now, to my knowledge, backed by any state.

[3] The New York Times 2002 Almanac, p. 487.

[4] Almanac, pp. 584 and 640. More Muslims live in Indonesia than in any other country.

[5] “Joint Statement between George W. Bush and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on the 50th Anniversary of the U.S.-Philippine Alliance” [“JS50”], Office of the [White House] Press Secretary [OPS], 20 November 2001.

[6] “Join Statement between the United States of America and the Republic of the Philippines,” OPS, [White House], 20 November 2001 [“conveyed … networks”]; “JS50” [“a robust … century”]. The italics are mine.

[7] “Joint Statement between the United States of American and the Republic of Indonesia” [“JSUSARI”], OPS, 19 September 2001 [“condemned … civilians”]; “JSUSARI on Terrorism and Religious Tolerance,” OPS, same day [“pledged … grief”]; “JSUSARI” [“to cooperate … terrorism.”]

[8] Email message, 10 December 2001.

[9] Rizal Mallarangeng, “The Future of Indonesia Depends on Our Friendship with the West,” interview, Van Zorge Report, undated.

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