PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 November, 2002, 12:00am

AFTER THE TERRORIST attacks in New York and Washington on September 11 last year, the United States successfully forged an international coalition in its war against terrorism. The US focus was initially on Afghanistan but shifted later to other countries in Asia, especially Southeast Asia, where there are large Muslim populations.

One by one, the countries of Southeast Asia signed on to the anti-terrorism campaign, some enthusiastically, others reluctantly. After the Bali bombing on October 12, it became impossible to deny that terrorists were at work in Indonesia and other countries in the region.

But now, Southeast Asian countries have discovered that, having enlisted in the war against terrorism, their countries are being boycotted by many Western tourists, whose governments have warned their citizens not to travel to areas where there may be a risk of terrorist attacks. And the countries of Southeast Asia are crying foul.

The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), in a summit meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this month, promised to take further action against terrorism. But, at the same time, they issued a declaration appealing to Western nations to avoid indiscriminate travel warnings against the region, which they said could adversely affect economic growth.

The statement said: 'We call on the international community to avoid indiscriminately advising their citizens to refrain from visiting or otherwise dealing with our countries, in the absence of established evidence to substantiate rumours of possible terrorist attacks, as such measures could only help achieve the objectives of the terrorists.'

Large-scale cancellations

The US, western European countries and Australia have issued a rash of warnings to their citizens, advising them not to travel to countries in Southeast Asia. As a result, tourism to the region has plummeted. Indonesia is one of the most seriously affected. Hotels in Thailand have reported large-scale cancellations.

While tourism is the first industry to suffer, ultimately a drop in foreign investment could have a serious impact on the economies of many countries in the region, which is still recovering from the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 and the global economic downturn.

Even American allies, such as President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, of the Philippines, have rebuked the US and other countries for the travel warnings. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople warned against the spread of a culture of fear and paranoia.

However, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher attributed the fall in tourism to terrorism in those countries. 'We have an obligation to tell Americans about the situation there,' he said. 'It is terrorist action and the threat of terrorist action that is of concern to the travellers.'

Interestingly, however, within the US, the government has not warned its citizens to avoid New York or Washington. Instead, it has encouraged an outpouring of patriotism. Even the US Congress held an extraordinary session in New York in September, the first time it has met outside Washington in more than 200 years.

Double standards and hypocrisy

Moreover, even though the US press has widely reported on the activities of al-Qaeda operatives in Germany and other European countries, Washington has not issued warnings urging Americans to avoid those countries. And no European government has advised its citizens against going to the US. Only the developing countries of Asia have been targeted.

It is no wonder, then, that Asian leaders see double standards and hypocrisy at work. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, for example, has said that Australia and the US are just as at risk from terrorists as the countries of Southeast Asia.

In fact, statistically speaking, more people have been killed in the US than in any other country. And yet, no country, including those in Southeast Asia, has advised its nationals not to visit America. 'The attacks in America were mounted from within America, so actually it is a very dangerous place,' Dr Mahathir said.

Travel warnings, however, can go in many directions. The Japanese foreign ministry has warned of possible terrorist attacks in Melbourne, and now the shoe is on the other foot. The Australian Tourism Commission would like Japan to lift its travel advice. 'Australia is a safe and secure destination,' Tourism Minister Joe Hockey said. 'There are, of course, certain risks, but there are risks right around the world.'

No doubt the leaders of Asean agree.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator