Lack of will

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 12:00am

Southeast Asian nations talk copiously about tackling terrorism, but their efforts are confined mostly to meetings and statements. Inter-state animosities and suspicion are getting in the way of making the region safe.

Low-level co-operation is taking place, but it is of a limited nature and confined to police talking among themselves about issues like border controls and piracy. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of radical extremists continue to operate unchecked.

Most at fault is Indonesia, where the security services are eager to crack down on extremist Islamic groups like Jemaah Islamiah, but politicians lack the desire to give the orders. The ringleaders of the Bali bombings may have been rounded up, but little effort is being taken to ensure that other groups do not carry out similar attacks.

But the problem goes beyond Indonesia's borders and encompasses the fundamental matter of regional co-operation. Put simply, there is little when it comes to a joint effort in fighting terrorism. Historic rivalry has long been rife among Southeast Asia's nations. Many are still fighting centuries-old territorial claims while issues such as illegal immigration continue to dog relations. Flat economies and the scramble for foreign investment has exacerbated tensions.

Even straightforward matters go unresolved. Indonesian forest fires which cause smoke haze in Singapore and Malaysia each year continue to flare annually despite avowed joint efforts to ensure there is no recurrence.

With a lack of co-operation preventing something so basic as a fire, how would it be possible to stop terrorists from crossing borders to carry out their deadly missions?

There is no quick solution. Political will is the most pressing, but this will take time. Educating nations to think as a region, not always in terms of national self-interest would also help.

But most of all, Southeast Asian countries have to shelve their historical differences - for the sake of regional security.