Three Southeast Asian nations vulnerable to fostering terrorist groups have agreed to jointly tackle the problem in a move that brings much-needed security to the region. But the co-operation should not be seen as the be-all and end-all of a problem that could spawn in any country at any time. The decision by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines at a meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers was historic. The 10-member organisation's founding principle that member nations not interfere in one another's internal matters has been fastidiously adhered to over the decades, although it was obvious that an issue such as terrorism would force a rethink. The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11 and the resulting declaration of a war against terrorism jolted many Asian countries awake to the threats in their backyards. Since then, dozens of alleged terrorists have been arrested across the region and governments made more conscious of suspect groups. Two events highlighted the need for a more co-ordinated policy - the Philippine Government's struggle against the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping gang in southern Mindanao, and the fleeing to Malaysia of Muslim rebel-turned-politician-turned-rebel Nur Misuari. The Philippines used a military training accord with the US to take on the Abu Sayyaf, but it could have called on Asean help if agreements had been in place. Misuari's return to the armed struggle he gave up after signing an agreement with the Philippine Government in 1996 was more problematic. He fled to Malaysia and it was only after delicate negotiations with the help of Indonesia over a month that he was finally extradited to Manila to face charges. Observers have also alleged that groups with extremist Muslim views have been formed in Indonesia and Malaysia and the conditions are ripe elsewhere in the region. Thailand has expressed interest in joining the anti-terrorism co-operation group because of similar fears. It is timely that the problems have been recognised and that joint efforts are finally being taken to stem existing and potential threats. But to be truly effective, all nations in the region, not just a few members of Asean, should join a co-ordinated fight against terrorism. The measures must be far-reaching and information fully shared in what should be a new spirit of regionalism to protect East Asians.