Stalking Terrorism Will Test Inter-Asean Trust

Agreements on tackling terrorism and reinforcing regional security were unveiled at last week’s 8th Asean Summit in Phnom Penh, with key points focusing on exchange of intelligence and closer regional cooperation among security services.

China and Asean agreed to cooperate in the field of non-traditional security issues, while Thailand joined Cam­bodia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indo­nesia in a mutual anti-terrorism pact.

But how much the 10 Asean countries and China trust each other with sensitive information will decide whether the anti-terrorism agreements will be put effectively into practice, foreign diplomatic and military sources said.

Given the vast differences among the Asean countries and China, and a history that, until recently, divided them more than it bound them, exactly what information and with whom it will be shared will be a tricky balance to strike.

“Once [intelligence] is shared you can’t take it back. You lose a degree of control over what the [person who is given the information] does with it,” a Western diplomat said.

“Governments with commercial dimensions…may acquire intelligence to suit their commercial interests instead of the interests of law enforcement,” the diplomat said.

Intelligence exchanges to combat a common threat is a straightforward concept, but in countries where government, business and criminal elements rub shoulders, intelligence in one field can be misused in another, the diplomat said.

And in the wrong hands, intelligence is a lucrative resource particularly when counter-terrorism activities since the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington have focused on the movement of large sums of money and wanted people.

Security services involved in information exchange work in close-knit groups and gaining entry is not an easy process, regardless of lofty resolutions, the diplomat said.

“The implementation will take some time,” said an Asean military official, adding that success will depend on building trust and having an organized coordination center.

The anti-terrorism pact between Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand will be coordinated through an office in Malaysia, the diplomat said.

But details are scant on the China-Asean “non-traditional security” declaration, and that is likely to be a far more difficult alliance to coordinate, Asian diplomats said.

Leaders at the Asean Summit were at pains to stress their commitment to tackling international terrorism, but also blasted what they said was foreign scare mongering about terrorist threats in Southeast Asia that still largely remain more phantom that real.

Smarting at travel warnings for the region, Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said it was probably more dangerous to visit Australia than Asean nations.

This is particularly true for Muslims, Mahathir said, in a direct attack on Australian secret service raids on the homes of Muslim people in ongoing investigations following the Oct 12 Bali holiday island bomb blast that killed nearly 200 people.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who served as chairman of the Asean Summit, described terrorism in terms of a tiger in the jungle, and asked why city people should fear an animal in a far-off forest.

But despite his colorful use of metaphor, Hun Sen took no chances as security guards deftly dusted reporters microphones, a bouquet of flowers, chairs and tables for traces of explosives and the chemical agent anthrax before he spoke at the first summit news conference last Monday.

Cambodia’s security preparations for the summit passed with only the slightest hitch, most noticeably a noisy protest in the basement of the Hotel Inter-Continental by irate media trying to gain access to a press conference.

Their chants, which caused armed security to rush to the basement, were heard by the visiting premiers on the third floor of the hotel.

Summit participants argue that Cambodia proved their summit security critics wrong.

But with several other major summits scheduled in the coming year, labeling Cambodia threat-free was an “unsophisticated” analysis of the last week’s success, said the Western diplomat.

Even the safest country in the region, Singapore, has quietly but thoroughly mopped up an extensive militant network that was planning extensive attacks against Western interests.

“If Singapore can be infiltrated, so can anywhere. No country is immune,” the diplomat said.

 

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