PENANG, Malaysia - Controversy is swirling around a US-proposed regional counter-terrorism center in Malaysia, which is due to open next year.
The proposed center has sparked much criticism, including that it will allow the United States another foothold in the region and further compromise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) ideal of a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN).
This onslaught of criticism has forced the Malaysian government on the defensive at a time when Muslim support is evenly divided between the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the opposition alliance led by the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and the National Justice Party (Keadilan).
Home Minister Abdullah Badawi clarified that the center would not involve foreign soldiers as no military training would be carried out. He said the proposal for the center was very specific and it would only conduct programs to upgrade skills in counter-terrorism. "The center will not be operational in nature. It will strictly be a training center."
US President George W Bush announced the setting up of the center last Sunday at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in Mexico after getting Malaysia's consent.
The proposal for the center was first raised at the ASEAN post-ministerial conference in Brunei in August, which was attended by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had earlier swung through eight ASEAN member countries. At the summit, a US-ASEAN counter-terrorism pact, the Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism, was concluded to "prevent, disrupt and combat" terrorism. The pact supposedly only focuses on exchanging information and intelligence and building ASEAN's capability to combat terrorism. Powell said the United States had no intention of setting up military bases in the region, although he didn't rule out bilateral military arrangements.
The location of the counter-terrorism center in Malaysia, however, may eventually expose the conflict between the Malaysian government's approach of looking at the root causes of terrorism and the United States' increasingly unilateralist approach of aggressively tackling the symptoms.
This week, Abdullah warned the international community about the adverse consequences if they failed to tackle carefully three main areas of concern: the Iraqi issue, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and terrorism. He pointed out that any unfair targeting or profiling of Muslims would anger them, and once angered they would "resort to all kinds of action", including terrorist acts. Such calls are likely to go unheard by the Bush administration. And so the uneasiness about the counter-terrorism center in Malaysia lies in who will actually be calling the shots when it comes to formulating strategy and dealing with Muslim grievances on global issues.
Some fear that the center may unfairly link critics of US foreign policy on Iraq and Palestine-Israel to militant groups outside the country. Such concerns are heightened at a time when the United States is bent on preserving and extending its global hegemony as the sole superpower.
In particular, critics are asking for specific details on the scope, management and objectives of the center. PAS itself is viewing the center as a US attempt to use Malaysia as a base to train those who oppose the Muslim community. Islamic groups often see themselves as targets in this new phase of US foreign policy. The PAS's news portal, Harakahdaily, carried comments from a spokesman for its Ulamaks Council, speculating that US Federal Bureau of Investigation or Central Intelligence Agency officials may carry out the training at the center. The spokesman also wanted to know why the center is to be located in Malaysia and not Indonesia. He suggested that the Malaysian government could have political reasons for allowing the center to be based in the country, in a likely oblique reference to the erosion of Muslim support for the ruling coalition since 1998.
Amid such concerns is the worry that the center may be used to counter the emergence of political Islam. Already, the Malaysian government has used harsh security laws to detain without trial some 70 alleged members of the so-called Malaysian Militant Group (KMM), some of whom are little-known PAS members. Indeed, the setting up of a regional terrorism center in Malaysia may also increase the perception - without any hard evidence - that terrorism is a problem in the country.
Some political observers fear, that with the setting up of the center, Malaysia may unwittingly get co-opted in whatever hidden agenda the United States has in its counter-terrorism efforts. It would also lead to the opening up of a "second front" against terrorism in the region at a time when Muslim-based groups within Malaysia, including Mahathir's ruling coalition, have strongly denied any operational links with external militant groups.
The multi-ethnic Chinese-based opposition Democratic Action Party, for its part, is calling for the center to be run under United Nations auspices.
Analysts say the center may also undermine Malaysia's role as one of the more credible voices against the excesses of globalization and US hegemony. Others argue that the center itself could become a possible target of anti-American militant groups from outside the country.
But what is of most concern is that the center will be used to extend the United State's sphere of influence into the region. "It is clear that, willy-nilly, ASEAN has been steadily and surely brought back into the US orbit,'' says Malaysian political scientist Johan Saravanamuttu. "Under the Bush administration, the war against terrorism is not much different from the war against communism of the past."
Thus, says Johan, it was no surprise that leaders from Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia went in quick succession to pay homage to Bush in Washington this year. The Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, he pointed out, also seemed to waste little time in responding to Bush by putting alleged terrorists and potential terrorists behind bars.
The prevailing worry now is that just as in the case of communism in the past, the more one demonizes the enemy and plots its downfall, the more one may invite unwanted attention that could turn such fears into a self-fulfilling prophecy.