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Muslim militancy under Southeast Asian spotlight

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By Patrick Chalmers

KAMUNTING, Malaysia, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Mohamad, a retired soldier living near Malaysia's high security Kamunting detention centre, is unimpressed by talk of rising Islamic militancy.

Wearing the skull cap and long robes of a devout Muslim and declining midday food or drink as he prepares for the holy fasting month of Ramadan, Mohamad talks quietly under the gaze of nearby riot police and their two water cannons.

"The biggest problem we have is with freedom of speech," he says, pausing to watch the round up and arrest of a few dozen opposition party supporters come to protest at the detention of family members and friends in the camp up the road.

But countries in the region put a very different spin on the dangers of Muslim militancy in a world increasingly obsessed with radical Islam.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, mainly Muslim Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand have all linked bomb blasts or attacks to Islamic militants.

The September 11 suicide attacks on the United States put the spotlight back on Muslim militancy in the region, home to more than a fifth of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad says the world's more than 50 Muslim countries face threats from militants who are exploiting Islam for political ends.

"These people feel, believe, that they can overthrow these governments and set up what they call a Muslim country. Malaysia is not excepted," he said in a speech at the launch of an electronic version of the Muslim holy book the Koran.

CLIMATE OF SUSPICION

Malaysia has acknowledged that some of the suspects in the U.S. hijackings visited as tourists.

Indonesia and Malaysia are among 25 Muslim or mainly Muslim states whose young men Washington plans to subject to longer checks before issuing them U.S. visas.

A November summit of leaders from the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Brunei agreed terrorism was one of its biggest challenges.

They issued instructions to enhance cooperation and intelligence sharing between their security agencies to counter transborder crime and terrorism.

Southeast Asian army chiefs signed a declaration in Manila on November 15 pledging to combat terrorism.

"We are all mindful of the recent global incidents and we view terrorism as a threat to the region," Philippine Army chief Lieutenant-General Jaime de los Santos said at the signing.

Since early August, Malaysia has arrested more than a dozen supporters of Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), its main opposition party, accusing them of forming an Afghan-inspired militant group to overthrow the government and set up a purist Islamic state.

Mahathir alluded to wider ambitions among those arrested, saying they planned an Islamic union incorporating neighbours Indonesia and the Philippines.

In mid-August, Indonesian police blamed a small group of Malaysian Muslim hardliners for bombings in Indonesia's Jakarta, including attacks on two churches, which wounded 70.

There has, however, been no firm evidence produced to link that group with PAS supporters arrested in Malaysia.

LOOSE TIES

Despite the existence of several Islamic separatist movements, Southeast Asia's half dozen countries with Muslim majorities or large minorities have produced no recent evidence of pan-Islamic militancy.

Diplomats and security analysts say ties between militant groups are more likely to be indirect.

Thousands of Southeast Asian Muslims have attended the madrassas or religious schools of Pakistan often associated with Afghanistan's hardline Taliban.

"There is evidence to suggest that there is this indirect element of training and people being related to the Taliban. You do get that sort of connection," says Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre.

Separatist Islamic militants associated themselves with similar groups elsewhere in the way communists around the world used to align themselves with the former Soviet Union and China -- often without direct contact.

"You got local communists who looked to Beijing or Moscow as their Meccas," says Abdul Razak.

Thousands of Muslims protesting after Friday prayers in the region's capitals proclaim common cause with Afghanistan's Muslims.

Few have rallied to Taliban calls for holy war to defend Islam against the U.S.-led coalition attacking them.

JAKARTA PROTESTS

Rallies have been at their loudest and most passionate in Jakarta, but authorities there say they have nothing to link local radicals to Osama bin Laden, whom Washington blames for the September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Indonesia's main security concerns are violent separatist movements in places like Aceh, not bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

"So far we see no indication of any links whatsoever with any groups related to Osama bin Laden, especially the al Qaeda," armed forces spokesman Air Vice Marshal Graito Usodo said.

"We do realise that some international press have been writing about such possibilities but we still find no proof."

Washington has linked the Abu Sayyaf group, which says it is fighting for a Muslim state in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines, to bin Laden.

But officials say there has been little contact between local Muslim groups and militants overseas for six or seven years.

"Since the Abu Sayyaf emerged in the early 1990s, our security forces have been very vigilant in blocking the formation of new cells and in preventing local Islamist groups from linking up with international terrorists," Philippine presidential palace spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said.

But a U.S. military team has been advising the Philippine army on battling Abu Sayyaf as part of Washington's global war on terrorism.

The Philippines' last known link with international radicals was in 1995, when authorities arrested a Pakistani man, Abdul Hakim Murad, whom they extradited to the United States. He was later convicted over the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

He has been linked to bin Laden.

Around the same time, reports also emerged that a brother-in-law of bin Laden, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, was funding Islamic schools and charities in the Philippines.

The influence of Islam crosses Malaysia's northern border to Thailand, where some six million Muslims live largely at peace within in the mainly Buddhist Kingdom.

Thai Muslims have been vocal but peaceful in opposing attacks on Afghanistan. As many as 30,000 turned out to call for a boycott of goods and services from the United States and other countries supporting the air strikes.

A minority of Thai Muslims has long backed the establishment of a separate state in the south, adjoining Malaysia. Police have linked bombings in Thailand this year to separatists.

But back in Malaysia, talk of Muslim militancy cuts little ice with Mohamad, who declined to give his full name.

He says the men detained in Kamunting on accusations of plotting to topple the government by force are victims of official efforts to neuter all serious political opposition.

"They do not want to hear what the people are saying -- they keep an iron claw," he adds.

(With additional reporting from Bangkok, Manila and Jakarta)

21:03 11-15-01

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