Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Asia Watch: Causes and Effects

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Michael Shannon

 

Borderlines

In an effort to combat human trafficking, smuggling and cross-border terrorism, Thailand and Malaysia agreed on September 9 to boost security cooperation and consider building a border wall. Analysts say separatist insurgents operating in Thailand's deep south often use Malaysia as a base to plan and launch their attacks. A fence already runs along parts of their 640-km border.

The agreement, inked by Malaysian PM Najib Razak and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in Bangkok, followed three deadly bomb attacks in various towns south of the capital including Hua Hin, Surat Thani and on Phuket island, raising fears that a Muslim separatist insurgency, for years largely confined to three deep-south, Muslim-majority provinces, was spreading.

Analysts say the attacks were carried out by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, a separatist insurgent group that was left out of peace talks in Malaysia between Thailand and MARA Pattani, a separatist umbrella group.

"It is clear why Thailand is pursuing this wall," Srisompop Jitpiromsri, a director of the conflict monitor Deep South Watch, told Reuters. "They view it as a necessary step to combat these groups that cause violence."

 

Causes and Effects

A week after he called Barack Obama "a son of a whore", causing the US President to cancel their scheduled meeting at the ASEAN Summit in Laos, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has ramped up his feud with the United States, demanding all US special forces leave his country's south where they have been helping to train local troops battling Muslim terror groups.

Duterte said the US presence had angered Muslim militants in the region and Americans would constantly be in danger if they decided to stay. "I do not want a rift with America, but they have to go. It will just get more tense," he said in a speech to police and military personnel. "If they see Americans there, they will really kill them. They will try to get ransom, then kill them."

To explain his decision, President Duterte showed photographs and gave accounts of how US troops killed Muslims during America's occupation of the Philippines in the early 1900s. The Filipino leader comes from the south and claims Muslim ancestry.

US special forces have been deployed in the southern Philippines since 2002, to train and advise local units fighting Abu Sayyaf in Operation Enduring Freedom, part of its global anti-terror strategy. At its height, some 1,200 Americans were in Zamboanga City and on Jolo and Basilan islands, both strongholds of the notorious Abu Sayyaf, which is known for its brutality and for earning big money from hostage-taking. The US program was discontinued in 2015 but a small troop presence has remained for logistics and technical support.

Duterte did not specify when or how many Americans would be expelled but said the Philippines' alignment with the West was at the root of the persistent Muslim insurgency.

It remains unclear whether Duterte, known for his terse words and volatile temperament, was making a policy pronouncement. Washington has not officially received such a demand, and Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said, despite Duterte's remarks that the southern Philippines "would never have peace" while allied with Washington, "We will respect and continue to honour our treaty obligations and commitments." Armed forces spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla added that only a "token" number of American troops would be impacted by the withdrawal and broader Philippine-US defence relations remain "rock solid".

Rapidly consolidating power over key institutions of the state, and backed by very high approval ratings, Duterte is in a position to redirect the Philippines' foreign policy like none of his predecessors. At the ASEAN Summit, he warmly embraced his fellow Asian leaders who appreciated his pragmatism on the South China Sea disputes and relations with China, while his constant barrage of criticisms against America has been startling.

Although Manila released a statement of "regret", and Duterte insisted that his foul-mouthed remarks weren't personally directed at President Obama, uncertainty abounds as to the impact his rise to the presidency will have on one of Washington's strongest alliances in Asia.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Navy is looking to purchase six Israeli fast patrol boats, the MaxDefence blog has reported. The potential acquisition of the Shaldag-class vessels, built by Haifa-based Israel Shipyards, is part of an upgrade program linked to Duterte's goal of "beefing up the capabilities to fight internal threats like insurgency, terrorism and drug shipments."

The Shaldag MK V is said to be faster and able to carry more weapons than the nearly three-decade-old US-made patrol boats currently in use.

 

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