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An Undercurrent of Distrust Awaits Bush in Southeast Asia

October 17, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — When President Bush arrives in Southeast Asia for the first time Saturday, he will get a warm welcome from a handful of world leaders who are among his strongest backers. But he will also travel through a region where opposition to the Iraq war is widespread and the public is wary of a U.S. leader who is seen as making decisions with scant regard for the opinions of other nations.

"For the people, suspicion of the motives of the U.S. are deep-rooted," said Sunai Phasuk of the human rights group Forum Asia based in Bangkok, Thailand. "President Bush is always last on the list of favorite leaders, and first on the list of most hated."

Bush's trip will take him to five nations sharply affected by terrorism: Indonesia and the Philippines, where bombings have killed more than 250 people since December 2000; Singapore and Thailand, where major plots have been foiled; and Australia, which lost 88 people in last year's Bali nightclub blasts.

The most deadly group is Jemaah Islamiah, a regional network closely associated with Al Qaeda and blamed for suicide bombings in Indonesia during the last year that killed 202 people on Bali; 12 people at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, the capital; and three people at a McDonald's restaurant on Sulawesi. Also a threat is the rebel Abu Sayyaf kidnapping gang, which operates in the southern Philippines and has targeted American tourists.

Washington pundits have dubbed Southeast Asia the second front in America's war on terrorism. The FBI, the CIA and the U.S. military have worked closely with authorities in the region to combat Islamic terrorists. But widespread sympathy for the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks has largely evaporated with its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and perceived one-sided support for Israel.

Suspicion of and hostility toward the United States remain strong, even among some elected officials.

"Who is the real terrorist? Well, it is America," Indonesian Vice President Hamzah Haz declared in a speech to Muslim clerics last month. "In fact, the U.S. is the king of terrorists because of its war crimes in Iraq. The U.S. condemns terrorists but itself carries out terror acts on Iraq."

Security will be extremely tight for the presidential visit. Bush, who will first stop in Tokyo, is scheduled to be in Manila for only eight hours and on Bali for only four hours. His longest stay will be three days in Bangkok, where he will meet with other leaders at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

In the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf threatened last week to stage terror attacks during Bush's visit. "We will be your worst nightmare," Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Solaiman said in a call to a radio show. "We will let you feel the fear and the raging fury very deep inside us after subjecting our tribe and free people to centuries of humiliation and deprivation."

Philippine authorities, who have captured and killed dozens of Abu Sayyaf members in recent months with the help of U.S. weapons and training, said they were prepared for any action by the group.

High on Bush's agenda will be securing troops and financial help for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. Most of the countries he is visiting have been supportive in the past. Japan, the Philippines and Singapore were among the "coalition of the willing" that backed the war. Australia was the only nation besides the U.S. and Britain to send troops to join the invasion of Iraq. Thailand recently sent nearly 500 troops to Iraq to aid the U.S. effort.

But whether Bush can extract more from the region remains to be seen. Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, has indicated it would send troops to Iraq only as part of a U.N. mission.

In the Philippines, Bush's visit is likely to give a boost to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who recently announced she would run for election next year after initially declaring she would not be a candidate.

Arroyo, who took office the same day as Bush, faces widespread political opposition as well as a continuing fight with separatist rebels. This week, fugitive Jemaah Islamiah bomber Fathur Rohman Al Ghozi, an Indonesian, was gunned down by police in the southern Philippines.

"Our people support President Bush and will make every effort to make his stay, however short, both meaningful and memorable," Arroyo said. "Security preparations are in place, and we are ready to give him a rousing welcome deserving of a friend and ally of the Philippines."

In February, the Bush administration sought to help Arroyo by announcing it would deploy combat troops in the southern Philippines to hunt Abu Sayyaf militants. But in an embarrassment for both presidents, the plan was scuttled because it would have violated the Philippines' constitutional ban on foreign troops operating there.

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