Peoples’ security versus national security


Peoples’ security versus national security

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Written by: Liz Fekete


According to representatives of Asian NGOs, the War Against Terrorism is legitimising authoritarian regimes and seriously undermining the democratisation effort. Most disturbingly, the US is using the events of September 11 to remilitarise the region and to secure its own economic and strategic interests.

At a recent conference, hosted by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Forum Asia, the Transnational Institute and Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), more than fifty representatives from NGOs from seventeen countries across Asia, and western Europe, and including Australia, met in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, from 23-25 August 2002. They were there to discuss issues of democracy and peoples’ security throughout Asia, in the context of the new world order that is emerging post-September 11.

For the people of Asia, anti-terrorism laws have traditionally been used by the state to suppress pro-democracy movements. Thus, in a part of the world where every dictator uses the term ‘national security’ to justify repression, the effect of the US ‘War Against Terrorism’ has been to set back the progress made over the last two decades in a democratising effort that has caused the downfall of authoritarian dictatorships, in the Philippines (1986), South Korea (1987), Thailand (1992) Indonesia (1996 and 1997), and, most recently, in East Timor (2001). Today, the formation of the ‘International Coalition Against Terrorism’, which embraces anti-democratic governments throughout the world, has served as a pretext for the governments of Asia to extend and intensify the use of national security laws to suppress movements for democracy and human rights. Hence, the vital importance of this regional conference in assessing the impact of September 11 on democracy movements and developing solidarity and cooperation among the people of Asia to fight back against mutually-reinforcing national security regimes.

The Asian experience

Protection of ‘national security’ has, at various times, taken the form of martial law, the imposition of states of emergency and draconian national security measures. What this meant for pro-democracy movements and activists on the ground was the focus of much discussion and intense study during the conference. Among the questions asked were why anti-terrorism laws and national security measures have become so deeply ingrained in the political culture of the region.

While delegates from Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines), East Asia (South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong), South Asia (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka) had specific histories to recount, the general picture was one in which national security regimes had emerged either in the colonial era or the Cold War period. As Somchai Homlaor, the secretary general of Forum Asia put it, ‘Internal security laws and anti-terrorist laws are a draconian remnant of the laws employed during the colonial era’. Homloar himself is a veteran of the Thai democracy movement of the 1980s, when students were gunned down by the military. Abul Hasnat Monjurul Kabir, director of the Dhaka-based centre Law Watch agreed. While ‘national security laws have their origins in colonial emergency powers and traditional autocracies, they have continued to evolve and have been adapted by local elites to perpetuate their rule’. A concrete example was evidenced by Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of Human Rights Alert in Manipur, India. The Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act (1911), was originally brought in by the British, but has recently been revived by the Indian government to crack down on separatists in Manipur; Manipur is now subject to intensive military control as it is listed as a Disturbed Area under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). On the other hand, in countries like Thailand (which never came under colonial rule), South Korea and Japan national security laws tended to be deployed more during the Cold War period, and were anti-Communist in origin. National security laws in Japan were, historically, an essential component of Japanese imperialism. Never fully dismantled at the end of the second world war, they were simply reorganised to meet the purposes of the United States Asia Pacific military strategy.

Despite the difference in origins of national security measures across the region, the conference identified the following as common features:

  • arbitrary detention without charge or trial;
  • criminalisation of communities and organisations by labelling them as terrorist
  • undermining of due process of law
  • reinforcement of repressive practices, including torture, by state authorities
  • restrictions on freedom of movement and right to asylum
  • intensification of all forms of racism and discrimination, including those based on gender, caste and religion, against migrants, refugees and minorities
  • erosion of privacy and increased surveillance.
September 11 – Reinforcing repression

Prior to September 11, some Asian countries were already feeling the full force of national security measures, particularly in Malaysia. In the latter, the Internal Security Act (1960) has been used to crack down on the pro-democracy movement which emerged after the arrest of deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. But whereas before September 11 the Malaysian government and others like it, were under intense international scrutiny, today they are key allies in the ‘war against terrorism’. For president Bush has identified Southeast Asia as ‘the second front in the war against terrorism’. So the West applauds, as Asian governments use the events of September 11 to introduce a raft of internal security measures. (The Australian defence minister was reported, during a recent visit to Malaysia, to have spoken approvingly of the ISA). However, these measures are not aimed at providing security so much as consolidating state power and intensifying the suppression of pro-democracy and human rights movements. In Nepal, for example, where a state of emergency was declared in November 2001, the ‘Terrorist and Destructive Crime Control and Punishment Ordinance Act was recently introduced; Thailand has the People’s Protection and Internal Security Act; India, the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance 2001; South Korea saw the formation of two counter-terrorism centres and the introduction of anti-terrorism legislation. Similar legislation is due to be enacted in Hong Kong and in Indonesia, anti-terrorism legislation, similar to the Malaysian ISA, is pending. In the Philippines, the immigration act has been used to detain indefinitely foreigners suspected of terrorist acts. Meanwhile, in Japan, even its pacifist constitution has been undermined to support the US-led war on terrorism, in that Japan’s Self Defence Forces (SDF) can now undertake overseas military action.

But what is of even greater concern is the increasing cooperation between some Asian governments and the United States, as national security regimes become mutually reinforcing. Thus, Chirawatana Charoonpatarapong of Focus on the Global South warned that some members of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) had signed a counter-terrorism pact with the US at the ASEAN regional forum in Brunei. The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia were the first co-signatories, but there is a possibility that Thailand and Burma may join the pact later. In addition, US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has proposed that a regional anti-terrorism centre be set up in Malaysia, to be run jointly by the US and Malaysia. All this is having a dramatic impact on the ground, as the representative of Focus on the Global South explained ‘Human rights violations, justified in the name of the war against terror, have increased everywhere since September 11.’ Somchai Homloar concurred: ‘If states in this region are allowed to continue to use internal security laws to stifle political opposition and dissent, then human rights standards will break down, and the fragile democracy standards of Asia will break down with them.’

The ‘remilitarisation’ of Asia

If the fragile standards of democracy in Asia do, indeed, break down, then the US will be to blame for effectively sanctioning widespread human rights abuses. Although US geo-politics was not the major focus at the conference, delegates were well-versed in US strategic plans for the area, identified in background papers prepared by James Reilly, the East Asia representative of the American Friends Service Committee. Prior to September 11, ‘Joint Vision 2020’, a Pentagon planning document, had already identified Asia as the key focus of US military strategy in the early twenty-first century. According to Reilly, the US is using the events of September 11 to remilitarise the region, to secure its strategic interests vis à vis the control of an oil pipeline stretching from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean and the control over territory in the South China Sea with vast potential oil reserves. Such remilitarisation will also help ensure that US plans to build a missile defence system in and around the Korean peninsula are unaffected by moves towards reconciliation between the South and North (North Korea is now identified as one of the four countries in the ‘axis of evil’.) Moreover, as a representative from South Korea explained to the conference ‘Before September 11, there had been a reconciliation process and dialogue between North and South Korea; now, that dialogue is halting and tension increased’.

Post-September 11, US arms sales to both India and Pakistan have increased, as has economic and military aid to Indonesia, with the promise of regular military contact. A similar military aid package has been promised for the Philippines, where the government has agreed to allow the US use of airspace and access to the former US Subic and Clark air and naval bases. This is in defiance of the wishes of the Philippines pro-democracy movement which fought so valiantly against the American bases, finally shut down in 1991.

New targets in the war on dissent

As the interests of Asian governments and the interests of the US converge, new limits to freedom are set, dissenters are criminalised and groups fighting for self-determination are recast as international terrorists.

The Muslim insurgency: In the aftermath of September 11, security officials throughout Southeast Asia are trying to pass off local militants, particularly Muslims, as international terrorists; for Muslim militancy in Southeast Asia has come under the microscope. The regional cooperation between the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, described earlier, formalises security coordination between three ASEAN states with strong ethnic links, large Muslim populations and porous borders. As the war against terror comes to legitimate legal and military measures to crush Islamic movements, Muslim minorities are increasingly victimised. In Malaysia, where five leaders of the reform movement have already spent one year in detention without trial, tens of alleged ‘Muslim radicals’ have been arrested under the Internal Security Act, merely on suspicion of having connections with terrorist groups. China has joined the war against terrorism and used it to crack down on the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in western Xinjiang; Indonesia has intensified its harsh crackdown on separatist movements in Aceh and Irian Jaya and in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where Muslims are waging a separatist struggle, the army has been given new powers of civilian control. In addition, the Philippines president was prepared to violate the Philippines constitution in order to allow US special troops on to Basilan Island, ostensibly to hunt an estimated eighty Abu Sayyaf bandits, linked to Al- Qa’ida.

The war against terror, participants concluded, is being used to launch an outright attack on the right to self-determination, the recognition of which, under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, was a major achievement in the fight against colonialism. In the concluding declaration and ‘call to action’, conference participants affirmed the universal right to self-determination and of peoples to self-defence of their rights, particularly in the face of tyranny and oppression.’

Minorities, migrants and refugees: The worsening plight across Asia of ethnic minorities, migrants and refugees also concerned participants. On the one hand, governments are targeting foreigners as a threat and attacking the concept of pluralism, so fragile across the region. On the other, regional governmental co-operation on national security vastly limits the ability of exiles living in neighbouring Asian states to campaign for democracy in their home countries. Ethnic Koreans have traditionally been demonised in Japan but, since September 11, it has become even more difficult for them to organise in solidarity with the North/South reconciliation process. Malaysia has taken to caning, fining and deporting undocumented migrants from the Philippines and Indonesia. As Thailand (traditionally a refuge for Burmese dissidents) is increasingly linked economically to Burma, Burmese refugees and migrant workers are beginning to feel the heat. In August, Burmese pro-democracy campaigners were rounded up by Thai police and deported back to Burma, following pressure from the Burmese military junta.

While demonisation of migrants and refugees could only be alluded to at the conference, delegates identified them in their plan for further action as one of the core target groups post-September 11. There was, as European participants pointed out, a sickening parallel between Asian national security laws and those enacted in the EU post -September 11. The European laws too serve to limit the legitimate right of refugees and exiles to campaign for democracy abroad. Such a parallel not only supports the conference’s view that, post-September 11, national security regimes reinforce each other but sharpens the conviction that Europe’s new security laws, were enacted primarily as a gift from European government to regimes abroad. The intended effect of a measure such as the UK’s Crime and Terrorism Act is to stifle criticism of authoritarian regimes by prohibiting freedom of speech among exiles in the UK. In this there is fearful irony. For if, in the colonial era, it was the British who shaped the anti-terrorist laws of countries like India and Malaysia and used such measures to suppress the struggle for independence, now the same laws are being enacted domestically. Once again, they function to limit struggle, this time by removing the ability of refugees to act against authoritarian post-colonial regimes that the West helped to install in the first place.

The peoples’ security agenda

After three days, the conference ended with participants launching the Asian Peoples’ Security Network and identifying four key areas for future work. These were the creation of a documentation centre based on the conference’s original website (www.suaram.org); advocacy and campaigning work at major events, including inter-governmental meetings on security measures and meetings of national human rights commissions; continuing to give immediate regional support in emergency situations. (In relation to the latter , organisers are to explore the possibility of sending fact-finding missions to Northeast India, Aceh, Kashmir, Basilan, West Papua, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Nepal and Maluku). Finally, the conference decided to set up a campaign promoting a peoples’ security agenda.

The final theme, the promotion of human security as an alternative to militarisation and the War on Terrorism, ran through the whole conference. Throughout, participants voiced a belief that the ‘basic aspiration of the people of Asia for democracy, an aspiration that is deeper today than ever before’, was intimately linked to the desire for human security. This positive and dynamic concept of ‘peoples’ or ‘human security’ has also to be defined as a negation of national security measures which constitute abrogation of the rule of law, and violate principles articulated by international human rights instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In their call to action, participants reminded governments that ‘all acts of violence perpetrated by them in the name of national security or the “war on terrorism” which violate international human rights law are, in fact, terrorist acts themselves’. In launching a campaign against state torture, delegates promised to ‘act together to oppose such acts of state terrorism’.

The concept of peoples security is, in fact, rooted deeply in the anti-colonial struggles of the past and in the constitutions of newly-emerging post-colonial states that established free and fair elections as fundamental to democracy. Participants went on to define peoples’ security as the elimination of economic inequities, free and fair elections, civil and political rights (including protection from state interference), support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and elimination of the threat of war. In rejecting the reduction of security to governmental obsessions with ‘national security’, the conference affirmed that ‘real security is that which ensures the promotion and realisation of all human rights – political, social, economic and cultural – for all peoples.’ Real security and human rights – including political and civil rights – are, therefore, indivisible.

Peoples and movements across the world opposing neoliberal globalisation also articulate the desire for, and possibility of peoples’ security. But the war on terrorism, in labelling any form of dissent as terrorism, is, in part, an attempt to destroy the capacity of peoples’ movements to achieve security. Conference participants concluded that ‘the war on terrorism threatens the very core of democratic nations. The very foundation of the United Nations and the UN instruments and mechanisms of human rights have already been undermined and are moving towards collapse.’ Yet, while authoritarian regimes in Asia may have been the immediate beneficiaries of post-September 11 hysteria, the people of Asia could still ‘seize this moment’ to begin achieving real democracy; in part, through popularising the idea of peoples’ security as an alternative to militarisation and the war on terror.

Related links

More information on the Asian Peoples’ Security Network, including its ‘Call for Action’.


The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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