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Regional leaders warn of IS expansion in SE Asia

CANBERRA—Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of Australia has called on its Southeast Asian neighbors, including the Philippines, to do more to fight the Islamic State as part of a multi-nation effort to stem IS expansion into new countries.

Bishop issued the warning on the looming threat of the terror group following the fall of the city of Ramadi in Iraq. In an interview with the Weekend Australian, she said that as the war in Iraq reached crisis point, countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East had a responsibility to do more. “I want all countries who believe they have foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria to do what they can to assist,” she said as she prepared to fly to Paris for a summit of 22 nations directly involved in the fighting. At least 200 Indonesians and 60 Malaysians are reported fighting in Iraq and Syria for the IS.

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“There are many countries who claim to have foreign terrorist fighters in Iraq and Syria. And we all have to take responsibility for our citizens. I’m certainly encouraging a greater effort. This is a threat we all face,” Bishop said. She added that subject to the approval of the Iraqi government, the sort of help that was needed from nations not yet involved could come in the form of a direct military contribution, intelligence on potential terrorism, preventing fighters from passing through their borders, and tracking and blocking the sources of the abundant resources flowing to the Islamic State.

The fall of Ramadi was obviously a setback, Bishop said. “But we see it as one part of what will be a very long and difficult struggle against a very well-resourced and resilient enemy.” Australian instructors are reported to be leading the mission to train Iraqi forces at Taji military base 80 kilometers from Ramadi.

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A strong warning also came from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, closer to the Philippines than Australia, on Friday. He called on countries to “break the vicious cycle” in the South China Sea, as the United States and China exchanged increasingly acrimonious barbs over reclaimed islands in the disputed area. Inaugurating the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Lee warned of the threat of IS militancy, saying it was not inconceivable that the ultraradicals “could establish a base in the region physically under their control, like in Syria or Iraq.” His remarks on the Islamic State were the strongest made by an Asia-Pacific leader on the threat posed by the IS.

“The idea that Isis can turn Southeast Asia into a Wilawat—a province of a worldwide Islamic caliphate—is a grandiose pie-in-the-sky idea,” Lee said. “But it is not far-fetched that Isis could establish a base somewhere in the region, somewhere where the governments’ writs ‘do not run.’” Hundreds of people of Southeast Asia have joined IS forces in Iraq and Syria and regional security experts have warned of the dangers they may pose if they return.

Bloomberg reports that at the Singapore Shangri-La Dialogue, Lee said: “Southeast Asia is a key recruitment center for Isis.” He noted that the center included more than 500 Indonesians and dozens of Malaysians who have formed a unit called the Malay Archipelago Combat Unit. Even in the small and tightly-controlled city-state of Singapore, “a few” young men have gone to Syria to join the IS ranks, Lee disclosed. Singaporean authorities have arrested two students, one of whom planned to assassinate Singaporean officials. “This is why Singapore takes terrorism, in particular Isis, very seriously,” he said. “The threat is no longer over there, it is over here.” The IS intends to establish a province of its “caliphate” in Southeast Asia, he warned. It is entirely feasible that the group could take advantage of some ungoverned spaces to establish a foothold from which to expand recruiting and plan attacks in new host countries, he said. “That would pose serious threat to the whole of Southeast Asia.”

Although Lee did not specifically allude to any Southeast Asian nation as a potential base for IS radicalism, he cannot be unaware of the reality that the IS may have already gained a toehold in the Philippines, where the government has signed a comprehensive peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which seeks the establishment of Bangsamoro substate in Mindanao. The agreement cedes huge chunks of the national territory of a secular state inhabited by a heavily predominant Christian population.

When Lee spoke of the possibility that the IS “could establish a base somewhere in the region … where the governments ‘writs do not run,’” he was obviously referring to the Bangsamoro as a de facto base of the IS caliphate. The Philippine government has gone out of its way to push the establishment of the base through the enactment in Congress of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the legal framework of a new state within the present constitutional system of the Philippine Republic.

The Philippine government has opened the way for the establishment of a Bangsamoro state, our own camouflage of the IS surrogate, of its “caliphate,” and is pushing for its passage in the legislature despite the constitutional infirmities of the BBL that, according to legal experts, gives too much veto power to the MILF in the implementation of the agreement it signed with the government. A draft report of the Senate committee on constitutional amendments chaired by Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago has found the BBL riddled with provisions that raise constitutional questions concerning local governments’ autonomy.

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TAGS: Australia, Bangsamoro, BBL, Islamic State, Julie Bishop, Lee Hsien Loong, Ramadi, Southeast Asia
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