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Afghanistan turmoil

ASEAN on guard for extremism inspired by Taliban's Afghan triumph

Philippines on 'full alert' in Mindanao as governments also brace for refugees

A security officer watches camera feeds in Davao, on the Philippine island of Mindanao, in 2016. The island long been a base for Muslim militants, including those allied with the Islamic State group.   © Getty Images

SINGAPORE -- The Taliban's return in Afghanistan has issued a wake-up call thousands of kilometers away in Southeast Asia, home to millions of Muslims.

Policymakers, security officials and experts in Association of Southeast Asian Nations states are wary that the Islamist group's triumph will inspire religious extremism close to home, while also bracing for a potential influx of refugees. "I assure the public that the police and military will not allow a spillover of the Afghan conflict," the Philippines' police chief, Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, said last week in an immediate reaction to concerns over Taliban-inspired terrorism in the country.

Southeast Asia's Muslim-majority nations include Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, while smaller Muslim communities are scattered across the region, including in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. Preventing the spread of extremism has long been a top ASEAN priority. Earlier this month, the bloc's foreign ministers agreed on "the importance of a collective and comprehensive approach to address terrorism and violent extremism conducive to terrorism and radicalization."

The region is no stranger to deadly attacks by Islamist radicals. Among the worst were the Bali bombings of 2002, which targeted nightclubs popular with tourists and killed over 200 people.

One possible trouble spot is the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, long a base for Muslim militants, including those allied with the Islamic State group. Despite a 2014 peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest armed separatist group, extremism remains a threat. In 2017, Islamic State-aligned militants laid siege in the city of Marawi for five months, leaving at least 920 insurgents, 165 soldiers and 47 civilians dead while displacing tens of thousands of residents.

The island has also been rocked by suicide attacks. Last year, an explosion and a suicide bombing in militant stronghold Jolo Province killed at least 14 and wounded over 70.

The national police, however, last week assured that the situation in Mindanao "remains under the control of state forces," adding that authorities will be on "full alert" and intensify intelligence-gathering operations.

Special forces police officers participate in an anti-terrorism drill in Jakarta in 2018.   © Reuters

The Taliban have said their new Afghanistan government will be different from the one that ruled most of the Central Asian country until two decades ago -- with violence against citizens and tight restrictions on women. Those claims have prompted much skepticism, and experts say the group's success could have an effect on the battle of ideas.

"It is too early to measure the impact of the Taliban's takeover [for Southeast Asia]," Norshahril Saat, senior fellow at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute think tank, told Nikkei Asia. "Definitely, what is important is the impact the Taliban will have on ideas."

Saat went on to say: "Whether the Taliban occupies Afghanistan or not, the nature of radicalism and terrorism goes beyond state capture or governance, but should also look at the role of social media. Now physical space is no longer the only reason for radicalization."

The Singaporean government, too, is on guard.

"We will have to watch this very closely. Terrorism and extremism are clear and present dangers in our region, with or without Afghanistan," Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a local media interview on Aug. 16, according to a transcript released by the ministry.

At the same time, Balakrishnan stressed that "we will have to wait and see" what happens in Afghanistan. "It would be a tragedy if it becomes a sanctuary or hotbed of extremism and terrorism. ... Let us wait and see, but extremism and terrorism remain clear and present dangers to all of us in Southeast Asia."

Meanwhile, the turmoil in Afghanistan could send refugees rushing Southeast Asia's way. Nearly 400,000 people have fled their homes since the beginning of this year, joining 2.9 million Afghans already internally displaced at the end of 2020, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

The Philippines has said it is open to Afghan refugees, according to a report from the state Philippine News Agency. The National Bureau of Investigation and the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency may be called upon to determine if applicants pose a threat to national security, the agency said in a separate report.

In Indonesia, The Jakarta Post newspaper published an editorial on Aug. 16 stating that the immediate international implications of the Taliban's return will be "an exodus of refugees fleeing the Taliban regime with all consequences, including security threats."

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry said the Indonesian Embassy in Kabul will still carry out its mission with limited essential staff, "with close surveillance on the safety and security in Afghanistan."

Vietnam, the only Southeast Asian country sitting on the U.N. Security Council now, has urged peace in Afghanistan. "As a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, [Vietnam] calls on relevant sides to avoid using force and ensure security, order, critical infrastructures, lives and assets for Afghans and foreigners, particularly women and children and to guarantee humanitarian access when necessary," the government newspaper reported last Thursday.

Additional reporting by Cliff Venzon and Lien Hoang.

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