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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, October 26, 2002

U.S. war on terror: Is it also becoming a war on democracy?

Already among the casualties of the war on terrorism, it appears, are aspects of the fledgling democracy of a number of Asian and Southeast Asian countries.

Where only recently Washington's chief activity in the region seemed to be scolding governments for allowing corruption and limiting human rights, today it is encouraging draconian security laws that will enable authorities to fight terrorism, but also round up political opponents to ruling regimes.

Call it collateral damage in the war on terrorism.

Today the Bush administration holds up as positive examples the governments of Singapore and Malaysia. They succeeded in breaking a terrorist ring that reportedly planned to bomb American installations and other targets. But these two governments have long been known for their willingness to limit personal and political freedoms in the interest of national security. Opposition figures languish in jails on dubious charges.

Indonesia recently issued two new antiterrorism decrees that provide for sweeping powers of investigation and detention. They were laws that the United States had been urging since last year. The good news is that they enable the government to pursue the perpetrators of the Bali bombing. But Indonesians have enjoyed but the briefest taste of democracy; their government hasn't even been able to bring itself to punish military figures behind the 1999 slaughter in East Timor.

On the surface, at least, the Philippines continues to enjoy a raucous democracy. But that could be changing as the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo cozies up to a corrupt elite, breaks off talks with southern rebel groups and encourages draconian security rules.

Because China has become an important ally in the war on terrorism, we no longer hear the Bush administration, which once stridently called that country a strategic competitor, now routinely ignore wholesale persecution of labor, religious sects and democratic movements.

Of course China's aid should be enlisted, but not at the cost of America's promotion of human rights worldwide.

In Pakistan, a new antiterrorism law giving police the right to detain a suspect for a year without charge and probe their relatives' bank statements will help the military government keep dangerous extremists off the streets, but it will also fan wider resentment.

Pakistan's interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, dismissed criticism, saying this new law is in line with tough laws being passed by Western countries since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"This law is important for when you don't find much evidence but you know for certain that this man is involved, or could be involved, in terrorism," he said.

John Ashcroft couldn't have said it better. Human rights and due process are nagging impediments to efficient law enforcement.

So what is happening to that shining light of democracy that America offers the world? If it is dimmed, of course, the terrorists will have won.