How Asian Nations Have Taken Advantage of 9/11

Bangkok, Thailand

For a city soon to vote on a referendum about its new constitution, Thailand's capital seems unusually quiet. At private dinners, Thai friends of mine assail the military rulers, who have run the country since a coup last summer, mismanaged the economy, failed to put an end to the growing insurgency in Thailand's Muslim south, and moved slowly in trying to address the alleged corruption of the previous government. But unlike during Thailand's last military coup, 16 years ago, there are far fewer public demonstrations in Bangkok today.

In part, middle-class Bangkokians may not be demonstrating because, fed up with the abuses of the past government, they originally supported the coup. But they also are scared. In recent weeks, the military junta has promised to create an Internal Security Act (ISA). According to The Nation, a respected Thai newspaper, this would "give near absolute power to the army chief." The proposed Thai ISA would allow the government to arrest and hold anyone without charge for seven days, subject to infinite renewal, and the people jailed would have no judicial recourse until after their release from prison. The state also could remove Thai civil servants deemed a threat. "If and when the law comes into effect, any political dissenter could, at any time of the day, be picked up by the military, put in captivity, and brutally interrogated," The Nation reported.

The justification for the ISA? Security--i.e. terrorism. While liberals have assailed the Bush administration's corrosion of America's own values and laws, in many ways the war on terrorism's worst impact has been on the laws and norms of other nations, who have used terrorism as an excuse to beef up draconian domestic laws and potentially crack down on critics.

Thailand is not unique. The Philippines, once one of Asia's most vibrant democracies, recently passed a new anti-terrorism law, the Human Security Act, which contains such a broad definition of crimes that "sow and create a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace" that it could be used to muffle legitimate political protest. The law also increases the amount of time police can hold suspects without judicial oversight. The U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines recently threw her support behind the law; according to local media, she recently "stressed the importance of the anti-terrorism law especially [to] business and investments" in the country.

"The vague language of the Human Security Act invites the government to misuse it," announced Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. And the Philippine government well might: Already, in recent years the Philippines has witnessed a string of assassinations of left-leaning critics of the government.

Neighboring Malaysia has also followed Thailand's legislative example. The country already possessed an Internal Security Act, a legacy of British colonial rule that the semi-authoritarian Malaysian government had kept. But, before 9/11, the U.S. government had criticized the Malaysian ISA, and the mistreatment of prominent Malaysian critic Anwar Ibrahim, who appeared to have been beaten in police custody. Now, however, the White House says nothing. "The change in the U.S. stance was really important," lawyer Edmund Bon, who represents people held at Kamunting, a prison allegedly with ISA detainees, told Reuters. "After 9/11, the U.S. took the foot off the pedal, [and] a lot of momentum was lost." (Human Rights Watch estimates that Kamunting alone holds some 100 prisoners under the ISA, and there are probably more in other prisons around Malaysia.)

In other regions, too, you can see the impact of 9/11 on local laws. According to Amnesty International, Jordan has changed its laws to broaden the definition of terrorism in ways that could include local activists. Pakistan created new anti-terrorism courts that threatened the independence of the judiciary. Uganda created an anti-terrorism law that made publishing news that would supposedly promote terrorism a crime.

Developed nations like the United States, Canada, Germany, and Australia also have changed their laws--in 2001, Canada, influenced by 9/11, introduced a new Anti-Terrorism Act. But the Canadian law contained sunset provisions, many Canadian civil society groups opposed the act, and Members of Parliament later voted to defeat extending some parts of the law. Australia has created stricter new anti-terrorism statutes, but it also faces judicial opposition to some of these laws. In America, of course, the Supreme Court has shown its willingness to intervene in Guantanamo.

In developing countries with weaker institutions and authoritarian-leaning rulers, there are few people able to challenge the new statutes, and offering more power to the state is even more dangerous. The Malaysian judiciary is relatively weak and does little to challenge arrests under the ISA. As Human Rights Watch notes, the Philippines already stand accused of horrible mistreatment of suspects in detention, so why give them more time to hold accused people without charges? What's more, relying on draconian laws shifts the focus away from pursuing necessary reforms of judicial systems like the Philippines. No wonder no one in Bangkok is talking.

By Joshua Kurlantzick