SE Asian Anti-War Protests: Slow to Start, Strong When They Come

By Gee, John | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2003 | Go to article overview

SE Asian Anti-War Protests: Slow to Start, Strong When They Come


Gee, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


As the months passed and the prospect of an attack on Iraq loomed ever closer, one puzzling aspect of the international reaction to many observers was the low level of public protest witnessed in Muslim countries.

The mismatch between reactions in the Muslim countries and in the West, in particular, was most evident on Feb. 15, the day of worldwide protests. Of some 13 million people who marched for peace, only a few thousand were protesters in Muslim countries. This made nonsense of the claims of those-Muslim radicals and Islamophobes alike-who chose to see the threatened war on Iraq as an example of the "clash of civilizations," and a struggle in which all non-Muslims were lined up on one side to wage war on all Muslims on the other. It did, however, leave many peace activists in Europe and the U.S. wondering why there was not more evidence of what people in Muslim countries thought about the issue.

There is a mixture of reasons, which differ from state to state, but to take a low level of public protest as an indication of weak anti-war sentiment would be a serious mistake.

Southeast Asia's giants, the two predominantly Muslim states of Indonesia and Malaysia, may mirror, in their experiences, something of what has occurred in other Muslim countries, including many in the Middle East.

From the time it became clear, following the war in Afghanistan, that Iraq was the next target, public opinion among Muslims in these two states was virtually unanimous in opposing war, and the vast majority of non-Muslims agreed. Government and opposition parties alike condemned moves toward war; most endorsed the search for a peaceful resolution of the issue of the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq was alleged to possess. It was the same story in the mass media: the entire spectrum of newspapers, current affairs magazines, radio and television stations were opposed to war and highly critical of what they saw as Washington's single-minded pursuit of military action.

Some in the West might throw down the challenge: "But how free is the media to say what it wants if it disagrees with government policy?" The answer is that opposition voices do speak loudly in Malaysia, although there are certain restrictions on the media, and Indonesia has a very vibrant and varied press, sections of which regularly take the government to task, with no holds barred.

With political and religious leaders and the media expressing the commonly held views of the general public, there was no domestic target of denunciation, and so no obvious local objective against which to mobilize. Even in Western Europe, it was noteworthy that, except for the Berlin demonstration, the biggest anti-war protests took place in those countries whose governments supported the Bush administration's position: Britain, Italy and Spain. As far as most people in Indonesia and Malaysia were concerned, they did not need to turn out in the streets to protest: their governments spoke for them on this issue.

It is also true that some were skeptical about the likely impact of demonstrations. Those most critical of U.S. policies believe Washington takes no notice of Muslims when they express their feelings through peaceful protest. That should worry policy-makers: when people think that nonviolent protest is futile, they are liable to become more receptive to the arguments of those who advocate a more forceful response.

Belatedly, big demonstrations of public feeling were organized, with the clear intention of reaching out to the West: many of the placards and banners were in English, not the first language of the participants. On Feb. 23, a 150,000-strong peace rally was held at the National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur. It was called both to protest against a war on Iraq and to express support for the Palestinians. Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was presented with an anti-war petition signed by over two million Malaysians. Their signatures were collected within the short space of seven weeks, beginning on Jan. …

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