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The region and border protection

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 27 June 2017


Australia's interest in the politics and prosperity of South East Asia is stronger than that of the United States. However you might think that is not the case by the priority Australia gives to events in the Middle East, Europe and America.

Australia is inextricably linked to South East Asia through geography, trade, education and population. It is where the greatest expansion in our trade will take place. Close or linked time zones make business easier. Shorter air and shipping routes enhance contact and productivity.

Why then does Australia expend so much money, lives and time trying to crush the Taliban and ISIS in Iraq and Syria when we have a potentially bigger and more complex problem emerging on our door step?

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For decades the radical Muslim organisation, Abu Sayyaf, has fought the Philippine army and police in an attempt to establish a caliphate on the island of Mindanao. They have recently been joined by ISIS fighters forced out of the Middle East. Their route to Mindanao is through Malaysia and Indonesia by boat.

On 23 May fighting broke out between the Philippine Army and Abu Sayyaf in the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi on Mindanao. Abu Sayyaf is led by Isnilon Hapilon, a man with a US $5 million bounty on his head. He has joined with the Maute group led by two brothers and both groups have been bolstered by ISIS fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Chechnya.

The fighting which was predicted to be over in a week looks set to drag on into a second month. This attests to the skill and experience of the ISIS fighters who have deployed resources including strategically placed snipers on the basis of local knowledge provided by Abu Sayyaf. They occupy the business district of Marawi.

The Philippine Army has used armoured vehicles and conducted air strikes. The US has deployed a small group of special forces personnel and are providing intelligence through Orion P3 surveillance. The President of the Philippines, Rodrego Duterte has denied knowledge of US involvement.

Mawari had a population of 200,000 many have fled the fighting, some are being held hostage by the fundamentalists. Around 400 civilians, soldiers and radicals have been killed, with around twice that number wounded including children and ABC journalist, Adam Harvey.

Abu Sayyaf was connected to the 2002 Bali bombing. Extremism and membership of extremist groups is growing in Indonesia and Malaysia and the presence and influence of ISIS is expanding.

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Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have reacted to the threat with joint naval and air patrols of the Sulu Sea through which ISIS fighters pass. The patrols began in mid June. Singapore has undertaken to share intelligence processed through the Changi Naval Base.

Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, is aware of these regional developments. In January she warned of the possibility of ISIS fighters returning from the Middle East seeking to establish a caliphate on Mindanao. As it transpired her intelligence was good.

Until recently Australia had not sought to act or get involved. On the contrary, reacting to US pressure the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced a further 30 Australian troops would be sent to Afghanistan to help counter and fight ISIS.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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