Trapped by terror, hostage to history

October 18, 2002

In the wake of the Bali bombs, C. W. Watson urges the international community to pause and consider Indonesia's past before jumping to conclusions.

The murder of more than 180 innocent people dancing happily in a night-club in Bali last Saturday was a horrific event and has been universally condemned within Indonesia, not least by Muslim groups. After the initial shock and outrage, the immediate response on all sides has been to search for someone to blame, not just the inhuman or insane perpetrators, but those who should have foreseen what might happen and thus prevented it. Within Indonesia the finger has been pointed at the intelligence service and resignations have been demanded. Outside the country, commentators have blamed the Indonesian government for being weak on terrorism, and for not having acted on tip-offs from foreign intelligence agencies. Indonesia, it is said, unlike Malaysia and Singapore, which have taken a tough stand and made a number of arrests, is not pulling its weight in the global campaign against terrorism. Proof of that can be seen in its unwillingness to detain the individual who has been identified by the Singaporeans and the Americans as the head of a regional terrorist network, a man named Abu Bakar Basir, a teacher at a religious school in central Java.

Furthermore, even general measures that might have been undertaken, such as the passing of an anti-terrorism bill, have been stalled. Why is it that the Indonesian government seems so reluctant to take the necessary action, and will its attitude change as a consequence of the recent tragedy? One answer might be that the reluctance of the government to move too precipitously against individuals is prompted by the fear of a wide-scale backlash, but that too seems to beg the question: why should the Indonesian population at large appear so sympathetic to terrorists capable of such abominable atrocities?

A proper answer to the question (which would begin with a categorical assertion that Indonesians reject terrorism in no uncertain terms) would require an in-depth look at recent Indonesian history for which there is not space here, but one or two salient points can be mentioned. Indonesia opened a new page in its history in 1998 when President Suharto's resignation brought to an end 35 years of authoritarian rule. Throughout his period in office he ruthlessly suppressed opposition, be it from secular quarters, for example, the democratic party of the current president Megawati Sukarnoputri, or from Muslim democrats associated with the Muhammadiyah, once headed by the current speaker of the upper Indonesian house of parliament, Amien Rais.

Amien, Megawati and their supporters suffered considerably at the hands of Suharto and his henchman, who used kidnapping and torture to achieve their ends. One of their favourite tactics to discredit the opposition was to hold out to the electorate the spectre of a violent terrorist opposition that would stop at nothing to bring the country to its knees. Several incidents giving credence to their allegations that Muslim terrorists were engaged in violence became familiar to the Indonesian public: one was the arrest in the 1970s of a group known as the Komando Jihad, which had hijacked a plane; another was the shooting of an unarmed group of Muslims outside a mosque in the Tanjung Priok area of Jakarta, which was accused of planning to cause civil disturbance. The upshot of these and other incidents, where it became increasingly clear that the government was using agent provocateurs and manufacturing evidence simply to discredit legitimate opposition, led to wholesale disgust with Suharto and the army and scepticism about any claims it made. Ultimately, the anger that was generated, especially among students, led to Suharto's downfall and universal condemnation of the military. Any new government that has come to power subsequently, then, has had to repudiate Suharto's tactics completely, and any hint of repression and arbitrary arrest that smacks of a return to the past provokes instant opposition.

Between 1998 and the present, however, the confidence of the Indonesian electorate that it has turned a corner in the democratisation of the country has been rocked by a number of bombings and violent incidents that have been the work of local terrorists. On the basis of clear evidence, some of these have been laid at the door of members of the old regime - in particular one of Suharto's sons - working in conjunction with dissident members of the military.

There has been almost uninterrupted religious-based violence in Ambon in eastern Indonesia, and in 2000 in Jakarta, there were bombs set off in Christian churches. Everyone acknowledges that violence has taken place and, furthermore, there is a general acknowledgement that some of this violence has been perpetrated by maverick Muslim groups such as the Laskar Jihad, a motley group of young men, who set out for Ambon with great fanfare to defend their co-religionists in the area, or the Front Pembela Islam, which ran through nightclubs in Jakarta during Ramadan smashing windows.

But that a sizeable body of Muslims is involved in systematic campaigns of violence to bring down the state does not square with the general perceptions of the population or of acknowledged specialist observers of Indonesia. Not only is there no support for violence, there is not even much support for a political position that seeks to turn Indonesia into a Muslim state. Abdurrahman Wahid, who was president immediately before Megawati and head of the largest Muslim organisation in the country, numbering several million, is vehemently opposed to the creation of a Muslim state and has spoken out strongly against the idea. A recent attempt in parliament to propose a bill that Muslims in Indonesia should be compelled to observe Islamic law was heavily defeated.

Since then, extremist Muslim opinion has not had much electoral backing in Indonesia. Because the bombing in Bali has been so universally and forthrightly condemned, is it likely that the Indonesian government will be less fearful of a possible backlash and will act on the promptings of the US and carry out arrests of Basir and his followers? Maybe, but the evidence would have to be much stronger than it is at present. What the Indonesian government has seen so far has been allegations from Malaysia and Singapore, but both those governments are notorious for having at their disposal Internal Security Acts - a legacy of the colonial period - that have in the past been used to arrest alleged subversives ranging from communists to Christians, and their actions are an unpleasant echo of the Suharto period.

The Americans have claimed that a Kuwaiti named Omar al Farouq, who was handed over to them by the Indonesians in June, has said that he was involved in a terror campaign and worked closely with Basir and others in a Jemaah Islamiyah network that was spread throughout Indonesia.

There may be something in what he says, but the evidence has not been forthcoming to substantiate the allegations, and Basir has denied all knowledge of the man - and of any complicity in the Bali bombing. Indonesian intelligence officers are said to be in the US questioning al Farouq for more details. Given the general knowledge of how deviously the counter-terrorists of the Suharto regime worked, the evidence will need to be cast-iron to win over Indonesians, already angry at what seems to them to be the bullying tactics of the US government and what appears to be its increasingly imperialist ambitions.

For outsiders, or for those with no specialist knowledge of Indonesia, it is sometimes difficult to understand how the weight of recent historical experience can so strongly influence what seems to be an unanswerable case for direct action against Muslim terrorists. International counter-insurgency specialists seem very confident that they have identified the right culprits, but they lack the knowledge that would enable them to put recent events into a comparative and historical perspective and that would at least cause them to pause before suggesting immediate tough measures.

On the other hand, regional specialists such as myself may be so strongly influenced by the past, by our own personal friendships and by our own experiences of the region over the years that we are not immediately able to recognise major changes in the political movements of the countries when they occur. We are all fallible and very few of us are in the business of making assured predictions.

Nonetheless, my feeling is that the fear of a concerted campaign of terrorist bombings against western targets is much exaggerated, and I hope that within a short time the confidence that had begun to develop in the international community just prior to the Bali bombing, that Indonesia was beginning to settle down again after a few stormy years, will quickly grow back.

C. W. Watson is professor of social anthropology and multicultural studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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