Nov 26, 2008
Balanced between Bali and Obama
By Simon Roughneen
PORT MORESBY - Speaking in Washington ahead of the recent Group of 20 global
economic summit, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, popularly known
as SBY, said his country offered a "shining example where democracy, Islam and
modernity thrive together".
In the same address, he praised President George W Bush as "one of the most
pro-Indonesia American presidents in the history of our bilateral relations"
while hedging, "There is no better story, no better example, of the virtue of
people-to-people connections than the powerful impact of Barack Obama's
election to today's Indonesians."
With the world's single-largest Muslim population stretched across a vast
archipelago of over 17,000 islands, Indonesia is an important regional actor
and counterterrorism ally for the US. As Southeast Asia's biggest and the
world's fourth-largest country, Indonesia's complex domestic politics will
represent a significant challenge to Obama's foreign policy, which is expected
to de-emphasize Bush's counterterrorism initiatives towards the region.
Just days before SBY's US visit, Indonesian authorities executed three of the
men involved in the 2002 Bali bombings, a terror attack that killed 202
civilians, many of them Australian and European tourists. The potential for a
backlash after the executions remains hard to quantify, but for now appears to
be minimal, according to experts.
"Commentary on Indonesian websites indicates that most people have got the
message that the Bali bombers were just common murderers, and there does not
seem to be any indication that their potential martyrdom has recruited anyone,"
said Adrian Vickers, professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of
Yet others say the possibility of future anti-Western attacks in Indonesia
cannot be ruled out. Ahmad Suraedy, executive director of Jakarta's Wahid
Institute, linked to the former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, said
"there are some groups that gave public support for the actors and groups,
including for those executed. [The eventual outcome] will depend on the
Indonesian government's terrorism policy".
That US-backed policy has in general been a success, at least over the short
term. But questions remain over its long-term viability. The widespread
revulsion and fears caused by the Bali bombings, coming so soon after the
September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the US, focused minds in
Jakarta's political and security establishment.
A US- and Australian-backed joint intelligence effort, fronted by a local
police unit known as Detachment 88, snared a number of high-profile Jemaah
Islamiyah (JI) terror suspects, including Abu Dujana, who was arrested in July
2007 and thought to be the militant group's military leader.
JI had carried out numerous attacks, first against Indonesian Christians in
2000, before changing tack to focus on Western interests and civilians. Still a
legal entity in Indonesia, JI is widely deemed a terrorist organization with
links to al-Qaeda and a desire to impose a caliphate across Southeast Asian
Muslim regions, encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand and the
southern Philippines. Since the Bali bombings, JI is thought to have been
severely weakened with the arrests of hundreds of its suspected supporters and
operatives. Yet analysts say risks remain.
"Detachment 88 is the most capable counterterror unit in Southeast Asia," said
Rohan Gunaratna, head of Singapore's International Center for Political
Violence and Terrorism Research and the author of numerous books on
Yet he argues that Indonesia's overall counter-terrorism strategy is flawed,
lacking the political vigor and strategic direction necessary for the
longer-term. "Indonesia's political and religious leaders must build new
platforms to counter ideology," he said, expressing concerns Indonesian
authorities are reluctant to confront radicalism.
Gunaratna believes Abu Bakr Bashir, the radical cleric widely regarded as JI's
founding father who spent 26 months in jail for his alleged role in the Bali
bombings, has been handled too leniently. "Bashir must be dealt with - he
should go back to jail," Gunaratna said. Referring to Bashir's stated plans to
jump into party politics ahead of 2009 elections, he added: "The Indonesian
authorities must not allow him become a political figure."
Some say fears of a conservative Islamic backlash factored into the secular
government's handling of the Bali bombers, which over the course of six years
became a long-drawn media saga in which the accused were given ample publicity
opportunities to profess their lack of remorse before their eventual
executions. They were executed amid much media fanfare earlier this month.
"The three terrorists most responsible for the carnage in Bali in October 2002
have finally been executed after months of uncertainty that turned the waiting
into a public spectacle that only upset and infuriated relatives of the victims
and prolonged their pain," the Jakarta Post said in an editorial the day after
the sentences were carried out. (See Media-savvy ending for Bali bombers, Asia
Times Online, November 17, 2008.)
Other potential flashpoints across this 240 million-plus country, comprising
hundreds of different languages and ethnic groups, include the Sulawesi and the
Maluka regions where Muslims and Christians have clashed in the past. Ahmad
Suraedy believes that "the Indonesian government provides little protection to
minorities, including Muslim minority sects" leaving the country "vulnerable to
violence given the many religions and ethnicities".
Despite these concerns, Obama's recent election success has energized many
Indonesians, enhancing at least temporarily perceptions of the US and the West
at the expense of JI and other homegrown radical and intolerant groups.
Just days after Obama's win, SBY stated, "He spoke our language, knew our
culture, ate our food, played with Indonesian friends from various ethnic
backgrounds." He regaled listeners in Washington on how students and teachers
at Besuki Elementary, Obama's old school in Jakarta, danced and wept when the
election result came through.
Tricia Iskander, Jakarta representative of the US-Indonesia Society, told Asia
Times Online that "Indonesians have high expectations of Obama, as he is
considered familiar with Indonesia where he spent his childhood. Many people
perceive that his win will boost bilateral relations".
Ahmad Suraedy added: "The Obama election will change perceptions in Indonesia.
Not only of the US, but it could have a positive impact on inter-religious
relations across the archipelago." If so, there are still conflicting signals.
The recent passage of a broadly written and long controversial anti-pornography
law was widely viewed as a government sop to conservative Islamic forces in an
And there are still radical groups such as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which brought
90,000 supporters out to a rally at a Jakarta stadium in August 2007 where its
leaders condemned democracy as contrary to Islam, lurking in the wings. And it
wasn't that long ago that a 2006 poll found that one out of every ten
Indonesians supported terrorist attacks if they were carried out to "protect
Such conservative views, to be sure, are still in the minority. Nadlatul Ulama
and Muhammidiyah, Indonesia's two main mass Muslim organizations with a
combined membership of over 70 million adherents, both condemned the executed
Bali bombers as terrorists and insisted they should not be glorified as
martyrs. Both groups have branched out into multifaceted social and educational
portfolios and have softened their previous calls for an Islamic state to be
established in Indonesia.
That's in line with the wider popular aspiration for prosperity in a country
that has recovered more slowly than others from the debilitating 1998 Asian
financial crisis. Economic rather than counter-terrorism issues could, for
better or worse, define a new era of US-Indonesian relations under Obama. "Some
Indonesians are worried that the Democrats will focus on issues that this
country might not like, such as human rights, and will have a protectionist
economic policy," said the US-Indonesia Society's Iskander.
Simon Roughneen is a roving freelance journalist. He has reported from Africa,
Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Pakistan.
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