- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

Since the 1999 elections inaugurated its still-fragile democracy, Indonesia has had a history of compromising with political Islam to avoid a confrontation that might destabilize this huge and fractious archipelago.

But since the Bali nightclub bombings in October that killed 202 persons, the government has had to walk a fine line between fighting the war on terror and placating the country’s vociferous Islamic radicals. They wield considerable clout in this, the most populous Muslim nation on earth.

Now that line is getting finer than ever — with elections approaching next year, domestic opponents of the U.S.-led war on terror growing bolder, and new warnings of terror attacks.

From its beginning, Indonesia’s democracy was shaped by a desire to avoid confrontation with the powerful Islamic parties, the United Development Party (PPP) and the National Mandate Party (PAN).

The decision to make the aging, infirm and blind Abdurrahman Wahid president in 1999, though the party of Megawati Sukarnoputri had won more votes, was widely interpreted as a sop to Islamic radicals. It was thought they would not tolerate a woman in the highest political office, and she was forced to make do with the vice-presidential slot.

Mrs. Megawati, a Balinese Hindu, became president anyway, after Mr. Wahid was forced to step down in 2000. But she chose as her deputy Hamzah Haz, the leader of the PPP. The leader of PAN, Amin Rais, was and remains the speaker of Parliament. Together, the parties have about 15 percent of the seats in the assembly, a significant bloc in Indonesia’s multiparty system.

Since October, however, the apparently irresistible desire to placate political Islam has collided with the urgent need to dismantle an Islamist terror network in the country.

Jemaah Islamiyah, a group active throughout Southeast Asia that aims to establish an Islamic state in the region, has been blamed for the Bali attacks, the bombing of the Jakarta Marriott Hotel that killed 12 persons in August and many other deadly terror plots in the region going back several years.

Although Indonesian authorities have arrested nearly 100 suspected members of the group, put several on trial and sentenced two to death for their role in the Bali suicide attacks, they have a long way still to go, say terrorism analysts.

“There are probably a few dozen people in the organization that could put together a bomb like [the one at the Marriott],” said Zachary Abuza, one of the world’s experts on Jemaah Islamiyah.

The problems the Indonesian authorities face are well illustrated by the attempt to prosecute Abu Bakar Bashir. Said to be Jemaah’s spiritual guide, Bashir was sentenced to four years in prison for subversion earlier this month, but was acquitted of being the leader of Jemaah.

Both the prosecution and the defense have appealed, but the prosecution’s failure to prove Bashir’s role in Jemaah appears to have sharpened a sense of unease among moderate Indonesian Muslims about the way the war on terror is being prosecuted. Meanwhile, Bashir’s supporters accused the government of staging a show trial on behalf of the United States.

This is just one of the ways critics of the war on terror have tapped into a growing tide of anti-Americanism, spurred in part by the war in Iraq. A survey by the Pew Center released this summer found that, over the past year, the number of Indonesians with a favorable view of the United States fell from 61 percent of respondents to 15 percent.

Last month, the vice president, Mr. Haz, apparently attempted to play to this sentiment by describing the United States as “the king of terrorism.”

“More and more politicians at a national level are seeing that they can win political points by raising questions about the way the war on terror is prosecuted,” Jakarta-based analyst Sidney Jones said in a telephone interview.

And with a tough election — the country’s first direct ballot for president — looming next year, Ms. Jones believes it is not just the vice president who is playing that political game.

In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly this week, Mrs. Megawati made a thinly veiled attack on U.S. foreign policy, saying the roots of Islamic terror lay in Muslims’ perception of “unjust attitudes exhibited by big powers toward countries whose inhabitants profess Islam, particularly in resolving the Middle East conflict.”

“The war in the Middle East a few months ago is just another reflection of [this] situation,” she said.

“Megawati is increasingly playing politics in advance of next year’s elections,” Ms. Jones said.

The arrest earlier this month of 18 teachers from the country’s system of Muslim boarding schools, known as pesantrens, has been seized on “with sheer glee” by those who wish to paint the war on terror as a war against Islam, Ms. Jones said.

Five of those arrested were residents of the Central Java city of Solo, Bashir’s hometown and one of the nation’s centers of radical Islam.

Muslim militants organized a 20,000-strong demonstration protesting the arrests. “They’re turning up the volume,” said Ms. Jones, noting many of those arrested are routinely referred to as Islamic activists, rather than terror suspects.

But Ms. Jones and other analysts are quick to point out that the government’s commitment to waging the war on terror has not faltered.

“At this stage it is just rhetoric,” she said of Mrs. Megawati’s comments. Other observers point out that even normally vociferous and controversy-courting officials have thus far refrained from criticizing the crackdown on Jemaah Islamiyah.

That silence may not last, however. Next week, the Indonesian Parliament is scheduled to debate strengthening Indonesia’s antiterror laws — a move some experts say is necessary in view of the absence of conspiracy laws in the country.

But there’s an unhappy history of political repression in Indonesia, directed particularly at Islamists, during the secularist regime of President Suharto, known as the “New Order” government that was ousted in 1998.

Perhaps as a result, many human rights advocates are uneasy about putting more power in the hands of the police.

But absent stronger laws, it may continue to prove difficult to prosecute Jemaah leaders who cannot be linked directly to terrorist attacks. One such is Abu Rusdan, who is said to have taken Mr. Bashir’s place as leader after the latter’s arrest last year.

Nor is the growing unease about the crackdown going to help.

“The mood in the country is likely to increase pressure on a highly politicized legal system,” Ms. Jones said.

Meanwhile, Hambali, believed to be the operational leader of Jemaah Islamiyah and the Southeast Asian link to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, was arrested in Thailand earlier this month and is being held in U.S. custody at a secret location. Pakistan last week announced the arrest of Hambali’s brother during raids at religious schools in Karachi, even though officials in Jakarta said he faced no charges in Indonesia.

Despite the high-profile arrests, Indonesia continues to face the threat of more terror attacks, and most analysts believe the terror network is at least partially intact.

“The threat in Indonesia is really imminent,” Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhono, a senior minister in the Megawati government told journalists during a visit to Washington last week.

On Tuesday, Bali police Chief Col. Boy Salamuddin told reporters that two large bombs were believed still in the hands of terrorists in the country and the Australian government renewed its travel warning to citizens not to visit the archipelago.

Officials in Canberra say intelligence agencies have detected a growing level of “chatter” among extremists in the run-up to the first anniversary of the Bali bombings on Oct. 12, and the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the island, also slated for next month.

Another major attack might well revive the widespread feelings of revulsion toward Islamic terrorism, as the Bali bombing did among Indonesia’s largely moderate Muslims. But an intensified crackdown might further polarize views about the war on terror.

“In our house,” Gen. Susilo said last week, “Islam can live happily alongside democracy and modernity.”

That sentiment is likely to be severely tested in the coming months.

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