Abu Bakr Basyir speaking after execution of Bali bombers
Abu Bakr Basyir speaking after execution of Bali bombers

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 Sydney.

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 international terrorism.

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.”

Conservative constituency

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 election season.

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 the faith”.

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.

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