Into Indonesia Next?

By Charle, Suzanne | The Nation, February 11, 2002 | Go to article overview

Into Indonesia Next?


Charle, Suzanne, The Nation


Several weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, the owner of the McDonald's in downtown Jakarta hung a Muslim-owned sign on the door and, at the entry, placed a photo of himself and his wife in Islamic dress on the hajj to Mecca. There had been anti-American demonstrations outside the US embassy and elsewhere, and he wasn't taking any chance.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri found herself in much the same position: She had to cater to the tastes of local customers while doing business with the West. As the leader of the world's largest Muslim nation (more than 85 percent of the population of 220 million are Muslims), she didn't want to be seen as supporting a US attack on a Muslim country and the inevitable civilian casualties. On the other hand, as the head of a struggling nation heavily dependent on funds from the IMF, the Consultative Group for Indonesia, the World Bank and Western investors and markets, she did not want to alienate the United States.

At first she handled it well, visiting President Bush right after the attack and winning promises of economic support without provoking significant protest at home. But this balancing act is becoming increasingly difficult as the United States steps up its global war on terrorism. Washington has announced that it is sending 650 military "advisers" to the Philippines, Indonesia's neighbor to the north. Indonesia, many speculate, might be next. Recently Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz warned, "Going after Al Qaeda in Indonesia is not something that should wait until after Al Qaeda has been uprooted from Afghanistan."

While many experts say that the sprawling archipelago could harbor individual international terrorists, they warn that the specter of Indonesia as an Al Qaeda breeding ground is just that. As one exasperated Western diplomat told the South China Morning Post, "There is simply no proof of any actual ties."

"As we've seen, there are terrorists all over the world," says Jake Stratton, research director of Control Risks Group, a London-based political and security risk consultancy. He stresses that the nature of risks in Indonesia varies. "The terrorism risk to the US in Java is not particularly great; the fringe Muslim groups have neither the dedication nor the strength," he said. "In insurgency areas, the risks are high, but there we're talking about internal feuds rather than a global scenario."

Ever since the downfall of strongman Suharto in 1998, radical Muslim groups have been a small but vocal part of Indonesia's political landscape, exploiting the weakness of the central government and the splintered military. This past fall, protesters in Jakarta burned the American flag and carried photos of bin Laden. It made good TV footage but bad journalism: Goenawan Mohamad, a founding editor of Tempo magazine, points out, "When we were planning demos before the fall of Suharto, if we only got 10,000, we would think it was negligible. We had to have 100,000 to impress the public." Last year's anti-American demos typically ran in the hundreds; one that reached 10,000 was peaceful.

Several groups are often cited as having links to Al Qaeda, including the Islamic Defenders Front, whose members threatened to kick Americans out of Indonesia with "sweeps." (The threats, though widely reported, were empty: As Joe Saunders of Human Rights Watch notes, "No one was ever swept away.") Another group, Laskar Jihad (Holy Warriors), has sent men to wage war in Maluku and Poso in central Sulawese, both sites of bloody Muslim-Christian riots. Radical groups like Laskar Jihad account for less than 1 percent of the population, says Robert Hefner, author of Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia.

While Al Qaeda links remain unproven, says R. William Liddle, professor of political science at Ohio State University, "What we do know is that Indonesia's moderate population has consistently rejected a Muslim state.

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