Megawati forced to tread softly
Jakarta is under pressure from Washington to get tougher with Islamic militant groups operating freely in the country, but domestic politics has much to do with the government’s lack of action, says DERWIN PEREIRA
PRESIDENT Megawati Sukarnoputri walks a tightrope on the issue of militant Islam.
Her dilemma is this: Official inaction against religious extremists would hurt foreign confidence in the government’s abilities but a crackdown on these elements would stir up a hornet’s nest among local politicians hoping to gain from playing the Islamic card.
Already, government detractors have sounded warnings that if the government should go after Al-Qaeda-linked militants – the way Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines did in recent weeks – it would be branded as anti-Islamic and its actions trigger unrest in the country, especially in Java.
Coming to grips with Islamic extremist groups while balancing domestic and international considerations has become yet another contentious issue for her seven-month-old coalition government.
To be sure, the 54-year-old leader was anything but ambiguous in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
She condemned the violence and declared her solidarity with the Americans, supporting Washington’s bold moves to launch a global campaign against terrorists.
She was also the first foreign leader to visit President George Bush after Sept 11. Underlying this, of course, were economic considerations.
But the visit was also significant because it produced a special communique on religion and terrorism.
But back home, her government’s response was equivocal. Strangely enough, the special communique was not made public in Indonesia itself.
Vice-President Hamzah Haz, the leader of the largest Muslim faction in Parliament, made matters worse by making negative statements on the matter in response to growing pressure from radical groups staging demonstrations outside the US Embassy in Jakarta.
A few other Muslim politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon of protest, if only to score points with the militants whose influence on Indonesian politics has grown significantly since Mr Suharto’s fall from power in 1998.
Behind their calls for an end to diplomatic ties with Washington and threats of “sweeping” American citizens from Indonesia lay a hidden agenda: toppling Ms Megawati from power.
Was the President swayed by such demands or did she carry out a blitzkrieg against the militants on her return from the United States?
Neither. If anything, she continued sending mixed signals to both her domestic and foreign audience but veering somewhat closer towards appeasing the Muslim ground.
Dr Deliar Noor of the State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN) notes: “It is hard for the government to take repressive measures against several of these radical groups. It will be seen as an attack on Islam as a whole.”
CULTIVATING THE MUSLIM GROUND
POLITICAL concerns are central to the calculations of Ms Megawati and her advisers.
The Muslim bloc in Parliament is the third-largest and could easily rock her government if it goes on the offensive – the way it did against her predecessor, Mr Abdurrahman Wahid.
That is one reason why she has worked hard to cultivate the Muslim ground by offering them key positions in Cabinet – including the vice-presidency – when she was elected to power last July.
A clampdown now would mean throwing the nationalist leader back to her position in 1999 – her Islamic credentials questioned and a repeat of the religious discourse that questioned her right to the presidency because of her gender.
Palace sources disclose that she receives regular intelligence reports on the activities of several of these groups but is cautious about cracking the whip.
Notes a source: “She is in a difficult position. She feels that it is dangerous to go around arresting Muslim clerics and their followers because it could ignite more demonstrations and violence. “For now, she wants the security forces to just monitor the activities of the militants until solid evidence surfaces. Then it gives her grounds to act, but even then she has to be careful…”
In effect, it means that no action would be taken against militant leaders for the moment.
It is instructive to note that authorities here have yet to arrest Abu Bakar Baashir of the Mujahideen Council of Indonesia (MMI) despite his being on the Malaysian police wanted list.
The lack of action has drawn criticism from the political elite in Washington.
US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz – a former ambassador to Indonesia – told the New York Times that there were areas in the country where the government was “extremely weak”.
“You see the potential for Muslim extremists and Muslim terrorists to link up with those Muslim groups in Indonesia and find a little corner for themselves in a country that’s otherwise quite unfriendly to terrorism,” he said.
An American analyst with a Jakarta-based international risk consultancy firm was more blunt: “The Americans are keeping a score card for what is being done in Asia. Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines are getting almost-perfect scores for reining in the terrorists.
“The Indonesians have got a big fat goose egg for not trying hard enough.”
To be fair, the state intelligence agency BIN under General A.M. Hendropriyono has been keeping close tabs on the activities of several of the extremists.
Some political observers believe that one reason why the government has refused to talk openly about this matter is because it did not want to compromise a delicate intelligence operation under way.
Explains Mr Jusuf Wanandi of the Jakarta-based think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS): “They are chasing the bad guys. Why should they give them any leads by revealing their operations to the press?”
SOURCES said that since Sept 11, surveillance had stepped up against several Al-Qaeda-linked groups on the run. Following their tracks was made difficult because of Indonesia’s porous borders and lack of funds to capture the terrorists. To compound matters, their prey are also believed to be better equipped technology-wise and have been using that edge to evade surveillance.
Another problem facing the security agencies here is to get politicians to act on the intelligence they are providing them. An intelligence source said: “We can’t move if we do not get a signal from the government.”
One senior Cabinet minister, for example, is coming under fire from certain quarters for not doing enough. His critics charge that he is unwilling to move against the militants because it could jeopardise his links with Muslim groups and political parties that could be critical in his 2004 presidential bid.
A similar problem exists in the armed forces (TNI). Not everyone is bent on pursuing the militants with the same intensity. Fearful of seeing its central relevance decline in Indonesia, some generals have worked hard at cultivating Islamic militias to use them as a counterbalance against emerging leftist groups in the country.
As the political and military elite sit on their hands and provide no leadership, the vacuum is being filled by two of the largest Muslim groups in the country – the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and the Muhammadiyah – both of which represent mainstream Islam in Indonesia.
Despite the resurgence of an intolerant strain of Islam in recent years, the broad direction is still one of moderation. In an event of great political symbolism, NU’s Hasyim Mushadi and Muhammadiyah’s Syafii Maarif met last November to adopt a common stand on Islamic radicalism.
The leaders expressed concern that it would hijack the views of the majority.
They agreed to set up a task force both at national and provincial levels to deal directly with the militants, to get them to back down on their threats.
Mr Wanandi notes: “This is significant because they are throwing their weight together to deal with militants who are only a minority in Indonesia.”
The key is whether the NU and Muhammadiyah can sustain such cooperation in the long run.
Historically, both have been rivals and have at various points been sucked into the power play by the elite in Jakarta.
The other consideration is whether they can buck the trend of Islamic radicalism.
The rise of militancy in Indonesia is part of a broader pattern in the breakdown of law and order in the country, economic crisis and the rise of international terrorism in the last decade.
Mob politics and links to foreign extremist elements have always been prevalent in Indonesia but became more pronounced with Mr Suharto’s fall, as seen by the flowering of not just Islamic militias but other groups across religious and ethnic lines.
Only decisive political leadership – which is absent in Indonesia today – can curb the growth of extremism.
DEALING WITH TROUBLE
‘She is in a difficult position. She feels that it is dangerous to go around arresting Muslim clerics and their followers because it could ignite more demonstrations and violence.’
– A palace source on Ms Megawati (right)
…BUT CAUTIOUSLY ‘For now, she wants the security forces to just monitor the activities of the militants until solid evidence surfaces. Then it gives her grounds to act, but even then she has to be careful…’
– A palace source
‘You see the potential for Muslim extremists and Muslim terrorists to link up with those Muslim groups in Indonesia and find a little corner for themselves…’
– US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, on how there were areas in the country where the government was “extremely weak”
‘They are chasing the bad guys. Why should they give them any leads by revealing their operations to the press?’
– Mr Jusuf Wanandi of the think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies, on why the government has refused to talk openly about keeping close tabs on the activities of the extremists