Blast will further steel Mega’s resolve



The Marriott bombing may be a watershed event for the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Nine months after the Bali massacre, her resolve to crack down on radicals in Indonesia could stiffen as the ground shifts further against the radicals.

Her rivals might be quick to point out that the attack on the JW Marriott Hotel on Tuesday had dealt yet another blow to her political standing.

The comments going round now are very similar to that in the immediate aftermath of Bali, when the 57-year-old leader was berated for being a weak president who had failed miserably to stop the bubble of ‘Mega-stability’ from bursting.

But observers believe the pendulum will eventually swing in her favour.

The Oct 12 blasts in Bali forced the government to go on an offensive against the militants in Indonesia.

Indonesian police nabbed about 70 members of Jemaah Islamiah (JI). Some three dozen of them are now standing trial for the Bali attack and could face the death penalty if found guilty.

But that is as far as security authorities were prepared to go, their focus on radical elements confined to only those who had played a part in the nightclub bombings that killed 200.

A police counter-terrorism source complained bitterly that nothing could be done to arrest the over 300 JI militants in the country.

‘We do not have any laws to detain individuals without trial like in Singapore and Malaysia,’ he said. ‘That leaves us very exposed to terrorist attacks.’

And despite enacting an anti-terrorism law immediately after the Bali bombings, the Megawati government has done little to implement the legislation that allows suspected extremists to be held without trial for 90 days based on intelligence evidence.

Much of Jakarta’s response was shaped by whether it had sufficient support from the ground. Its fight against terrorism was initially erratic. But over time, it grew more confident and rode on changing public sentiments.

One reason why the authorities are acting with greater decisiveness against Abu Bakar Bashir is the calculated decision that an eventual conviction will not generate the Islamic backlash it was afraid of uncorking.

The ferocity that hundreds of his students displayed before TV cameras when Bashir was first arrested fanned fears of nationwide violence.

But what has materialised so far, aside from a few threats of reprisals, are calls for reason and fairness.

This has emboldened Jakarta over the last few months to do more.

The stepped-up crackdown against JI members in Indonesia in recent weeks is a clear indication of the government’s intent.

In her State of the Union address to the national assembly last Friday, the President lashed out at militants and the ‘terrifying threat’ of extremism that Indonesia faced. For the first time, she acknowledged publicly that Indonesia was a source of terrorism.

The Marriott attack is a second turning point that will force the government to cross that line to take measures once deemed politically incorrect.

Security czar Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reflected such sentiments when he said after the devastating explosion that Jakarta would be prepared to forgo ‘human rights considerations’ and ‘civil liberties’ in implementing policies that could wipe out the terrorist threat.

The move is likely to galvanise support from across the board. Muslim groups once opposed to draconian measures will have little moral clout to challenge such a decision.

It also leaves very little room for the likes of Abu Bakar Bashir, Amrozi or Imam Samudra to be let off, despite JI’s ‘bloody warning’ to continue the terror campaign if they are punished by the authorities.

From a broader political perspective, it could yet be another significant victory for nationalist-secular elements in Indonesia which have pushed for tougher action against terrorism.

The Megawati government always had one thing going for it: It brought a relative degree of political stability to Indonesia. The attacks in Bali, and now the Marriott, have shattered that reputation.

But while the Jakarta blast is a setback, the President has secured another crucial window of opportunity to fight terrorism and seek to re-establish the dominance of nationalist secular politics in the country.

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