Bali blasts woke up Jakarta

BALI BLASTS

ONE YEAR LATER

They pushed the Megawati administration into enacting anti-terror laws and hunting down the JI.

On the night of Oct 12 last year, the myth that terrorism could not happen in Indonesia, let alone on its idyllic island of Bali, was shattered forever.

It forced Indonesia and countries in the region to confront the chilling reality that terror cells are not some nebulous faraway concept but a real threat in the neighbourhood.

More importantly, the Oct 12 massacre laid bare persistent denials by the Indonesian government that the country was a haven for terrorists.

It whipped Jakarta into action. Several facts point to Indonesia’s anti-terror about-face in the past year:

Police have arrested close to 70 people, including the once ‘untouchable’ Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir. They have also seized weapons and explosives belonging to the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network.

New decrees give Jakarta greater powers in putting Islamic extremists away.

Three perpetrators of the Bali blasts face the firing squad. Others are staring at a long jail sentence.

Jakarta is now taking the lead in calling for security cooperation – years after refusing to be coaxed by neighbouring countries to join in aggressively weeding out terrorists in South-east Asia.

The pendulum has started to swing the other way since Bali – but ever so slowly.

The consensus struck across the political spectrum in fighting terrorism is still fragile. Infighting, especially among the police and intelligence agencies, threaten whatever progress was made during the past 12 months.

The police may have more power to act against rogue elements, but they are having great difficulty working with other outfits.

After the Bali attack, President Megawati Sukarnoputri gave the state intelligence agency BIN overarching authority to coordinate the planning and conduct of intelligence operations.

The police were given the mandate to investigate the Bali bombings, but rivalries among the country’s security outfits meant that BIN and the police went their own way in pursuit of suspects.

For all his efforts in the anti-terror campaign, BIN chief A.M. Hendropriyono is no favourite with the military or police chiefs who begrudge his close links to Ms Megawati.

Compounding inter-agency rivalry is factionalism within BIN itself, which one Western diplomat likened to a ‘den of snakes’.

One thing, however, unites BIN, the police and the military: the need for tougher anti-terrorism laws. They argue that the decree issued in the wake of the Bali bombings was not strong enough.

The regulations give the police the authority to use intelligence data as basis for arrests, but are not as effective as the subversion laws under the Suharto regime.

But calls for an Internal Security Act fly in the face of resistance from senior Indonesian politicians and non-government groups.

They see it as a draconian move that may not sit well with a nation in the first flush of democracy.

The tussle over tougher anti-terrorism laws is symptomatic of the prevailing divisions in Indonesia.

At the heart of the problem is how Jakarta deals with Muslim radicals.

Jemaah Islamiah (JI) continues to survive in Indonesia even after carrying out two of the bloodiest attacks in the country’s history.

Though the Megawati administration was among the 47 governments worldwide that supported the United Nations’ blacklisting of JI, the group is still far from being proscribed in Indonesia.

Political considerations and concerns over shaking up the Muslim ground ahead of an all-important presidential election next year may be holding back Jakarta.

Police have been arbitrarily detaining several JI militants but they are being stopped in their tracks after incurring the wrath of Muslim clerics.

The recent Bashir verdict is the clearest indication that Indonesia is sending mixed signals in confronting a politically sensitive issue.

If the treason case against the 65-year-old militant was seen as a litmus test in Indonesia’s fight against terrorism, Bashir’s light jail term left little doubt that the government and courts continued to tread the ground carefully in dealing with radical Islam.

But the Bali bombing was a crucial turning point, paving the way for Jakarta to ride a changing tide of public sentiment against Bashir.

One reason the authorities were prepared to act with greater decisiveness against him was a calculated decision that an eventual conviction would not generate the backlash it threatened initially.

But the J.W. Marriott Hotel bombing and persistent reports of further terrorist strikes might have deterred the authorities from imposing a tougher sentence.

Bashir’s light sentence sends a clear message to his supporters that, in the absence of a decisive stance against extremism, there is still hope for them to carry out acts of terrorism.

And conspiracy theories that the CIA bombed Bali and the Marriott indicate that nothing is ever so simple in Indonesia.

Jakarta has made significant strides in combatting terrorism since Bali.

But the jury is still out.

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