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Indonesia: Hardening Stance

With increasing international and Parliamentary pressure on the government and on the Indonesian Army to take strong action against separatist and Islamist extremist violence in the country, it appears that the Megawati Sukarnoputri regime is preparing grounds to abandon its earlier ambivalence with regard to the terrorist activities that afflict parts of the country, and to empower the Indonesian Military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia or TNI) to engage effectively with the extremist factions. The TNI has deployed nearly 41,400 troops to conflict-prone areas over the past three years. More than 21,000 of these military personnel are posted in troubled Aceh alone, backing up thousands of policemen there, even as the government engages, alternately, in military campaigns against, and negotiations with, the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Free Aceh Movement, the major separatist rebel group in the province. GAM was set up by Hasan di Tirov, a descendant of the Sultans of Aceh, who has lived in exile in Sweden since 1980, while GAM’s operations are headed by Abdullah Syafei’l Dimatang, its ‘Secretary General’, who lives at an undisclosed location in Malaysia.

The government is now preparing an anti-terrorism bill, which is shortly to be submitted to the legislature. Several measures to strengthen the military and police capacities to deal with the threat of terrorism, including significant police and army reforms, have also been initiated. In February this year, Indonesia also signed an agreement with Australia on counter-terrorism, and there are growing indications of a willingness to cooperate, beyond conventional intelligence-sharing, with Malaysia and the Philippines, to contain the expanding web of terrorism that has increasingly assumed a transnational character in the region.

Though no official data is available, estimates based on media reports suggest that over 550 persons, including civilians, security force personnel and rebels, have already been killed in extremist violence in Indonesia this year, adding to over 1,500 killed last year.

A welter of Islamist extremist groupings operate in the Indonesian archipelago of some 17,000 islands. A little over a third of these islands are inhabited, and many of them are under very loose government control. A weak government attempting a transition from extended military rule that came to an end in 1998; often corrupt and compromised law enforcement agencies; and enormous challenges of poverty, unemployment, huge domestic and foreign debt, compound the problems of strengthening Islamist fundamentalist movements in the world’s largest population of Muslims, who comprise 88 per cent of Indonesia’s 230 million people.

Fuelling Western fears has been disturbing evidence of Indonesia’s emergence as a significant base of Al Qaeda operations and recruitment in the recent past, and linkages that manifested themselves in violent demonstrations when America launched its Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Linkages with the Taliban – Al Qaeda combine go deep and over 30,000 Indonesians are believed to have fought alongside the mujahiddeen in Afghanistan, or to have received extremist Islamist and terrorist training at various madrassas and marakiz (Islamist Centres) in Pakistan through the 1980s. These associations were the basis of lasting international linkages that have been forged. There is, moreover, a wide network of Islamic pesantrin, madrassa-like boarding schools, many of which communicate the message of extremist Islam across the Indonesian hinterland. Al Qaeda’s operations in the country deepened after two bin Laden lieutenants, Ayman al Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef, traveled to the strife torn Maluku islands in the year 2000. In 2001, a group of five Yemini Al Qaeda operatives is also known to have camped at the East Javanese city of Surabaya to plot an attack on the US Embassy in Jakarta. An Al Qaeda linked training camp was also established by the Laskar Jihad in the jungles of Central Sulawesi, and over 2,000 mujahiddeen are believed to have received training there.

Unsurprisingly, Indonesia is high on the US list of potential troublespots where the Al Qaeda and its affiliates could regroup to continue with their international campaign of Islamist terrorism. These apprehensions have been compounded by the Indonesian government’s past record of inaction against known Islamist terrorists, including the shadowy Jamaah Islamiyah, which had established a network that spanned several countries in South East Asia, and had been plotting attacks on US targets in Singapore. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, an Indoensian cleric who founded the Jamaah Islamiya, and who heads the ‘advisory council’ of the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) – a coalition of Islamic groups based at Yogyakarta – is wanted by Malaysia and Singapore for terrorist activities. The Indonesian authorities have questioned Ba’asyir, but have failed to take any further action against him. The MMI also directs the activities of the Laskar Jundullah, an extremist militia linked to the al Qaeda, that operates from eastern Indonesia.

Similarly, over three years of sectarian conflict in Maluku, which has resulted in the loss of an estimated over six thousand lives, has not produced a single conviction. The Laskar Jihad, founded in 2000 by Ja'far Umar Thalib, and that claims ‘over 15,000 members’, has been engaged in a murderous campaign against Christians in Maluku in Eastern Indonesia, and is confronted there by a militia of Christian vigilantes who style themselves the Laskar Kristus.

The government has tended, in the past, to turn a blind eye to Islamist extremism as a result of its own internal weakness and contradictions, as well as of Megawati Sukarnoputri’s dependence on the support of Islamic parties for a Parliamentary majority. There is, however, an increasing realization that a failure to confront the extremists is allowing the political initiative and agenda to pass progressively into the hands of the radicals, and is undermining Indonesia’s efforts for democratic transition and economic reconstruction.

Despite the loss of life and the extreme distress extremist violence has been causing in some pockets of Indonesia, including Aceh, Maluku, Irian Jaya [Papua, where the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) or Free Papua Movement is leading a separatist movement], and parts of the Sulawesi island, the area of violence covers, perhaps, no more than five per cent of the country. Extremist Islam, moreover, has limited support among the general population, and a majority of the people adhere to the unique forms of traditional Indonesian Islam which have little in common with the Wahabi inspiration of the Islamist terrorist Internationale. The large mainstream Muslim organizations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah reject the ideology, objectives and activities of the extremist groups. Indeed, in the elections of June 1999, the last to be held in the country, it was the secular parties, the ruling Partai Demokrasi Indonesia – Perjuangan (PDI-P) and the Golkar Party, that won an overwhelming majority of votes. Parties with an explicitly Islamic agenda – including moderate Islamic parties – secured just 14 per cent of the votes. There are, however, indications that fundamentalist Muslims groups have been meeting with some success in promoting their message among the people. Nevertheless, even within the areas of conflict, the influence of the extremists is limited. Thus, GAM's strength is concentrated in six of the Aceh’s 11 regencies – Pidie, North Aceh, Central Aceh, East Aceh, West Aceh and South Aceh. With military pressure mounting, most of GAM’s attacks in recent months have, in fact, been launched from just four of these: Pidie, North Aceh, East Aceh and West Aceh.

The crisis in Indonesia is one of governance, with a widespread failure to provide the minimal security of life and property in substantial areas of the country. It is within the vacuum created by political infirmity, corruption and administrative failure that extremist and separatist groupings have found ample space to expand their operations. The dynamic this conflict has generated, moreover, has become a threat to the country’s infant democracy, leading to a progressive reassertion of the role of the military in the management of the disintegrating law and order situation. These trends are certainly dangerous, but a strengthening of democracy and of the country’s faltering economy would go a long distance in restoring peace to Indonesia, and in stabilizing the security environment in Southeast Asia.

(Edited version published in Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services, June 27, 2002.)





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