A case to convince Indonesians: The Bali investigation
A case to convince Indonesians: The Bali investigation
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 2 minutes

A case to convince Indonesians: The Bali investigation

Why has it taken until now for the Indonesian government to see that the killers of almost 200 people in Bali on Oct. 12 will probably prove to be part of the same network that has carried out dozens of other deadly bombings in Indonesia and the Philippines in the past two years?

The network's members tend to be Indonesians who share three characteristics: previous residence in Malaysia, military experience in either Afghanistan or Ambon in eastern Indonesia, and respect for the Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who was detained in October, months after neighboring countries and the United States first urged Indonesia to do so.

Officials in Singapore and Malaysia allege that Bashir is the leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah group that planned to detonate truck bombs against American, British and Australian targets in Singapore with help from Al Qaeda agents, before the plot was discovered and many of those involved arrested and interrogated. Bashir is wanted by Malaysian authorities, also on terrorism-related charges. The Indonesian public remains skeptical of Jemaah Islamiyah's existence and unconvinced of Bashir's ties to Al Qaeda.

So what are the reasons for the Indonesian authorities' delay?

Too many possible villains: Every time a bomb attack occurred in Indonesia between 1999 and 2001, suspicions would fall on the family and friends of former President Suharto, the Indonesian military, or Acehnese separatists.

There were plausible grounds for the first two. Suharto's son Tommy had shown a willingness to use violence to stop corruption, and the military had backed militias in East Timor and Laskar Jihad in Maluku and then denied any responsibility for their actions. The Indonesian police and military often fell back on blaming Acehnese separatists whenever individuals from Aceh province were involved in crimes, without probing other possible affiliations.

Too much noise in the system: In Indonesia's news weeklies, it is striking how articles on earlier bombings are buried amid news of power shifts in Jakarta, presidential impeachments, battles with the International Monetary Fund, outbreaks of communal violence and corruption scandals. Not only was public attention pulled away from the bombings, but presumably investigative resources were as well.

No faith in the police or courts: Law enforcement institutions were so corrupted and politicized under Suharto that many Indonesians are skeptical about the legitimacy of arrests announced by police, the validity of evidence produced in court and the independence of judges hearing high-profile cases. One reason Indonesia is such fertile ground for conspiracy theories is that credibility in government institutions is so low: If you can't believe the official version of events, you construct a logical alternative.

Fear of a Muslim backlash: Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country. The Indonesian government has had to tread extremely cautiously as the network of bombers involves radical Muslims, some of whom have justified their actions in terms of defending Islam against its enemies. Muslims across the political spectrum in Indonesia remain deeply concerned that the war on terror is leading to the targeting of fellow Muslims, and that the new anti-terror legislation will be largely directed against them.

Muslim leaders have expressed fears that with Bashir detained and the Bali investigation focusing on a religious school in East Java Province, the whole religious school system in Indonesia will come under suspicion. President Megawati Sukarnoputri, facing an election in 2004, has no wish to alienate the Muslim community. She represents the country's tradition of secular nationalism but depends on the support of several Islamic parties in Parliament.

The best antidote to all such concerns is evidence. A credible investigation of the Bali bombings is already doing much to undermine the conspiracy theories that were so prevalent in the first weeks after the attack. It will be trickier to pull together all the threads linking the various bombings in a way that ensures not only justice, but public acceptance of the results.

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