Terror's Aftermath in Indonesia
Terror's Aftermath in Indonesia
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Terror's Aftermath in Indonesia

Indonesia After Sept. 11, there was a sense among Americans that the country had to come together for comfort, for protection and for rebuilding. The reaction in Indonesia to the Bali bombings has been very different, and it speaks to the lack of faith that Indonesians have in their own government. It also suggests that the United States and other nations with a significant presence in Indonesia should redouble efforts to strengthen political institutions here and demand accountability from government. Without more popular support, the war on terror here is not going to be won.

In Bali itself, the overwhelming response has been anger at the army and police. ''They tricked us into thinking Bali was safe, and look what happened,'' one caller said on a local talk show. If distrust of security forces is generally high around the country, it took a quantum leap in Bali after Saturday night. Policemen in Indonesia stand no chance of being turned into heroes the way New York's Finest were; the zero credibility of the two institutions on the front lines of combating terrorism does not make the government's task any easier.

In Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, where a separatist rebellion has resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, a different kind of distrust was voiced. ''It's appalling that a civilian site was targeted,'' a local lawyer told me. ''But it's important not to jump to conclusions about who was involved.''

He remarked that the army tends to blame Acehnese whenever a bomb goes off. He also cited the example of a local army commander who suggested Acehnese rebels were behind a recent attack in North Sumatra when it was clear from the beginning that the commander's own soldiers were responsible.

It used to be that if you wanted to bring down a business rival, a political opponent or an obstreperous neighbor, you could just spread the rumor that he was a Communist, and he would become an instant pariah. Indonesians are so jaded by political labeling that they are not apt to believe official statements about who may have been involved in the Bali attack.

In a town near Poso, Sulawesi, where a communal conflict between Muslims and Christians has raged for the last two years, a university lecturer said his colleagues were saying that the Bali blast showed the incompetence of civilian government. ''It's very worrisome: they want Suharto back,'' he told me, referring to the former president. I got the same reaction Monday in a crowded minivan going from Pare-pare to Makassar in Sulawesi, a stronghold of the former ruling party, Golkar. ''Whatever you say about Suharto, at least we felt safe,'' one passenger said.

With the assumption widespread that a Muslim organization is behind the bombing, there is now real alarm about escalating ethnic and religious violence and the government's ability to handle it. In Indonesia, there has been very little rallying around the president, as there was in the United States last year. On the contrary, if radio talk shows, politicians' statements and informal conversations are any guide, President Megawati Sukarnoputri's standing seems to have plummeted.

A Jakarta newspaper magnate had another reaction. In a televised discussion, he warned that the government would be making a serious mistake if it made fighting terrorism its main objective, at the expense of legal reform and ending corruption. Neither he nor the passengers in the minivan had any confidence in their government, but for very different reasons.

Extraordinary as this seems in the West, many Indonesians are convinced that the United States sponsored the Bali bombing in order to convince reluctant governments to join its war on terror and support an attack on Iraq. Hard-line Muslims like Abu Bakar Bashir -- said to be the head of Jemaah Islamiyah -- are not the only ones making this claim. The Bush administration's pressure on Indonesia to take action against Muslim terrorists, its policies in the Middle East and the presence of American troops in the Philippines' Muslim South have all fueled suspicions in conservative circles that Washington has an anti-Muslim agenda. Some Indonesians seem to believe that the only organization with the capacity to carry out such a devastating attack is the American government.

''American troops want to establish a presence in Indonesia,'' one commentator said on a television panel Monday night. ''They'll establish a foothold by offering to help out with the investigation in Bali, and then we'll see the influx.'' If some in Washington think that the Bali blast will convert all skeptics to the need for more stringent antiterrorism measures, they'll need to reconsider.

In Jakarta, there has been an outpouring of sympathy for the foreigners killed, particularly for the many Australians who died. At the same time, if foreigners are worried about coming to Indonesia now, some Indonesians are also worried about having them in their midst.

Indonesia needs better governance at least as much as it needs improved security. The risk is high that Jakarta's reaction to the Bali bombing will be not only ineffective but counterproductive. Many advocates of political reform in Jakarta have expressed fear over the last two days that new antiterrorism legislation -- now being drafted by the Megawati government -- will be an Indonesian version of the draconian internal security laws used in Singapore and Malaysia.

This government has never lacked the laws to go after people reasonably suspected of planning criminal acts. But it has lacked the will to use them. To give the army and police more powers in a country widely castigated for its corrupt legal system and weak political institutions is to invite abuse.

On Oct. 27, the Consultative Group on Indonesia -- the main consortium of donor countries, led by the World Bank -- will hold its annual meeting to discuss how much aid to give to Indonesia. The group's meeting could send a powerful message about international confidence in Indonesia. Donors will be sympathetic to the need to bolster an already weak economy further devastated by the bombing. Given what ordinary Indonesians are saying about their own lack of confidence, however, the donors would do well to put governance at the top of their agenda.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.