Politics hold back Jakarta’s crackdown on extremism

The images are horrifying.

The charred remains of churches and mosques in the Maluku islands lie stark against the sky, as if to stab the conscience of a province once held up as a poster child for religious harmony in Indonesia.

Over the past three years, about 5,000 people have been killed there in never-ending sectarian and religious strife. Some might argue that the recent arrest of Jafaar Umar Thalib, the leader of the paramilitary Laskar Jihad outfit, who had been stoking the flames of hatred there, offers hope for peace.

But peace in Indonesia’s ‘Beirut’ is turning out to be elusive – as elusive as Jakarta’s continued failure to come to terms with religious intolerance.

Yes, the rancorous Jafaar is under detention and the government has just signed a wide-ranging pact with Malaysia and the Philippines to fight terrorism and cross-border crime.

But very few believe that these two events in the space of four days signal a sea change in Jakarta’s response towards creeping extremism at home and in the region.

This was amplified once again by Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda’s response when he was in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday to sign the trilateral pact.

Asked about views that Indonesia was not doing enough to fight terrorism, he said with a trace of irony: ‘We are combating terrorism in our own way.’

He said Indonesia was drafting anti-terrorism laws, but they might not be the same as the internal security laws in Singapore and Malaysia.

Fighting terrorism ‘our own way’ is nothing but an escape clause to hide the fact that the political elite, harbouring ambitions for the 2004 election, continues to tread carefully in dealing with the growing clout of militant Islam.

In the case of the Malukus, the government has been anything but decisive in adopting a series of half-hearted measures to resolve the conflict there, especially after a ceasefire agreement was inked between warring factions there three months ago.

The Malindo peace pact saw the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) pulling out its pro-Islamic 733 Airborne Battalion – notorious for taking sides and, at times, sponsoring violence – from the region.

Strangely enough, the government left the Police Mobile Brigade untouched, ignoring persistent reports that several of its personnel were equally guilty of siding with rival religious groups.

With the ceasefire in place, the provincial administration banned foreigners, including Dutch missionaries whom they accused of backing Christian hardliners, from entering the region.

But it appeared to close an eye to Jafaar stepping into the territory on the eve of the separatist South Maluku Republic’s anniversary, to whip up tensions outside the provincial capital of Ambon.

Jafaar’s opponents in the government and the TNI saw this as an opportunity to move against him, given the situation was spiralling out of control.

The public line, of course, was that the Cabinet was united on the issue.

In reality, it was anything but.

Just look at Vice-President Hamzah Haz’s defiance in breaking ranks to visit the jailed militant leader, whom he declared to be his ‘Muslim brother’.

Mr Hamzah, like his political rivals, has an interest in courting Jafaar and other militants bandying Islamic slogans and symbols, with an eye towards securing the presidency two years from now.

If the government was really serious about cracking down on the activities of the extremist leader and his organisation, why then are 700 Laskar Jihad members still operating with impunity in the Malukus?

One would assume that all of them would have been evicted from the province.

The politicians and generals, once again, are sending out very confusing signals, tugged in different directions by a domestic agenda to cultivate the Muslim ground and international pressure to weed out radicals.

As the situation in the Malukus demonstrates, it is clear that they are being constrained by concerns of a Muslim backlash if they go for the jugular.

On the other hand, Jakarta may be showing signs that it is bending under the weight of pressure from the United States. Although Jafaar enjoys influential political and military connections in Indonesia – which, besides Mr Hamzah, also include former President Suharto – his links to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda terrorist network have caught the attention of the US. Jafaar, who fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s, is believed to have met Osama in Pakistan during that period.

Besides this striking bit of evidence, there have been reports that an envoy from Al-Qaeda paid his group a visit in the weeks before Sept 11, with several observers suggesting that Laskar Jihad could have been given financial backing to carry out terrorist attacks.

Despite Jakarta’s reluctance to crack down on extremist elements in the past, it is plausible that it decided to do something this time before Washington took matters into its own hands.

Indonesia’s importance to the US stems not just from its size but also the fact that, as the largest Muslim nation in the world, it could be a symbolically important ally in the fight against global terrorism.

The US-based think-tank Stratfor notes in its latest report that his arrest ‘is likely the result of an ultimatum from Washington which wants potential terrorists brought to heel’.

The Indonesia government stands to lose a great deal more – economic aid and normalised military ties – if it continues to be uncooperative on an issue that is central to US foreign policy.

So, it might be using this opportunity to impress the US Congress, which holds the purse strings and has so far been a thorn in the side of the Indonesians by withholding aid.

This could also explain Jakarta’s aim in joining Malaysia and the Philippines in the anti-terrorist pact.

The agreement, which is supposed to help the three countries jointly monitor potential security threats by sharing information, is the first concerted attempt at regional level to fight terrorism.

But the jury is still out on whether it will yield results and get other Asean countries to join it.

It is instructive that Asean’s role as a manager of regional order has long been limited because of the mixed strategic perspectives of member states.

This was exposed in Cambodia, where members’ participation in the United Nations peacekeeping operation took place on an individual rather than organisational basis.

Developments in the South China Sea also revealed this weakness.

A lot depends on the motivations of the individual signatories for the trilateral pact to succeed.

Kuala Lumpur’s objective appears to be grounded in internal politics – to weed out Muslim militant groups that could challenge Umno.

Likewise in the Philippines, which is now waging a war against Abu Sayyaf separatists.

Jakarta seems to be intent on creating a more favourable impression with the US.

But compared with the other two countries, Indonesia’s domestic – Muslim agenda – will stall rather than encourage firm action.

This is what is happening in the Malukus today. President Megawati Sukarnoputri faces the dilemma of trying to avoid stirring up a hornet’s nest among politicians and radicals hoping to gain by playing the Islamic card.

But by doing this, her administration stands accused of sins of omission rather than commission on this matter and the broader issue of confronting terrorism in Indonesia.


Fighting terrorism ‘our own way’ is nothing but an escape clause to hide the fact that the political elite, harbouring ambitions for the 2004 election, continues to tread carefully in dealing with the growing clout of militant Islam.

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