INDONESIA: Anti-terror laws, foreign influence debated



JAKARTA — While Indonesian police investigations, conducted in cooperation with Australian, US, British and other police forces, continue into the October 12 Bali bombings, the policy responses to the bombing by President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government have created a storm of debate.

Two key issues have emerged. One is whether or not the Megawati government has surrendered Indonesia's national sovereignty and is making decisions under pressure from the United States and Australia and whether US and Australian demands for the suppression of Islamicist groups in Indonesia is a strategy to gain political dominance in the country.

A second issue is whether the new anti-terrorism decree approved by the government on October 19 is opening the door to a return to the repressive politics of General Suharto's 32-year New Order regime. The decree gives the police the authority to detain any person for three days based on a report by an intelligence agency. A judge can then order the detained person to be held in custody for up to six months for further interrogation without charge.

It is widely perceived across almost the whole political spectrum that the US and Australian governments, as well as most of the Western press, are equating Islamic fundamentalist organisations with terrorist activities.

It is also perceived that the Western governments and press have been urging the Megawati government to "take action" against these groups. As no evidence that could hold up in court has been presented by the US or Australia or anybody else tying any fundamentalist group with a terrorist act, it is therefore also assumed that "taking action" means detaining people outside the normal legal processes requiring evidence and a presumption of innocence.

The perception that Western governments and media are demanding the detention of leaders of fundamentalist groups despite a lack of hard evidence was reinforced when Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer hailed the introduction of the new anti-terrorist decree.

Bashir arrest

The situation is further complicated by the fact that fundamentalist or "hard-line" Islamic groups in Indonesia are many and varied. Western media and government attention has been focused on Abu Bakar Bashir, who runs an Islamic school in the Javanese city of Solo.

Bashir was imprisoned for several years by the Suharto regime for campaigning for an Islamic state. He later moved to Malaysia and was in contact with fundamentalist groups there. He is accused by the Malaysian authorities of being a member and leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which the Malaysian and Singapore governments accused of preparing terrorist acts.

The Western media now routinely report that JI exists in Indonesia or is even based in Indonesia. To date, however, there is no evidence that any organisation of that name exists in Indonesia. While it is true that some Islamic groups, mainly based around a particular teacher, consider Osama bin Laden a hero, there is still no evidence that Bashir or any Indonesian organisation is a part of a JI operation.

Furthermore, even if it turns out that there is such a clandestine group, or even if Bashir is implicated, Indonesian public opinion is already hostile to the sloppiness and laziness of Western analysis and reporting of Indonesian and Islamic politics which so reeks of patronising, racist attitudes.

In fact, there are a whole variety of fundamentalist Islamic groups, i.e., groups calling for the imposition of Islamic law or an Islamic state, which do not resort to violence in any of their campaigning. There are fundamentalist political parties, such as the Justice Party, that have been consistent critics of both corruption and the repressive use of the state apparatus and the military.

There are also "hard-line" groups which have mobilised their forces for violent action, such as Laskar Jihad, which until recently, was involved in the Christian-Muslim fighting in Ambon.

Laksar Jihad, even though arming its militia and being accused of human rights violations, has at the same time been a critic of Osama bin Laden, since even before the attacks on the World Trade Center. Laskar Jihad and Bin Laden follow different schools of Islamic thought on the nature of jihad (holy war).

Anti-Western sentiment

The anti-Western sentiment among Indonesians manifests itself in many ways. For example, there is widespread criticism of the government for acting under Western pressure in such a way as to threaten hard-won democratic rights. The arrest of Bashir on October 20 for questioning on bomb attacks on Christian churches in previous years is perceived as the result of direct pressure from the US and Australia.

Bashir was only arrested after an Indonesian police team interrogated Omar al Faruq, a Kuwaiti national arrested in Indonesia earlier in the year and then, with no legal process, handed over to US authorities who imprisoned and interrogated him in Pakistan.

There is broad-based suspicion of statements given by any US War on Terror prisoner, and there is suspicion about why Faruq was so quickly removed from Indonesia when he had clearly broken Indonesian laws, at the very least illegal entry.

Human rights and pro-democracy groups have all condemned the anti-terrorism decree.

Protests from these groups, as well as the general anti-Western sentiment, have put constraints on the Megawati government's "anti-terrorism" repression. The most draconian aspects of the decree apply only in relation to the Bali bomb investigations and judges have the right to declare intelligence reports an inadequate basis for arrest.

The main proponents of the decree within Indonesia, as might be expected, are spokespersons for the government, and especially the military and intelligence services. Highly articulate spokespersons have been appearing in the media presenting the case for stronger police and security agency powers.

However, it is a reflection of the public scepticism of the motives of the government, and any institution of the political elite, that these security apparatus spokespersons feel that they also have to present their case within the framework of defending democracy. They usually fall back on emphasising the different general situation today as compared with the repressive situation during the Suharto era.

They claim that, unlike during the Suharto era, there is now a "free press" and an "active" parliament, and that elected representatives and lawyers can monitor and halt any excesses by the state apparatus.

This argument, however, is unconvincing to most Indonesians. Most opinions polls show an overwhelming majority of respondents are suspicious of the government's desire to have extra powers of surveillance and detention.

From Green Left Weekly, October 30, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.