INDONESIA: Bali attack intensifies political crisis

October 23, 2002


JAKARTA — As of October 18, the Indonesian police investigating the terrorist bombing of the Sari night club on October 12 — which killed nearly 200 foreign tourists and Indonesian workers — have not announced any clear leads as to who carried out the attack. Journalists in Jakarta, who have been informally briefed by police, have told Green Left Weekly that the police have no idea who the perpetrators are.

On the streets of Jakarta, and among political activists and journalists, opinion is sharply divided as to who carried out the crime. This is unusual. There have been several bombings in Indonesia over the past few years and targets have included the Jakarta Stock Exchange, the Philippines ambassador's residence, churches and mosques. Several people have been killed. Following those attacks, most people pointed to the Indonesian military (TNI) or one of its factions as the most likely suspects. Police have not discovered who was behind those bombings.

This time almost every group that can be alleged to be taking advantage of the situation created by the bombing is under suspicion. So far, those accused include: the TNI; Indonesia's intelligence services; Tommy Suharto, the disgraced son of the former dictator; unnamed factions of Indonesia's elite seeking to distract attention from their problems; the US government and the CIA; Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network; Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a Malaysia-based fundamentalist group; Abu Bakar Bashir, a cleric accused of being linked to JI; various other religious groups; anti-Australian, right-wing East Timorese; rival night club owners; and drug interests.

This widespread suspicion underlines the fact that broad sections of the Indonesian people lack confidence in the major actors in Indonesian politics. This crisis of confidence reflects the widespread perception that the ruling elite is politically and morally bankrupt, and has no solutions to the country's deep crises of poverty, unemployment and social and economic dislocation. The elite is perceived as totally self-seeking, deceitful and capable of anything, including murder and terrorism.

Repressive powers

As well as the popular suspicion that the TNI or intelligence services were involved in the attack, there have been widespread accusations that the bombing has revealed the gross incompetence of the military, police and intelligence apparatus. This sentiment is a further blow to an already deeply discredited security apparatus.

The government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri and the security apparatus have moved quickly to seek extra powers in the wake of the tragedy. A new presidential regulation giving the security apparatus wide powers of detention of people suspected of being involved in, or having information about, acts of terror is likely to be quickly approved by parliamentary leaders. Criticisms of "weak intelligence" are being used by military spokespeople to argue for a strengthening of the security apparatus.

The new regulation, which was hailed by Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, has been condemned by Indonesian human rights and civil liberties organisations. However, opposition has meant that a second regulation forming a special security body contains a provision that it be used only to investigate the Bali bombing and be disbanded as soon as somebody is convicted in relation to that crime.

Opposition from democratic rights organisations had held up the passing of an anti-terrorist law in the parliament. This may pass in the wake of the attack.

The right wing of the Indonesian political elite comprises the TNI leadership, former dictator Suharto's party Golkar and a range of organisations and political parties that campaign under the banner of Islam. For some time, Indonesia's political Islamic groups have been divided between those aligned to Golkar and the TNI on the one hand, and those who contest the army's power and support formal democratic rights.

The National Awakening Party and the Indonesian Islamic University Students Union, both closely associated with former president Abdurrahman Wahid, are the main Islamic organisations that support political liberalisation and secular politics.

TNI-backed paramilitary groups committed to the "struggle for Islam" have attacked student activists and left-wing groups in many parts of the country. They have also been used to create political and social instability — in areas such as Maluku — by launching anti-Chinese and anti-Christian violence and agitation. The activities of these reactionary groups have created more space for right-wing, Islamic fundamentalist groups to campaign.


After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, some fundamentalist groups and individuals — such as Abu Bakar Bashir — felt confident enough to openly campaign in defence of Osama bin Laden, claiming that he was being set up by Washington. These activities brought them and their links with like-minded international groups under the spotlight.

The Malaysian and Singapore governments have arrested a large number of alleged JI members. JI is accused of planning acts of sabotage, although no such acts had been carried out in either Malaysia or Singapore. No trials have taken place. These groups, including those associated with Bashir, accuse the US government of setting them up and deny being behind the Bali bombing.

Moves by the Indonesian government to detain leaders of Islamic fundamentalist groups will cause major tensions within rightist political forces. These will be heightened further if evidence is produced to prove that one of these groups was behind the Bali bombing.

(Obviously, the crisis of the government would be even greater if military involvement is also proved. TNI headquarters has already felt it necessary to issue denials of involvement. It is clear from some military statements that they are hoping it can be shown that the bombings were the work of "foreign terrorists".)

The implications for the right go further than this. In recent weeks, other so-called mainstream figures on the right, such as Amien Rais, chairperson of the National Mandate Party (PAN), have made demagogic attacks on the International Monetary Fund. Rais, who is also chairperson of the Indonesian parliament, has used his attacks on the IMF to appeal to the xenophobic anti-Western sentiment that has been whipped up by the fundamentalist groups.

Rais's party

Rais's party is based on a section of the organised Islamic community. PAN has not generally agitated for a fundamentalist program, but quickly shifts depending on which way the wind is blowing from its supporters. PAN's inability to come up with any credible answer to solve the country's deep social and economic crises has meant that fundamentalist views have gained ground in the party.

Following the Bali bombing, Rais has softened his xenophobic demagogy. He now faces the danger of being associated with terrorism if an Islamic group is proven to be guilty of the bombing, or if such suspicions gain ground as a result of government and media propaganda.

Meanwhile, it is becoming clearer that President Sukarnoputri has no solutions to the country's problems. In a speech on October 18, she blamed government ineffectiveness on the necessity of having to constantly consult with parliament.

At one level, this is an appeal to be freed from the constraints of democratic accountability. However, it also reflects the fact that the Indonesian parliament, being fairly representative of the factions of the political elite, is an arena for extreme factional horse trading and deals. The political elite is incapable of quickly reaching agreement on anything until enough money has been spread around.

The Indonesian parliament has long ceased to represent any significant popular sentiment. Any credibility that the parliament may have had immediately after the 1999 general election has been lost. Megawati's appeal for more executive power is likely to be viewed with cynicism and hostility by the Indonesian people.

The bombing's devastating impact on Bali's tourist industry, and the likelihood that there will be a big decline in foreign and domestic investment throughout Indonesia, means that the country's social and economic crisis will become even deeper.

From Green Left Weekly, October 23, 2002.
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