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Explosive reaction

Print edition : Aug 14, 2009 T+T-
in Singapore

TERRORISM is back with a bang, as it were, on the political agenda of Indonesias fledgling democracy. The serial bomb explosions at two adjacent luxury hotels in a fashionable district of Jakarta on July 17 the first major terrorist attack in Indonesia since 2005 have shattered the euphoria over the peaceful presidential election on July 8 in the Muslim-majority nation. The incidents come at a time when the countrys polity was poised to soar on its new democratic wings.

Surely, the democratic exercise, the second direct presidential election since the fall of Suhartos authoritarian regime a decade ago, did spark some controversies. The election result had not been announced officially when terrorists struck at the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels. Still in focus then were the quick counts, or exit polls, which had given President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono much cause for celebration. He was projected to have been re-elected.

The margin of his victory this time was said to have been so huge as to obviate a run-off, unlike in 2004 when he secured his first mandate for the post. In such a setting, Yudhoyonos challengers disputed the results of the latest quick counts. The electoral authoritys official result was still unavailable by July 20.

Despite this, the general view among political pundits and other politically savvy sections was that Indonesias post-Suharto democracy had come of age on July 8. It was this sense of a political awakening that the July 17 terrorist attacks, which claimed nine lives and injured 50 persons, served to undermine, at least for a while. So much so, questions were raised even in official circles about the possibility of links between these attacks and the countrys newly evolving political process. In televised comments, Yudhoyono said those behind the attack should be punished, regardless of their political links, if any.

The main focus of the investigations was on the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a suspected South-East Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda. Gaining currency as a key line of probe was the possibility that a breakaway JI leader, Noordin Mohammed Top of Malaysia, could have masterminded the attack. Indonesian police officials reported that the explosives used on that day were similar to those that the faction had depended on for some earlier strikes.

Indonesian police chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri was of the view that two suicide bombers were involved in the attack. A preliminary picture that emerged, on the basis of on-site forensic evidence and investigations, was that of a meticulous terror plot. The explosive devices were reckoned to have been assembled in a room in one of the targeted hotels. The conspirators, it was surmised, had checked in as guests.

One of the suicide bombers detonated a device at the same hotel where the bombs were made. His co-conspirator, it was suspected, had gone over to the adjacent hotel before the operation began. Once there, he apparently used a computer notebook to detonate another device. These coordinated detonations occurred within minutes of each other.

What, in particular, confounded the investigators was how the conspirators had managed to hoodwink the security personnel at these hotels and, more importantly, fool the terror-alert gadgets that had been deployed. In fact, elaborate security arrangements, including physical searches of baggage as deemed necessary, had been put in place at major Jakarta hotels following the 2003 bombing at the JW Marriott, which killed 12 people.

The other major terrorist strikes in Indonesia were the 2004 attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta and the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005. Last year, the Bali bombers, who were sentenced to death, were executed, with no immediate terrorist backlash from either the JI, to which those convicts belonged or any other group.

Politically, the relative lull on the terror front in Indonesia since 2005 was being widely interpreted as a result of Yudhoyonos smart power. An obvious question in this context is whether the latest terrorist attacks were simply a backlash for the execution of the Bali bombers or whether a qualitatively new challenge was now taking shape. Obviously, the answers will take time to emerge.

Not surprisingly, the Yudhoyono administration would not jump to quick conclusions. The Presidents Chief of Staff Dino Patti Djalal told this correspondent, in a background comment shortly after the terror strikes, that the investigation would be carried out from the ground up and with an open mind. The immediate indication, according to him, was that it is open to any possibility about what those outside the Yudhoyono administration began to see as a resurgent terrorist challenge.

Indonesias Ambassador to the United Nations Marty Natalegawa said his country would welcome international cooperation to address the Jakarta-related anti-terror issues. The United Nations Security Council condemned the bombings even as United States President Barack Obama, who had spent a short period of his childhood in Indonesia, offered support with a touch of personal empathy.

For Yudhoyono, whose no-nonsense anti-terror and anti-graft campaign had already brought him political dividends, the more immediate task was to unify a somewhat fractured post-Suharto polity. A major controversy in the run-up to the July 8 presidential election was the allegation of fraud in the voter registration. Indonesia has an estimated 176 million eligible voters. Yudhoyonos chief opponents asserted that a sizable number of these people were deprived of electoral registration on some count or another. Obviously, activists in the Presidents camp argued that the alleged case of missing voters was not traceable to him at all. In the end, the Constitutional Court ruled, on the eve of the July 8 election, that the unregistered voters could still exercise their franchise by producing their valid national identity cards at the polling stations.

The post-poll quick counts gave the President a commanding tally of about 60 per cent of the total national ballots cast and also a mandatory score of over 20 per cent of the votes in each of over half the number of total provinces. Despite an apparent landslide of this magnitude, opposition to him in the domestic political domain was simmering when the July 17 attack complicated the situation.

One of Yudhoyonos opponents, incumbent Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, has the constitutional responsibility of having to work with the President until October 2, when a new administration would be inaugurated. Kalla did attend an anti-graft meeting convened by the President shortly before the terror episode.

Yudhoyonos other opponent, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, traces her political credentials to her late father Sukarnos legacy as a founder of modern Indonesia. She was a quiet but credible icon of political dissidence during Suhartos long authoritarian rule. The Suharto era followed Sukarnos charismatic tenure, which acquired controversial overtones in his later years in power. For Megawati, the lustre of her political pedigree began fading as she presided over an administration of escalating drift in the early phase of the post-Suharto democratic experiment. Her defeat at the hands of Yudhoyono in the run-off presidential election in 2004 did not, therefore, come as a surprise at all.

Overarching such cross-currents of charisma and personality politics is the lingering focus on the military as a source of talent for the civilian administration itself. Yudhoyono himself is a former military general; he is sometimes portrayed as Indonesias Eisenhower. No less importantly, both Megawati and Kalla had former military generals as their running mates in the July 8 election.

The Indonesian armed forces had, under Suharto, played a pivotal role in the countrys praetorian politics of that long period. And now, with Indonesia having opted for a system of executive presidency, political parties have not yet come to occupy the commanding heights of todays public domain. This aspect is further accentuated by the personality politics that often drives a presidential system in a society that is emerging out of the shadow of personalised rule of the past.

Somewhere along these fractured lines of politics, the relatively new phenomenon of suspected Islamist terrorism has caused some fault lines. Traditionally, Indonesia has been a tolerant Muslim-majority society. Some JI leaders, such as Abu Bakar Basyir (or Bashir), have been able to create a constituency of sorts for Islamist politics in Indonesia. He and his supporters continue to disclaim sponsoring terrorism of any kind.

If, in these circumstances, Yudhoyonos quick count victory turns into an emphatic official mandate, the July 17 carnage may yet serve the purpose of forcing a sense of urgency upon his administration. He can then hope to begin addressing the larger challenges of shaping the Indonesian state into a modern polity without fault lines.