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Terror in Bali

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

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In the wake of the devastating terrorist attack, the world's largest Muslim-majority state finds itself hustled on the international stage over questions of pan-regional terrorism.

BALI, an island-resort in the Indonesian archipelago, is hardly a prime piece of strategic real estate, politically or militarily. Yet, around midnight on October 12, it witnessed a devastating terrorist strike which, in terms of impact, ranks next only to the assault on a few targets in the United States on September 11, 2001. The calculus of terror has, with this tragedy, acquired a new and pervasive dimension.

Several hundreds of revellers, mainly Australians and Westerners, were gathered at a string of pubs on the Kuta beach stretch near Denpasar, the Balinese capital, on that fateful Saturday night when the terrorists struck quite easily and surreptitiously. For nearly a week after the gruesome crime, which claimed over 180 lives and caused injuries to nearly 300 others according to early estimates, the Indonesian authorities remained in the dark about the identity of its perpetrators. By then, however, Indonesia agreed to work closely with the intelligence and security agencies of the United States and Australia.

Investigation pointed to a powerful car-bomb explosion and the possibility that a mini-van was used to carry the C-4 plastic explosives, perhaps even RDX (research department explosive). A remote-controlled device was suspected to have been used to set off the explosion, from a motorcycle at a safe distance. The initial line of investigation centred on the premise that the field-level perpetrator(s) of the crime had escaped. The event was treated less as a case of suicide-bombing, but the signature of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda or that of his regional affiliate(s) was quite unmistakable.

The scale of devastation was not altogether unfamiliar in a world that has got increasingly exposed to terrorist-inspired mass destruction. However, the magnitude of the Bali carnage is unprecedented in the annals of South-East Asia, a region of cultural and religious diversity that often sought to be managed through inter-state economic cooperation and political coordination.

Indonesia is increasingly recognised by the global community as a potential playground for a multitude of international terrorist organisations, which might have established direct links or "inspirational" connections with the Al Qaeda. At another level, so goes a theory in Asia Pacific diplomatic circles, the Al Qaeda itself may be trying clandestinely to regroup in some parts of South-East Asia. This line of thinking flows from the unacknowledged failure of the U.S. to decimate the terrorist organisation's network despite the Bush administration's "anti-terror" war in Afghanistan.

Indonesia, which is passing through a sensitive and extremely difficult phase of democratic renaissance after decades of authoritarianism, is the world's largest Muslim-majority state. Possessing a legacy of ethnic diversity and religious variety of the conspicuous kind, the country has certainly not chosen to function as a monolithic Islamic state. Bali, in fact, represents the pretty face of Indonesia's pluralism. As the prime home to the Hindu community of Indonesia, it has contributed a lot to the country by serving as a magnet for foreign tourists and as a gateway to the entire archipelago.

It is too early to determine whether the mandate of the terrorist(s) included a sub-text of trying to ruin the Hindu-Muslim harmony of an archetypal Indonesian tradition. A few suspected "Pakistanis" were said to have been interrogated by the authorities, but that was prior to the blast, and Jakarta has made no formal comment on this. Indeed, the immediate political message from the debris near Denpasar is seen by some of Jakarta's neighbours in an altogether different context. Australia, whose nationals constituted the largest single group of victims, and the U.S. have made no secret of their desire to investigate the tragedy as a ghoulish story of possible anti-West motives that are considered germane to the present international climate of hostilities. It is this aspect, however, that makes Indonesians very uncomfortable.

While Indonesia's regional friends and allies do not dispute its historical credentials as a largely tolerant and pluralist society, a few key South-East Asian states, unlike Indonesia, have already attuned themselves to the new and futuristic "anti-terror" wavelengths that the U.S. has been projecting across the world since September last year. For months before the Bali carnage, opinion-makers in some pockets of South-East Asia, mostly those outside the corridors of power, had even sought to put Indonesia in the dock by claiming that Megawati Sukarnoputri's administration was not alive to the looming challenge of pan-regional terrorism.

Suddenly quite defenceless against such impressionistic accusations after the Bali tragedy, Indonesia has found itself being hustled on the international stage. When Australian Prime Minister John Howard spoke of the general need for "unrelenting vigour" and "unconditional commitment" to combat international terrorists, the message sounded like a direct indictment of Indonesia and a wake-up call directed towards Jakarta. Not surprisingly, therefore, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's visit to Jakarta on October 16 attracted unprecedented international attention. It appeared as if he was a special envoy of not just Australia but the U.S. itself.

A singular jarring note stood out amidst the general consensus that Downer, on the one side, and the Indonesian leadership including Megawati, on the other, reached on that day on the ways in which Jakarta could interact positively with the web of "anti-terror" alliances that the U.S. had already spun. While Downer drew attention to Howard's call to the United Nations to designate `Jemaah Islamiyah' (J.I.) as a terrorist oufit, Indonesia's Political and Security Affairs Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono asserted that the impugned organisation "does not exist" within the borders of his country. To cater to the sensitivities of Australia and the U.S., Susilo underlined that Indonesia would certainly move against the purported J.I. if evidence were to be found against its presumptive leaders and members on the terrorism count.

The J.I.'s existence as a pan-regional outfit was first brought to light by Singapore through the investigations that it carried out while making some significant preventive detentions in December 2001. Those arrested then under the city state's Internal Security Act were suspected to have been conspiring to carry out some tell-tale terrorist attacks against Western targets and interests in the region, particularly those of the U.S. The Singapore authorities had portrayed their proactive swoop as a factor that might prevent a possible future shock. In August, Singapore announced a follow-up action, and the threat uncovered this time was said to have been a deep conspiracy aimed at causing a racial-religious strife in the region. In naming the J.I. once again, the city state put the focus on how Jakarta might respond to the new revelation that some terrorists are indeed plotting to carve out a pan-Islamic state that could encompass Indonesia as also Malaysia and the southern Philippines.

The Bali tragedy has induced the Megawati administration to show a sense of urgency to update the country's laws. The indication by October 17 was that she might opt for an anti-terror presidential decree in the place of the stalled legislative proposals, which in fact predated the Bali massacre. However, even as Malaysia intensified its own anti-terror drive and Singapore held the moral high ground of being the first to detect the signs of a subterranean surge in terrorism across South-East Asia, Indonesia remained the odd one out without the legal and political wherewithal to face the new challenges.

In the eye of the storm in Indonesia was the man blamed by at least one of its neighbours and the U.S. for all the present troubles in South-East Asia Abu Bakar Baasyir (Bashir, in the more conventional spelling). Far from conceding that he is the terrorist leader of the Islamic angst in South-East Asia, Abu Bakar denied that he had any links with the Al Qaeda, which Indonesia first blamed for the massacre. He portrayed the J.I. as a figment of the imagination of "infidels", and himself as no more than a religious teacher.

A fundamental question, nearly a week after the Bali tragedy, was whether Jakarta could adjust itself to the "new era in strategic development" that some Indonesian thinkers, like Jusuf Wanandi, had seen as a global reality in the wake of 9/11. Although Muslim extremists are still considered to function on the fringes of Indonesian politics, they tend to see Osama bin Laden more as an Islamic Che Guevara and less as an evil genius of decadence and destruction. For Megawati, though, the anti-terror issue may well define or defile not only her presidency but also Jakarta's relationship with the Association of South East Asian Nations, whose largest member is Indonesia itself, and with the U.S.

In June 1945, Megawati's father, Sukarno, fashioned the "Pancasila", or the Five Principles of State, in an effort to sustain Indonesia's ethnic and religious diversity and ward off calls for the creation of an Islamic state. Now, she faces a similar challenge of how to inspire Indonesia with a magic formula to meet the anti-terror spirit of the present international discourse.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Nov 08, 2002.)

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