Working Together: Megawati and the Terrorists


Mar 11, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in Asian Wall Street Journal on March 11, 2002.

Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal, © 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

The Indonesian government is feeling the pressure over the perception abroad -- especially in the United States -- that it is inadequately responding to terrorist threats emanating from the archipelago. Other governments in the region have been very proactive in the war on terror. Malaysia and Singapore have taken high-profile steps to round up members of local terrorist networks, and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is hosting U.S. forces going after the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. Jakarta, however, has been reluctant to take action against local groups with terrorist links.

A case in point is Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, an Indonesian cleric wanted by the authorities in Kuala Lumpur for his activities with a Malaysian branch of the Jamaah Islamiyah terrorist organization. Ba'asyir resided in Malaysia in the latter Suharto years and was one of the founders of Jamaah Islamiyah, a regional network linked to al Qaeda. After his return to Indonesia upon President Suharto's fall in 1998, Ba'asyir was appointed the head of the advisory council of the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, a coalition of militant Islamic groups centered in Yogyakarta. According to Indonesian intelligence sources, the MMI gives direction to the Laskar Jundullah, an armed militia linked to al Qaeda through an Islamic charity in eastern Indonesia. Ba'asyir has been questioned by the Indonesian police, but so far no concrete action has been taken against him or his network.

Indonesian officials are sensitive to foreign criticism of insufficient diligence against suspected terrorist networks in Indonesia. They explain the difficulties in controlling their borders and their lack of technical means. They note that, unlike Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia lacks the equivalent of an internal security act that would allow the authorities greater latitude in dealing with suspected terrorists. Therefore, they say, they cannot move against suspects without evidence that would hold up in court.

Public opinion is another excuse. Officials in Jakarta stress that the political environment in Indonesia -- a country that is 90% Muslim -- is different from that of Singapore (a multi-ethnic state), the Philippines (predominantly Christian but with a Muslim minority) and Malaysia (majority Muslim, but with a strong secularist government). Within these limitations, they say, they are doing all they can to cooperate in the global war on terrorism -- for instance, by sharing intelligence with the U.S. and their neighbors, conducting close surveillance of suspected terrorists and deporting foreigners believed to have terrorist connections.

This assessment of the socio-political conditions that shape Jakarta's approach to the war on terrorism is beyond reproach, but the Indonesian authorities' circumspect behavior is also a consequence of the political weakness of President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government and the upcoming 2004 presidential election. Ms. Megawati's Islamic credentials are weak and her parliamentary majority is dependent on the support of Muslim parties, the same parties that -- because she is a woman -- coalesced to block her election as president after the 1999 parliamentary election.

Independent Indonesian observers say that Ms. Megawati is quite vulnerable to political attack if she is perceived as moving against Islamic interests at the behest of outside powers. Therefore, it is not surprising that the president and her advisors see great risks and few advantages in moving against Islamic radicals -- even if this frustrates Indonesia's friends abroad.

It is possible that the calculation of Ms. Megawati and her inner circle may not be entirely correct. The vast majority of Indonesian Muslims is moderate and does not support the radicals' agenda. In the last elections in June 1999, the secular and moderate Muslim parties won a large majority in the parliament. On the religious extreme, there are two relatively small parties, the Justice Party and the Crescent and Star Party, both of which adhere to the strict Wahhabi teachings exported from the Middle East. But as the respected Indonesian Islamic scholar Nurcholis Madjid told me, Wahhabism is very much a minority trend in Indonesian Islam and is stigmatized by the majority of traditionalist Muslims.

However, the government and secular forces have been unable to mobilize the latent source of support that exists among mainstream Muslim groups to regain control of the political and ideological agenda. The risk is that by not confronting the radicals the government is allowing them to seize the political agenda and set the terms of the political debate. As a result, the political space for radical Islam is expanding. Some Indonesian security officials recognize the risk of not confronting the radicals sooner rather than later, but this seems to be a minority view within the Megawati government.

So what should America and Indonesia's other friends do? Indonesia's full cooperation in the war on terrorism is a key U.S. interest. But Indonesia's stability and the survival of secular democratic government there are equally important. The outcome of Indonesia's democratic experiment will have a major impact in shaping the security environment in Southeast Asia. If Indonesia's democratic transition holds, it will be the world's third largest democracy as well as the largest secular democracy in the Muslim world. Conversely, an unstable or disintegrating Indonesia could be a haven for extremists and terrorists. The overriding challenge for U.S. policy is how to help shape Indonesia's evolution so that it will emerge as a stable democracy and as a capable partner in fighting global terrorism and helping to maintain regional security and stability.

U.S. policy needs to reconcile these interests. The Bush administration should certainly continue its dialogue with Indonesia and try to change Jakarta's calculus of the risks and costs of a more decisive stance toward Islamic terrorists and their associates. But it should also give enough space to Ms. Megawati and her government to take these steps in a way that they see as politically viable and that are not seen by Indonesian public opinion as having been taken in response to foreign pressure.

There are a few steps that the U.S. could take now to influence Indonesia's development and avert worst-case scenarios. The most important move is to support Indonesia's stability and territorial integrity, both for strategic reasons and because a stable and secure Indonesia is also more likely to be secular and democratic. Secondly, the White House can work with Japan, Singapore, Australia and other regional friends and allies to provide the economic and political support needed to help Indonesia overcome its multiple crises.

And lastly, Washington should strive to build closer military-to-military ties. The Indonesian military is a force for secularism. It is arguably the only institution that cuts across the divides of Indonesian society and will be a key player in influencing Indonesia's future evolution. Moreover, the Bush administration has the opportunity to promote a democratic model of military professionalism at a time when the Indonesian armed forces are looking for a new model and open to new ideas.

Given the delicate political reality in Jakarta, how Washington moves forward is almost as important as the policy it pursues. The U.S. should not treat Indonesia tactically, as a chess piece in the counter-terrorism tableau of the moment, or entirely on the basis of an onerous human-rights yardstick. A strategic approach that takes account of its long-term security interests is the right course. Otherwise, a rare historical opportunity to help bring about strategic and lasting change in this critical country will be missed.

Mr. Rabasa is a senior policy analyst at Rand Corp., a think tank based in Santa Monica, California.

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