Finding the good after the Bali tragedy

ABC Asia Pacific
20 October 2002

The Indonesian government has been criticised internationally for not taking the threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia more seriously. However prominent Indonesian political commentator Wimar Witoelar finds signs of hope in Indonesian responses to the tragedy. He argues that it is not enough to tackle the terrorists head-on. We must also address the social and political conditions in which they thrive.

A major tragedy such as the Bali bombing will never be truly accepted, as we will never understand why these things happen. If we do understand the concept of terror then we should not spend too much time searching for rational answers to questions such as: "What is their motivation?"

We have to deal with the problem now, pick up the pieces of our lives, and not make matters worse. The night of Saturday 12 October was so black that we could not discern any shapes in the darkness. But now that we have adjusted, we see that tragedy brings out the good as well as the bad among us.

Positive signs

In a surprising development, Indonesia is co-operating with Australia on a new international police and intelligence taskforce to find those responsible for the Bali bombings. It will be headed by an Indonesian police officer with an Australian to act as co-chair.

On the scene in Bali, Australians help the Balinese in disaster relief. With the sustained grace that has made their island home such an attractive destination to visitors from around the world, the Balinese - who are the least-mentioned victims of that horrendous night - devote themselves in turn to helping Australians.

We also saw an unusual sight at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. In addition to the piles of flowers left there every day by ordinary citizens, hundreds of students marched to the Embassy. They did not come to protest against Australia as at some times in the past, but to express their sympathy. We should grasp these hopeful signs as we search for a set of policies to carry us forward beyond the tragedy.

Megawati's weakness

The conventional wisdom among outsiders says that the Indonesian government is soft on terrorism. Indonesian officials refuse to acknowledge the existence of terrorism in the country, refuse to take a position on Muslim radicalism, and do not want to look into the Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda connections in Indonesia. This view is understandable, but like the hard serve in tennis that lands just a few centimeters over the service line, it needs some adjustment.

The fact is that President Megawati is not only soft on terrorism but on a number of other things as well. The government has been letting convicted criminals (like parliamentary speaker Akbar Tanjung) stay in high office and allowing provincial bosses pursue their own corrupt agendas in defiance of the national interest. The government has lost interest in negotiations with the Aceh separatists, choosing instead to apply force. Trials on human rights atrocities in Jakarta and East Timor stopped in their tracks when Megawati softened the government stand.

It does not help that the US government has completely switched from its pursuit of human rights to its pursuit of the "axis of evil". President Megawati is so soft that she allows her Minister for Economic Planning to attack the IMF and World Bank while at the same time other ministers are begging the same two agencies for reprieve.

Political motivations

There is one thing the president and her people are serious about however, and that is to stay in office and get re-elected. Understanding this motive is important because we recognise that an offensive strategy is our best defence against terrorism.

Unfortunately this is easier said than done since the pursuit of political compromise has seen President Megawati and her government fall under the influence of a catatonic spell. The Bali incident has the potential to break the spell and snap her out of this catatonic state.

After all, it is clearly no longer necessary to tread lightly when facing Islam militants. Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, Syafii Maarif of the second-largest grouping Muhammadiyah and other leaders who represent the Islamic majority have reminded us again and again that their tens of millions of followers oppose violence. Wahid mentioned Abu Bakir Bashir and other leaders by name months ago and urged the government to arrest and investigate them. He has said explicitly that the "evildoers in Bali are Indonesian."

An opportunity to act

It is a good political time for Megawati to act because while the vast majority of Indonesians - Moslem or otherwise - have always abhorred violence, the Bali bomb has made them express this distaste vocally. They are turning away from their denial and are looking for leaders to support.

The turnaround will gain momentum if action is taken immediately. It will return the trust of our friends in Australia and the United States and consolidate national support far beyond the reach of politics. But we have to get to the real problem, which is definitely domestic terrorism.

The al-Qaeda network will take years to track down, even with the full force of the US President, the Pentagon, billion dollar budgets and Congressional votes. It is a global problem, while Indonesia is being destroyed by local bullies.

Adjuvant therapy - aimed at destroying the secondary tumours as well as the main cancer - will make the cure sustainable. This means action against corruption and violence, improvement of a corrupt legislature and immoral judiciary. We have the ingredients for a turnaround. Without degrading the presidency to domestic metaphors, we must now recruit some good chefs and let them get on with the job. Megawati does not have to change her style. She can remain above the fray, but maybe say just a little bit more.

Wimar Witoelar is a prominent Jakarta broadcaster and political commentator who served as official spokesman for former President Abdurrahman Wahid.

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