Insights and Analysis

Indonesia – Resisting a Return to Terror

July 22, 2009

By Robin Bush

In the space of 10 minutes early last Friday morning, in a dreadful flash, Indonesia was pulled back to an era that most would prefer to forget. The two bomb attacks that took place within minutes of each other on Friday, July 17 at the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels in Jakarta killed nine people and wounded over 50.

For many Indonesians and members of the long-term international community alike, there was a terrible sense of déjà vu. From 2000 to 2005, Indonesia experienced almost yearly terrorist attacks, including the infamous Bali bombing in 2002 that killed nearly 200 people, and an attack on the very same JW Marriott hotel in 2003.

However, from late 2005 until last Friday, Indonesia had been mercifully free of terrorist attacks, and the mood of the country was positive and upbeat. The country’s popular president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, had just been re-elected by an overwhelming margin of 60 percent – according to quick-counts – a strong populist endorsement of his perceived effectiveness in countering corruption, reducing poverty, and improving economic prosperity. Indonesia has experienced a relatively mild version of the global economic crisis, was projecting growth rates of over 4 percent, and, relative to its neighbors, appeared to be a paragon of democratic stability and strength.

Indicators are strong that the attacks on Friday were the work of an off-shoot of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) – the modus operandi, bomb materials used, and targets all fit that profile. Of concern is that the bombers appeared to be targeting members of the international business community – one of the suicide bombers apparently walked into and blew himself up in a room that contained only senior executives meeting there for a routine breakfast gathering that took place at the same time, same place, weekly. Despite that, response from international business analysts has been measured – if this is the only incident, they say, Indonesia will likely continue its positive trajectory and progress. This is supported by the fact that both the value of the rupiah and the Jakarta stock market dipped slightly on Friday and then came right back up by the end of the day.

Response from Indonesians in the civil society and intellectual communities however, has been somewhat different. There is a widespread feeling of anger, sadness, and depression that Indonesia, having come so far in recent years, and amidst the current feeling of hope and progress, could find itself pulled back in time in this way. Civil society groups immediately organized a public action in front of the Ritz Carlton hotel, under the theme of “we are not afraid.” Despite this public bravado, many privately expressed deep distress and sadness that after four years of peace, Indonesia had been again rocked by violence.

What is clearly different this time around is the response of Indonesian Muslims – laypeople and leaders alike. There is no ambivalence this time – just outright condemnation of terrorism and violence in the name of Islam. For example, Abu Bakar Bashyir, a cleric alleged to have been a spiritual leader of JI, was scheduled to speak over the weekend in East Java, but the public there refused to allow him to speak, on the grounds that he would simply stir things up in an unhelpful way. Spokespeople for the large mainstream Muslim organizations NU and Muhammadiyah immediately issued statements rejecting the violence and terrorism – but perhaps more telling are public statements issued by leaders of Hizbut Tahrir and even a JI lawyer, disassociating their organizations from the violence and condemning terrorism.

These are the things that give us hope – Indonesians themselves are responding with sadness and anger, but with a rational measured stance borne out of the experience of years of living with terrorism. As Indonesia learned from the economic crisis of the’90s, and so was better able to deal with the economic crisis of 2008-09, so there is hope now amid the despair, an indication that it has learned lessons from those terror-ridden years that will stand it in good stead this time around. And so Indonesians will grieve at this violence, but they will pick themselves up and continue the positive, progressive tack they have charted out for their country in recent years.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Indonesia
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions


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