Wed, 02 Aug 2000

An act of cowardice

The bomb attack outside the Philippine embassy in Jakarta on Tuesday may have heralded the arrival of international terrorism in Indonesia. Or it could mark an attempt to internationalize Indonesia's domestic conflicts, of which there are too many.

Whether an international or domestic form of terrorism, the attack, which killed two persons and injured several others, including Philippine ambassador Leonides Caday, was a despicable act of cowardice. The attack was clearly designed not only to kill and inflict damage, but also to intimidate, create confusion and anxiety. This is a terrorist attack that could stoke suspicions and lead to more conflicts, either between groups within Indonesia, or between Indonesia and its neighbors.

With no one claiming responsibility, the nation has been left guessing about the perpetrators and their motives. Some of the speculations and theories that were voiced by politicians bordered dangerously close to slanderous accusations because they were supported by not so much as a shred of evidence. But then, that was probably the intention of the attack.

One thing that the bombing demonstrates is that Indonesia, with the seemingly endless political, social and economic problems it faces, has become highly vulnerable to terrorism.

Indonesia's political condition is very fragile, with violent conflicts in Aceh, Maluku and the Central Sulawesi town of Poso continuing unabated. In this environment, there are bound to be groups that are not content with the way things are developing. If confusion and disorder were the ultimate objectives of the attack, then we must also include groups with ties to the New Order regime of former president Soeharto as possible culprits. These are the same groups that the government says are responsible for provoking the sectarian conflicts in Maluku.

Indonesia has become an ideal arena for terrorist operations, whether domestic or international, because of lax law enforcement. There have been many other provocative acts, including bomb attacks, which remain unresolved to this day. They reflect the poor skills of the police, especially when it comes to intelligence operations and investigations of important cases.

All the police have with regard to these cases are hunches but never the evidence needed to prosecute the perpetrators. We know that the bomb blast in a church in Medan in May was intended to foment religious conflicts. We also know that the blast in the Attorney General's Office in June was aimed at intimidating the government's corruption investigation of Soeharto. Neither case has been resolved in court and the police investigation of Tuesday's bomb attack could end up the same way.

The major reason why Indonesia is vulnerable to terrorist attacks is the waning authority and credibility of the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid. Although the President has made some inroads in promoting free speech since his election in October, the country seems to have degenerated into new cycles of violence, compounding problems which he inherited from his predecessors. As much as we sympathize with the President for the complexity of the problems he is dealing with, his failure to come to grips with the big problems raise questions about his ability to govern. The President's authority and credibility to govern deteriorates with each new unresolved problem.

Tuesday's bomb attack, the most powerful to date and striking right here in Jakarta, is a major test of the credibility and authority of the police, and for the administration. This is a case that neither can afford to squander, lest they encourage more terrorist attacks and at the same time lose the trust and confidence of the people, and of the international community.