Sat, 22 Feb 2003

Indonesia lashes out at prolonged travel warnings

Berni K. Moestafa, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The government criticized several countries for maintaining their travel advisories warning against travel to Indonesia amid the looming war in Iraq, concerned by the prolonged uncertainty the extension has caused.

Spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Marty Natalegawa said on Friday that the travel advisories were in response to the Oct. 12 Bali bombing, and that Indonesia had since diminished the risk of more terrorist attacks.

"Now what we are hearing is that the warnings are related to a possible war in Iraq," said Marty during a media briefing.

Australia, Britain and Japan warned their citizens against traveling to Indonesia due to fears of a repeat of last year's bomb explosions in Bali that killed at least 202 people, mainly foreign tourists.

The United States issued a warning in the lead up to last year's first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Around half of its embassy staff were sent home due to threats made against the embassy at that time.

But these countries have since praised Indonesia for the progress made in reducing terrorist threats. Police arrested dozens of suspects behind the Bali bombing, and uncovered the then largely unknown regional terrorist network Jamaah Islamiyah (JI).

Analysts now warn of a backlash against Westerners here, citing Indonesian anger about the planned war in Iraq.

Britain and Australia are staunch supporters of the U.S.-led war campaign.

So far reactions toward the possible war have been tame, marked by peaceful street protests and sharp comments from public figures and politicians.

Last Tuesday Australia dismissed Indonesia's request to change the travel warning in its advisory. Canberra did not explain whether the travel warning was related to the impending war in Iraq.

Japan planned to downgrade its travel advisory by the end of this month, but canceled the move citing an unfavorable outlook on the international front.

"We start to question how long this will last if they keep shifting the criteria," Marty said. "That is like trying to play soccer when the goal post is moved from side to side."

If the security concern stems from the Bali bombing, Indonesia has responded to the attack in the way that was expected, he said.

But if this has to do with Iraq, than this isn't just Indonesia's problem," he said, referring to worldwide antiwar protests in major cities.

As many of these protests were bigger than the ones here, Marty questioned the reason for fearing a backlash in Indonesia.

"London, Rome and even Australia (had bigger demonstrations) I don't know whether there will be travel warnings against them," he said.

"We do, however, realize that in the end it is the responsibility of every country to ensure that its citizens abroad are safe," Marty added.

The Australian government came under fire at home right after the Bali bombing, for failing to warn its citizens about the possibility of such attacks. Australia lost 88 nationals and Britain 23 in the blasts.

Still, travel warnings have put a lid on efforts to revive Bali's tourism industry. The island accounts for about one third of the revenue from Indonesia's tourism sector, the biggest foreign exchange earner after oil and gas.