Tue, 14 May 2002

Militant Islam poses test for Mega

Lee Kim Chew, The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

The law has finally caught up with Islamic militant Jafaar Umar Thalib for inciting violence in the Maluku islands, but there is no certainty that justice will be served.

The commander of Laskar Jihad, a paramilitary group of Muslim fanatics, could still wriggle free with help from powerful backers in the Islamic parties and the military, skeptics say.

Jafaar was arrested in May last year for inciting religious hatred but was released after 18 days when a court ruled that his detention was illegal.

Sukardi Rinakit, head of the Center for Political Studies, a Jakarta think-tank, says that Jafaar's protectors in Vice- President Hamzah Haz, leader of the country's largest Islamic party, and military elements will shield him.

Also, the police do not consider him a terrorist.

For two years, Laskar Jihad fighters, whose avowed aim is to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state, had virtually a free hand to wage war against Christians in the Maluku islands.

His arrest two weeks ago stems from several factors.

Prof. Arief Budiman, head of Indonesian studies at the University of Melbourne, thinks that United States pressure on President Megawati Soekarnoputri has forced her to take action.

More importantly, Megawati now feels confident enough to rein in the Islamic militants, a move that displeases her nominal Muslim allies in the government.

She is relying on her close ties with the military, which itself is regaining its clout, Prof. Arief says.

The timing of Jafaar's arrest coincides with Washington's new interest in repairing its frayed ties with the Indonesian military.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the Bush administration is making strenuous efforts to cultivate moderate Islamic countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz says there is an urgent need to close "a dangerous gap between the West and the Muslim world".

Wolfowitz, who served as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1989, told a World Affairs Council meeting in Monterey, California, earlier this month: "Indonesia is another important example of a nation seeking to build a democratic government based on a culture of inclusion and participation. But it does so in the face of severe economic obstacles...

"If we are serious about opposing terrorism, we also must be serious about helping Indonesia in its quest for a stable democracy and a stable economy."

With the war on terrorism high on its agenda, Washington is ready and willing to extend more aid to Jakarta, but under the right conditions.

Megawati has to be seen to be taking concrete measures to crack down on the extreme Islamic groups which are avowedly anti- American.

This is the least that she has to do to persuade Washington's lawmakers to lift the sanctions imposed on the Indonesian military after the East Timor fracas.

Initially reluctant, she now appears to be moving in this direction.

Last Tuesday, the Indonesians signed an anti-terrorism pact to share intelligence and collaborate with Malaysia and the Philippines.

The Indonesians have to show they are taking such pro-active steps, as they have been criticized for being lax in dealing with the problem. Like Malaysia, they need to be on the right side in the global war against terror.

Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Abdul Razak cited the arrest of 62 Islamic militants, exchange of intelligence with the U.S., and the provision of military training and overflight facilities for the Americans as examples of cooperation with Washington during his visit to the Pentagon earlier this month.

Malaysia-U.S. military ties were "at its all-time high today", he enthused. This is what the Americans want to replicate with Indonesia.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld disclosed that some 1,500 Malaysians had taken part in a training program for senior military officers in the U.S. He wants the Indonesians to resume their participation in the program.

All this indicates that it is a propitious time now for Indonesia, which is anxious to get U.S. military aid, to normalize relations with Washington.

But the attempts to patch things up could still be snagged by the politicking in Jakarta.

Since its creation two years ago, Laskar Jihad has been a willing instrument of Vice-President Hamzah's Islamic party and rogue military elements to promote their own agendas.

Laskar Jihad's well-armed fighters, numbering several thousands, operate as shock troops, much like the militiamen used by the Indonesian military to put down the pro-independence East Timorese in 1999.

They have been involved in the sectarian violence in Poso, Sulawesi, and earlier this year, some of their fighters were spotted in Papua giving military training to pro-Jakarta militiamen to fight the mostly Christian Papuan separatists.

Protected by those who want to destabilize the government in Jakarta, Laskar Jihad militants will continue to fuel the sectarian conflicts between Muslims and Christians as long as the central authorities remain divided.

Not just Jafaar's arrest, President Megawati will also have to disband Laskar Jihad, disarm its fighters and get them out of the Maluku islands.

This may not happen, given her trademark passivity and minimalist approach when confronted with troublesome problems.

Washington's policy-makers will have to be patient as the Indonesians grapple with them in their own way.

Unless Megawati can do a deal with the former ruling Golkar party to fortify her position ahead of the 2004 presidential election, she will not be able to ditch the Islamic parties in her government.

How she tackles the threat posed by militant Islam and the likes of Laskar Jihad will be a test of her resolve. She could lose big if she prevaricates.