Sat, 29 Nov 2003

Old crime, new crisis

Of all the human rights abuses committed under the authoritarian former Indonesian president Soeharto, why has one military massacre of Muslim civilians been singled out for accountability, almost two decades after the fact? The answer is as much entwined in the present day threat posed by extremist Islam - and its terrorist offshoots - as in popular demands to right past wrongs.

On September 12, 1984, Indonesia's notorious special forces, Kopassus, opened fire on a crowd of protesting civilians in Jakarta's impoverished port district of Tanjung Priok. Ostensibly, the crowd's anger was provoked by a group of soldiers who had defiled a local mosque by not removing their shoes. The real fuel, however, was resentment over official corruption and misrule. Under Soeharto, all political dissent was brutally oppressed. Much unhappiness was channelled into the mosques. The death and injury of perhaps hundreds of devout Muslims at Tanjung Priok, and the riots and arrests that followed, formed a deep scar on Indonesian society.

A human rights trial which opened in Jakarta last month dredges up the bloody past of a cast of serving military officers implicated in the massacre, including the Kopassus commander, Major-General Sriyanto Muntarsan. So abusive was Soeharto's rule, however, that thousands of serious crimes against humanity will forever go unpunished. The only other charges to have been laid relate to Indonesia's military occupation of East Timor. This suggests the Tanjung Priok case, no matter how deserving and symbolic, is not just about retrospective justice.

For the government of President Megawati Soekarnoputri, Indonesia's Islamic opposition parties represent a serious political challenge. Ms Megawati, although a Muslim, rejects the Islamic identity these parties peddle in favour of tolerance and respect for Indonesia's religious and ethnic minorities. The US- led "war on terrorism" has made her political balancing act especially difficult. This is not because Indonesia's majority Muslims oppose harsh security measures against terrorists inside Indonesia. Rather, it is because of deep public unease over Western stereotypes of Islamic terrorism, which many believe tar peaceful, moderate Muslims with the extremist brush. This perceived humiliation of Islam is buoying Ms Megawati's Islamist political opponents.

Ms Megawati's recent criticism at the United Nations of the "prolonged, unjust attitude exhibited by big powers" towards nations which profess Islam was an attempt to revive confidence in an Islamic identity. While Ms Megawati must continue to crush terrorism, she must also engender respect for Indonesia's legitimate, moderate Muslim majority. Justice, however overdue, for the victims of Tanjung Priok can only help this cause.

The Sydney Morning Herald.

Banking for the world's poor

Microcredit -- tiny business loans extended to poor people in developing countries -- is a proven development strategy, expected to benefit 100 million of the world's poorest families by 2005. But the world's poor desperately need access to a broader range of financial services -- microfinance is the more apt term -- to improve their living standards.

The staggering flows of money sent home by migrant workers are a case in point. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates that remittances from Mexicans working in the United States this year will total US$14.5 billion, more than Mexico earns from tourism or foreign investment.

Too often, however, those who get the money are victimized by rapacious fees and exchange rates. Governments can help by reducing transaction fees, but what the recipients need most is a place to put their money. In many countries, the poor, especially in rural areas, lack access to commercial banks. Mainstream banks need to make an effort to extend their reach. Until they do, established microlending organizations can help fill the void in ways that encourage private saving and, equally important, enlarge development capital in poor communities.

Stanley Fischer, the noted economist and former deputy director of the International Monetary Fund who is now a vice chairman at Citigroup, reminded those attending a microfinance conference earlier this month that during the 1990s East Asian financial crisis, a large Indonesian bank suffered nearly 100 percent default rates in its corporate portfolio, but only 2 percent in its microfinance portfolio. Fischer, once a microcredit skeptic, is on the board of Women's World Banking, which sponsored the conference to drum up Wall Street interest in microfinance.

Large global banks are starting to think of microfinance as a viable business, not just a trendy charity. Deutsche Bank, for instance, is about to open a $50 million fund to provide capital for microfinance organizations. A real microfinance revolution could further empower the world's poor.

-- The New York Times

Terror in Istanbul and beyond

The murderous car bomb attacks in Istanbul at the weekend will achieve none of their apparent political objectives. Turkey is the most secular of Islamic nations and was possibly targeted for that reason. It will not be distancing itself from either the United States or Israel, with both of which its ties are longstanding and unusually cordial. Turkey is more likely to remain close to the U.S. and seek, among other things, an abatement of criticism of its stern treatment of its Kurdish minority, whose defiance of its authority Istanbul customarily describes as its own terrorist problem.

Not that those behind Saturday's bombings were of Kurdish origin. Rather, a radical Islamic group linked to al-Qaeda, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, has claimed responsibility for the bombings outside two synagogues in Istanbul which killed 18 Muslims and six Jews. It threatens further attacks in other countries, including Australia.

The group says "Jews around the world will regret that their ancestors ever thought about occupying the land of Muslims". It says the U.S. and its allies must "put an end to the war they are waging against Islam and Muslims in the name of the war on terror and withdraw from all Muslim lands desecrated by Jews and Americans, including Jerusalem and Kashmir". It also calls for the release of all detainees held at Guantanamo Bay and of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the spiritual guide of Egypt's Jamaah Islamiyah, who is jailed in the U.S.

It backs these demands with threats: "We say to the criminal Bush and his Arabs and Western hangers-on -- in particular Britain, Italy, Australia and Japan -- that the cars of death will not stop at Baghdad, Riyadh, Istanbul, Nasiriyah, Jakarta and the rest until you see them with your own eyes in the middle of the capital of this era's tyrant, America."

There is not the remotest chance that the wild demands accompanying these obscene threats will be met. The first response in all countries under threat will be to heighten vigilance and increase counter-terrorist measures. That is the only sensible immediate response. In Australia that means, especially, taking special care to protect potential targets in the Jewish community.

That is not to say that reflexive, defensive measures are enough. For the long haul, the even harder task of achieving peace and stability in the Middle East, to remove the conditions in which such hatred breeds, must continue.

-- The Sydney Morning Herald