The barbaric and cowardly killing of predominantly Australian tourists in Bali on October 12 raises a number of important questions for both Indonesia and Australia.
The bombing took place at about 11.30 pm on a Saturday night, in a resort frequented by foreigners who were both defenceless and unsuspecting. The earlier vague upgrade in security warnings to US citizens suggests that the Americans, at least, knew something was in the wind; but nobody could have anticipated the horror which was about to unfold.
Three factors about Bali may be significant: it is a destination for Australian holiday-makers; on a predominantly Hindu island, in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation of Indonesia; and additionally, Bali is regarded as politically aligned with President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is a tolerant Muslim, rather than the Islamic parties or the Indonesian military.
This may indicate that President Megawati, as well as Australians, were its targets.
The evidence that the bombing was carried out by Islamic fanatics comes not only from the confession extracted from a captured al Qaeda operative, Omar Al Faruq, to US interrogators last September.
Faruq, who is of Middle East origin, revealed that a new wave of terrorism was to take place in Asia from September, and confirmed that an Islamic cleric from Java, Abu Bakar Bashir, is the spiritual leader of the terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah.
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), or Islamic Group, is a separatist movement dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic state embracing Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Links have been clearly established by various intelligence agencies which connect the activities of Jemaah Islamiyah with al Qaeda.
Last December, intelligence officials in Singapore and Malaysia seized surveillance videos of US, British, Israeli and Australian facilities in Singapore, being targeted by Jemaah Islamiah terrorists. Fifteen members of Jemaah Islamiah were arrested trying to buy 21 tonnes of explosives for truck bombs.
JI was also believed responsible for funding bombings of the metro in Manila, capital of the Philippines, which killed 27 people and injured 90 on December 30, 2000.
They are suspected of organising street bombings in both Manila and the southern city of Zamboanga, almost simultaneously with the Bali bombing.
For the past four years, Islamic extremists have been engaged in a war with Indonesian Christians. The US Commission on International Religious Liberty recently reported:
“In the Moluccan Islands, brutal sectarian fighting between Muslims and Christians erupted in May 1999, resulting in the deaths of approximately 9,000 people. In the spring of 2000, a group of extremist Muslim fighters from outside the islands called Laskar Jihad, arrived in the Moluccas and raised the fighting to more deadly levels, particularly among Christians.
“By October 2000, there were reports of people being forced to convert to Islam or be killed. On the island of Sulawesi, fighting between Christians and Muslims that has occurred intermittently since 1998 threatened to develop into a full-scale massacre after Laskar Jihad members arrived on the island in July 2001.”
The US State Department has reported eyewitness testimony that active and retired military (TNI) personnel stood by and even participated in the torture or execution of Christians who refused to convert to Islam on the islands of Ambon, Kesui, Buru and Seram.
Additionally, some TNI units maintain longstanding resentment at the role which Australia played in East Timor in 1999, and have their own reasons for wanting to exact revenge for the humiliation which the TNI suffered in East Timor’s 1999 vote for separation from Indonesia.
In light of all this, it was truly extraordinary that in recent interviews with the Australian media shortly after the Bali bombing, the Indonesian police chief explicitly denied that JI was operating in Indonesia.
Equally curious was his statement flatly denying any possible involvement of the Indonesian armed forces, TNI, in the Bali atrocity. At that stage in the investigations – when no one had been arrested in relation to the bombing, but there were suggestions that military-style explosives had been used in the blast – no one could be excluded from the list of suspects.
His statements may have been intended to avert the risk of rioting in the streets or rebellion within the army. But at what price?
Like other countries in South-East Asia, Australia depends on the Indonesian Government cracking down on Islamic extremists in Indonesia. This job cannot be done from Canberra, Singapore or Manila; but until the Bali tragedy, the Indonesian Government had shown no interest.
While President Megawati is widely perceived as being ineffective and indecisive, she has no reason to want either militant Islam or a return to army rule. It is therefore important that she be given time, assistance and encouragement to bring to account those who were responsible for the Bali bombing.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council