Chaos in Indonesia commands attention

TURMOIL IN INDONESIA is surging onto American radar screens in Washington, D.C., and at the U.S. Pacific Command's headquarters in Hawaii, where an officer with access to comprehensive intelligence lamented what he called "a chaotic situation."

Particularly troubling are terrorist organizations, notably the Jemaah Islamiyah, despite the arrest of 130 suspects since a bombing in Bali in October 2002 that killed 202 people. The threat of terror, plus other ills, has prevented Indonesia, with the world's largest Muslim population, from emerging as a leader of a moderate Islam that many Muslims - and the United States - would like.


That was underscored Tuesday when a bomb exploded at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, killing at least 13 people and wounding more than 100. Two Americans, several Australians and other foreigners were hurt, according to the Associated Press and CNN. A specialist on terror, Rohan Gunaratna, was quoted as saying the blast had all the marks of Jemaah Islamiyah, "who aim to inflict mass casualties."

The chairman of a congressional subcommittee on Asian affairs, Iowa Republican Rep. Jim Leach, asserted several weeks ago that in Indonesia, "extremist networks are larger, more capable, and more active than was previously believed." Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of U.S. forces in Asia, agreed: "Indonesia is a key battleground in the struggle against terrorism and radicalism."


Adding to the chaos are:

A weak performance by President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose administration has been inept and corroded by scandal. Moreover, the political opposition is in a shambles and has failed so far to produce a likely replacement.

Separatist movements in Aceh, at the western end of the archipelago, and in Papua, at the eastern end. Elsewhere, religious frictions and ethnic violence are tearing at the national fabric.

Soaring piracy. The International Maritime Bureau in London has reported a worldwide increase of 37 percent in pirate attacks during the first half of 2003, fully one-quarter of which - 64 attacks - took place near Indonesia.

Backsliding by the Indonesian army, perhaps the most cohesive force in the country. It had begun to reform but has returned to abusing human rights and running illegal mining and lumbering businesses, and prostitution.

U.S. military officers contend that they are hindered by congressional restrictions from seeking to persuade the Indonesian army to change. John Haseman, a retired colonel and former defense attachM-i in Jakarta, has said that America's International Military Education and Training program flourished in Indonesia from 1989 to 1992 but was then halted by Congress.

"We are now dealing with armed forces who have no window on the West," Mr. Haseman said. Indonesian officers "may never agree with all of our teachings," he said, "but at the very least it provided contacts and some insight for the Indonesian military on Western thinking."

"People we know," he concluded, "are easier to work with than those we don't know."


A critic of Indonesia, Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, has opposed the military educational program because "there appears to be no interest in meaningful reform within the Indonesian military." He argued: "Commitment at the highest levels is what it takes to turn this relationship around."

Besides looking to Indonesia for help in the war on terror, the Pacific Command hoped to see the emergence of a democracy as part of a defensive bulwark against China if Beijing seeks to dominate Asia and to drive the United States from the Western Pacific.

That rampart would be anchored in South Asia by India, which has long been suspicious of the Chinese and has fought several border skirmishes with them, and in Northeast Asia by Japan, which has begun to shed its pacifist cocoon and is worried about a long-term threat from China.

One officer said the Chinese "have been working overtime" to gain influence in Jakarta to preclude Indonesia from allying itself with the United States.

The inability of President Megawati to confront Indonesia's many disorders since she took office in June 2001 has caused dismay. "A broad pessimism about the Megawati administration has increasingly crept into newspaper commentary in Indonesia and the wider international press," said Anthony Smith of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

In a recent assessment, Mr. Smith said Ms. Megawati is seen principally as the daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno. (Sukarnoputri means "daughter of Sukarno.") "Her appeal," Mr. Smith wrote, "is based solely on her lineage, not what she can offer as a political leader."


Scandal has tainted the attorney general, M. A. Rachman, who neglected to declare a luxurious house as an asset, and the vice president, Hamzah Haz, has flirted with terrorist leaders. Ms. Megawati has appeased rather than controlled the army and failed to bring the economy out of the doldrums.

Moreover, Mr. Smith said, "the opposition is in complete disarray and currently unable to mount a serious challenge to her presidency."

With no relief in sight, little wonder U.S. radar screens are filled with glum images.

Richard Halloran is an author who specializes in East Asia and the U.S. military. He lives in Honolulu.