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Communal tension a prime security threat
Sidney Jones, Jakarta
The security outlook for Indonesia in 2008 is reasonably good. The biggest danger lies not in terrorism, separatism, election disputes, or any external threat, but in poorly managed communal tensions that have the potential to fray this country’s social fabric.
Most extremist groups here have concluded that indiscriminate attacks on civilians are counterproductive, but they have not given up on local targets, even if their capacity to go after them is weak.
The execution of the three Bali bombers is likely to generate anger, and in a statement posted on the Internet in mid-December, Mukhlas exhorted his followers to show their support by turning out in massive numbers for his burial. If there were to be retaliation for the executions, it likely would be against Indonesian government installations or personnel, but careful security arrangements should be able to prevent any incident.
(Despite the court decision earlier this year upholding the constitutionality of the death penalty, the Indonesian parliament would do well to abolish it. Quite apart from the human rights arguments against capital punishment, its politicized use in this country too often serves to fuel rather than ease social tensions.)
The weakness of salafi jihadi groups at the moment does not mean that they are on a slow steady path to eradication. On the contrary, Jamaah Islamiyah is trying to sterilize and consolidate its ranks; various Darul Islam groups are reaching out to disgruntled members of other organizations; and new groups are emerging and recruiting members, particularly in Java.
The government needs to be thinking not just about how to “deradicalize” about-to-be-released prisoners but how to provide options other than jihadi career paths to children in vulnerable areas who are now in their early teens.
Separatism has not gone away but neither is it a threat to Indonesian stability. The conflict in Aceh is no longer military but political, over how much authority Jakarta will cede. There are security problems in the province, some of them linked to the problems of poorly administered reintegration funding, but they do not appear to have the potential to trigger renewed fighting. In that sense, the peace is secure. Local politics will heat up before the 2009 elections, but isolated incidents of violence are not likely to spread.
In Maluku, there will always be a small group of RMS (Republic of the South Moluccas) supporters who raise their flag on April 25 in Haruku and other traditional strongholds, but Jakarta’s fear of separatism there is overblown – the spectacle of pro-RMS dancers breaching presidential security in Ambon earlier this year notwithstanding. Hostility between the TNI and police in Maluku (and elsewhere) is a greater danger to the population than anything the RMS could dream up.
Papua will remain a problem in 2008, but the danger will not come from the OPM or outside agitators. It will continue to be from the cumulative impact of years of neglect of basic social services, unprosecuted past human rights violations, rapacious security forces and uncontrolled migration from elsewhere in Indonesia, with a divisive and unnecessary process of pemekaran – administrative fragmentation – further roiling the waters. Governor Bas Suebu and his overstretched advisers are doing their best to move forward, but the obstacles they face are enormous.
The Yudhoyono government is not helping matters by restricting access of journalists and NGOs. The stories that come out of the interior will not be pretty, but they could expose some of the sources of Papuan resentment that in turn could lead to better policy-making.
Authorities at all levels of government need to understand the social, political and environmental risks that palm oil investment can bring; they should use 2008 to undertake a thorough analysis of the social costs thus far of the Sinar Mas enterprise, now scheduled for major expansion.
Poso is a place to watch in 2008. Largely calm since police operations in January 2007, it remains a place where unresolved grievances could still come to the surface and, like Aceh and Papua, where poorly monitored funds thrown at a problem can create as many tensions as they solve.
Corruption of humanitarian funds has been a huge issue in Poso; with additional funding given to prisoners and ex-prisoners involved in the conflict with no clear criteria for how recipients are selected and no accounting for the funds, the likelihood of new resentments is high.
As far as 2008 local elections go, one that may carry a risk of trouble is the East Java governor’s race, where the impact of the LAPINDO mudflow disaster will be an issue. But in general, outbreaks of election-related violence have been easily localized and there is no reason to believe the East Java race will be any different.
Likewise, while the maneuvering for the national 2009 elections may bring an increase in rent-a-mob demonstrations, using various economic grievances as a theme, there is nothing on the horizon that suggests a potential for the phenomenon Indonesia most dreads, urban riots.
That leaves one big unresolved issue facing the country in 2008: Communal tensions. Protecting minority rights may be the government’s biggest security challenge, and there are various ways in which its neglect of this fundamental function is undermining the national slogan, “unity in diversity”.
Attacks by local Muslim vigilante groups on “illegal” churches, the beleaguered Ahmadiyah community and “deviant” sects picked up in 2007 and are likely to continue in 2008. Police have made few arrests in the face of mob action on the part of groups like the Anti-Apostasy Alliance (AGAP) in West Java.
Not only did the Yudhoyono government make no serious effort to punish the attackers or stress the importance of freedom of religion, but instead it endorsed the views of the conservative Indonesian Ulama Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) that such religious groups themselves are a greater threat than their attackers because they provoke community hostility.
It is not clear why religious vigilantism has been such a problem in West Java – one theory is that aggressive Protestant evangelicalism there has made inroads in strongly Muslim communities, creating fears of “Christianization“– but Muslims considered “deviant” have been victims almost as often.
The problem is that the success of vigilantes at a local level has national implications and can encourage similar attacks in Lombok, where the persecution of Ahmadis has been unremitting, or West Sulawesi, where the risk of local political conflict taking on a communal dimension remains high.
Once communal tensions are inflamed, they can be exacerbated by local power struggles. (That said, since direct local elections were instituted in 2005, Indonesian voters consistently have rejected extremist candidates.)
The government has also failed to roll back local regulations that discriminate against non-Muslims, when it has a clear legal mandate to do so, under both the Indonesian constitution and the decentralization laws that left religion as the responsibility of the central government. The result is a palpable sense among many non-Muslims, in North Sulawesi, Bali, Papua and elsewhere, that they are becoming second-class citizens in their own country.
In Manokwari in early 2007, that sense was one factor leading the local district council to propose, in an equally reprehensible move, that the city be designated a “Christian city” with some restrictions on other faiths. The proposal was not adopted but it led to efforts by some hardline Muslim groups to scope out the possibility for stirring up communal conflict there, and the story is not over.
Playing religious favorites or tacitly endorsing one version of the truth is a dangerous game in a country as diverse as Indonesia. Unless Jakarta takes a tougher stance against vigilantes and in favor of religious freedom and minority rights, internal security problems are likely to increase.
The writer is Senior Adviser International Crisis Group.