Indonesia's smoke and mirrors


In calling for the banning of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the wake of the second Bali bombing, Howard, Downer and the head of the AFP, Mick Keelty, show little understanding of Indonesia.

It is not in the interest of Indonesia’s ruling Javanese elite to have the organisation banned. Since Western intelligence agencies identified JI as a target in the ‘War on Terror’ and enlisted Indonesia as a key ally in the fight against terrorism, the Indonesian police and military have received large amounts of overseas aid. It is therefore in their interest to keep the threat of terrorism bubbling away, and every so often bring it to the boil or, at least, do little to prevent this from happening.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Pushing to have JI banned will only ensure that the Indonesian police and their political masters, the military (TNI), do all they can to avoid establishing JI involvement in acts of terror, and it may see some previously unknown group or organisation used as a strawman.

The comprehensive and important SBS Dateline program of 12 October, put together by David O’Shea over a five year period, demonstrated the complex and multi-layered relationship between the TNI, the police and JI. (The transcript of the program was pulled from the Dateline site without explanation but is available here.)

JI, and Islamic fundamentalism in general, is also seen by the TNI as a useful tool in its long term aim of returning to the position of power it enjoyed under the Suharto regime.

President Suharto supported the pre-eminent role of the TNI in Indonesia affairs. With his downfall in 1998, and as the Megawati Government brought operations more directly under the control of parliament, the TNI lost power. However, because of widespread fear about ‘terrorism’, the organisation is now regaining lost ground.

To strengthen their own hand (and that of the police) and weaken the authority of the parliament, the TNI has sought to position fundamentalist Islamic organisations as a threat to internal stability, requiring state intervention. It is a blueprint that worked for the army and President Sukarno in the mid-1960s where the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was used to gain power and then, with the approval of the US, eliminated by the army.

If the TNI regains power in Indonesia, the US is unlikely to use its influence to prevent the crushing of Islamic fundamentalists in Indonesia by the TNI. However, the problem with the current scenario is the growing grassroots support that JI and allied groups and collectives enjoy in Indonesia. To eliminate fundamentalists in the archipelago would be nigh impossible, a lot of blood would be spilled, and it would likely result in a strengthening of the fundamentalist base. The TNI is aware of this and also of the possibility of a split, or splits, within the TNI if the blood letting got out of hand. It is having to make its moves very cautiously.

JI is a multi-headed, multi-layered organisation. But even to refer to it as an organisation already puts it in a conceptual box where it does not fit or belong. Cut off the head, legs and arms of JI, then cut the body in half, and you will still have JI in one form or another. It is tilting at windmills to advocate or believe that it can be destroyed organisationally.

However, it has been difficult for our underexposed, unimaginative and therefore defensive and stubborn politicians and police to understand the nature of JI: its appeal; the fact that organisationally it exists in hearts and minds rather than in structures; and its usefulness to the long term strategies of the TNI and the Indonesian police.

The military controls the timber and mining concessions, and take a cut of most legitimate business activities in Indonesia. To tackle JI it will first be necessary to loosen the hold that the TNI has over the archipelago, and to break the corruption that feeds the corporate life of the TNI. And that is a monumental task.

In the short term, it would be wise for the AFP to cease kidding itself that it has a meaningful relationship with the Indonesian police. Deep seated animosity toward Australia based on the sad and sorry tale of East Timor will ensure that the TNI will do whatever it can to undermine the relationship. Australia was seen as duplicitous during the Indonesian takeover of East Timor, and this was capped by the on-again off-again diplomacy of Howard and Downer over intervention in 1999.

The AFP, through the Australian parliament, needs to outline the nature of the fraught relationship with the Indonesian police which led to the ill-considered and ruthless sacrifice of the Bali Nine to the Indonesian justice system.

Despite the deployment of AFP forensic experts at bomb sites, which has received much media hype, the AFP have not profited from the relationship they have established with the Indonesian police and associated security forces.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.