Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Day After

Posted by John
Yesterday’s bombings at Jakarta’s JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels killed at least eight people and injured more than 50. During the last 24 hours, the world has recoiled from the same haunting images that have dominated the news here: police patrolling amid shredded metal and shattered glass, plumes of smoke shrouding streets, and paramedics carrying blood-strewn corpses out of the rubble.

For Indonesians, the scene had a disturbing feeling of familiarity. The country endured four major terrorist bombings from 2002 to 2005, when the fundamentalist Jemaah Islamiyah organization killed more than 200 people in strikes against Western targets in Jakarta and Bali.

After four years of calm, Indonesians entertained hope that the nightmare of terrorism had ended. Instead, they woke up yesterday to news that bombs once again rocked Jakarta. Once again, foreign visitors were among the victims. Attackers even returned to the same Marriott where a car bomb killed 12 people six years ago.

The Ritz-Carlton and Marriott, regular gathering places for foreign businessmen and diplomats in the upscale Kuningan district, proved particularly inviting targets. Forces critical of Indonesia’s acceptance of international influences see them as symbols of Western encroachment. At least four of the people killed in the bombing were foreigners, including a New Zealand businessman who headed Indonesia’s largest cement company and an Australian mining executive.

During our three weeks in Jakarta earlier this summer, the city was taking security matters very seriously. Guards inspected the trunks and undercarriages of cars entering parking lots for shopping malls, hotels or government buildings. Concrete barriers shielded buildings from possible car bombs. And customers walked through metal detectors before entering Western-owned restaurants like McDonald’s.

With these stricter measures in place, people looking to strike targets in Jakarta would need to alter their strategy. Early reports indicate the suspected bombers did precisely that—instead of relying on a car bomb, the perpetrators checked into the Marriott as guests and assembled their bomb within the hotel.

These initial reports also suggest the bombers belong to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the terrorist group that conducted attacks in Indonesia earlier this decade and has coordinated efforts with Al Qaeda. Several JI members have been arrested and executed in recent years, but the group retains the ability to strike targets throughout Southeast Asia.

The timing of the attacks seems precisely calculated to disrupt political life in Indonesia. Last week Indonesians turned out to re-elect President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) with 60 percent of the vote. SBY’s first term witnessed economic growth, a sustained anticorruption campaign and the absence of terrorist violence. Now SBY’s domestic reforms will take a backseat as the focus turns exclusively to the government’s response to the bombing and its efforts to capture leading members of Jemaah Islamiyah. To the consternation of many in Indonesia, Noordin Mohammad Top, the Malaysian JI leader who masterminded the 2003 bombing of the Marriott, remains at large.

In a country that relies heavily on international investment and tourism, terrorism has deterred foreign companies from expanding business operations and dissuaded vacationers from taking trips to Bali’s beaches. The Australian government has already issued a new Indonesian travel warning its citizens, who were prominent among the casualties in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings.

Yesterday’s attack has already caused at least one prominent cancellation—the English soccer team Manchester United called off Monday’s game in Jakarta against Indonesian soccer all-stars. The match may be rescheduled in neighboring Malaysia, but Indonesians will be deprived of the chance to see their county’s best players square off against international soccer stars like Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen in Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno Stadium. The cancellation will have an economic impact as well, with hotel rooms remaining vacant and food and souvenir vendors losing customers.

The Manchester United visit had been heavily promoted throughout soccer-crazy Indonesia, with humorous TV advertisements (below) and red-and-yellow United billboards throughout Indonesian cities. Several media outlets reported that some Manchester United team members planned to stay at the Ritz-Carlton that was bombed. Their cancellation is clearly not the most tragic part of the Jakarta attacks, but serves as an example that elements of Indonesia’s quest for a quiet, normal national life remain unfulfilled.

For all the horror that yesterday’s bombings caused, they must be placed in the context of the vast and diverse country where they occurred. Since Jakarta occupies the center of the Indonesian political, business and cultural universe, the shockwaves of the attacks were felt through the archipelago. The national government will certainly have to focus its resources on antiterrorism, possibly at the expense of worthy antipoverty and anticorruption programs that could have a beneficial impact throughout the islands.

Yet here in Medan, more than 800 miles away from Jakarta, life continues as usual for most individuals. People organize their lives around their local neighborhoods—buying and selling food at the local market, drinking iced tea with friends in the corner cafe, and playing badminton. None of these activities are likely to attract the attention of terrorists. That’s true even in a major regional capital like Medan with more than 2 million people—residents have ties to Jakarta, but life remains mostly self-contained. Detachment from Jakarta is even more prominent in smaller villages throughout Indonesia that have fewer than a hundred residents, most of whom will never travel to the capital city.

While Indonesians have died in this and other recent terrorist attacks, the bombings of luxury hotels, embassies and tourist nightclubs are aimed more at foreigners visiting Indonesia rather than Indonesians themselves. It’s a pernicious strategy that has the potential to isolate people eager to welcome new visitors and learn more about the world.

In spite of terrorist attacks, anti-Western sentiments have little currency among Indonesians, and everyone we’ve met has asked us about our country and our visit. Perfect strangers have welcomed Danielle into their homes to talk about their lives, their problems and their political opinions and expect nothing in return. This hospitality won’t grab headlines, but it’s a side of Indonesia that deserves at least as much attention as yesterday’s tragedy.

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