Indonesia keeps the peace, but for how long?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2003, 12:00am

The verdict is out on Abu Bakar Bashir, the Indonesian Muslim cleric. It has all the markings of a compromise designed to keep the peace at home and please international allies who have long been pressing Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government to get tough on religious extremists and to curb terrorism.

Bashir has been convicted of taking part in a plot to overthrow the Indonesian government and set up one based on Islamic law, but the five judges in the case decided he has not been proven to be the leader of Jemaah Islamiah, the group connected to a string of bombings and plots throughout the region.

The Indonesian government's delicate position is easy to appreciate. Mr Bashir, as a well-known cleric and founder of a popular religious school, has a strong following. Many of his supporters demonstrated after his arrest last October and massed outside the courthouse again yesterday. In a country where hotels, embassies and popular nightspots have become common targets for bomb attacks and where the government wants to stay in the good graces of the large number of moderate Muslims, any hard line against Islamic militants is seen to carry a price - instability, reprisals and losses at the ballot box being among the possibilities. Any of these events could derail the tentative progress Indonesia has made towards economic recovery since the Asian financial crisis, in addition to tearing apart the world's largest Muslim nation.

A big question now, in the wake of the Bashir verdict, will be whether the middle-of-the-road tactic will work. Some may question the Indonesian government's resolve to tackle terrorism and networks like JI, given that only one witness at the trial positively identified Bashir as the JI leader who ordered the church bombings which caused 19 deaths in 2000. Since the cleric was considered one of the big fish in the cases against JI, the sentence of four years for taking part in a subversion plot and for a separate immigration violation may be received in some quarters as something even worse than a compromise.

The context for the Bashir trial is the recent death sentence for Amrozi - the 'smiling bomber' who was convicted of taking part in last year's bombings in Bali - and the ongoing trials of several other suspected terrorists with links to JI. Going easy on likely JI masterminds like Bashir while handing out stiff sentences to those who carried out the orders may turn out to be a devil's bargain for Indonesia. He plans to appeal the verdict and may soon be free to continue expanding his network of religious training schools, which are already believed to be turning out Jihadist footsoldiers faster than the region's anti-terror forces can find them. In that scenario, Indonesia keeps the peace, but only for the time being.