Indonesia set back by bombing


The car bomb attack in Jakarta which killed 14 people and injured 148 on Tuesday has thrown the spotlight on Indonesia's blocked political system once again.

The immediate political and financial reaction to it highlights a lack of confidence that the root causes of such disaffection can be tackled effectively.

The bombing is assumed to be the work of the Jemmah Islamiah organisation, which claimed the Bali bombing atrocity in October last year. Members and leaders of it face conviction and trial this week, making such assumptions plausible. While they represent only a small minority of Indonesians, they have been able to maintain their organisation intact - not least because the conditions against which they have been protesting have not changed. Political corruption, military repression, judicial indulgence of the rich and powerful and the failure of political reform have brought an air of hopelessness, despite the prospect of presidential and parliamentary elections next year. Mrs Megawati Sukarnoputri's takeover from President Suharto's 30 years of authoritarian rule in 1998 was captured and absorbed by a well-organised and inter-connected political, business and military elite. It maintains control over the vast archipelago nation of 200 million people, including the largest Islamic population in the world.

Political commentators compare Indonesia's plight now to that of the Philippines, which fell back into the doldrums in the 1990s after a few years of promise under the independently-minded President Fidel Ramos. In both countries an elite controls the state apparatus and is generally resistant to reform. Secessionist and Islamist movements have thrived in these circumstances. In Indonesia the armed forces have launched a new campaign against rebels demanding independence in Aceh after talks on autonomy broke down. There have been persistent reports of human rights abuses on a large scale there, while it suits the military to overstate the threat in order to bolster their own power.

Part of the appeal of the Jemmah Islamiah organisation in Bali and elsewhere in Indonesia (this is the fifth such bomb this year in Jakarta) is explained by the social disruption brought in the train of unbridled foreign investment and mass tourism insensitive to local cultures. Without alternative means of expressing their frustration some people are willing to support such terrorism passively or to follow a range of intellectual opponents of the regime inspired by Islamist teachings. There is little sign of strong secular movements to channel such oppositional energy, nor of a resurgent middle class to insist that existing reform programmes should be implemented and extended.

This means next year's elections are unlikely to resolve these problems. Foreign investment, which has recently driven Indonesian prosperity after the 1997-98 Asian financial crash, will not return to previous levels. Nor will tourism, still suffering badly from the Bali atrocity.