Anti-Bush Protests and March towards Democracy in Indonesia

Updated On: Nov 21, 2006

US President George Bush arrived to public opposition in Indonesia today following a warm reception in Vietnam. He brushed it off as a healthy show of democracy.

The city deployed around 7,700 officers, about two-thirds the total staff, to manage protests such as the "Coalition To Crush Bush" with 5,000 marchers that included hardline and conservative Islamic groups calling for President Bush’s assassination.

For instance, Habib Rizieq, leader of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), said "[ President Bush’s] blood is halal (permitted) to be shed. Not only is it halal, but it is obligatory to kill him”. Others condemned Bush as a war criminal and a human rights violator for invading Muslim states such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and for supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Elsewhere, there were also unconfirmed reports that a suicide bomber was planning to infiltrate demonstrations during President Bush’s six-hour visit at the summer palace in the town of Bogor, amid threats of an attack by Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

President SBY had earlier warned people not to "excessively" protest President Bush's visit because "if something bad happens, the world will blame us. We certainly don't want to be regarded as a country that can't respect its guests." The visit is also representative of growing bilateral ties between the two countries, focusing on poverty alleviation, education, health, corruption and investment, terrorism and military cooperation.

President Bush in his speech praised Indonesia's “pluralism and its diversity” as well as President SBY’s “commitment to reform and strengthening democracy”. He also noted how Indonesia has “a prominent role to play in the world in showing how it's possible for people to be able to live together in peace and harmony.”

Against the backdrop of Bush’s comments is a country gripped by a string of terrorist attacks largely blamed on Al-Qaeda-linked militant group Jemaah Islamiah since 2002. Yet recent reports have suggested that a leadership change and corresponding ideological shift are rendering JI’s scope less antagonistic.

JI spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir’s release in June this year is touted to have led to a rise in traditionalist thinking of establishing an Islamic Indonesian republic over a regional Islamic caliphate – especially with JI leader Hambali's arrest in 2003 – that would have posed a greater security threat to Southeast Asia.

Reuters, quoting analysts, reported recently that JI has been trying to rein in its radical wing and invoke Islamic law against the indiscriminate anti-Western attacks demanded by Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Websites and other forums affiliated with JI now feature religious tracts that call into question a 1998 decree from the Saudi militant for Muslims to hit Western targets worldwide in defence of their faith.

Former JI leader Nasir Abbas had told The Straits Times that the mainstream group was upset by the violence, fearing that the confrontational approach would lead to a demonising of Islam and jeopardise its long-term goal. Other sources also informed The Straits Times that the traditionalists and Bashir loyalists are now actively trying to isolate Noordin's – currently on the run – violent faction and choke its support base.

Yet, sources also revealed that traditionalists led by Sumbawa native Abdul Qadir Baraja, are maintaining a revolutionary force with military capabilities - just in case it is needed at some later stage. JI expert Sidney Jones appealed for caution and continued monitoring of the network.

Complementing current agenda shifts within JI is a November 17 Pew Research Centre report that noted a drop in support for extremism in the country. Only 10 per cent of Indonesian Muslims interviewed said violence against civilians could often, or sometimes, be justified. But about 70 per cent rejected such acts completely. There was also a significantly lower level of support for the leader of the Al-Qaeda network, from 60 per cent in 2002 to some 33 per cent today.

One possible reason for the drop in support for terrorism is the spate of terrorist attacks in the country. Major-General Ansyaad Mbai, a top Indonesian counter-terrorism official, told The Straits Times that “with the bombings, JI and other extremist groups have lost a lot of credibility among Muslims in the country…Many Indonesians once hailed Osama as a fighter and protector of Muslims, but they are having serious doubts about him and his supporters now. At the same time, with the arrests and numerous convictions, Indonesians now have a better idea of what JI is all about - a group of thugs who kill other Muslims.”

The Pew report incidentally also noted that while President Bush’s ratings in Indonesia remained largely unpopular, the low support for terrorism makes Indonesia the most pro-Bush Muslim population included in the 2006 survey.

Bush is his meeting with Yudhoyono also promised cooperation with Indonesia to fight against bird flu and infectious diseases, something that should be welcomed.  A recent Straits Times interview with Dr Krisnamurthi, deputy minister at the Coordinating Ministry for the Economy and also head of the country’s avian influenza task force sought to put things in perspective.

Dr Krisnamurthi argues that while Indonesia has the highest number of fatalities in the world, about 20 over people died from the disease a year as compared to the country’s tuberculosis deaths that number around 500 a year. Such a statistic explains the current dearth of resources – US$50 million a year against the required US$250 million a year – to combat bird flu, against other more pressing issues such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and the mud flow.

The increase in the number of suspected cases to more than 750 people since July last year should not be treated as a negative report, since it also indicates a heightened public awareness due to the government’s campaign launched in September this year.

The government has thus far, according to Dr Krisnamurthi, culled 30 million chickens and vaccinated 50 million heads of fowl. Surveillance teams have also been set up in 12 locations covering the provinces of North Sumatra, Lampung, Banten, Jakarta, West Java, Yogyakarta, Central Java, East Java and Bali. Such efforts led Dr Krisnamurthi to reject criticisms that the country has not done enough, since it had taken various measures based on World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) guidelines since the virus was first detected in poultry in 2003.


Forget bombings.... JI changes goals (The Straits Times, 17 November 2006)

Sharp drop in support for terrorism in Indonesia (The Straits Times, 18 November 2006)

Indonesia's bird flu sentinel (The Straits Times, 18 November 2006)

Public campaigns top priority (The Straits Times, 18 November 2006)

Bush praises Indonesia for pluralism, diversity (AP/AFP/The Straits Times, 20 November 2006)

SBY warns against 'excessive' protests (The Jakarta Post, 20 November 2006)

Bush arrives in Indonesia (AP/The Straits Times, 20 November 2006)

Bush visits Indonesia amid rising anti-US anger (The Straits Times, 20 November 2006)

US vows to fight bird flu (The Straits Times, 21 November 2006)

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