Update from Indonesia and Singapore

by Chris Lundry

While in Singapore for the ICA conference with colleagues from the CSC, interesting news kept coming in from Indonesia concerning its ongoing fight against terrorism. It was quite a contrast to what appeared to be the biggest story in Singapore: the conviction of a foreigner who spray-painted a train, a story that took up several pages of coverage and included a detailed step-by-step illustration recreating the crime. Such news seemed to drown out some of the more important regional goings-on (and brought back memories of the caning of American Michael Fay).

In Indonesia, the media continued its coverage of the trial of Mohammed Jibril, the continuing arrests and trials of Noordin Top’s accomplices and associates, and the arrest of terrorist Sunata.

Jibril was accused of seeking financial support for the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorists who bombed the Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott hotels in Jakarta last summer. He runs the jihadist Ar Rahmah website, where he has publicly denied wrongdoing. A court in Jakarta disagreed, and he was given a 5-year sentence.  Ar Rahmah continues to publish jihadist commentary and news.

The web of arrests connected to Noordin Top’s demise continues to expand, with police charging his father-in-law Baharudin Latif, Baharudin’s son Ata Sabiq Alim, and Noordin’s wife Arina Rahmah with knowingly giving refuge to a wanted terrorist. Last week, Putri Munawaroh, a survivor of the 17 September raid last year during which Noordin Top was killed, was sentenced to eight years for harboring him. Finally, this week brought an eight-year sentence to Saefudin Zuhri, also accused of aiding Noordin Top.

The arrest of Sunata continues to make headlines in Indonesia. He joined KOMPAK to fight Christians in Maluku in 1999, but was first arrested in 2005 for weapons possession and hiding Noordin Top. He was released after being considered a shining example of Indonesia’s deradicalization program, but returned to his old ways, plotting a Mumbai-style attack on Jakarta as well as the assassination of the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He was also linked to the recent arrests and killings of militants who created a training camp in Aceh, partly in an attempt to forge common ground between different militant groups. He will join Amir Abdillah in prison, sentenced earlier in June for his connection to the assassination plot.

The arrest of Sunata raises some important questions about Indonesia’s deradicalization program. The English-language broadsheet the Jakarta Globe interviewed Agus Nahrowi, the Senior Program Officer for Search for Common Ground, an NGO aimed at deradicalization in Jakarta’s prison following the arrest. Curiously, the interview doesn’t mention Sunata’s arrest, but rather paints a somewhat sunny picture of deradicalization. Sunata’s arrest raises serious doubts about its effectiveness. Both the CSC and the ICG have posted criticisms of the deradicalization program (here and here); this story should focus greater attention on the need for better efforts in this direction.

In Surabaya, police arrested three housemaids who were accused of stealing from their employers in order to support terrorism activities. While common theft is not a new tactic for JI, using maids to steal apparently is (and of course it raises questions about the judgment of people who let them into their homes in the first place).

And in above-ground political maneuvering, the Islamist PKS party is making some interesting moves. In Eastern Indonesia, it has been fielding Christian candidates in local elections, which some see as a sign of sell out. One of its Islamist competitors, the PBB, is hoping to capitalize on what it sees as the potential flight of supporters as the PKS tries to broaden its base. Yet at the same time, PKS-backed Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring recently compared the sex tape scandal of boy band Peter Pan’s vocalist Nazril Ariel Irham to the crucifixion of Jesus, infuriating Indonesian Christians. Ariel stated that it might be someone else on the tape, and some Muslims believe that Judas Iscariot — or someone else, or an angel — replaced Jesus before the crucifixion. Many have called for the minister’s resignation.

On a lighter note, I viewed the film “Obama, Anak Menteng” (“Obama, Menteng Kid”) on its opening day in Bandung. It’s a children’s movie, so one can’t read too much into it. It’s full of the usual positive messages (accept diversity, play fair, work and study hard) that are about as subtle as a Mack truck, but it also has some typically ugly stereotypes. Obama’s childhood nemesis is darker skinned than he is — he’s from eastern Indonesia — reinforcing the light-skinned-is-better bias. There is a money-grubbing ethnic Chinese bookie, a particularly ugly stereotype. One of Obama’s family’s helpers is a flamboyantly gay, overwrought, cross-dressing diva with a heart of gold; this role is so overacted as to be a caricature. The character wins acceptance, which is a positive message, but I wonder when homosexuals will play regular roles where they don’t have to act in over-the-top stereotypes. The film avoided discussion of some of the serious issues of the time — Obama’s stepfather was recalled to Indonesia in the wake of a massacre of hundreds of thousands, if not more, suspected communists, and was sent to West Papua, where a separatist insurgency was gaining steam — but I suppose that’s to be expected from a children’s film. Trailer here.

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