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Jewish World Review Oct. 17, 2002 / 11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

David Silverberg

David Silverberg
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Terror comes to Indonesia: Establishing another Islamic republic there through violence and intimidation must not be allowed to happen | Indonesia under the dictatorship of Suharto was a wonder to behold.

When he decided to host the 1992 nonaligned summit, Suharto's government put on the kind of show that only an oil-rich authoritarian regime could mount. The capital, Jakarta, was decked out with welcoming signs and the red and white national colors that flapped from every flagpole and shone from the tops of buildings. Slums were bulldozed to welcome foreign heads of state that gathered from all over the Third World.

Of course, there was a dark side too. The slum-dwellers whose homes had been bulldozed had no say in the urban renovation. The buses that carried the delegates and media to and from their hotels were owned and operated by Suharto's relatives. The local newspapers were full of praise for Suharto and the government, but carried little real news.

As one of the hundreds of reporters present, I experienced the uncertainty of life in a dictatorship when, after an absence, the electronics in my hotel room went a bit crazy and there were strange clicks and noises on the phone line whenever I called my editors in the United States.

Nonetheless, my minders must have liked what they heard because after a week of trying and a mandatory, hour-long lecture on Pancasila, the national ideology, I was treated to dinner with an Air Force vice marshal. It was then that I learned of the fragility, not only of the regime but also of the country itself.

Indonesia, which stretches across four time zones in the South Pacific, has variously been reported as consisting of 13,000 or 16,000 islands - there's still disagreement. Among its 220 million people, it has numerous ethnic, tribal and religious groups, many of them antagonistic to one another. It's the world's most populous Muslim nation, but encompasses Hindus on the island of Bali, and Roman Catholics.

The regime that seemed so strong in fact feared separatism as nothing else. Every island was a potential hotbed of local nationalism and the very idea of a united Indonesia could be very tenuous. Control was actually relatively weak: As the vice marshal told me, to meet widely separated crises he could move only one battalion of men by air and one by sea. His equipment was aging, and at the time the United States had imposed restrictions on new sales because of human rights concerns.

"The old man," as he affectionately called Suharto, wasn't spending money on the military despite the country's oil wealth. He was dependent on noncommissioned officers in widely scattered villages to maintain order - and they could barely communicate with Jakarta or with each other.

I thought of the vice marshal this weekend when I learned of the horrific bombings in Bali.

Al Qaeda and its Islamic fundamentalist allies clearly see the same weaknesses in Indonesia that existed in 1992. In fact, today they're greater. Although nominally a democracy following the overthrow of Suharto in 1998, the country has been rocked by economic upheaval, government change, ethnic fighting, nationalist separatism and religious bloodshed.

Islamist fundamentalists, seeing this, hope to establish an Afghanistan-like Islamic republic there through terror and intimidation. With its strategic location, oil wealth and population, Indonesia - or even just a part of Indonesia - would be a great prize.

This can't be allowed to happen. Until now the Indonesian government denied that it has a terrorism problem in part to keep the lid on its internal problems.

Furthermore, admitting a terrorism problem could lead to outside involvement in its internal affairs, and given its colonial past and a Cold War experience, including an anti-communist bloodbath in 1965, the country's leadership is extremely leery of outside interference.

As the Bali bombing made clear, foreign interference in Indonesian affairs comes not from the United States or the West, but from al Qaeda and its sympathizers.

Indonesia is a new and important front in the global war on terror. The antidote to a Taliban-like fundamentalist ferment is greater democracy, stability and equal opportunity for all Indonesians. The United States needs to do all it can - while respecting Indonesian sovereignty and independence - to assist in the fight against disruptive Islamic fundamentalism. It's a fight that must be won.

And one more thing: Saddam Hussein must be destroyed.

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JWR contributor David Silverberg is managing editor of The Hill and author of "Congress for Dummies." Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, David Silverberg