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Deadly Blast a Challenge to Indonesia's Leader

The bombing in Bali appears to have been aimed at destabilizing President Megawati. The question is whether she has the will to respond.

October 22, 2002|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — It was a grim scene when President Megawati Sukarnoputri toured Legian Street in Bali. Hours earlier, a massive car bomb had exploded, destroying dozens of buildings, killing nearly 200 people and striking at the heart of one of Indonesia's most vibrant communities.

Bodies remained buried in the rubble, and the smell of smoke hung in the air. Glass and debris from the gutted buildings were strewn everywhere. This was Indonesia's Sept. 11, a terrorist attack that was both psychologically and economically devastating.

As the president surveyed the ruins, a reporter called out a question: How did she feel seeing the destruction? Megawati responded in characteristic style. She said nothing.

Many young Australian tourists were among the dead, but they were not the only targets. In many ways, the bomb was aimed at the detached, cautious president who has spent the last year largely neglecting the threat of terrorism in Indonesia.

No one has admitted responsibility for the bombing, but it appears it was intended to undermine Megawati's government by attacking the most stable and prosperous of Indonesia's 17,000 islands.

For Megawati, who is part Balinese, the question now is whether she has the resolve to combat terrorists and Muslim extremists who advocate the use of violence in their quest to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state.

"This is a real test for her," said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, who served as an aide to former President B.J. Habibie. "It could destabilize the government. Or it could work to her advantage, with everyone in the government working together."

During the last year, Indonesia's neighbors and the United States have expressed concern that Indonesia was a weak link in the fight against terrorism. Long before the Bali bombing, Megawati heard repeated warnings that Al Qaeda terrorists were moving into this sprawling, loosely governed archipelago.

Only after the bombing did the Indonesian government take aggressive action: Late last week, Megawati signed emergency decrees allowing terrorism suspects to be held for up to six months without charges, and police arrested radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who is accused of heading a regional terrorist network linked to Al Qaeda.

Indonesia has more Muslims than any other nation, but most are moderate and tolerant of other religions. Bali, a predominantly Hindu island, is one of the jewels of Indonesia, maintaining its own identity and, until now, a strong tourist trade despite the violent conflicts that have plagued other islands.

"The Bali bombing wrenched our emotions because it hit the island of peace, our last hope for a turnaround in our fortunes," wrote Wimar Witoelar, former spokesman for ex-President Abdurrahman Wahid, in an article in the Australian Financial Review. "As the World Trade Center symbolized technology and superiority, Bali symbolized culture and balance."

By attacking a popular night-life strip in Bali, the bombers advanced the militant Muslim cause on several fronts.

Ardent Muslims despise Western-style nightclubs, where alcohol flows freely, foreigners get drunk, and local women, they say, are corrupted. In recent months, groups of Muslims armed with sticks have raided nightclubs in Jakarta, the capital, and elsewhere, smashing bottles, breaking furniture and sometimes beating patrons.

Extremist Muslims also resent the presence of foreigners in Indonesia. Occasionally, dozens of militants descend on hotels in Central Java province in the hope of scaring foreigners into leaving. The "sweeping," as they call it, has never been very effective. But the Bali bombing has prompted a major exodus from the country as tourists have fled and Western embassies have ordered nonessential personnel and family members to leave.

Throughout Indonesia, Muslim extremists have attempted to ignite a religious war by attacking Christians and bombing churches. The attack on the "island of the gods" spread the violence to the Hindu population.

By bombing Bali, the terrorists inflicted maximum damage to the country's economy. Tourism is one of Indonesia's most important industries, and Bali is its showcase. Foreign investors will surely think long and hard before they put any money into a country so torn by violence.

Megawati herself presents an inviting target. Muslim extremists resent her greatly. They say she doesn't understand Islam and should never have been chosen as president because she is a woman. Admitted Al Qaeda operative Omar Faruq, who was arrested in Indonesia and handed over to the United States in June, confessed that he and fellow militants twice drew up plans to assassinate her.

As the daughter of founding Indonesian President Sukarno, Megawati remains popular among ordinary citizens. Until the bombing, the country was enjoying more stability than during the administrations of predecessors Wahid and Habibie.

But if she mishandles the current crisis, she may find her support eroding as she runs for reelection in 2004.

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