Contexts of terror in Indonesia
By Donald K Emmerson
Jim Castle is a friend of mine. I have known him since we were graduate
students in Indonesia in the late 1960s. While I labored in academe he went on
to found and grow CastleAsia into what is arguably the most highly regarded
private-sector consultancy for informing and interfacing expatriate and
domestic investors and managers in Indonesia. Friday mornings he hosts a
breakfast gathering of business executives at his favorite hotel, the JW
Marriott in the Kuningan district of Jakarta.
Or he did, until the morning of July 17, 2009. On that Friday, shortly before
8am, a man pulling a suitcase on wheels strolled into the Marriott's Lobby
Lounge, where Jim and his colleagues were meeting, and detonated the contents
of his luggage. We know that the bomber was at least outwardly calm from the
surveillance videotape of his relaxed walk across the lobby to the restaurant.
He wore a business suit, presumably to deflect attention before he blew himself
up. Almost simultaneously, in the Airlangga restaurant at the Ritz Carlton
hotel across the street, a confederate destroyed himself, killing or wounding a
second set of victims. As of this writing, the toll stands at nine dead
(including the killers) and more than 50 injured.
On learning that Jim had been at the meeting in the Marriott, I became frantic
to find out if he were still alive. A mere 16 hours later, to my immense
relief, he answered my e-mail. He was out of hospital, having sustained what he
called "trivial injuries", including a temporary loss of hearing. Of the nearly
20 people at the roundtable meeting, however, four died and others were badly
hurt. Jim's number two at CastleAsia lost part of a leg.
The same Marriott had been bombed before, in 2003. That explosion killed 12
people. Eight of them were Indonesian citizens, who also made up the great
majority of the roughly 150 people wounded in that attack - and most of these
Indonesian victims were Muslims. This distribution undercut the claim of the
country's small jihadi fringe to be defending Islam's local adherents against
But if last Friday's killers hoped to gain the sympathy of Indonesians this
time around by attacking Jim and his expatriate colleagues and thereby lowering
the proportion of domestic casualties, they failed. Of the 37 victims whose
names and nationalities were known as of Monday, 60% were Indonesians, and that
figure was almost certain to rise as more bodies were identified. The selective
public acceptance of slaughter to which the targeting of infidel foreigners
might have catered is, of course, grotesquely inhumane.
Since Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was first elected president in 2004, Indonesia's
real gross domestic product has averaged around 6% annual growth. In 2008 only
four of East Asia's 19 economies achieved rates higher than Indonesia's 6.1%
(Vietnam, Mongolia, China and Macau). In the first quarter of 2009, measured
year-on-year, while the recession-hit economies of Malaysia, Singapore and
Thailand all shrank, Indonesia's grew 4.4%. In the first half of 2009, the
Jakarta Stock Exchange soared.
The economy is hardly all roses. Poverty and corruption remain pervasive.
Unemployment and underemployment persist. The country's infrastructure badly
needs repair. And the economy's performance in attracting foreign direct
investment (FDI) has been sub-par: The US$2 billion in FDI that went to
Indonesia in 2008 was less than a third of the $7 billion inflow enjoyed by
Thailand's far smaller economy, notwithstanding Indonesia's far more stable
Nevertheless, all things considered, the macro-economy in Yudhoyono's first
term did reasonably well. We may never know whether the killer at the Marriott
aimed to maximize economic harm. According to another expat consultant in
Jakarta, Kevin O'Rourke, the day's victims included 10 of the top 50 business
leaders in the city. "It could have been a coincidence," he said, or the
bombers could have "known just what they were doing".
Imputing rationality to savagery is tricky business. But the attackers probably
did hope to damage the Indonesian economy, notably foreign tourism and
investment. In that context, the American provenance and patronage of the two
hotels would have heightened their appeal as targets. Although the terrorists
may not have known these details, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company is an
independently operated division of Marriott International, Inc, which owns the
JW Marriott brand, and both firms are headquartered on the outskirts of
Second-round revenge against the Marriott may also have played a role -
assaulting a place that had rebuilt and recovered so quickly after being
attacked in 2003. Spiteful retribution may have influenced the decision to
re-attack the Kuta tourist area in Bali in 2005 after that neighborhood's
recovery from the bomb carnage of 2002. Arguable, too, is the notion that 9/11
in 2001 was meant to finish the job started with the first bombing of the Twin
Towers in 1993. And in all of these instances, the economy - Indonesian or
American - suffered the consequences.
Panic buttons are not being pushed, however. Indonesian stock analyst Haryajid
Ramelan's expectation seems plausible: that confidence in the economy will
return if those who plotted the blasts are soon found and punished, and if
investors can be convinced that these were "purely terrorist attacks" unrelated
to domestic politics.
Sympathy for terrorism in Indonesia is far too sparse for Friday's explosions
to destabilize the country. But they occurred merely nine days after
Yudhoyono's landslide re-election as president on July 8, with three months
still to go before the anticipated inauguration of his new administration on
October 20. That timing ensured that some would speculate that the killers
wanted to deprive the president of his second five-year term.
The president himself fed this speculation at his press conference on July 18,
the day after the attacks. He brandished photographs of unnamed shooters with
handguns using his picture for target practice. He reported the discovery of a
plan to seize the headquarters of the election commission and thereby prevent
his democratic victory from being announced. "There was a statement that there
would be a revolution if SBY wins," he said, referring to himself by his
"This is an intelligence report," he continued, "not rumors, nor gossip. Other
statements said they wished to turn Indonesia into [a country like] Iran. And
the last statement said that no matter what, SBY should not and would not be
inaugurated." Barring information to the contrary, one may assume that these
reports of threats were real, whether or not the threats themselves were. But
why share them with the public?
Perhaps the president was defending his decision not to inspect the bomb damage
in person - a gesture that would have shown sympathy for the victims while
reassuring the population. He had wanted to go, he said, "But the chief of
police and others suggested I should wait, since the area was not yet secure.
And danger could come at any time, especially with all of the threats I have
shown you. Physical threats."
Had Yudhoyono lost the election, or had he won it by only a thin and hotly
contested margin, his remarks might have been read as an effort to garner
sympathy and deflect attention from his unpopularity. The presidential
candidates who lost to his landslide, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Jusuf Kalla,
have indeed criticized how the July 8 polling was handled. And there were
shortcomings. But even without them, Yudhoyono would still have won. In this
context, speaking as he did from a position of personal popularity and
political strength, the net effect of his comments was probably to encourage
public support for stopping terrorism.
One may also note the calculated vagueness of his references to those - "they”
- who wished him and the country harm. Not once in his speech did he refer to
Jemaah Islamiyah, the network that is the culprit of choice for most analysts
of the twin hotel attacks. Had he directly fingered that violently jihadi
group, ambitious Islamist politicians such as Din Syamsuddin - head of
Muhammadiyah, the country's second-largest Muslim organization - would have
charged him with defaming Islam because Jemaah Islamiyah literally means "the
Islamic group" or "the Islamic community".
One may hope that Din's ability to turn his Islamist supporters against jihadi
terrorism and in favor of religious freedom and liberal democracy will someday
catch up to his energy in policing language. Yet Yudhoyono was right not to
mention Jemaah Islamiyah. Doing so would have complicated unnecessarily the
president's relations with Muslim politicians whose support he may need when it
comes to getting the legislature to turn his proposals into laws. Nor is it
even clear that Jemaah Islamiyah is still an entity coherent enough to have, in
fact, masterminded last Friday's attacks.
Peering into the future, one may reasonably conclude that the bombings'
repercussions will neither annul Yudhoyono's landslide victory nor derail the
inauguration of his next administration. Nor will they do more than temporary
damage to the Indonesian economy. As for the personal aspect of what happened
Friday, while mourning the dead, I am grateful that Jim and others, foreign and
Indonesian, are still alive.
Donald K Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University.
He is a co-author of Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political
Islam (Stanford University Press, November 2009) and Hard Choices:
Security, Democracy, and Regionalism in Southeast Asia (Stanford/ISEAS, 2008).