Unresolved Indonesian Insurrections
August 31, 2018: Indonesia continues to cope with violence caused by religious and ethnic disputes which have both resisted permanent solution. Islamic conservatism and radicalism are largely under control but Islamic terrorist groups still survive. Ethnic unrest and separatism are a more serious problem. This is mainly about Papua (the western half of New Guinea, the fourth largest island in the world), and bitter memories of losing nearby East Timor to a separatist uprising that, after more than 20 years of unrest, resulted in East Timor becoming independent. Indonesia is trying to avoid a similar fate for Papua. There have long been periodic outbreaks of ethnic violence in Papua, but now it is getting worse. Papua was long seen as less of a problem, and a more distant one, than Islamic terrorism.
Most Indonesians consider the establishment of East Timor in 2002 as nothing less than foreign interference and stealing of part of Indonesia. Australian soldiers led the peacekeeping force during this operation, and Indonesians hold Australia largely responsible for this "land grab". The rest of the world accuses Indonesia of atrocities in their brutal treatment of the population in East Timor, beginning when Indonesia invaded the province after the Portuguese colonial government left in 1975. An East Timor declaration of independence was ignored by the Indonesian invaders and over a hundred thousand East Timorese who resisted or protested were slaughtered. East Timor was always a very poor and small (1.1 million people) part of Indonesia, and an even more poverty stricken independent nation. Indonesia didn’t lose much, except nationalist pride. Independent East Timor is propped up by foreign aid and growing business with neighboring Indonesia. In contrast, Papua has fewer people, more territory and less of a local economy. But Papua does contain huge quantities of valuable natural resources. In light of the many problems the UN encountered as East Timor gained its independence, there is not much enthusiasm for assisting Papua separatists.
Indonesia is determined not to lose Papua, the way they did nearby East Timor (also populated largely by Melanesians). Papua is much larger and populated with more of a less-educated population with a more tribal culture. As Papuans gain more education and political skills, Indonesia will have more difficulty holding onto the place. At the moment, the government is trying to tag the separatists as violent. But the evidence for this is often murky, and the Indonesians security forces have often carried out secret attacks and tried to blame them on someone else. There is definitely some violence but a lot of it is just local tribes that have long been hostile to any outsiders.
Papua is a large area that is thinly populated 900,000 people most of them belonging to one of the more than 300 Melanesian tribes. It is the poorest part of Indonesia, with some thirty percent of the population being extremely poor. The Papuans, who were ruled as a Dutch colony for centuries, were granted independence by the Dutch in 1961, but a year later Indonesia invaded and no one went to the aid of the Papuans. The UN called for a referendum to determine what the Papuans wanted, but Indonesia never allowed that to happen. The UN has continued to protest and pressure Indonesia, but nothing has changed, except for growing separatist violence. The government has responded by arresting and prosecuting anyone who openly demonstrates support for separatism. This has provided the incentive for more Papuans to join the non-violent and violent separatist groups.
Most Indonesians do not want Papua to be independent. In addition to lots of valuable natural resources, there's lots of unused land that can be occupied by Moslem migrants from crowded parts of the country. But that causes friction because the native Papuans are Melanesian, who look quite different from the majority Malays. Moreover, the Melanesians tend to be Christian while the Malays are almost all Moslems. The Malays are better educated and dominate the government and police. The Malays are also very corrupt and have done little to improve the lives of native Papuans over the last half century. There are a lot of Melanesians outside of Papua, and they are increasingly subject to violence by Malay Islamic radicals.
The situation in Papua got worse in 2018 when WPNLA (West Papua National Liberation Army), one of the two armed rebel coalitions, declared the start of a new offensive. WPNLA also claimed that it had gained the allegiance of more of the many armed separatist factions in Papua and that this would enable it to wage a sustained campaign. Their demands were the same one Papua separatists have been using since the 1970s; another vote on independence, but only after all Indonesian security forces have been withdrawn. The last referendum, in 1969, was generally considered rigged. Indonesia spent three decades using a lot of violence putting down Papuan protests. That ended when the Suharto dictatorship was overthrown in 1998 and replaced by an elected government. This encouraged the separatists but armed resistance was sparse and often carried out by uncoordinated factions. That slowly changed over two decades and now there are believed to be over two thousand armed separatists and a growing number (nearly a majority now) willing to operate in a coordinated fashion. The separatist demand that bothers the government most is about shutting down foreign run mines and oil/gas operations.
The most hated of these is the Freeport operation which is one of the largest copper/gold/silver mining facilities in the world. It employs nearly 20,000 people, most of them Papuans getting paid much less than foreign workers (but far more than what the average Papuan makes). The problem with the Freeport mine is the massive pollution is causes because waste from the mining and refining operation pollutes a major river system that remains polluted even when it reaches the sea, a hundred kilometers to the south.
At first, the growing number of attacks in 2018 were denied by the security services. By the middle of the year, those denials no longer worked. Police and soldiers in Papua responded to these incidents but their actions were not immediately reported because in Papua the police restrict the media and much of the violence takes place in isolated settlements. Eventually, the truth gets out but that only shows that police have been using terror tactics for at least a decade, killing a separatist every month or two and calling the incident one involving criminal, not political (separatists) activity. The WPNLA took credit for most of the attacks and often made it clear the targets were Malays from the Moslem majority of Indonesia coming to settle in a remote area and provide information for police about what native Papuans are up to. As the WPNLA reports via the Islamic terrorists piled up it became obvious that the security forces silence was about cover-up, not a lack of separatist violence. The Papuan separatists gave a long struggle ahead of them and after fifty years the separatists are more determined than ever before. That has the government concerned but not worked. Not yet.
The religious problems are all about JAD (Jemaah Ansharut Daulah), an Indonesian Islamic terror group that had affiliated itself with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). At the end of July, a court finally outlawed JAD which enabled police to more effectively investigate, capture and prosecute JAD members and supporters. What finally convinced the government to push for a ban and the passage of a stronger counter-terrorism law was a series of bloody attacks in May that JAD took credit for. These attacks were largely against Christian churches and other targets in East Java. These attacks triggered a massive police and public backlash that quickly led to numerous arrests of known or suspected ISIL supporters. Since these attacks police have arrested nearly 200 suspects and killed another 17 who resisted arrest violently. Interrogations and captured documents indicated a larger membership of JAD then previously believed. There was also proof that Aman Abdurrahman, the cleric that played a key role in forming JAD, encouraged the recent attacks even though he has been imprisoned since 2009. Abdurrahman was put on trial again and condemned to death. The date of the execution (by firing squad) has not been set but the police made it clear that they have more than a hundred JAD suspects under surveillance all and all of them would be arrested just before the execution of Abdurrahman. This is meant to cripple any plans JAD might have to carry out revenge attacks. Some known JAD leaders are still at large and being sought. New laws were passed making it easier to arrest terrorism suspects and hold them longer for interrogation.
Islamic terrorism continues to be a threat that is closer to where most Indonesians live and easier to report on. Yet ISIL has very little local support. Only about four percent of Indonesians approve of ISIL violence, the lowest percentage in Moslem majority nations. That is still a lot of people (over ten million) but the fact that over 90 percent of Indonesians oppose ISIL makes it a lot easier for the security forces to hunt them down. Despite that ISIL leaders had apparently deluded themselves into believing that they could gain a lot of local support by carrying out several horrific attacks during a short period of time. Al Qaeda had tried this over a decade earlier in Indonesia and failed spectacularly. ISIL failed to note how the al Qaeda in Indonesia fail developed because ISIL, as a more radical offshoot of al Qaeda, believed they were immune to past realities. They were not and that may provide other Moslem nations with another example of how a Moslem majority country can tolerate Islamic conservatives while also being able to crush Islamic terrorism.
Most of the recent Indonesian attackers were known supporters of ISIL who had traveled to Syria to live in (and fight for) the caliphate and then returned when the caliphate collapsed. Most of the Indonesians who went to Syria did not come back. Even many of those who were not killed believed they were safer outside of Indonesia.
The 500 or so known returnees underwent screening and extensive warnings to not support Islamic terrorist activity while back in Indonesia. Even before these attacks, the government was trying to get the counter-terrorism laws changed to deal with the way ISIL operated (indoctrinating entire families and advising them to conceal their religious fanaticism). In 2017 the government admitted that the popularity of ISIL had led to counter-terrorism forces detecting small groups of ISIL supporters in all but a few of the 33 Indonesian provinces. The May 13-14 attackers belonged to JAD, which had ordered its members to make attacks like these after a May 8th incident at a high-security prison for convicted Islamic terrorists, including some senior JAD leaders. Five prison guards died while preventing 156 prisoners from breaking out. After that the failed prison break there was another incident on the 10th where a policeman, standing guard in front of a West Java police hospital was stabbed by a man who turned out to be an Islamic terrorist. The attacker was shot dead by other police but was identified. Police have intercepted and arrested or shot dead (if resistance was encountered) several armed men intercepted as they sought to get close to the prison where the escape attempt was being suppressed. This did not indicate that ISIL was planning a larger series of attacks. So the JAD attacks came as a surprise and in response, the government surprised ISIL by banning JAD and finally passing the stronger counter-terror laws.
Within a few days of the last May attack police, especially Detachment 88 were allowed to arrest dozens of people they had been watching but could not touch because ISIL had, until then, purposely not been violent inside Indonesia. Now the entire country was on high alert and the government quickly obtained the new anti-terrorism law they had been seeking. The new law gives the police and military the power to arrest “potential terrorists.” This kind of power is unpopular with many Indonesians who remember the decades of military dictatorship that used similar powers to suppress any critics. The military leaders insist they will not abuse the new law and that may well be true if the military is constantly watched for misuse of the new arrest powers. The Indonesian remains relatively free and unrestricted.
Meanwhile, the government called for all Indonesians, especially those active on the Internet, to report any suspicious activity. That has worked in the past after a major attack (like the one in 2002) and worked again. Police were soon getting lots of tips and detailed information about what turned out to be JAD/ISIL members trying to hide in plain sight. The problem is this ISIL stealth mode does not stand up to a lot of scrutiny, especially by neighbors. The counter-terrorism intelligence experts quickly reconstructed the “how to” manual Indonesian ISIL supporters created to avoid police attention. Suddenly the local ISIL threat was a lot larger than believed. On the plus side, many of these ISIL members were still going through training and preparations for major attacks and could be jailed before they were ready.
What had the most impact on Indonesians was the use of children as suicide bombers. During the first attack, there were survivors who described how the mother triggered the vest her nine year old daughter was wearing before setting off her own. Indonesian Moslems knew this sort of thing took place elsewhere, like in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria. But to have it happen in Indonesia, the most populous (264 million people) Moslem (87 percent of the population) nation was horrific. Indonesia had always practiced a less fanatic form of Islam, in large part because Indonesia was not converted via conquest but gradually via contact with Arab merchants and seamen. The foreign Moslems attracted converts via personal example, not aggressive preaching and threats of physical harm.
But that made it easier for more conservative clerics to attract some Indonesian Moslems who were willing to “defend Islam” against the “heresy” rampant throughout Indonesia. Another target was the large non-Moslem minorities of Indonesia. The government tried to placate the Islamic radicals and that seemed to work for a while until it didn’t. Now is another of those “they have gone too far” moments for the Islamic radicals and a growing number of Indonesians are becoming less tolerant of intolerant Islamic conservatives. Some of this shift in attitude is in self-defense. As Islam spread peacefully through Indonesia (until Christianity showed up and provided some competition) only some local Hindus, Buddhists and so on proved able to resist the conversion trend. That conversion was helped by the fact that most of the conversions were carried out by Indonesian Moslems who were tolerant of those seeking to keep some of their traditional (and ancient) practices. This is something Christian missionaries had learned to do, with great success. But Islam was different because back in Arabia and Egypt (where the most authoritative Islamic scholars tended to live) the word was that no such modifications were tolerable. But Indonesia was far away and no one ever seriously proposed a military expedition to rectify this incorrect thought.
Then came the Arabian oil wealth in the 1950s and soon there were Arab Islamic scholars opening up madrassas (Islamic religious schools) and building new mosques all over the world, paid for by powerful, pious and now petroleum rich Arabs who sought to protest Islam. All this was to make it clear that a true Moslem did not keep any old religious practices around. Most Indonesians ignored this, but a small minority became believers and by the end of the 1990s there were millions of Indonesians who favored this stricter Islam. Politicians found that the Islamic parties could deliver votes reliably as long as you supported the new lifestyle laws they wanted. So far the Islamic parties, for all their fanaticism, are very much a minority and the majority of Moslem politicians do not want to outlaw “traditional Indonesian Islam”, which tolerates alcohol, night clubs, education and modern fashions for the women and a lot of other stuff that makes the country prosper and brings in the tourists. Extreme groups like ISIL are forcing Indonesia to decide how tolerant it will be of an intolerant form of Islam.
One nasty side effect of all this enthusiasm for “defending Islam” was increased intolerance of any actual or suspected religious disrespect from non-Moslems. For example, a Buddhist woman was recently convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to 18 months in prison because she complained (privately, to friends) that the sound volume of public address system used by the local mosque was too loud and it would be nice if they turned it down. That casual comment turned into a rumor that Buddhists were critical of Islam and saying unspecified nasty things. That soon resulted in a mob of Moslems attacking a local Buddhist temple. That led to the woman who made comment being tracked down, arrested and prosecuted. The reaction to all this from most Indonesian Moslems and the Moslem clerical establishment was largely negative. These mob actions and prosecutions for “blasphemy” were seen as unjust and embarrassing by most Moslems. Moreover Moslems were fed up with getting bullied by a righteous minority. Another such embarrassment occurred recently when some Indonesian clerics tried to ban the use of a new measles vaccine that contained tiny amounts of material from pigs. There was no substitute available and Islamic clerics in other Moslem majorities where the vaccine had been used declared that this sort of thing was allowed under Islamic law. In short the “more Islamic than thou” attitudes that enabled ISIL to get established and grow in Indonesia had backfired.
This recent and quite major outbreak of ISIL violence was not unexpected, but ISIL did manage to gain the element of surprise. Up until May, there had not been much Islamic terrorist violence in 2018, even though a lot of Indonesian ISIL members were coming back from Syria and other places where ISIL had been crushed. In February there was an attack on a church in Java. The attack consisted of an attacker armed with a sword. He was subdued but not before he wounded several people. That attack did not set off calls for a major crackdown because it was apparently a “lone wolf” operation. It was the high-security prison breakout attempt on May 8th that did get the attention of counter-terrorism experts. The prison contained dozens of key Islamic terrorist leaders and technical experts. Such an effort to get them out of a heavily guarded prison indicated that many of the returned ISIL members had been busy, and discreet. Four days later the attacks on Christians showed that the local ISIL activists were desperate, determined but not prepared for a major effort.
Indonesia has established a remarkable record of suppressing Islamic terrorist violence within its own borders but that has resulted in most Indonesian Islamic terrorists fleeing the country and showing up elsewhere. This approach to suppressing Islamic terrorist activity required continuous and active measures to detect and arrest Islamic terrorists. But ISIL was different, even though most Indonesian ISIL recruits also fled the country. Until recently there was no indication that something big was coming.
While the war against ISIL in Syria and Iraq was raging during 2016 Indonesian counter-terrorism forces crippled ISIL efforts to expand into Indonesia. Counter-terror forces crushed MIT (Mujahadeen Indonesia Timur, or Mujahadeen of Eastern Indonesia), the last of the older Islamic terrorist organizations still active in the country. MIT was long led by Santoso (single names are common in this region), who openly declared MIT part of ISIL in 2014. In 2016 a series of raids and arrests left Santoso dead and MIT reduced to fewer than ten active members. MIT carried out some attacks before 2017 but suffered heavy losses in the process. Since 2014 MIT concentrated most of its efforts on recruiting and setting up trained cells of terrorists in other parts of the country.
After late 2014, with the Islamic state established in eastern Syria and western Iraq Indonesia cooperated in identifying its citizens suspected of going overseas to work with Islamic terrorist organizations. Thus hundreds of Indonesians were arrested overseas (usually in Turkey) and deported to Indonesia to face prosecution or, at the very least, constant surveillance. This was because many Indonesians remembered what happened when several dozen Indonesians who went to fight in with al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Many of these men returned to Indonesia and formed Islamic terrorist groups that, after 2001, carried out several spectacular attacks, including one in 2002 that killed nearly 200 foreign tourists. This resulted in a major counter-terrorism campaign that eventually killed or drove into exile nearly all the active Indonesian Islamic terrorists. There was a real fear that some of those ISIL members returning from Syria will try to emulate what the Afghan veterans did. In 2015 police revealed that they were monitoring returning ISIL men and would act against any suspected of engaging in terrorist activities in Indonesia. Many arrests since then are apparently a result of that surveillance program. ISIL responded by urging members to conceal their Islamic radicalism as much as possible.
There were some forms of Islamic terrorism that were more acceptable with Indonesians and ISIL exploited that by attacking non-Moslems. That had already led to increased counter-terror activity each year on Java and Sumatra before Christmas. Police make numerous arrests and seized bombs or bomb components intended for attacks on Shia and Christian communities. Christians are ten percent of the population while Shia are less than a half percent of Indonesian Moslems while Buddhists and Hindus are about two percent. These minorities are not evenly distributed so there are areas that are all Moslem and easier for Islamic terrorist groups to recruit and survive. The Christian islands used to be almost entirely Christian, but since the 1980s the government has encouraged (with laws, money and land) Moslems from overpopulated areas to move to less populated Christian territories. This has created frictions on islands like Sulawesi that are not entirely religious. Islamic terrorist groups began forming in the late 1990s and concentrated their attacks on non-Moslems, both local and foreign (tourists).
Since 2013 small ISIL type (or affiliated) groups gave been appearing and single out Shia Moslems as well as Christians and other non-Moslems (or Moslem sects ISIL does not approve of). Islamic conservatives in the government (especially parliament and the judicial system) deliberately target Christians by accusing them of anti-Islamic acts. These accusations are almost always false but because of the way politics works in democracies with a Moslem majority, such accusations mobilize many Moslems who are willing to demonstrate, often violently, in support of “defending Islam.”
That explains why Islamic terrorism continues to survive in Indonesia. The government does not want to offend the many Islamic conservatives out there. The Islamic conservative politicians use religion as a tool to get what they want, which often has nothing to do with religion or the “infidel (non-Moslem) threat.” Islamic political parties are unable to gain wide popularity but together they have gained control over 10-20 percent of the seats in parliament. The percentage varies depending on how active Islamic terrorists have been.
But there is something else unique about Indonesia, the nation with the largest Moslem population in the world. Islam is not the state religion of Indonesia as it is in most other Moslem majority nations. Indonesia officially recognizes five religions; Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The founders of the Indonesian state (formerly a Dutch colonial government) found the Dutch approach to religion (deliberately allowing multiple religions and prohibiting religion based persecution) could work in Indonesia because the Dutch had demonstrated that. So Islamic political parties face a formidable number of constitutional and cultural challenges to gaining control of the government. Most Indonesians are fine with letting the Islamic parties operate openly as long as they observe the laws and constitution. So far that has worked.
The recent ISIL attacks, especially those using young children, puts the Islamic politicians on the defensive for a while. The major Islamic party, the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) has, since 2004, managed attract and keep about eight million voters. The next elections are in 2019 PKS is expected to once more escape any blowback from the outbreak of ISIL violence. While PKS is led by Moslem clerics it has managed to hold onto voters by playing down Islamic lifestyle rules (over blasphemy and vaccines) and concentrating on reducing corruption and promoting what Westerners would see as a socialist economic platform. PKS also encourages more foreign investment and economic expansion. Yet lurking in the background is the fact that Islamic scripture (depending on who is interpreting it) approves of and encourages violence against non-Moslems and Moslem heretics. Islam is the only major religion to be burdened by that and it is a persistent problem that no one has found a permanent fix for. Indonesia, however, is the only Moslem majority nation that deliberately prohibits Islam from dominating the nation. No Indonesian ruler ever invoked “defending Islam” to justify his rule. Indonesia does allow a lot of experimentation. For example, the province of Aceh (the first part of Indonesia to be converted to Islam centuries ago) was allowed to implement Islamic law as part of a deal to end a separatist rebellion. Aceh is still subject to federal laws and the use of Islamic (sharia) law does not appear to have made life better for the people of Aceh. Most Indonesians expect Islamic terrorism to be similarly tamed. So far Islamic terrorism is still around, regenerating each time it is crushed.