SYDNEY — In the wake of the Bali bombing, Australia’s relations with Indonesia, never much better than guardedly cordial at the best of times, have sunk to a new low.
It’s not so much that Australian corpses lie rotting in primitive Bali morgues, awaiting identification while families back home grieve. Rather, it’s the Indonesian government’s apparent inability to do anything worthwhile to catch and punish the bombers or, for that matter, to admit that homegrown Islamic extremists can strike again.
Outrage is a rare Australian reaction, but outrage on a national scale is the only way to describe the current mood Down Under. People accustomed to feeling safe are suddenly overwhelmed by the fear of being blown up while vacationing overseas. And now, there’s the fear that an emergent homegrown Islamic extremism may be emboldened enough to strike here.
Amid blanket media coverage of last weekend’s bomb blast in Kuta, Bali, which killed 30 Australian tourists and left another 140 missing, the public reaction here has been alternating between disbelief, horror and grim reality. The death of Australian innocence abroad has changed us all.
The tolerance that marks this multiethnic society faces its first real test. Television screens showing a young Australian Muslim student sprouting his “justification” for the Bali attack sent radio callers wild. Thugs attacked a mosque in suburban Sydney, and people recalled with sorrow the burning of a Brisbane mosque after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Everyone is hoping a national day of prayer for Bali victims today will calm inflamed passions.
Once-carefree Australia is feeling personally involved in the Bali suffering. And not just because of those young men and women lucky enough to be coming home on stretchers and crutches. Rather, because Bali is peculiarly close to the hearts of young Australians. It used to be “our” island in the sun.
A rite of passage for young Australians was to surf the Indian Ocean waves, wonder at the Hindu temples and party away the tropical nights at Sari nightclub. Now Sari is a charred ruin. Indonesian bombers flattened it last Saturday night as revelers were laughing and singing.
How much the planeloads of rowdy Australian tourists swilling beer and “jungle juice” in Kuta bars while beautiful Balinese turned away in disgust have to answer for will never be known. Certainly young Australians noisily joined other nationals, Japanese among them, in exuberantly enjoying a vacation that the locals could not join but nevertheless benefited from financially.
Today the fun is over. Foreigners still standing are exiting en masse. The wounded are being repatriated. The dead are being counted. The tourist industry that Bali depended on is just as dead.
The narrow main street of Kuta is still a bloody mess as bomb experts from around the world sift through the debris. Parts of bodies have been moved to ill-equipped local hospitals where other experts try to beat tropical decay in identifying the remains of local Balinese and tourists from Australia, America, Europe and Japan. Earlier a shuttle of aircraft ferried Australian survivors back to emergency wards across this country.
Grieving families are complaining to Canberra about confusion and delays in identifying bodies. A harassed Department of Foreign Affairs has confirmed it has serious concerns about the way Indonesia is handling identification and repatriation. Prime Minister John Howard has ordered in more experts. As always, Canberra remains sensitive to Jakarta’s reaction of outside criticism.
Howard is facing enough criticism at home without waiting for the inevitable pique from Jakarta. Why didn’t you warn us of Indonesian terror? people are complaining. Washington did advise Canberra that Bali was a potential target, but Howard says Australian intelligence agencies assessed there was no need to upgrade earlier warnings.
Inspecting the bomb site, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he would have “moved Heaven and Earth to stop people going to Bali” if he’d had forewarning. But as the body count grows, people are demanding explanations from Canberra and a tougher line on Indonesian extremists. In Parliament, all sides of the House of Representatives are preparing to drag straight answers from an uncomfortable Howard.
Canberra watchers note how “emotionally contained” Parliament has been. Doubtless reflecting the horror still being felt in the community, this calm cannot last. Howard is ducking every media question linking Bali and Iraq. Soon, though, his traditional kid-gloves attitude toward Jakarta must wear thin as public questioning booms into heated criticism.
As Australian Federal Police and Defense Force investigators — several of their colleagues are among the Kuta injured — probe the car-bomb incident, the link between Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and Indonesian extremist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah must be laid bare. What Australians find puzzling is the wishy-washy response by Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Her failure to condemn, let alone crack down on, known Java-based extremist cells is seen here as a warning of future outrages.
Adding insult to injury, Indonesian Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono emerged from a Jakarta meeting with Downer to declare Jemaah Islamiyah did not even exist in Indonesia. JI, as it is known to the West’s terrorism-fighting agencies, is the Islamic group that Canberra wants placed on the United Nations terrorist register.
Susilo revealed a high-level split in the Indonesian Cabinet when he refused to endorse this week’s statement by Defense Minister Matori Abdul Djalail’s that al-Qaeda exists in Indonesia. That statement was the first official admission of what Washington has been telling Megawati for years.
Whether a $2 million reward offered by Canberra can help bring the bomb perpetrators to justice is a moot point. Howard cannot be seen to be pushing for vengeance — mot when dealing with a neighbor of different values and 10 times Australia’s population.
Yet Australia cannot rest while militant Islam grows closer. Hence a certain relief felt when Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty met his Indonesian counterpart, Gen. Da’Bachtiar, in Jakarta this week while the chiefs of Canberra’s security services, ASIS and ASIO, were being briefed by the heads of Indonesian intelligence.
These agencies are following up on British press reports that a Saudi Arabian national supplied funds to JI to buy explosives. The explosives, based on the terrorist favorite C4, reportedly came from the Indonesian Army. This army, supplier of past Indonesian strong-man presidents, is the force to be reckoned with in the painful transition to democracy.
The wide world, meanwhile, is coming to terms with what Australia has long been warning — the Asia-Pacific region is no longer a terror-free zone. Even in the South Pacific, the myth of a a sleepy tropical paradise has been shattered by violence in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomons. The east Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, or Western New Guinea, has some potential to become Jakarta’s next East Timor.
The threat of regional terrorism will be a hot topic when Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meet next week in Mexico. A joint U.S.-Australia initiative dealing with the security of trade across the region is listed a crucial point for discussion and action.
The region can only hope Tokyo will play a more pivotal role than in the past in acknowledging that terrorism is the new factor in the world-trade equation.
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