HONG KONG — The Bali bombing atrocity demonstrated, in a profoundly tragic fashion, how a politically weak, poorly organized, yet struggling democracy like Indonesia is intensely vulnerable to the forces of extremism and terrorism.

But foreign, particularly Western, sympathy for that democratic struggle quickly evaporates when around 200 tourists are killed by a terrorist bomb. Suddenly, many implicitly wish that Indonesia was authoritarian all over again. Thinking Indonesians do not share this aspiration.

So democratic Indonesia is energizing itself as a result of the Bali crisis. On Oct. 19, after lengthy Cabinet and parliamentary consultations, President Megawati Sukarnoputri signed two decrees giving the government emergency powers with which to combat the crisis. But it is likely that Megawati will use these powers sparingly, lest they further reawaken memories of the long authoritarian era under former President Suharto.

In the immediate wake of the bombing, a few Indonesians, like the defense minister, quickly jumped to the conclusion that the shadowy al-Qaeda was to blame. But that was mainly to please the outside world, in which all too many “experts” and observers had jumped to the same conclusion well before the crime had been investigated and motives clearly established.

Indonesians know instinctively that they live in a devious world with a political reality to match. As the Philippines is currently demonstrating, and as Indonesia has illustrated, random bombings are not an unknown phenomenon in the huge Southeast Asian archipelago, though seldom if ever on the Bali scale.

Amid all the continuing speculation over who was responsible, it is likely that the government will start using its new emergency powers to curtail the activities of the radical Islamist minority among Indonesia’s 190 million Muslims. There is little doubt that the extremists’ propaganda efforts in the last few years created an atmosphere in which an atrocity like that in Bali could be perpetrated.

Immediately, there are two clear consequences of the Bali bombing. First, the economy has been very badly damaged. Indonesian tourism has prospered because Bali has been a peaceful well-developed enclave, seemingly separate from the pervasive chaos and violence that have all too frequently been the hallmark of Indonesia since the fall of Suharto in 1998.

Last year, 1.5 million tourists went straight to Bali from overseas, while at least another million went there after entering Indonesia through other airports. Bali symbolized stability retained, as well as income earned. Since Bali seemed immune to the problems plaguing the rest of the huge Indonesian archipelago, foreigners continued to flock there.

Now Bali is no longer a secure symbol, buttressing pleas for foreign investment. The problems of the archipelago have caught up with it. This grim reality will severely weaken the Indonesian economy, which has never fully recovered from the economic crisis of 1997-98.

Second, the calamity has had the side effect of arousing some badly needed dynamism in the Indonesian government and society.

Indonesian democracy had become a sad combination of endless intrigue, too much talk and too little action. The perfect example of this was the way in which there has been endless procrastination over the parliamentary passage of an antiterrorism bill. Megawati has preferred too often to reign, not rule.

As The Jakarta Post bitingly noted after she took her senior ministers plus the military and police chiefs of staff to Bali on the day after the explosion, “the impact of her presence in Bali has done much to neutralize the impression that there is no functioning government in Indonesia.”

But Indonesians will be watching carefully to see how the government does function in the wake of Megawati’s emergency decrees establishing the antiterrorism powers that Parliament failed to pass. As countless Indonesian comments indicated, the memories of the military use and abuse of Suharto’s anti-subversion law is still strong.

The Bali bombing could also serve to positively stimulate Indonesian nationalism. Before Oct. 12, nationalism was frequently used to disdain foreign pressure over terrorism. Some of that disdain remains, but much of it has been dissipated by the Bali atrocity. Indonesia quickly signed an agreement Oct. 18 setting up a joint police investigation into the bombing, and welcomed the help of 94 officers from Australia, Japan, Britain, New Zealand, the United States, Germany and Sweden.

Now national pride is seen to rest upon Indonesia becoming more determined and decisive in improving itself. This objective was forcefully expressed in an interview with The Jakarta Post by Syafii Maarif, the chairman of Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, with around 30 million members:

“Yes, the Bali tragedy proves that terrorists are among us. . . . The question is, who is behind all this? If our investigators fail to uncover the perpetrators behind this barbaric act, the nation will be more imperiled. The Bali tragedy is a very, very serious incident that places us in a critical situation. The future of our nation is at stake. . . .

“If there is involvement of an Islamic group or people in the fatal tragedy, we must fight them. They have no right to exist and live in this country. The Bali tragedy is the peak of betrayal which humiliates us. The destruction has thrown the future of our nation into darkness.”

Maarif was not the only Indonesian to speak out. Both he and Masduki Baidlowi, the deputy secretary general of the largest Muslim organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama, with around 40 million members, were also quick to support the decrees while warning against any abuse of their powers.

In these and many other ways, amid the carnage of the Bali bombing there is a glimmer of hope, as Indonesian moderation more firmly asserts itself.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.