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Indonesia Grapples With Its War on Terrorists

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, has been quietly cooperating with the U.S.-led anti-terrorism effort. But the nation's internal problems have hampered the effort.

Singapore and Malaysia have announced several arrests in connection with the global crackdown on terrorism. The Philippines has welcomed hundreds of American soldiers to conduct joint exercises to help the Philippine army track down people with links to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

But Indonesia has been different. Beyond President Megawati Sukarnoputri's visit to the White House last September and her statements of support for the anti-terrorism fight, her government has been noticeably quiet about its efforts to capture terrorist suspects on its territory.

The vice president of the U.S. Indonesia Society, Dan Getz, says it makes sense that Indonesia's approach has been lower-key than its neighbors'.

"Indonesia has extremely porous borders, and Indonesia lacks the capacity in terms of security to guard those borders with a navy or air force or army," he said. "Indonesia is 90 percent Muslim. Singapore is a much more multi-ethnic state, and, for example, the Philippines is predominantly Christian with a Muslim minority. Malaysia is majority Muslim, but has a much stronger government. So for those reasons those three neighbors of Indonesia can cooperate in the global war on terrorism."

Mr. Getz, whose organization is aimed at promoting understanding of Indonesian affairs in the United States, says the media has portrayed Indonesia as dragging its feet. That may have been true in the early months, he says, when President Megawati was under pressure not to take part in what some Indonesians misunderstood as a war against Islam. But, Mr. Getz says, Indonesia has come a long way in the last six months and is doing the best it can in contributing to the war on terrorism.

Indonesia specialist, Dan Lev, at the University of Washington, says President Megawati understands the threat posed internationally and domestically by radical Islamic fundamentalists. But Professor Lev says she is likely concerned that efforts by the army or intelligence agents to round up suspects could cause more social unrest.

"It wouldn't surprise me if by chance they actually reported to Megawati, [and] Megawati would say, 'Oh my God, let's not get a whole bunch of Muslims very angry again. But on the other hand, let's collaborate or let's cooperate with the United States to prove that we're not against them,'" he says. The Washington Post reported this week that Indonesian intelligence agents captured and extradited to Egypt a Pakistani man with suspected links to al-Qaida. The Post says the secret transfer occurred in January at the request of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Dan Getz says that is one example of how Indonesia is quietly cooperating. In addition, he says Indonesia has made progress on tracking assets of suspected terrorist groups and has shared intelligence with the United States. But Mr. Getz, says President Megawati is engaged in a balancing act.

"Megawati and her government are proceeding at a pace and with a level of aggression to rein in these radical organizations with some caution. And it's understandable that she do so in order to maintain political stability. There [are] efforts that are made especially by the security apparatus so as not to appear anti-Islamic," Mr. Getz says.

Mr. Getz says the anti-terrorism campaign is only part of a complex mix of pressing problems confronting the Megawati government. He points to political differences among the parties that make up her coalition government, as well as a huge national debt, high rates of inflation and unemployment. In addition, the Indonesian army is dealing with violent separatist movements, and communal and religious conflicts.

According to Dan Lev, President Megawati is not able to do much about the terrorist threat or any other problem because Indonesia is in what he calls a state of substantial breakdown and government institutions just don't work. "They have been extraordinarily corrupt," he said. "They have not been oriented at all to their functional responsibilities. They have been oriented rather to collecting money."

Professor Lev does not blame President Megawati for the problems. He says the only Indonesian leader able to make things work was President Suharto who kept the country stable, but at great cost to the Indonesian people in terms of civil liberties and human rights.