Indonesians face a painful truth - the CIA didn't do it

Sydney Morning Herald 01/21/03: Matthew Moore

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In a nation where conspiracy theories and rice are two of life's staples, Indonesians appear to be changing their habits. You can still get rice with your Kentucky Fried, but conspiracy theories are suddenly harder to find, at least as far as the Bali bombings are concerned.

In the days and weeks after Bali, the CIA, the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) and unidentified foreigners were all accused of planning and executing the attacks.

While Western governments immediately blamed Muslim extremists, many Indonesians were deeply sceptical.

"The CIA did it" was always the favoured alternative view. For a while it was everywhere, on the streets, peppered through the media, heavy in the tabloid press and in the pro-Muslim Jakarta broadsheet Republica.

On Monday, October 14, barely a day after the blasts, the popular tabloid Rakyat Merdeka ran a page one headline: "Scenario - America behind Bali attack".

A page one story from Republica on the same day quoted a man portrayed as an intelligence expert, A. C. Manullang, explaining why the US had to be involved. "In the World Trade Centre no Jew died. In Bali, no American died."

Less offensive, but no less wrong, he continued his argument: "It's simply impossible for Indonesians to make such a big plan. Only a superpower country is capable of making such a plan."

Even Vice-President Hamzah Haz jumped into the issue assuring his countrymen: "The Bali bomb blast I'm sure was not an act of Muslims."

The sceptics reasoned that the United States had been frustrated with its inability to prove its claims that Indonesia was harbouring terrorists. By blowing up Bali nightclubs it would be proved right and thereby help ensure a crackdown on Indonesian Islamic groups while also building support for its war on terrorism.

With no tangible evidence, even airing such long-bow theories might seem absurd to the West. But in a country that has long held a deep suspicion of the US, and especially the CIA's involvement in Soeharto's coup of 1965, people have learned it usually pays to distrust official versions of events.

In the 30 years of Soeharto's dictatorship, Indonesians also learnt the wisdom of suspecting the military when blood was spilled.

Within days of the bombings an air force officer became the first person accused. After his innocence was quickly established there was a new flurry of excitement when it was revealed two army generals had been in Bali suspiciously close to the time the bombs went off.

And then there was the bomb itself, which has been analysed obsessively. Numerous Indonesian experts concluded locals could not have made it because it was either too big or too sophisticated. Indonesian police confused things further with their doubtful finding that the bomb was made of RDX, an explosive they said was "usually used by foreign military".

When police arrested their first suspect, Amrozi, and accused him of the bombings, the scepticism seemed to grow.

How could a normally bungling police force catch a bomber so soon? Why would he admit to his crimes so quickly? Why would he have returned to his home town in Java if he was a suspect?

And then, within weeks, the alleged organiser of the mission, Imam Samudra, was arrested on a bus to Sumatra. When he appeared in chains, stared hard at the cameras, and cried "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) he blew a good hole in the conspiracy theory balloon.

It's been losing altitude ever since as more and more alleged bombers have been picked up across the country. As each one has been arrested, local and international media have descended on their towns, talked to relatives and friends and pieced together their lives.

A huge amount of detailed evidence has been published since Amrozi's arrest. Overwhelmingly, the stories told by those who know the suspects have reinforced the police version of events.

The crushing weight of this evidence has silenced the Indonesian sceptics - too many people have given too many common accounts for them now to be seriously questioned. Supporters of the Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged spiritual leader of JI, have retreated from the public eye. With them have gone the fears of many ordinary Indonesians that Abu Bakar's arrest and detention could lead to a surge in support for hardline Muslim groups.

A hundred days after Bali, Indonesian attitudes appear to have shifted markedly. The signs all suggest most Indonesians now accept what in October was unthinkable for so many - the bombings were planned and executed by a group of extremists, mainly Indonesian Muslims, not by the CIA, the TNI or nameless foreigners.
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