Indonesia's expanding spy network alarms reformers

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

President Megawati Sukarnoputri is poised to authorize the expansion of Indonesia's national intelligence agency, a plan that will post new agents in all of this sprawling country's provinces and municipalities.

The president is expected to approve the expansion by way of presidential decree, an executive power that circumvents the legislature. Megawati employed the decree to enact antiterrorism laws just after the October 2002 bombings on the resort island of Bali that killed more than 200 people, mostly foreign tourists.

Terrorist attacks remain an ongoing concern in the world's most populous Muslim nation. Tuesday, the International Crisis Group released a report warning that Indonesia will probably suffer smaller, but increasingly numerous, attacks in the long term.

Recommended: Default

The intelligence expansion is reportedly an effort to prevent future attacks. But critics see the plan, which will expand the central government's power in rural areas, as a step backward in the country's hard-fought struggle to democratize.

"After a major terrorist attack, the next thing to do is strengthen intelligence, the police, and the military forces," says Smita Notosusanto, who heads the Center for Electoral Reform. "But those institutions were the main problem in Indonesia's past," when security forces repressed political expression by abducting activists and jailing outspoken literary figures. "Strengthening them again will not help Indonesia become more democratic."

Of the country's three security arms, Indonesia's National Intelligence Agency, known by its acronym BIN, has been the most diligent in working to increase its powers since the Bali attack, arguing that it is better equipped to handle the challenges than the police or the military.

In the past, it was the military that held the power, says Ken Conboy, an American security consultant who recently completed a book about the history of Indonesia's intelligence services. But after Indonesia's 32-year dictator, Suharto, fell in 1998, "things started to change," Mr. Conboy says. "It was the civilian intelligence agency [BIN] that jumped to the front of the pack."

Following the Bali blasts, BIN was tapped to coordinate government efforts to prevent terrorism. The agency secured backing for two intelligence-training centers that will open next year. Western intelligence specialists will train BIN agents on how to use the Internet and how to follow money trails in a less centralized economy.

The modernizing agency has contributed to Indonesia's successes in rounding up militants connected to the Jemaah Islamiyah network, which has been linked to Al Qaeda. But BIN has also been blamed by some officials for failing to work with police and for missing red flags ahead of a deadly car bomb attack at Jakarta's J.W. Marriott Hotel last August.

BIN officials have been fighting for intelligence-gathering powers, seen in less-than-democratic neighbors like Singapore and Malaysia, to detain and question suspects for months, even years, without trial. But such proposals have met some difficulty in Indonesia's parliament, where legislators are resisting a return to a more authoritarian government. This July the country will for the first time elect its president by direct, popular vote.

Ms. Notosusanto says Indonesian pro-democracy groups are looking to newer democracies such as Thailand and South Africa, where demilitarization has been a priority, rather than to the West. She says US actions toward suspected terrorists - particularly detentions without trial - is encouraging "police state" activity here that is reminiscent of Suharto's repressive war on communism, when the mere presence of intelligence agents in villages and rural areas held citizens in a state of fear.

But BIN officials have argued that remote regions of the sprawling archipelago pose a risk as terrorist havens. After Sept. 11, 2001, governments have been under pressure to assert their authority over lawless zones within their borders.

The depth of BIN's transformation, however, remains a concern. At least one former BIN official says the agency was more effective during the cold war. Back then, he says, if the agency wanted to question someone, operatives brought the suspect to the military barracks and sat him down at a desk. "My right hand would drop my pistol on the desk. My left hand would drop my military belt," the former official says, indicating that the belt's heft was sufficient to deliver a beating. "I would say, 'You choose which one you want,' and then he would sing for me."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...