A picture of a graffiti that a Chinese boy wrote on one of Egypt's grandest Pharaohnic temples went viral on Chinese social media over the weekend, stirring debate in that country over whether the legions of inexperienced tourists it sends abroad each year is replacing the old image of the "ugly American" with that of the "ugly Chinese."
The photo was posted on Friday by a fellow Chinese tourist, who was outraged to find that a countryman had defaced the monument.
In Egypt, the questions were far more practical in nature: Why, and how, is the government failing to protect the ancient temples, tombs and pyramids that lure millions of tourists a year? And how did this particular instance of defacement go undetected for so long (the parents of the boy, now in middle school, indicated he defaced the temple on a trip some years ago).
The Chinese teenager scrawled "Ding Jinhao was here" on one of the reliefs at the Temple of Luxor, which Pharoah Amenhotep III began constructing circa 1340 BC, or nearly 3,500 years ago. It has remained untouched for years. The temple is in the center of modern-day Luxor, a town on the banks of the Nile that was known as Thebes in antiquity and is today on the UNESCO World Heritage list, along with the surrounding region.
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Egypt? Take this quiz.
After the pyramids at Giza, the temple, connected to the equally famous Karnak Temple by a sphynx-lined boulevard, is one of Egypt's most visited ancient monuments.
At busy times, thousands of tourists a day pour through the complex (and at night, when it is spectacularly lit). That it's possible to scrawl graffiti there is unsurprising, though that it went unnoticed and unaddressed for so long is more alarming – as is the fact that parents would leave a child unsupervised long enough to carry out his vandalism.
State-run Xinhua, which generally operates as a government mouthpiece, writes that Jinhao's graffiti "caused his countryfolk to reflect on how to build a good national image... Leaving graffiti is common among Chinese tourists, damaging historic sites and demonstrating poor education and behavior."
China's image abroad has been a growing issue for the Communist Party that runs the vast country because in the past decade it's begun unleashing ever more of its increasingly wealthy citizenry on the world. In April, the United Nation's World Tourism Organization said China had for the first time become the largest source of international tourism, with 83 million Chinese traveling abroad last year and spending $102 billion in the process. The UN said Chinese spending on tourism is up 8 times from what it was just a decade ago.
China's export-led economic growth has been phenomenal, and has already left profound marks on Egypt and across the Middle East, displacing much of the local textile industry and manufacturing. Even local crafts have not been spared. In Egypt, it's traditional to light ornate lamps called fanoos during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, yet in recent years the locally produced glass and tin lanterns have been displaced by cheaper plastic Chinese versions.
From an Egyptian perspective, the graffiti at Karnak is the least of the problems for its antiquities – a minor nuisance similar to a group of Russians who illegally climbed the Great Pyramid at Giza a few months ago and obtained some amazing pictures in the process. Far more troubling has been the rampant looting of less famous Egyptian sites accompanying the collapse of law and order since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak two years ago. Dahshour, a 4,500 year old grave and pyramid complex not far from Cairo, has been particularly hard hit.
The Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Egypt, at times publicly ambivalent about the symbols of pre-Islamic Egypt, has not made protecting that site a priority, though whether out of disinterest or distraction, is hard to say.
At any rate, the Chinese boys graffiti joins a long tradition of defacing Egypt's monuments that, when they get old enough, become interesting in themselves. The oldest vandals may be the Pharoahs themselves, who had a habit of defacing the tombs of dead predecessors, scratching out the cartouches that named the royal builders and often replacing them with their own names. When the Greeks came to Egypt, they felt compelled to scrawl on the monuments, as did the Romans after them. Egypt's early Coptic Christians wrote their names and crude paintings on the grand old temples, as did French soldiers in Napoleon's expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century (an earlier version of this piece stated the wrong century), as did the British who came after them.
Studying this graffiti is common among archeologists and historians.
All of which is to say, that young Jinhao was joining a grand and ancient tradition, however destructive, without knowing it. The world's wealthiest and most powerful nations have been drawn to Egypt for thousands of years. As the Chinese move into those ranks, more of them will come to Egypt, and leave their mark in one way or another.
President Barack Obama's sprawling national security speech this afternoon veered from the controversial drone program that has killed at least 3,000 alleged militants overseas since 2002 to the legality and ethics of his justice department snooping into reporter's emails.
But if the speech is remembered for anything years hence it will be as the moment when the president declared "The war on terrorism is dead! Long live the open-ended game of whack-a-mole against diffuse networks!"
Yes, that's right. Obama has rhetorically put to bed the frankly silly GWOT terminology – while obliquely calling for years of low-grade conflict. The president said that core Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan are on a "path to defeat" but said the use of the drone program, to kill people in far off lands we are not at war with, will have to continue for years.
"We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold," Obama said. "Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America."
Of course, "persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists" doesn't fall as lightly off the tongue as does "global war on terror" or even the briefly popular GWOT ("Gee-WOT"). But that's what the US has mostly been doing in recent years with its killings in Pakistan and Yemen, which dramatically accelerated after Obama took office. And that's clearly the way Obama would like to keep it (for those keeping score at home, he mentioned Syria only twice, once in passing and once in a manner that contained a warning: "We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements – because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism.")
The US really is in a different era. Obama with his words hasn't opened it. In fact, they're an acknowledgement of a new reality, as was his urging of Congress not to extend the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that was passed 12 years ago and that began the overarching justification for so much that has happened since. The president was right to worry that open-ended war powers for presidents tend to lead nations in dark directions. He continued:
"I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing. The AUMF is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core Al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves Al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states."
From here he went to a spirited defense of the drone program, calling it highly successful at disrupting Al Qaeda, legal, and necessary. Though he expressed some concerns – "to say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance" – he left little doubt that we'll be droning on. And on. And he did not appear to address the concerns of some that overuse of aerial bombings in foreign lands may help recruit new members to anti-American causes.
The gruesome murder of a British soldier on the streets of Woolwich, London yesterday appears to have been carried out by men of Nigerian decent who converted from Christianity to Islam.
Reuters reports that "British authorities believe that two men accused of hacking a soldier to death on a London street in revenge for wars in Muslim countries are British of Nigerian descent, a source close to the investigation said Thursday." The wire service goes on to cite local media saying that one of the two suspects is a 28-year-old named Michael Adebolajo and that both men "appeared to have converted to Islam from Christian backgrounds," media said.
Now, "a source close to the investigation" and "media said" should always be approached with caution. But with both men in custody and alive, and with one of the killers having given a rambling interview while waving his bloodied hands yesterday, the chances that there's much confusion about his identity would seem to be low.
So it seems that the two London killers have some commonalities with the Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the bombing attack on the Boston marathon. The early indications point to both sets of killers being second generation immigrants, who either through their social networks or online media came to militant Al Qaeda-style Islam later in life. While the Tsarnaevs were nominally raised as Muslim, most accounts say the older brother had become markedly more religious – and more radical – shortly before the attacks. He was thrown out of a Cambridge, Mass. mosque for launching an angry rant against praise by a prayer leader there for Martin Luther King, a non-Muslim.
The zealousness of converts to any cause has given rise to proverbs and copious academic research. Most converts to Islam are not violent, of course. But they are over-represented in cases of Islamist terrorism in the West. Also of note, Muslims who receive a devout religious upbringing are comparatively less interested in involvement in terrorism. Some have argued a strong, conventional Muslim religious education actively works against a willingness to commit terrorism to civilians, and in a lot of majority Muslim countries, former drug dealers and convicts have been prime recruiting grounds for militant organizations, more so than mainstream mosques.
Robin Simcox and Emily Dyer wrote for West Point's Combating Terrorism Center in March that from 1997 to 2011 that 171 people came up before the US military or civilian court systems for "Al Qaeda-related offenses." They found that a quarter of the people convicted were converts to Islam and that "in fact, in three of the years between 2007 and 2011, and in eight of the years between 1997 and 2011, converts committed a higher proportion of [Al Qaeda-related incidents] than non-converts."
They write (I've stripped out their footnotes from the text):
The vast majority of converts (95%) were U.S. citizens, significantly higher than the 54% of U.S. citizens among all AQRO perpetrators. The remaining 5% of converts were British (for example, the “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid) or Australian (for example, David Hicks, who was found guilty in a military court of providing material support to al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan). By contrast, 45% of non-converts were U.S. citizens.
When disaggregated further, 83% of converts were born in the United States, significantly higher than the 21% among non-converts. Of all U.S.-born individuals, 54% were converts. Examples of U.S.-born converts include Hassan Abu-Jihaad, who provided classified information concerning the movements of a U.S. Navy battle group, and Daniel Maldonado, who received military training at a camp in Somalia where members of al-Qa`ida were present.
Also of interest is that in both cases, the motivations for the two sets of men had little to do with conflicts in their ancestral homes. Chechnya and Nigeria are both home to Islamist militant groups, and there was intense speculation that the Tsarneav's were somehow inspired by the Chechen conflict against Russia.
But as more information about them has come out, it seems their anger was directed at the US for fighting wars in Muslim lands, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. The London killers appear to have been similarly angry at the UK's involvement in those two wars, as Ian Evans writes for the Monitor this morning.
While Nigeria is home to an Islamist insurgency called Boko Haram, early indications do not point to the conflict there as a genesis for their rage. Instead, the target of a soldier and the statements from his alleged killers suggest they were reacting to the long British military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The emphasis from Boko Haram is more internal inside Nigeria and less international. They understand the British Army is not involved in suppression within Nigeria which is being carried out by the Nigerian Army," says Paul Rogers, a professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford. The group is fighting to set up an Islamic state in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria.
Instead, says the professor, the attackers appear at this point to have launched the attack on their own after being radicalized. "This is the type of thing that the British authorities are most worried about," he says. "Counter-terrorism has almost doubled in size over the last 10 years with over 10,000 people now working in it whether it’s MI5, MI6 or police. But their problem is, how do you stop random attacks?"
This again appears to fit with Tsarneav's. While it's hard for a complex terrorist attack in the US or the UK to maintain operational security, particularly if they're in electronic contact with a guiding organization abroad, a couple of mates who get inspired to act by rhetoric that they hear, read, or watch on YouTube don't throw off a lot of warning signs that authorities can home in on, if they're smart enough to keep their conspiracy small (bringing to mind the proverb "two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.")
Finally there's the use of "our lands" by the killer who gave the interview yesterday. That led a lot of people to wonder "which lands" but probably, in the context of this attack, they meant all "Muslim" lands, bouncing off the nation-less concept of the ummah (the whole community of believers, which is central to Islam, but in jihadi circles is used to justify a broad war against all who might harm Muslims, anywhere).
According to The Independent, one of the attackers at least fell in with al-Muhajiroun, an Islamist group banned in the UK that praised the 9/11 attacks on the US, after his conversion. The group worked hard to find converts in the UK, and preached a chauvinistic and violent approach to the faith outside of the mainstream.
Anjem Choudary, the former leader of the group, Al Muhajiroun, confirmed that he had known the man who was seen on video in the immediate aftermath of yesterday's horrific killing waving a cleaver with bloodied hands and making political statements. Mr Choudary said Mujahid, who he said had converted to Islam in 2003 and was a British-born Nigerian, had stopped attending meetings of Al Muhajiroun and its successor organisations two years ago.
Mr Choudary told The Independent: “I knew him as Mujahid. He attended our meetings and my lectures. I wouldn’t describe him as a member [of Al Muhajiroun]. There were lots of people who came to our activities who weren’t necessarily members.
"Mujahid" means holy warriors. Running down an armed man in a straight from behind and butchering him isn't much like war. But war is clearly what these men had on their minds.
In 2008 or so, magical ADE651 "bomb detectors" began turning up at Iraqi-managed checkpoints. Almost immediately, people I knew who seemed to know something about explosives were laughing about them. Even people like me who knew nothing about explosives were laughing about them, since they looked like old television antennas sticking out of the spout of a trigger-handled garden hose – sort of like a ray gun that Calvin would cobble together in his garage to shoot at Hobbes.
Within a few months it turned out the experts were right. The "machines," produced in Britain, were debunked as part of a highly lucrative scam and only a little more effective than a dowsing rod (that is, hardly at all).
But Iraqi soldiers and police were told the lie that it would keep the Iraqi people safe and instructed to wave the magic wands over cars for years. How many car bombs made it through checkpoints that had abandoned more effective measures (like actual physical searches or the use of dogs) over those years? How many people died as a result? No one will ever know. But the number well may be high, since tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed by car bombs in the decade.
In 2008 there were ambitious claims being made that the things worked, and the Iraqi government was desperate to stop a wave of car bombs that were reaching a crescendo around 2007. While the government was incompetent, it was perhaps forgiveable that it was believing something that was unlikely to be true, perhaps out of desperation and inexperience.
Well. It turns out the detectors are still in use in Iraq today, on the order of the interior ministry and weeks after James McCormick, the grifter who made about $85 million selling the fake detectors to Iraq, was sentenced to 10 years in jail, the maximum because the British judge was incensed that his greed had almost certainly cost Iraqis their lives.
In other words, not only has there not been any accountability in Iraq yet (it's hard to ever imagine, in the Iraqi political context, a no-bid series of contracts like the ones given to McCormick without substantial kickbacks) but people either embarrassed at their gullibility or guilty of graft are still putting their own people in harms way to protect themselves.
That's as stunning and direct a failure of political leadership as you'll find. This week, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has defended the devices, saying "some" of them work. Former Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani, under whose watch the deals were signed, has likewise defended them. And persistent reports are coming in that they're in use around Iraq.
At least one Iraqi lawmaker has claimed that the scam reaches into the highest parts of the military and that Mr. Bulani was involved. But, as yet, there's no signs of an investigation, let alone a prosecution or senior officials.
The incident is just among the most cartoonishly clear of the callousness and venality of large swathes of the political class in the new Iraq, and just one of the running sores that will continue to make it an extremely violent and unstable place.
After the death of more than 60 people in a series of car bombs today targeting Iraq's majority Shiite community and weeks of escalating sectarian attacks, many are wondering if the country's simmering sectarian tensions will tumble once again into all-out civil war.
The situation in Iraq is bad enough, as the attacks today make clear. Reuters reported there were two deadly blasts in the southern, largely Shiite city of Basra; 30 deaths in seven different blasts targeting Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad; and an attack on a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims near the town of Balad.
This kind of violence, almost certainly carried out by Sunni militants, has ebbed and flowed for years in Iraq, without ever leading to large-scale sectarian bloodletting like that which occurred between 2005 and 2008, when tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed in fighting that transformed many of the mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad and other cities into entirely Shiite or Sunni enclaves. An Al Qaeda in Iraq attack on an important Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 touched off reprisal killings across the country.
Many have long wondered what event could be Iraq's next Samarra. The good news, if any good news can be taken from a society still as divided and violent as Iraq today, is that the general population and political elites have consistently shied away from the worst. And while the current flare-up is almost certainly going to claim more lives, the odds of all-out war are probably low, going by the experience of the past few years.
To be sure, the current situation is bad. Last Friday, at least 76 people were killed in bombs targeting predominantly Sunni areas in Iraq. Those attacks followed close on the heels of attacks against Shiites earlier in the week. In April, more than 700 people were killed, one of the highest monthly death tolls since 2008.
The government of Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has taken a hard line against Sunni protesters, with a deadly government raid on a protest encampment in the town of Hawija claiming at least 50 lives and infuriating the country's Sunni minority.
That protest encampment, like similar ones in Anbar province, was inspired by a widespread feeling among Iraqi Sunnis that they have been completely cut out of meaningful power by the country's Shiite majority, that Mr. Maliki is running the country in the interest of his sect rather than all citizens, and that the security forces commit human rights abuses with impunity.
While the worst of Iraq's fighting ended years ago, the national reconciliation that the US predicted would follow never occurred, leaving Iraq volatile and prone to violence. It has remained one of countries most beset by terrorism, and added to that volatile mix is the civil war in Syria, with many members of Al Qaeda in Iraq joining the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
What's more, powerful Sunni leaders in Anbar province – which borders Syria and was the center of the insurgency during the US occupation – are being hounded by the central government (fairly or unfairly it's hard to say). Joel Wing has a good roundup on Sunni leaders in Anbar province, and their various recent conflicts with the central government's security forces. Ominously, a number of the people he discusses had been involved in fighting Sunni insurgents on the side of the government and US forces just a few years ago.
"The recent raids, kidnappings, and the end of the call for talks with the authorities can only add to this growing fire," Wing writes. "Even if the mainstream protest movement like the one in Ramadi attempts to remain peaceful, it is apparent that more and more people in the governorate are at least open to the passive if not active support for attacks upon the security forces."
With all this, it's pretty easy to predict the worst. But Iraqis were so badly scarred by the sectarian civil war, with so much lost on every side, that it's hard to imagine the wildfire catching again soon. While average Iraqis have suffered due to a weak economy, both Shiite and Sunni political leaders have profited handsomely from high oil prices in recent years, and have little to gain from all-out warfare that would almost certainly end in the same result as last time: with the country's majority Shiite population still in the driver seat.
Make no mistake. Iraq's situation is grim. But the country has repeatedly pulled back from the brink in recent years. And there's a good chance that it will again.
The Obama administration said in a letter to senators today that it has seen evidence that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have used chemical weapons against its opponents "on a small scale."
The letter drew howls from predictable quarters that the US must now do more to arm rebels or perhaps even go directly to war with Syria; cautions from Obama administration officials like Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that evidence isn't firm enough yet to be the "game changer" President Barack Obama had promised in March; and a reiteration from the administration itself that proven use of chemical weapons by Assad would draw a sharp response from the US.
"The President has made it clear," Miguel E. Rodriquez, Obama's director of legislative affairs wrote to Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin today, "that the use of chemical weapons – or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups – is a red line for the United States of America."
But why should the US commit itself to war with Syria on the basis of whether it used chemical weapons? There's an unspoken assumption that chemical weapons are a special horror that requires special responses, but the underpinnings for this are rarely explored.
RECOMMENDED: Syria's chemical weapons: How secure are they?
The catalog of likely war crimes by the Assad regime has steadily expanded since anti-government protests first broke out in early 2011. Thousands have been killed by cluster bombs, mortars, and scud missiles that have rained down on Syrian cities, with no discrimination between rebel fighters and civilians. Rebels, too, have been implicated in war crimes: executing prisoners, carrying out indiscriminate bombings in civilian areas, and participating in sectarian massacres.
At least 70,000 Syrians have died in the conflict and 1.4 million have fled the country, mostly to neighboring Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, where they're straining the budgets of the local governments and the United Nations agencies tasked with providing humanitarian assistance. Aside from death tolls and home losses, millions of Syrians are being plunged into poverty.
So, the human need is great, regional strategic fears are mounting, and from the outside, the whole thing looks like a bloody stalemate. But the US has been reluctant to couple its insistence that Mr. Assad "must go" with the sort of military assistance that could prove decisive.
That's because Obama and many of his advisers are worried about the substantial presence amid the rebel fighters of the same brand of jihadis the US spent a fortune fighting in neighboring Iraq and the prospects for a major sectarian bloodletting in the country in the wake of a defeat for Assad. The US has also been reluctant to act without UN Security Council backing, something Russia has steadfastly opposed, at least until now.
But if all of these things have stayed Obama's hand, why would the "small" use of a chemical weapon, presumably some of the sarin nerve gas that has long been in the Syrian government's arsenal, change his strategic calculation?
Yes, there's a UN convention against chemical weapons (as there are against a great many things), but the world is filled with horrible crimes, and it seems to me the best way to measure them is by the number of their victims rather than the means of assault.
For instance, Saddam Hussein's famous chemical assault on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 claimed about 5,000 lives. But in the overall context of the punitive Anfal Campaign that he pursued in the late 1980s against Iraq's Kurdish population, the use of chemical weapons was small potatoes. Human Rights Watch estimated a minimum of 50,000 Kurds were killed during one six-month period in 1988 and perhaps as many as 100,000, almost all of them non-combatants.
Yet internationally, Halabja is spoken of again and again as evidence of Hussein's particular evil; the vastly greater number of people killed with conventional weapons is rarely mentioned at all.
But both Obama's people and his more hawkish critics in congress appear to be in agreement that greater US action will be mandated by the use of chemical weapons in Syria. So what's the quality of evidence?
So far, evidence is sketchy and it appears to come entirely via Syrian opposition sources, who have a clear incentive to exaggerate or fabricate Syrian government crimes as they pursue international support for their cause. The administration's letter said, rather awkwardly, that the US intelligence community "does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale."
Varying degrees of confidence? Does that mean that one intelligence agency says "highly unlikely, but maybe" and in the analysis of another the situation is "highly likely, but not 100 percent for certain?" Given the poor intelligence analysis and the misuse of raw intelligence in the rush to war with Iraq in 2003, caution is clearly required.
The letter also says the "chain of custody" on "physiological samples" provided by opposition groups to the US claiming they prove chemical weapons use is unclear – by which the administration means it can't guarantee precisely when the samples, which Wired indicates were blood samples containing evidence of sarin gas exposure, were drawn, where they were drawn, or under what circumstances.
In other words, they could have been tampered with, or the evidence of sarin in them could have come from some other cause (rebel fighters handling captured chemical weapons?). Or maybe rebels used sarin they captured from Assad. Or, well, something else.
The good news for those worried about a rush to war is that Obama's people went to enormous pains today to insist that much harder evidence will be needed before the matter is considered settled. It was hard to read their comments as anything but a rebuke about the way things were done ahead of the Iraq war.
Obama's legislative affairs director Mr. Rodriquez wrote to Sens. McCain and Levin today: "Intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient - only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making, and strengthen our leadership of the international community."
RECOMMENDED: Syria's chemical weapons: How secure are they?
From a distance, Indonesia over the past decade looks like an unalloyed success story.
But the country's gains remain fragile as the country prepares for a pivotal election next year, the outcome of which will either ratify both the democratic and economic gains of the past decade, or signal a return to money politics at its worst.
This week, Indonesians – and foreign investors – are most concerned about the appointment of a new finance minister without a background in finance, who also happens to be the father of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's daughter-in-law. They speculate the appointment has more to do with freeing up funds for next year's elections than it does with the nation's financial management.
First, the good news
Fifteen years ago, longstanding dictator Soeharto was forced out of power by an economic crisis that galvanized student protesters and millions of workers who had lost their jobs in the monetary crisis. In May 1998, a combination of democratic opposition and bloody rioting, some of it encouraged by ambitious generals eager to grab a greater share of power for themselves, opened the door to fundamental political change in the world's fourth largest nation, and most populous Muslim one.
The early years after Soeharto were rough. The country's small cadre of militant Islamists, forced into the shadows by Soeharto's police state, emerged from hiding at home and exile abroad, helping to fuel religious conflicts on Sulawesi and the Maluku islands, while their allies in big cities like Jakarta carried out vigilante raids on nightclubs and bars. Churches, hotels, and nightclubs were also bombed by a terrorist group inspired by Al Qaeda, most famously the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people.
Democratization also brought a mad rush of decentralization without sufficient legal reform, which saw local leaders and their business partners across this nation of 240 million people try to set up their own smaller version of the corrupt system that served Soeharto so well.
In essence, Soeharto had gathered all the strings of power and influence in Indonesia to his hand, which enabled vast fortunes to be amassed by a small number of people around him, but also left Indonesia's corruption somewhat controlled and understandable for foreign and local investors alike. When his hand was symbolically cut off by the 1998 uprising, those strings snapped and twanged out in different directions, toward new potential seats of power. At the time, restoring order appeared to be such a formidable task that many wondered if Indonesia might have to survive a break up into a set of new states drawn along ethnic or regional lines.
But then in 2004, the retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected president, ending a period of bumbling national leadership. While not without his flaws, SBY (as he's universally called here) helped bring the country under control, didn't have much of a reputation for corruption himself, and set Indonesia on a path for renewed prosperity. In 2009, he won 60 percent of the vote in a three-way election, a stunning mandate that showed Indonesians were well pleased with what he'd done in his first five years.
Now, the bad news
But today, if you talk to Indonesians about SBY, you are far more likely to get an earful about the rampant corruption that many long-time businessmen and bankers here insist is worse than ever.
"Under Soeharto, they'd come to you and ask you to put some money on the table for them, and they'd take the money, says the owner of a furniture factory in the Central Java city of Surakarta. “Now, they ask the same but then they take the money, the table, and everything else they can find in the room," he says.
Another factory owner in Tangerang, an industrial town on the outskirts of Jakarta, has a similar view. He makes clothes, mostly for export, and is grumbling about a 45 percent increase in the minimum wage in the province this year, from 1.5 million rupiah a month ($154) to 2.2 million ($226). His principal complaint is that the surge in labor costs year-to-year made managing his cash flow and margins almost impossible. He's in the process of cutting 2,000 of the 6,000 jobs at his factory (with plans to open up a new factory in a province with lower wage costs). But he finishes his complaint by saying the following: "Of course, I'd be happy to pay 2.2 million a month if all the bribes I have to pay were ended – my margins would go up. But the bribes, I have no control over."
A foreign visitor expecting high praise for SBY now has to look hard to find it. Bankers, street peddlers, businessmen, and shopkeepers have soured on the president, who is term-limited out next year and appears to be spending as much of his time managing the affairs of his scandal plagued Democratic Party as he does the affairs of state.
Anas Urbaningrum, the chair of SBY's party, was forced to quit earlier this year after he was named a suspect in a kickback scheme involving the construction of a sports complex in the city of Bogor, West Java.
In 2011, party treasurer Muhammad Nazarrudin fled the country ahead of a corruption indictment, but was ultimately extradited from Colombia to face trial. Party member and Sports Minister Andi Mallarangeng, a former democracy activist, was forced to quit over corruption charges in late 2012 and in January of this year, Democratic Party MP Angelina Sondakh was given a four year jail sentence for demanding kickbacks in exchange for awarding government education grants.
And it isn't just SBY's party, it's almost everyone.
If you look at the constellation of Indonesia's political parties, it's hard to find strong ideological differences. There's a group of vaguely Islamist parties and a group of vaguely nationalist ones, but almost all of them are indistinguishable when it comes to performance in parliament – which often seems largely about looking for ways to collect rent and strengthen the positions of the individuals at the top of the party.
Juwono Sudarsono, an urbane defense scholar who has served in the cabinets of four different Indonesian presidents, including SBY, says that while democracy in Indonesia is working in a formal sense, with regularly scheduled, mostly-fair elections, the practical outcomes are frequently disastrous. The national political parties appear to represent business oligarchs (many of whom lead the parties) rather than national interests, and Indonesia's legal institutions are fairly powerless to reign in their behavior, he says.
He recalls 2007, when he was serving as defense minister in SBY's first cabinet. He was trying to get a defense budget passed, which included measures to improve the pay and conditions of low-ranking soldiers. Separately, representatives of the eight largest parties in parliament all approached him, and said that he would have to find a way for some of the contracting and procurement for the military to flow through the hands of businessmen they would appoint before they'd vote in favor. Essentially, they wanted a promise of payment in exchange for doing the nation's business.
With his hands tied and worried about at least controlling the graft, he worked for weeks on a deal in which 10 percent of the defense budget could be skimmed, but not more, and quietly sold the idea to Indonesia's international lenders. "I didn't like it, but I had to protect against it becoming 60 percent or something like that," he says. Juwono left government service after the 2009 elections.
Stories like his are common here, and it’s part of the reason the appointment of Hatta Rajasa as finance minister this week has prompted so many skeptical responses.
Indonesia's key economic ministries, particularly the Finance Ministry and the Central Bank, have almost always been reserved for so-called technocrats since the Soeharto years. While many ministries were said to be "wet" in the local parlance (that is, providing ample opportunity for graft), the government has always worked hard to keep the more technical financial ministries "dry" as a way to ease international concerns about the stability of the currency and the chances of a ballooning budget deficit.
Hatta, who was already serving as coordinating economic minister, heads the National Mandate Party (PAN) a vaguely Islamist party that also has close ties to SBY. Hatta's daughter Siti Ruby Aliya Rajasa married SBY's son Edhie "Ibas" Baskoro Yudhoyono in 2011.
Indonesian bankers and politicians say Hatta had repeatedly clashed with outgoing finance minister Agus Martowardojo over the latter's reluctance to bump up government spending until better corruption and accountability measures were put in place.
Martowardojo's predecessor, the highly regarded Sri Mulyani Indrawati, was pushed out in 2010 after repeatedly clashing with powerful business and political interests over reform measures, perhaps chief among them Aburizal Bakrie, the Indonesian billionaire who also heads the Golkar Party, which is the second largest party in parliament and has named Mr. Bakrie its candidate for president next year. Sri Mulyani was immediately named the director of the World Bank Group.
"The consensus among everyone I talk to is this is about shaking loose money for the elections," says a long-time Jakarta banker who asked not to be named.
It's not just in that area.
A researcher into Indonesia's booming forestry industry says in the past few months he's seen a large uptick in clear-cutting of natural forest that the government long-ago licensed for "conversion" into acacia or eucalyptus plantations. His read on the situation was that forest that have been left alone for years are being mulched for cash now because of the electoral needs of various political parties.
Running campaigns in a country like Indonesia – with hundreds of inhabited islands, stretching a distance equivalent to that between London and Baghdad – is always an expensive business, and money tells.
Juwono, the former defense minister, and many others here worry that Indonesia's dominant political parties effectively control the money game, and are in turn controlled by entrenched business interests who see no value in the kind of economic competition that could help bring the tens of millions of Indonesians still living on less than $2 a day out of poverty.
In other words, fair elections by themselves don't make fair societies.
About a month ago I was sitting at my home in Inman Square, Cambridge, sipping coffee, grumbling about the late arrival of spring, completely unaware that two young men just a few blocks from me were probably planning Boston's worst bomb attack since 1976, when 22 people were injured in a bombing of the Suffolk County Courthouse by an obscure Marxist group.
On April 16, I awoke in the Hotel Ibis in Surakarta, Central Java (also called Solo) to news reports that two brothers had carried out a planned attack, killing three people and injuring more than 200 at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
At the time, I was sitting a few miles from the Ngruki Islamic boarding school, where some of the most devastating terrorist attacks in Indonesian history were inspired. Among them was the 2002 terrorist attack on Bali's Kuta tourist resort that left more than 202 people dead and the country's tourism industry devastated.
The terror and violence that spread from the militant Islamists associated with the school – founded by the since-jailed cleric Abu Bakar Bashir – puts recent events in Boston in the shade, involved as they were in the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of tens of thousands from Indonesian religious conflicts they helped feed.
On the morning after the Boston bombing, the Indonesians in the hotel coffee shop were barely glancing at the news out of Boston. Children were chirping away with their parents as they slurped down bubur, a type of rice porridge, and the general air of unconcern was contagious. Why?
Well, the terrorists just up the road have been relentlessly pursued by the Indonesian state, their networks disrupted, and scores of their operatives either killed in shootouts with police or jailed (Mr. Bashir was given a 15-year jail sentence in 2011 for financing the creation of a terrorist training camp in Aceh, in northern Sumatra).
Is the threat to Indonesia over? No.
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim majority nation, and is also a democracy, albiet one with serious flaws. The open nature of society and the fact that there's always going to be some small subset of young men susceptible to violent whisperings in their ears (or via social media) means that the problem of Islamist militancy is hard to completely vanquish.
But Indonesians are getting on with their lives. Militant Islamists had nearly no chance of taking over the country a decade ago, and they have even less of one now. This is a country that has shown that the problem can be managed, even in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
Which takes us back to Boston.
The elder Tsarnaev brother accused of pulling off the attack, Tamerlan, was killed during a police shootout. He appears to have been a fringe member of America's small Muslim minority. At a mosque on Prospect Street in Cambridge, he was expelled for disrupting a sermon on Jan. 18, after the prayer leader referred to Martin Luther King as a great man and Tamerlan leapt up, denouncing praise for an "non-believer."
An enormous amount of speculation is currently going on in the US about what "radicalized" the accused young men, the role of religion in the motivations, and whether their background as ethnic Chechen immigrants to the US led to their attack. But while it's much more rare for a US resident to carry out an attack like this than in, say, Indonesia, there shouldn't be any great mystery as to the likeliest motivations.
Like the most nihilistic of Islamist militants in Indonesia or the Middle East (and really, who thinks randomly killing 8-year-olds cheering at the end of a marathon is going to draw much support for any cause?), they came to share a set of views that are wildly at variance with most teachings of Muslim movements. Instead, they latched on to a set of radical, modern beliefs that started being propagated in small prayer groups away from large mosques and now is largely spun out in online discussion forums. (The view that the Internet is a university for global jihad has been around for several years.)
The men could have easily learned how to build their crude bombs from websites like Al Qaeda's English-language "Inspire" magazine, and gotten their fill of bloodthirsty rhetoric about the need to strike out violently against the "infidel."
Olivier Roy, a leading scholar of modern Islamist movements, was recently interviewed by The New Republic about the Boston Marathon attack, and thinks that the brothers' links to Chechnya or Dagestan are secondary to their alleged decision to set off the two bombs at the Boston Marathon.
Many of the security people are convinced there should be a thread, but it doesn’t seem to be the important thing. They may find a connection here and there, of course. The decision to become radical, the decision to become a terrorist, and the planning of the coup is their own. They didn’t get instruction, do this and that at this time....
No, they want to make headlines. That’s the point. They want to become a hero. It’s why I compare them with many of the guys who did the Columbine sort of terrorist attacks against a school. They were very young guys, probably loners and slightly suicidal. They want to end in beauty, they want to do something extraordinary.
Another, more prosaic argument in favor of a lack of outside direction is the fact that the two boys came off as the gang that couldn't shoot straight (although they did shoot with devastating effects). They hung around the Boston area for days after the attack, and appeared to have set no money aside to flee.
If there was extensive communication with an organized jihadi movement, their chances of being uncovered would have been very high. Monitoring those kinds of communications is something both the US and other countries have gotten very good at. Did the older brother, who visited Dagestan not so long ago, according to reports, get "radicalized" on that trip? He certainly may have spent time at salafy mosques (the brand of Islam favored by and propagated by Saudi Arabia), but that's usually not enough to breed a terrorist.
Mr. Roy's comments are worth reflecting on, because they espouse an idea that is rarely seen in the US press – that such killers frequently see themselves as vigilantes for good, or at least as seeking to carve a name for themselves in history (like the two students who murdered 13 at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999). It often boils down to a twisted attempt to overcome one's own creeping feelings of insignificance.
That was much the case with the Islamist militants in Indonesia, some of whom I met back in the late 1990s and the early years of the last decade. They were transforming themselves into cartoon super-heroes and escaping their own drab lives.
Indonesia, by and large, eventually brought them to heel. The local terrorists accomplished nothing beyond ruining the lives of others, and their own. The destruction allegedly caused by the Tsarnaev brothers is far smaller. Hopefully they will not be given the prominence they must have craved.
For the past few weeks I've traveled through Indonesian communities that were heavily marked by terrorism. There are few signs of people living in fear. There's little reason for the people of Boston to live in fear either, and I doubt they will.
Are parts of the international community rushing too fast to reward Myanmar's regime for its promises of fast democratization and an end to military-backed rule?
If the confluence between the International Crisis Group's plan to give its "In Pursuit of Peace" award to Myanmar President U Thein Sein later today and a new Human Rights Watch report on ethnic cleansing against ethnic Rohingya are anything to go by, then the answer is yes.
The contrast is so striking, that one has to wonder if Human Rights Watch timed the report to coincide with the gala party that the International Crisis Group (ICG) is planning to host for President Thein Sein later today at the swanky Pierre Hotel in New York City, and with a scheduled lifting of all but arms sanctions against Myanmar (also known as Burma) from the European Union.
The ICG party is to be hosted by ICG President Louise Arbour, a former United Nations high commissioner for human rights and a past lead prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and is scheduled to praise the Myanmar president as a far-thinking humanitarian.
"Since taking office in March 2011, President U Thein Sein of Myanmar has pioneered a historic transformation of his country with bold reform initiatives," the ICG said on its website. "His leadership has seen decisive action towards improving Myanmar’s relations with the political opposition and liberalising past repressive laws."
While there have been some reforms in the past year, Human Rights Watch probably doesn't agree with the honor for Thein Sein. Their report, which came out today, blames elements in his government and Bhuddist monks for carrying out a systematic campaign to cleanse Rohingya Muslims from the country's Rakhine State last year.
"The October attacks were against Rohingya and Kaman Muslim communities and were organized, incited, and committed by local Arakanese political party operatives, the Buddhist monkhood, and ordinary Arakanese, at times directly supported by state security forces," Human Rights Watch wrote. "Rohingya men, women, and children were killed, some were buried in mass graves, and their villages and neighborhoods were razed."
Where was the Myanmar central government in all this? According to Human Rights Watch:
"While the state security forces in some instances intervened to prevent violence and protect fleeing Muslims, more frequently they stood aside during attacks or directly supported the assailants, committing killings and other abuses. In the months since the violence, the Burmese government of President Thein Sein has taken no serious steps to hold accountable those responsible or to prevent future outbreaks of violence."
The attacks displaced about 125,000 Rohingya and other Myanmar Muslims from their homes and have been part of an effort to have the Rohingya, the descendants of laborers who arrived in the country from what is now Bangladesh, removed from the country. Hostility toward the Rohingya is common within Myanmar's Burman and Buddhist majority. In July of 2012, Thein Sein called expelling "illegal" Rohingya from Myanmar was the "only solution" to ethnic tensions in Rakhine state.
That is not reassuring. Meanwhile, normalization with Myanmar continues apace, with a growing community of foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations like the International Crisis Group with a stake in proclaiming success. I wrote in November about the Obama administration's fast embrace of Thein Sein:
Has there ever been faster restoration of US relations with a country it had once worked so hard to isolate, in the absence of either a US invasion or a revolution? I can't think of one.
The once-maligned leaders are being brought in from the cold. The US even indicated in October that Burmese officers would be invited to the annual Cobra Gold military exercise between the US and Thailand as official observers.
The Obama administration's motivations are clear: Demonstrate the benefits of the generals’ political opening and turn toward democracy.
But with the breathless rush to friendship comes a country where ethnic tensions still dominate, and ethnic violence, specifically against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, that the generals have been either unwilling or unable to stop.
Concerns about that remain.
Many ethnic Burmans view the Rohingya as interlopers who have recently arrived and whose competition for jobs and economic opportunities are unwelcome. But many if not most Rohingya, whose families have lived in the country for generations, have nevertheless not been able to obtain citizenship and are basically stateless. By some estimates 800,000 people in this community are in this predicament, and regional governments in Southeast Asia are bracing for an onslaught of refugee boat people if the situation continues.
Human Rights Watch key, and most troubling, charge is the level of local government collusion in the recent violence there in October 2012. While the first outbreak of attacks against Rohingya in July seemed spontaneous, the organization says the October attacks seemed planned by local political groups, and abetted by government forces.
In October, "Instead of preventing the attack by the Arakanese mob or escorting the villagers to safety, (Myanmar police and soldiers) assisted the killings by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves," Human Rights Watch wrote. "“First the soldiers told us, ‘Do not do anything, we will protect you, we will save you,’ so we trusted them,” a 25-year- old survivor told Human Rights Watch. “But later they broke that promise. The Arakanese beat and killed us very easily. The security did not protect us from them."
When I moved to Indonesia in 1993, the Indonesian media and political spheres were closed shops. There were only three legal political parties and the media, particularly broadcast media, were tightly controlled. The scenes around me now, in this corner of the archipelago, reveal just how much the nation has transformed itself.
Twenty years ago, nightly news reports largely consisted of long, loving accounts of the latest factory opening by President Soeharto, the self-styled "father of Indonesian development" (the old 50,000 rupiah note carried a beaming Soeharto with this title beneath), followed by an account of the latest foreign dignitary he received and then, perhaps, sports.
There were red lines everywhere for reporters and film and television producers. Most important was to never, ever discuss in a critical tone the 1965 coup that brought him to power and the anti-Communist purge that followed, leaving an estimated 500,000 dead. There was an official narrative that everyone had to adhere to: Evil communists tried to take over and brave young Soeharto saved the day, pushing the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno, from power for having unsavory friends. End of story. Or else.
It wasn't until 2000, two years after Soeharto was pushed from power, that the mawkish 1983 romance "The Year of Living Dangerously," set amid Indonesia's 1965 turmoil, was allowed to be shown here, with Indonesians in the audience twittering at the accents of the Filipino actors when they spoke Indonesian.
Even almost 30 years later, Soeharto's regime still played masterfully with the fear and paranoia generated by the national tragedy of 1965. In that time, he built an order (which he called the "New Order") based on rigid political control. In the years after taking power he forced Indonesia's existing political parties into two super-parties that, for decades, represented the loyal (very, very, very loyal) opposition: the United Development Party (PPP) for Islamist political groups and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) for more secular nationalist ones.
And then there was the new party to rule them all: His Golkar, an acronym that means "Functional Groups."
In the early 1990s, the protest movement that would help galvanize opinion against Soeharto in 1998 was being born, though no one really understood it back then. It was much like Egypt when I arrived there a decade ago: activists hounded by the state, organizing, seeking to make links to labor unions, often getting their heads kicked in by the police or the military in what seemed like a hopeless cause.
In 1993, Soeharto made one of his great miscalculations. Though he had show-elections every five years, which his government called "festivals of democracy," both PDI and PPP were allowed some scraps of parliamentary representation as rewards for good behavior. At the time, some members of the PDI, however, were pushing to engage politics in a real way, and Soeharto's government sought to directly control the election of a new party leader. However, the PDI succeeded in naming Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's daughter, as the head of the party.
While she had neither political skills nor governing ability of her own, a group of bright political operators seeking political change gathered around her, and were important players when the curtain came down on Soeharto's 32-year reign. Megawati ended up Indonesia's first post-Soeharto vice president and its second president, in a political era in which the country exploded from just three parties to over 100.
Today, Indonesia's raucous political environment is a stunning change from a decade ago. South Maluku, of which Ambon is the capital, is gearing up for gubernatorial elections (under Soeharto, all local politicians down to the district level were appointed by Jakarta) and the island is awash in political posters and canvassers. Judging from a few days traveling in the province, there are at least five candidates with some money behind them, and the bottoms of their billboards show the support they've aligned in each case from dozens of national parties.
Speaking to an old friend from Indonesia recently, who describes himself as a "glass half-empty guy," he nevertheless said direct local elections and a commitment to the political process has been one of the great successes of Indonesia since Soeharto. Sure, crooks often get into office, "but they end up getting voted out."
Indonesia's next big "festival of democracy" (this time, a real one) is scheduled for next year. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is being term-limited from office, and the jockeying to replace him has already begun.
The old three parties have had mixed fortunes in the years since democracy came to Indonesia. The PDI (which came to be known as the PDI-P, or "Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle") leads the opposition in parliament, with about 17 percent of the seats. Golkar, which has parlayed backing from big businesses and years of organization into ongoing support, is the junior partner in the governing coalition with about 19 percent of the seats. And the PPP? A shadow of their former selves, with 7 percent of the seats in parliament.
But I switched on the TV here two nights ago before going to bed, and came across the PPP's 40th anniversary rally in Surabaya, East Java. Having spent much of the past decade in the Middle East, and having covered the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Indonesia, I was transfixed. A crowd of thousands of enthusiastic young Indonesians, the girls in headscarves, were head-banging to the heavy metal band Jamrud, which was headlining a party for an avowedly Islamist political group.
With apologies to Mark Levine, who wrote an excellent book on the alternative music scene in the Arab world called "Heavy Metal Islam," this was the real thing. I wish I could find an online video of the show. But though its absent the PPP's green flag, with the Kabbah in Mecca in the middle waving above the music, this is what Jamrud sounds like:
And it reminded me that a unique political culture is evolving here that can consistently confound expectations and preconceptions.