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Indonesians join Syria war

Posted: 01 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

JAKARTA: Indonesians who have joined fellow extremists fighting in Syria could help reinvigorate a once-powerful militant group responsible for major bombings in the world's most populous Muslim country, a report said.

"The conflict in Syria has captured the imagination of Indonesian extremists in a way no foreign war has before," said a report by Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict published this week.

It is a change of pattern for Indonesian militants who previously have gone to Afghanistan in the late 1980s and 1990s mainly for training, or to the Palestinian territories to give moral and financial support to fellow Muslims, the report said.

"The enthusiasm for Syria is directly linked to predictions in Isla­mic eschatology that the final battle at the end of time will take place in Sham, the region sometimes called Greater Syria, or the Levant, encompassing Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel," the report added.

This notion has attracted Indo­nesians from different radical streams to go or try to go to Syria, including the Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, a group responsible for the 2002 bombings on the resort island of Bali which killed 202 people, mostly foreigners.

After the 2002 attack, a government crackdown that either killed or jailed JI's leaders has crippled the group and attacks carried by it or its splinter groups have been smaller.

Some of the JI leaders have now taken to non-violent activities such as preachin and inviting criticism from other militant groups.

However, the report warned that the Syrian conflict had convinced many extremists that their local jihad should be set aside for now to devote energy to the more important one abroad, like many JI leaders have argued.

Despite JI's decline "if the Syrian conflict helps both JI's fund-raising ability as well as its own recruitment, and if domestic political situation should take a turn for the worse, that calculus could change. No one should rule JI out of future actions," the report said.

The report quoted the Indonesian foreign ministry as estimating there were 50 Indonesians among the 8,000 foreign fighters from 74 countries involved in the Syrian conflict.

JI's humanitarian wing, Hilal Ah­mar Society Indonesia, sent 10 delegations to Syria carrying cash and medical assistance to the Islamist resistance in an effort to open channels for more direct participation in the fighting, the report said. — AFP

From exclusion to diversity

Posted: 01 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

Indonesian-Chinese have much to celebrate now.

JAKARTA: On the evening of Jan 20, the Paguyuban Sosial Marga Tionghoa, or Indonesian-Chinese Social Association (PSMTI), inducted its new president, directors and leaders for 2013-2017.

Dignitaries at the event at the Sun City ballroom in Jakarta included H. Sidarto Danusubroto, People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) speaker; Budi Susilo Soepandji, National Resilience Institute (Lemhanas) governor; Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro and Jakarta Deputy Governor Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama.

Held 11 days before Chinese New Year, the mood was festive and many women wore qipao (traditional Chinese dresses), whereas the men were dressed either in suits or batik.

Aside from Chinese New Year, the organisation had much to celebrate.

It is now a widely respected mass organisation with membership numbering in the tens of thousands, spread over 280 branches across the country's 30 provinces.

The organisation has also come a long way since its inception during the aftermath of the May 1998 tragedy in Jakarta, when many Chinese-Indonesians experienced various miseries as they became the targets of angry masses.

The Chinese were placed under an "assimilation" policy throughout the 33 years of the New Order era from 1966 to 1998. This policy banned the expression of Chinese language and culture in the public sphere. Chinese New Year was only allowed to be celebrated in the private domain and all Chinese-medium schools were closed.

While the restrictions may have been seen as a way to deflect unwanted attention from members of the Chinese community, many of those who became the victims of violence during the 1965 coup attempt blamed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), so the policy also reflected widespread government suspicion regarding the Chinese community's role in the uprising.

The Chinese dutifully closed their schools and organisations, except for funeral homes and religious associations.

Most chose to stay out of the political spotlight and concentrated on the one area in which they were allowed to be involved – the economy.

Therefore, despite the restrictions, which caused a whole generation of Chinese-Indonesians to experience a loss of Chinese language and culture, many of them flourished in the economic realm.

Nonetheless, they again became scapegoats during the Asian monetary crisis of 1997 and the downfall of the Soeharto regime in May 1998.

Noted sociologist Mely G. Tan observed that the 1998 riots jolted the Chinese out of their compliance and precipitated the founding of mass organisations such as PSMTI and the Indonesian Chinese Association (INTI), which aimed to combat all sorts of discrimination.

When the discriminatory policies against Chinese language and culture were lifted, these organisations shifted their focus to help fellow Indonesians in times of need – especially those affected by natural disasters.

Other organisations based on common dialect groups, such as the Fu Qing and Hakka associations, have also contributed huge amounts of funding to the building of schools for non-Chinese children.

The PSMTI and INTI, for example, have pooled resources to provide disaster aid to victims of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the recent flooding.

Contrary to the prevailing belief that Chinese-Indonesian organisations only attract the older generations, the youth wings of these organisations often initiate the efforts to distribute help and basic necessities to the needy. At the time of writing, PSMTI volunteers were channelling resources to help flood victims all over Indonesia, especially in locations with large numbers of disadvantaged people such as Tangerang, Banten.

These examples are necessary to debunk the stereotype that the Chinese are exclusive.

At the installation of the new PSMTI leaders, Ahok reminded members to continue contributing to their country. Known as a straight-shooter who does not mince words, Ahok also stated that Chinese-Indonesians who hope to win a place as legislators in the upcoming elections must not count on winning based on the support of their ethnic community, nor on policies that benefit the Chinese.

They should, instead, focus on putting together a political agenda that will benefit all Indonesians.

Coming from the first ethnic Chinese person to become a deputy governor of Jakarta, this is a wise piece of advice.

As the nation celebrates Chinese New Year on Jan 31, we must be mindful of our country's multicultural, multifaceted sociological make-up, framed by our understanding and appreciation of our historical past, as well as what our founding fathers have long recognised as Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).

> The writer lectures on Cultural Studies and Communications at the University of Indonesia. She also writes on and researches various facets of the ethnic Chinese population in Indonesia. Her current research topic focuses on Chinese-Indonesians' political activism.

Thailand set for chaotic polls after protest bloodshed

Posted: 01 Feb 2014 03:37 PM PST

Bangkok (AFP) - Polls opened Sunday for tense elections in Thailand with opposition demonstrators preventing voting in parts of the country, a day after a gunfight between rival protesters in Bangkok raised fears of more violence.

The snap poll was called by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in an unsuccessful attempt to quell rising tensions in the nation, which has seen three months of sometimes bloody rallies aimed at toppling her government.

Protesters want the election delayed by a year or more so an unelected "people's council" can implement vaguely-defined reforms to expunge the influence of Yingluck's divisive brother Thaksin -- a former premier ousted in a 2006 coup that unleashed a cycle of political unrest in the country.

Voting could not go ahead in 45 out of the nation's 375 constituencies because of the actions of anti-government protesters, authorities said.

In the south, a stronghold of the anti-government movement, protesters stopped post offices from distributing ballot sheets and boxes to polling stations in 42 constituencies, said Election Commission secretary general Puchong Nutrawong.

In Bangkok polls were unable to be held in at least three constituencies, including in Lak Si -- the scene of a dramatic gun battle between pro-and anti-government protesters on Saturday which left at least seven people wounded.

But in some areas of the capital voting appeared to start without disruption by the opposition protesters, who have occupied key intersections in the city for a fortnight in a self-styled "shutdown" aimed at intensifying pressure on Yingluck's caretaker government.

Yingluck was among the early voters, casting her ballot in front of the media at a polling station in the capital.

At another polling station in the city's historic district, a trickle of voters turned out early Sunday watched over by a handful of police, according to AFP reporter at the scene.

"I did my duty today as I came to vote -- it's my right," said Pui, 43, giving one name.

"This year the election is chaotic," he added.

Clashes on Saturday night raised fears of more violence around the polls, with emotions running high on both sides of the political divide.

"It is very very important for leaders of both sides to completely reject violence... We cannot afford more casualties in Thailand," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch.

At least 10 people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes, grenade attacks and drive-by shootings since the opposition rallies began.

Each side in the bitterly divided kingdom routinely blames the other for the violence.

The backdrop to the unrest is a long-running political struggle pitting Thailand's royalist establishment -- backed by the courts and the military -- against Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon-turned-politician who lives in Dubai to avoid a prison term for graft.

The recent violence is the worst political bloodshed in the kingdom since 2010 when protests by pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" left more than 90 dead and nearly 1,900 injured in clashes and a military crackdown.

The elite-backed opposition Democrat Party -- which has not won an elected majority in around two decades -- is boycotting the vote.

This leaves the field open for Yingluck, who is expected to win the polls helped by strong electoral support among rural and urbanised communities from Thaksin's northeastern heartlands.

But disruption by demonstrators to candidate registrations means that if Yingluck wins she will still remain in a caretaker role with limited power over government policy until by-elections are held to ensure there are enough MPs to convene parliament.

Election officials have warned that the result may not be known for months because of problems caused by the protests.

Advance voting in parts of the country, including Bangkok, on January 26 was marred by blockades by opposition protesters who stopped hundreds of thousands of people from casting ballots.

Authorities said Saturday they were boosting security around the polls, with both police and soldiers on the capital's streets.

But the government has so far appeared reluctant to use force against the protesters, despite declaring a state of emergency last month.  - AFP

Factbox:  Thailand's election in numbers


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