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02/10/2009 | Terrorist's Death Calms Indonesia-Malaysia Relations

Luke Hunt

If timing matters in the art of diplomacy, then those responsible for the death of Noordin Mohammad Top did the foreign services of Indonesia and Malaysia a big favor.The killing of Southeast Asia's most wanted terrorist came as neighborly relations were sliding rapidly into a political abyss amid declarations of a "cultural war." Opportunists on the fringe were even calling for the real thing as the foreign ministers from both countries tried to mend a few broken fences torn apart over the historic origins of a traditional dance.


"As for Noordin M Top, while Indonesians were happy to see the end of him, the fact that he was a Malaysian was another complaint they had about their neighbors," said Keith Loveard, a Jakarta-based security analyst with Concord Consulting. According to Loveard, the general attitude in Indonesia was that not only did Malaysians steal Indonesian culture, they exported terrorism too. "It's a pretty childish argument, but it was the way many people felt."

Noordin was killed in a raid by Indonesian police in central Java on Sept. 17, after eluding an intense manhunt that stretched back to 2002. Born in 1968 in Malaysia's Johor state, he attended lectures at a boarding school set up by regional terrorist group and al-Qaida affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the mid-1990s.

JI advocates jihad to establish an Islamic caliphate ruled by Shariah law in Malaysia, Indonesia, the southern Philippines and southern Thailand.

Noordin quickly rose through the ranks and was linked to the 2002 bombing of a nightclub in Bali that killed 202 people. Three men convicted of the attack -- Amrozi, Imam Samudra and Ali Ghufron -- were executed by firing squad last year.

Since then, Noordin has been a suspect in every major attack on a Western target in Indonesia, including the initial strike on the JW Marriott Hotel in 2003 and the bombing of the Australian embassy the following year.

He then split from JI and was believed responsible for the second suicide strikes on Bali in 2005. He escaped gun battles with the police and was the chief suspect in this year's July 17 attacks at the JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels.

Throughout Noordin's time at large, Indonesia has borne the brunt of the regional spotlight on terrorism, much to the chagrin of officials who note that many of the terrorists were Malay and trained in Malaysia. Analysts said it had become a sore point that festered.

The ill will contributed to relations deteriorating further after Malaysia stood accused of "stealing" a traditional Indonesian dance. The dispute erupted after Malaysia supposedly screened tourism advertisements featuring the traditional "pendet" dance of Indonesia's Hindu-majority Bali island.

The ad was actually a botched promotion for a Discovery Channel program on Malaysia. But the announcements that the Malaysian government was not involved were hardly heard above the din of Indonesian protests.

Underlying the enmity are negative sentiments that date back to the 1960s. At that time, former President Sukarno belligerently played on nationalist sentiment with his "Konfrontasi" campaign leveled at Malaysia, which was emerging from British colonialism and becoming a regional power in its own right.

The resentment lingers, particularly in light of Malaysia's relative economic success.

"This is a complex subject," said Loveard. "In essence it is proof of the old saying, 'Familiarity breeds contempt.' The two countries are, at least at first glance, too much alike and therefore competition becomes the logical outcome. At the same time there is the opportunity to 'steal' resources, particularly intellectual ones, because there is this strong common cultural heritage stemming from a shared ethnicity."

Indonesian media conveniently ignored Discovery Channel's admission of error and subsequent apology, as local newspapers ran a steady stream of perceived Malaysian slights. Protestors burned Malaysian flags and threw rotten eggs at the country's embassy.

Mustar Bonaventura, the coordinator of a Jakarta recruitment drive by nationalist youth group Bendera, added to the volatile mix when he warned that hundreds of volunteers had signed up for war.

Brad Allan, director of the Hong Kong-based security firm Allan & Associates, said relations were ruffled by a small group of Indonesian nationalists, with some politicians jumping on the bandwagon, regardless of how ridiculous the pretext was. "But it is a sign of a working democracy in Indonesia [that] a lunatic fringe can talk nonsense, but the vast majority of Indonesians ignore it," he said.

The death of Noordin was also more revealing for what transpired behind the scenes. Analysts said that regional governments, including Indonesia and Malaysia, have forged much closer ties regarding counterterrorism issues.

This wasn't lost on Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, who had just completed bilateral talks with his Malaysian counterpart, Anifah Aman, at the time of Noordin's death. Hassan announced that an understanding had been reached which would help both countries avert a repeat of the alleged stolen dance episode, but that, more importantly, fresh initiatives were undertaken aimed at strengthening counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing.

"We might even run joint operations if they are needed," Hassan said.

Amid the ballyhoo over a dance, the latter point largely escaped the broader media's attention. But the ability of the two countries to overcome petty grievances and focus on issues that matter, like rounding up the remaining members of JI, was encouraging.

"Any Islamic extremist killed, whether Indonesian or Malaysian or Filipino, is a win for everyone," Allan said. "They all have links, some strong and some weak, and all are potential attackers to any country in Southeast Asia."

**Luke Hunt is a Hong Kong-based correspondent and a World Politics Review contributing editor.

World Politics Review (Estados Unidos)


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