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By Jose Ramos-Horta

Jose Ramos-Horta, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is the foreign minister of East Timor.

DILI, East Timor -- Terrorists have struck again, this time at the peaceful and gentle Indonesian island of Bali. However, while the Bali terrorist attack has had massive media coverage and provoked the world's revulsion, it is a sad fact that an Islamic terror network, the Laskar Jihad, has been operating in the sprawling archipelago for the past few years, wreaking havoc and causing the death of thousands of innocent human beings without eliciting much international reaction.

The terrorist attack in Bali is part of a two-pronged extremist strategy. One, it is consistent with the grand design of the Muslim fanatics in turning the entire region into a conservative haven modeled after the Taliban version of the ideal Muslim world. To achieve this end, they must drive out the United States from the region. Without a strong U.S. presence here, the governments in the region would have enormous difficulties surviving. Two, Bali, a Hindu bastion in an otherwise Muslim archipelago, is a natural target for the extremists.

The attack on Bali is reminiscent of the relentless war waged by well-armed thugs of the Laskar Jihad against Ambon, a once peaceful enclave in Eastern Indonesia where Christian and Muslim communities coexisted harmoniously for generations. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 people have died in the last three years and some 600,000 have been displaced.

Violence has been rampant elsewhere in the archipelago, from Kalimantan to Aceh and West Papua, where thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have become homeless and displaced. The violence has diverse source and motivation, with some, like in Kalimantan, caused by ethnic animosities between different communities, while in other parts of Indonesia, such as in Aceh and West Papua, it is blamed on the Indonesian security forces.

In the best of times, this vast archipelago of 17,000 islands inhabited by 220 million people of 200 distinct ethnic background is a very difficult place to govern.

The Indonesian authorities -- first under former President Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2000) and today under President Megawati Sukarnoputri -- have made genuine efforts to lay the foundations of a democratic state after more than three decades of a corrupt and dictatorial regime when the army was above the law and enjoyed complete impunity. Attempts at reforms of the finance and banking sectors, police and armed forces and of the corrupt judiciary have progressed at a snail's pace, with contrary interests continuously trying to derail them.

The president, with the support of her two most loyal and competent ministers, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Hassan Wirajuda, is trying to confront the terrorist threat but is moving cautiously, some say too cautiously, so as not to ignite a violent Muslim backlash against her government. The United States and others must continue to support the government of
Sukarnoputri as she offers the best guarantee that Indonesia will remain a pluralistic and secular state.

Maybe the Bali tragedy has finally awakened the Indonesian people and their leaders to the threat of the radical Islamic groups. While there is no doubt that the government is conscious of the menace to the country's integrity and stability and is determined to face this menace, there are few means at its disposal to launch an effective clampdown on the terrorists. One institution that could be used to decapitate the extremists is the army intelligence apparatus. But there are questions about the loyalty and integrity of this intelligence service that, after all, does not have clean hands.

Rival and undisciplined units of the army and police battle each other. The army is either too busy making money or is too busy fighting insurgents in many parts of Indonesia. Mostly, these insurgencies have risen in response to decades of abuse and neglect. Now the army is unleashing even more violence on those protesting past and present abuses. The cycle of violence continues.

The fight against International Terror Inc. will be a long one and will carry costs. However, it can be won. If the rich in the North and the rich elites in the South forge a social strategic partnership to eradicate poverty and improve the lives of the Earth's wretched, we eliminate one source of instability and deny the fanatics a fertile ground for their terrorist schools.

My country, East Timor, is very vulnerable to the terrorist threat. We are 98 percent devout Catholics sharing a common land border and a very porous vast maritime area with the largest Islamic nation in the world.

I appeal to the United States and our neighbors to assist our infant nation in protecting itself and preventing it from becoming a victim of the terror network.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 10/18/02)