Thursday, October 05, 2006

What a difference a faith makes!

Asiasentinel (
04 October 2006

By Thang D. Nguyen

Whereas a jihadist (a holy warrior) is someone who fights for his religion and gets glory for it, a martyr is someone who gets killed because of it.

The three Catholic Indonesians who got executed on 21 September were the latter.

Known as the “Poso Three”, Fabianus Tibo, Marianus Riwu and Dominggus da Silva were accused of inciting violence between Muslims and Christians in 2000 that led to the deaths of some 1,000 people in the Poso port region of Sulawesi island.

Before their execution, the Vatican, the European Union, and human rights organizations had protested their convictions. Pope Benedict, in particular, wrote a letter to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono asking him for their clemency.

On their part, the three convicts admitted their guilt as charged and asked for mercy.
Unfortunately, the efforts to save their lives were in vain.

In contrast, however, Muslim Indonesian convicts tend to get much lighter sentences for more serious crimes. Last year, for instance, an Indonesian court found Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir guilty of an “evil conspiracy” to commit the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings—which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians—and handed him a 30-month jail sentence.

Ba’asyir, who is considered the spiritual head of the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist group, which is blamed for the two Bali bombings, the Marriott bombing and the Australian Embassy in 2004, did his time and is now a free man. It is also worth noting that his jail term was cut short of about four months in observance of Indonesia’s Independence Day, 17 August, this year.

In addition, in early September, the Denpasar district court sentenced Dwi Widiarto to 18 years and Abdul Aziz to eight years in prison for their involvement in the 2005 Bali bombings, which killed 26 civilians and injured over 100 people. Another militant, Mohammad Cholily, was sentenced to 18 years for supplying equipment for the attacks. The same court also Anif Solchanudin to 15 years in prison for his role in helping to plan the attacks.

While 15 or 18 years may sound like a long time, they are hardly comparable with death. Many Muslim Indonesians, moreover, were upset over the convictions of the Bali bombers. It is, therefore, questionable whether the death sentence given to the Poso Three was the Indonesian government’s way of placating them.

“The Indonesian government is sacrificing true justice to provide ‘balance’ by executing these three Christians,” said Jeremy Sewell, the spokesperson of the International Christian Concern (ICC). “This is not justice. This is deception, cover-up and appeasement.”

Whether this is true or not, it is hard to justify why the Poso Three got the death sentence, whereas the Bali bombers got only 8, 15, or 18 years, depending on their charges.

Is terrorism lesser a crime than a Muslim-Christian conflict? Is it because the Bali bombers are Muslim and the Poso Three were Catholics? Or is it because, as Sewell suggested, the Indonesian government wants to please the Muslim majority at the expense of the Christian minority in Indonesia?

Whatever the reason behind the execution of the Poso Three, the message it sends is that in Indonesia, one will get a much lighter sentence for terrorism than other crimes or conflicts among regional, ethnic, and religious groups.

What’s more, the execution of the Poso Three will damage Indonesia’s international image. Founded on the motto “Unity in Diversity” (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika), Indonesia is supposed to be a nation that it has respect for, among other things, religious freedom, equality, and justice.

Unfortunately, Indonesia is still far from it. Today, many Indonesians still experience discrimination, violence, or death just because of their religious faiths; churches still get burned whenever Muslim Indonesians are angry at their Christian fellow citizens; and it is very difficult to get a permission to build a place of worship for a religion other than Islam.

To be sure, all Indonesians are equal in the eyes of God. But in reality, to paraphrase British novelist George Orwell, Muslim Indonesians are more equal than others.Justice, too, may be blind, but for Indonesians, as the execution of the Poso Three has shown, it is not faith-blind.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist ( He is the editor of The Indonesian Dream: Unity, Diversity, and Democracy in Times of Distrust (Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004).

Monday, October 02, 2006

When a coup is a good thing

22 September 2006

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA—Coups are never considered a good thing, even if they bring peace and order back to a country in a political crisis.

This is true in the case of the military coup that ousted Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra on 19 September.

Thailand observers and some foreign countries have already called the coup a setback for the nation’s democracy.

The US, in particular, is most critical of the coup.

"There's no justification for a military coup in Thailand or in any place else," said State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey.

“We are also reviewing our assistance to Thailand in light of the various legal implications of assistance to a country in which there has been a military coup to depose a civilian elected leadership," said US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill.

To be sure, since 1991, when the nation last saw a military coup, Thai politics has moved from away from its off-and-on military rule to a civilian government.

In a closer look, however, the coup has several positive aspects to it.

First, it brings a long-awaited end to Thailand’s political crisis that has started since the April election this year.

Thaksin's decision to snap the April elections followed a mounting campaign of criticism of his personal financial dealings.

In January, his family sold its stake in
Shin Corporation, a leading communication company, for 73 billion baht (about $US1.88 billion), an enormous profit on which the Shinawatras legally paid no tax.

The opposition Thai Democratic Party boycotted the April election and took to the streets of Bangkok for several weeks to demonstrate against Thaksin’s campaign and accuse him of abuse of power and corruption.

Even though Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) Party won the April election, it did not end Thailand’s political crisis.

Shortly after the election, Thai courts ruled the April election result unconstitutional, based on the ground that Thaksin’s party pulled most of the votes.

Following this ruling, Thaksin took the role of a care-taker prime minister and a Thai general election committee scheduled a rerun of the April election for October this year.

Together with Thaksin’s heavy-handed handling of the conflict in Muslim-majority southern Thailand, months of street protests against him had already damaged the Thai economy, particularly the tourism industry.

Second, it is a bloodless coup.

There has been neither resistance from the people towards the military nor any violence since the coup took place.

In fact, many Thais see the coup as a good thing. About 75 percent of Thais support the coup—evident in their giving of food and flowers to Thai solders as they seized control of Bangkok.

"I'm delighted he's gone," said opposition senator Mechai Viravaidya. "It would have been great if he had resigned voluntarily, but apparently he was too stubborn. But at least it's better than an assassination."

Third, and most importantly, this coup had support from the king.

Unlike many countries in which the military is the most powerful institution in a political crisis, or vacuum, the ultimate authority in Thailand rests with the King.

Officially, his influence over Thai politics is limited. In practice, however, he yields immense power, due to the reverence that the Thai people have for him.

In the past, the king has stepped in to restore order in Thailand during military coups and riots. And whenever he does that, the whole kingdom of Thailand, including the military, submits to his authority.

So, even though the king has said nothing about the coup, it could not have happened without his blessing.

In fact, the coup leaders announced on television that the king endorsed Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin as the head of the temporary government.

They would not dare to say that if the king did not support them, would they?

Among other things, the coup has shown that the role that the king plays is prominent as ever.

And as undemocratic as it may seem, the coup has put an end to the Thaksin fiasco, and that is not a bad thing at all.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist ( He is currently editing a book on Thailand.