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Coming close without closing in

Perennial terror suspect Noordin M. Top continues to evade authorities. A plot against the president prompts revisions to terror laws. East Timor celebrates 10 years since its independence referendum, and relations with Indonesia are rosy. To spur growth, the finance ministry decides to annul thousands of local regulations. Internet trading stimulates Jakarta's high flying bourse. Plus, the world's longest bridge edges closer, and students are ready to rumble almost as often as cameras are ready to record them.

Top News: The country’s most wanted terror suspect, Noordin M. Top, continues to evade Indonesian authorities despite several close calls during raids over the last month. Top is believed to have planned the twin Jakarta hotel bombings on July 17.


July’s bombing, together with the inability of police to finally capture Top, have given rise to a national debate about how to improve Indonesia’s counterterrorism forces and snuff out Islamic radicalism throughout the country. Before July, Indonesia had not seen a terror attack since 2006 and was roundly praised for its successful campaign against Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda- linked Southeast Asian terrorist network.


Now, Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, partly spurred by the uncovering of a terrorist assassination plot against him, has suggested amending current terror laws to more closely resemble those of Malaysia or Singapore, which allow indefinite imprisonment for terrorist suspects, among other things.


A program where imprisoned militants work with police to de-radicalize their peers, once thought to be wildly successful, is also being considered for revamping. And perhaps of greatest concern is Yudhoyono’s push to widen the role of the Army’s Special Forces, a group with a checkered history of its own, in combating terrorist networks.


Speaking of the Special Forces, East Timor last week celebrated ten years since its referendum on independence. The 1999 vote led to a brutal attack by the Indonesian military it called the “scorched earth campaign.”


Ten years later, the violence has subsided but development remains slim. Despite huge stores of oil in the country, roads are falling apart and many rural areas are inaccessible except by foot. And now corruption charges are belittling its most recent prime minister.


East Timor’s relations with Indonesia, however, have never been better. Dili’s leaders have refrained from pushing investigations in the 1999 massacres and Indonesian businessmen have begun returning to the tiny country. Jakarta has even offered military aid. An Indonesian pop star headlined Timor’s independence celebration.


In Papua, a resource-rich province that some Jakarta politicians fear could go down the same road as East Timor, a buzzing independence movement has been picking up steam. Rebels have been blamed for attacks along the road leading to Freeport, the American-owned gold and copper mine. In response, Jakarta has sent hundreds of soldiers to help secure the area — a move some fear could inflame tensions further.


Money: Jakarta continues its ongoing struggle to decentralize its power, giving more of it to the provinces and outlying islands. But in a bid to improve the investment climate for foreign businesses, the finance ministry said it would annul tens of thousands of regulations enforced by local governments in the past few years.


Basically local governments are going to have to look for cash elsewhere. Of almost 10,000 taxes and levies issued by local governments, a third of them were detrimental and “shunned” foreign investment, the ministry said. It also said that almost 70 percent of regulations on taxes and levies currently being considered by local governments were likely hurtful to investment and would also be annulled if ever passed.


Indonesia’s stock index is now the world’s second best performer. It’s true: Jakarta’s main index reached record highs last January before collapsing 61 percent in October. It has since recovered 68 percent and looks poised to continue such gains. Some are pointing to a surge in internet-based trading, which has boomed this year.


Elsewhere: Student brawls in Jakarta are becoming so out of control that they are now a television news favorite. They are what the car chase is to Los Angeles news choppers. Earlier this month two large high schools in South Jakarta clashed during Independence Day celebrations. Television loops showed two groups of boys wildly beating each other with bamboo sticks.


The brawling problem first gained national prominence last year when two young girls attacked each other on a playground during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. It was a vicious fight that was recorded on a cell phone and promptly filed to Indonesia’s cable news channel, Metro TV. Now everyone is debating how to put a stop to all the madness.


The Indonesian government announced this week that a feasibility study has been completed for a bridge between the islands of Java and Sumatra. The bridge would be the longest bridge in the world, would link the country’s two most-populated islands and could potentially be completed by the end of 2010. It is part of Jakarta’s stimulus plan. Several geologists, however, have since questioned whether such a project would be wise in one of the world’s most volatile earthquake regions.