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Street gangs prepare for war with Malaysia

Harsh, Sharia-based laws are passed in Aceh. The latest tension with Malaysia stems from an apparently erroneous Discovery Channel promo. Australia accuses Indonesia of war crimes. General Suharto's son, a convicted felon, announces his candidacy for party chair. A bank bailout puts Finance Minister Sri Mulyani on the hot seat. The government announces plans to sell Islamic bonds. And Julia Roberts' anticipated arrival in Bali excites everyone.

 Top News: Outgoing lawmakers in Aceh, Indonesia’s most northern and most devout Muslim province, passed a last-minute law Sept. 14 that would bring harsh penalties for “ethical” crimes including death by stoning for adulterers. Though some expect the new, more progressive parliament, to amend the law, its passage hints at a deepening conservatism in Aceh and continuing influence of Islamic groups on Aceh’s local politicians. Aceh fought a thirty-year civil war against Indonesia before a peace deal was signed in 2005 after a tsunami decimated its capital city, Banda Aceh.


Under the peace deal, Aceh is allowed special autonomy and can field its own local candidates in parliament. Similar Sharia-based laws have been passed in Aceh before that have required women to wear headscarves. But the laws were rarely enforced due to a public backlash against the so-called Sharia police, and international condemnation. Many analysts expect the most recent law to befall the same fate.


Meanwhile, in Jakarta, armed gangs have been patrolling the streets searching for Malaysian nationals. Many Indonesians think Malaysia has been co-opting numerous Indonesian cultural traditions, and are responding with violence. One youth group has been openly signing up volunteers should war be necessary.


The most recent flare up happened when the Discovery Channel ran a promotion for a program about Malaysia, which included a dance called “Pendet,” which is thought to have originated in Bali. Other disputes over territory and the abuse of Indonesian maids in Kuala Lumpur have added to the tension. Several high level government officials, including the president, have asked Indonesians to remain calm. Still, protests remain and an anti-Malaysia Facebook group has swelled to nearly half a million members.


In other diplomatic scuttlebutt, Australia has accused Indonesia of war crimes for the shooting deaths of five Australian journalists, collectively known as the “Balibo Five,” during Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975. Australia maintains that the journalists were killed to cover up the invasion but Indonesia says they were caught in the crossfire and considers the case closed.


And in more embarrassing news from Indonesia, son of the late kleptocrat General Suharto, Tommy, has officially announced his candidacy for the top post of the Golkar Party, Suharto’s old political vehicle. As Suharto’s favorite son, Tommy is thought to have amassed billions of dollars during his father’s thirty-year reign. Tommy also spent a suspiciously short few years in prison for ordering the murder of a Supreme Court justice in 2001. He has offered to bank roll Golkar for the next five years.


Money: A scandal surrounding the bailout of Indonesia’s Century Bank has landed the country’s most respected reformers in trouble. Finance Minister Sri Mulyani, who is highly respected internationally and at home for rooting out rampant corruption in Indonesia’s financial sector, is now answering questions as to why she approved the bailout for a small bank whose president was just sentenced to four years in prison for flouting banking laws. The bailout amounts to almost $700 million and local press stories inevitably include all the things that could have been done with that money, such as building 13,520 elementary schools. Mulyani, however, argues that the bailout was necessary to prevent a domino effect at a time when the world’s economies are flailing.


Following up on its hugely successful initial sale of Islamic bonds early this year, the government announced it would start regular Sukuk, as the bonds are known, sales starting in October. Indonesia, despite having the world’s largest population of Muslims, lags far behind the Middle East and Malaysia in Islamic finance markets. The country now plans to open up those markets further, including reducing taxes on Islamic transactions.


Elsewhere: In its various cultural spats with Malaysia, Indonesia looks poised to win a major battle. The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization announced this month it would likely include Indonesian batik as one of the world’s most important cultural traditions. The designation would recognize batik as originating in Indonesia and require its protection.


Julia Roberts is coming to Bali next month to begin filming Eat, Pray, Love, the film version of the wildly popular novel of the same name. The book describes a woman’s journey of self discovery after her divorce, which takes her to Italy and India before she eventually sorts it all out and finds love among the rice-terraced foothills of Ubud.