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Taking Faith in the Security Forces

This article was published in my regular "mata jeli" column in the Singapore Straits Times on July 24, 2009.  The piece describes the security situation in Palu (Central Sulawesi, Indonesia), when the Medan Band visited the provincial capital.

One of the least noticed aspects of the bombings in Jakarta last week has been the extent to which Indonesians living in potential trouble spots in the outer islands of the archipelago demonstrated their faith in both the willingness and the ability of the nation’s security forces to protect them from copycat extremist violence. And from what I witnessed in Palu last week, that faith appears to be well justified.

The security situation has improved.
Palu, capital of the province of Central Sulawesi, lies 1,650km north-east of Jakarta. It is also about 200km north of the troubled city of Poso, the scene of bloody sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians from 1999 to 2002, and again in 2005, in which thousands of people were killed. Only in recent years, as a result of a clampdown on criminals and terror suspects, has there been a major improvement in the security situation in the city.

Palu, a city of about 300,000, has been relatively peaceful by comparison. But in July 2004, a Christian pastor was murdered during a church service when gunmen sprayed worshippers with automatic rifle fire. And in October 2006, the chief of the Central Sulawesi Church Synod was shot dead in the city.

There have also been several bombings. In December 2005, an explosion at a local market stall selling pork killed seven people and injured 45 others. And in September last year, children found a bomb under the seat of a vendor near the Palu Plaza shopping centre. No one was hurt.

Like much of Central Sulawesi, Palu’s population consists of about equal numbers of Christians and Muslims.

Thousands of delegates from all over Indonesia converged on Palu.
Last Friday, when news reached the provincial capital that suicide bombers had attacked two major hotels in Jakarta, the authorities were faced with a potentially serious security situation as thousands of delegates from all over Indonesia had converged on Palu for the Salvation Army’s national congress.

Like most other Christian denominations, the Salvation Army is well established in the outer islands. In Central Sulawesi alone, the international organisation, which is known for its charitable work, maintains two hospitals, a school, a children’s home and a radio station, as well as dozens of churches.

Concerned about the possibility of copycat violence, the local authorities immediately stepped up security at Lapangan Vatelemo, a large padang (field) in Palu where the congress was to take place. Ahead of the official opening later the same day, police armed with automatic weapons guarded the only entrance to the area, which had earlier been fenced off. Only those carrying registration cards issued by the organising committee were permitted inside. Elements from Brimob (the mobile police brigade) and Samapta Polda (the provincial police patrol unit) were also present.

Police conducted surprise checks.
Later in the day, all 14,000 participants were asked to leave the grounds while a special police unit took almost an hour to search the area for explosives ahead of the arrival of Provincial Governor Bandjela Paliudju. At the same time, police conducted a surprise check on all vehicles entering or leaving the surrounding streets.

Throughout the three-day congress, similarly tight security was provided for visiting speaker General (Retired) Paul Rader, a US citizen who served as the Salvation Army’s international leader from 1994 to 1999. Police in plain clothes were also stationed at other locations, including a government rest house where a visiting brass band from a Salvation Army boys’ home in Medan was staying, together with more than a dozen candidates from across the country awaiting ordination as officers (pastors).

An additional 5,000 security personnel were also deployed throughout the province to guard public facilities.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the events in Palu in the days immediately following the bombings in Jakarta was not so much the quick action of the authorities, but the extent to which the population seemed willing to accept the assurances of Governor Paliudju and Provincial Police Chief Brigadier-General Suparni Parto that they would be safe.

The streets remained crowded. 
A quick tour of the provincial capital last Saturday morning showed that despite the increased security and saturation coverage by the media of the Jakarta bombings the day before, the streets of Palu remained crowded. It was business as usual at the local shops. The mood inside the congress grounds was similarly relaxed. Congress participants displayed little concern about the possible security implications of wearing the Salvation Army’s distinctive uniform while walking the streets.

Indeed, the festive atmosphere was somewhat similar to the situation in Poso in May, when the authorities felt sufficiently confident about the improved security situation to hold a provincial-level Quran recital contest in the once troubled city.

It may be some time before Central Sulawesi can truly be said to be totally free from the threat of sectarian violence. But in the meantime, it is encouraging to see that the authorities are taking a pro-active rather than reactive approach to security issues.

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