On Sunday, September 23, small group of protestors claiming to be members of Islamic youth movements marched on a number of hotels and the airport in Solo (Surakarta), Central Java, demanding to be given the names of all American guests. Their desire: to physically confront those guests and tell them to prepare to leave the Country should U.S. forces launch an attack on Afghanistan. According to press reports, the protest continued through the following day at a rally attended by hundreds in the City of Solo.
Ironically, the protests failed to turn up a single American, but did manage along the way to inflict substantial damage on Central Java's efforts to re-establish itself as a world tourism destination. As a result of those protests, large numbers of people working in the tourism sector in Central Java will suffer prolonged economic dislocation and the fate of the long-awaited ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) scheduled for next January 21-28 in nearby Yogyakarta is now in jeopardy. The ATF is one of the leading travel and tourism marketing events held each year on a rotating basis among the members of ASEAN.
The ATF has been heralded as a symbolic re-start for Central Java tourism, an industry which has suffered badly as the result of Indonesia's recent period of political and economic uncertainty. Adopted as the pet project of Yogyakarta's Governor and much-loved Sultan, Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X, the hosting of the ATF includes an ambitious building program now underway to provide the necessary facilities to support the event.
The protestors in Solo, who included members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), have been subsequently severely condemned by both Moslem and non-Moslem religious leaders, Cabinet Members, and Indonesian legislators. Those condemnations, which are arguably more reflective of the more moderate views held by most Indonesians, received much less "air time" than the initial protests which were extensively covered by CNN and a host of other international media.
The image of Indonesia portrayed in those press reports was not a pretty one. The idea of angry crowds rounding up hapless tourists from their hotels and forcibly ejecting them from the country is the total opposite of the image cultivated by countries seeking to encourage tourism arrivals. In a single day, the fundamental expectation of personal security and privacy for any potential visitor to Central Java was destroyed. Over time the damage done by the protestors will likely diminish, however, the more expedient solution is for the Government to take firm steps that underlines their position on the matter and demonstrably assures visitors that such attacks, already the second occurrence in recent memory, will never reoccur.
Sadly such steps, necessary to salvage the area's reputation, appear to be somehow beyond the political will of local law enforcement authorities in Central Java. Numerous laws were violated when the protestors issued their threats, including among others statues against inciting public unrest and the utterance of statements against a specific religious, tribal or racial groups. Yet, despite public statements by the chairman of the House Committee on security and foreign affairs and other national leaders urging Solo's police to apprehend and arrest the leaders of the protest, the perpetrators remain at large. As a result, there's little that can be convincingly said to alleviate the fears of international travelers who will, in all probablility, give Central Java a wide-miss.
The exercise of a modicum of law-and-order, including the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for the public threats issued on September 23rd, would go a long way to redeem Central Java's reputation in the eyes of the world while at the same time provide a convincing message for those of us still trying to urge the world tourism industry to support ATF, next January.
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