SAFETY and SECURITY – Debunking the myth that Indonesia is a dangerous country to visit

Bali Bombings Memorial

Memorial at Kuta in Bali to the more than 200 people who died in the terrorist bombings of 2002. Pic Jonathan Liem – Wiki Commons

Many people are nervous about visiting Indonesia because they think they will be putting their lives or health at risk. Yet the facts show this is just plain wrong. The reality is that most Westerners who visit Indonesia are safer than if they stayed home.

The extent of nervousness, even fear, about travelling Indonesia only dawned on me when I returned to Australia after 16 years living and roaming happily in Sumatra and Java without ever being fearful.

When I suggested to Australian friends, acquaintances, and even people in the travel industry, that they might enjoy a visit to Indonesia, a typical response would be:

“I don’t think I would want to go there … it sounds dangerous?”

They would speak of bombings and terrorists, or maybe about poverty, health fears, corruption, language difficulties, hygiene, and even squat toilets.

All these various these responses were code for:

‘Indonesians are mainly Muslims, and we all know Islam and Muslims are dangerous.’

I even had one man tell me directly: “Not for me with all those Muslims – wave your arms the wrong way and you’ll end up in jail.”

All of which is rubbish – poppycock, nonsense, drivel, dumb, and irrational BS. 

These sad sentiments are an echo of our times. We are living in an era of international religious and political tensions, extreme views, polarization, fearfulness, on-line echo chambers and pervasive, blimd prejudice.

The truth is that most people who actually spend time in Indonesia consider Indonesians as being among the warmest and most welcoming people anywhere. 

FACTS - A quick reality check

The statistics widely used to measure dangers by country are clear.

The 2021 Global Peace Index (1) ranked Indonesia at 42nd safest among 163 countries surveyed. But wait … there’s more:

This ranking suggests Indonesia is WAY SAFER than the USA, China, Thailand, the Philippines, Israel, India, or Russia!

It is comparable with South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, but safer than Vietnam, France, Greece and MORE THAN 100 OTHER COUNTRIES.

And there is even more … figures from 2017 and 2018 published in the World Population Review for 2022 show that Indonesia has fewer murders and serious assaults per capita than peaceful Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Germany, and Canada – and way less than the USA.

Clearly, there is a huge gap between reality and public perceptions.

In short, it is high time the perception that Indonesia is an especially dangerous place was put to bed. Because it is rubbish.

Take a good look at some 'SCARY' Indonesians

Young Indonesia girls outside mosque in Jakarta
Crowd of Indonesian people in Jakarta
Indonesian president meeting the People

TOP: A happy bunch of typical young Muslim girls at Jakarta’s massive Istiqlal Mosque (Pic theculturetrip.com) MIDDLE: Indonesia is a crowded country, and most crowds are happy (Pic indonesianinvestments.com), and (ABOVE) Indonesia is a country where a President can freely mix with the people without a massive security detail (Pic globalinsights.com)

The consequences of a Muslim majority and superficial media coverage

Western travelers can’t be blamed for being hesitant because they have long been fed an adverse, and superficial coverage of Indonesia from the international media and ill-informed commentators.

And Indonesia itself is partly to blame because for long periods during the Suharto New Order years, the government discouraged on-the-ground scrutiny from both domestic and international media.

Writers and commentators often had no option but to resort to long-distance reporting and analysis.

Most often international reports were critical and negative or focused on disasters, because in the broader scheme Indonesia was a place where for long periods not all that much ‘newsworthy’ seemed to happen.

When something significant DID happen there often were no international journalists or commentators there to see and report on it.

A reaction to radical  terrorism elsewhere

However, the fact that 88% of Indonesians are Muslims undoubtedly also has played a big part in shaping more recent public perceptions.

The 9/11 attacks in the US, and subsequent events in the Middle East and Europe. involving Islamic extremists, shocked the world.

Subsequently a constant barrage of social and mainstream media gave the impression that Muslims are mainly ‘bad’ and responsible for much of the bad stuff that happens – that Muslims hate ‘infidels’ and want to convert the world to Sharia law.

So, it’s no wonder fair-minded and decent folk feel nervous and suspicious about Indonesia – because it has more Muslims than any other nation.

Sadly, the events of the first two decades of the millennium and opinions swirling around them have swamped the reality that the vast majority of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims lead and aspire to quiet, peaceful lives with a focus on family and community.

Just like their 2.3 billion Christian cousins, and the millions of Buddhists, Hindus, and followers of assorted other religions.

Indonesian Muslims are appalled by radicals and extremists

Indonesia police arrest terrorist suspects

Police arrest suspected terrorists affiliated to the Islamic State-linked terrorist group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) in West Java in 2019 – Pic thestar.com.my

Most Indonesians detest and are appalled by the miniscule proportion of Indonesian Muslims who follow or support radical groups like ISIS.

An estimated 700 Indonesians travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. Many soon returned home disillusioned. Subsequently the Indonesian Government banned the return of the rest, the only exception being children under 10.

ISIS joiners included many from Western countries

By comparison, more than 1,900 French citizens joined ISIS, along with more than 1,000 Germans, 900 Brits, 500 Belgians and even around 300 US citizens.

Newsweek journalist once dubbed Islam in Indonesia as ‘Islam with a Smiling Face’. The phrase captures the essence of the moderate nature of Muslim culture across the archipelago.

Indonesian academic and cultural researcher Ahmad Najib Burhani says Islam in Indonesia is “peaceful, moderate and shows a positive attitude towards democracy, modernity, plurality, and human rights”.

Despite periodic courting of ‘hardliners’ by some Indonesian politicians in recent years, it is widely agreed that tolerance and moderation make Indonesian Islam distinct from that in the Middle East.

And contrary to a widely held belief, though it has a Muslim majority Indonesia is secular and not a ‘Muslim Country’. The Constitution prescribes religious freedom. Christians and followers of other religions freely follow and practice their faiths.

The extraordinary contradiction of the Bali terrorist bombings

It is ironic that many of the people who are fearful about visiting ‘Indonesia’ are often quite happy to take a holiday in Bali.

Until COVID, Bali was attracting around 6 million international tourists a year. Yet Bali is the very place where Indonesia’s most notorious terrorist attacks happened.

On the numbers it is by far the most ‘dangerous’ place for terrorism in Indonesia.

The Bali suicide bombings of 2002 and 2005 killed 225 people with more than 200 injured, including many foreign holidaymakers from Australia and the UK.

But NONE of the millions of international visitors to Bali since 2005 has experienced any kind of terror incident. Indeed, visitors love this ‘Island of the Gods’ because of its atmosphere of spiritual peace.

I was surprised and deeply moved when after the Bali bombings Indonesian Muslim people came to me with tears in their eyes to apologize and ask forgiveness for what their countrymen had done.

They were just as as upset, disconsolate, and angry as Australians about what had happened. They left no doubt that they disowned the perpetrators.

There have been lesser bombings in 2003 and 2004 in Jakarta and a street attack in 2016. Indonesians were the main victims in all of them. In 2018 thirteen Indonesian attackers and 15 civilian victims also died in bombings at a police station and a church in Surabaya.

But today residents and visitors in neither Jakarta nor Surabaya feel threatened.

Police success in Indonesian anti-terrorism campaigns

The Indonesian police and security authorities have been lauded internationally for their vigilance and successes against terror groups.

Surviving perpetrators of the Bali bombings died before a firing squad while Malaysian radicals credited with planning the attacks were hunted down and died in a shoot-out with police.

The radical cleric accused of encouraging the Bali terrorists was jailed for 15 years.

His co-founder of the Southeast Asian jihadist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JL) was arrested by American agents and local police in Thailand and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

 
Indonesian police take Bali Bomber to Court
Bomb Maker for Bali Terrorist attack facing court
Hmabali - co-planner of Bali bombings

TOP: Samudra, convicted as one of the masterminds, was one of three Bali bombers executed in 2008 (Pic-Coconuts.co). ABOVE LEFT: Umar Patek before the Bali court – once Indonesia’s most wanted with a reward of $1m, he was arrested in Pakistan in 2011 hiding out in the same town as Osama Bin Laden. Patek is serving 20 years after conviction as one of the bomb-makers. ABOVE RIGHT: Alleged key Bali bombing mastermind, Riduan Isanuddin, alias Hambali – arrested in Thailand and now locked up in Guantanamo Bay (Pic asiatimes.com)

THAT OTHER INDONESIA PHOBIA ...

Facts about earthquakes and those famous rings of fire volcanoes

Some would-be travelers also worry about the risk of earthquakes and eruptions from Indonesia’s many volcanoes due to its location on the Pacific and Indian Ocean ‘Ring of Fire.’

That’s understandable given the magnitude of the Indian Ocean Tsunami that tragically killed almost 170,000 people on Boxing Day in 2004 (2).

Furthermore, as of 2020 a further 12,000 people had died due to earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcano eruptions elsewhere in Indonesia.

Mt Merapi volcano near Yogyakarta

Mount Merapi near Yogyakarta in Central Java is one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes. When it is not erupting tourists make midnight hikes to the summit to watch the dawn sunrise.

But how much of a risk are visitors really running?

I have searched without success for information on how many of the dead were foreign visitors or expatriates, which suggests the numbers are probably few.

The Indonesian Center of Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation continuously monitors 136 Indonesian volcanoes and raises warnings and alerts of activity.

It has been said that an earthquake of magnitude 5.0 or lower on the Richter Scale happens somewhere in Indonesia almost every day (3).

They happen with infrequent reports of deaths, injury or significant damage.

To put the overall picture into perspective, Japan has more earthquakes than Indonesia, and over the 100 years to 2016 China had more major earthquakes than Indonesia (4)

And as for those 12,000 non-Sumatra Tsunami victims who died over the two decades to 2020 – The total ‘Ring of Fire” fatalities sounds big but compares with around 600,000 deaths on Indonesian roads over the same period (around 30,000 a year – just a tad more per capita than the USA). 

Those volcanoes are certainly spectacular and scary if and when they start shaking the earth or spewing lava, gases, pyroclastic flows and ash high into the air. But maybe they are not as immediate a threat as some of us sometimes fear

IN SUMMARY ...

Often the people most vocal about Muslims and inadequate services and facilities have never visited Indonesia or, for that matter, met any Indonesian people.

People who have travelled in this remarkable and fascinating country almost invariably have a different view.

Once they have met and chatted with Indonesia’s warm, welcoming, and gracious people and enjoyed their hospitality, they know first-hand that the idea of Indonesia as dangerous is just plain wrong.

As in every country, there are a few potentially violent extremists in Indonesia and most of them are Muslim, simply because most Indonesians are Muslims.

But the odds are overwhelming that, as a visitor, you will never be touched by their activities.

Indeed, with its widely held values of consensus, courtesy, graciousness, tolerance and respect, the reality is that Indonesia will be among the least violent countries you will ever experience.

Visitor fatalities mainly from accidents and natural causes

Most deaths or injuries of foreigners in Indonesia are the result of natural causes, traffic accidents (often crashes on rented motorbikes), or work accidents. At any time, thousands of expatriates are working in Indonesia.

You may be surprised to know that in 2018 twice as many Australians died in predominantly Buddhist Thailand (238 of them) as in Indonesia (117). And 40% more died in the predominantly Christian Philippines. ­­­­­­­

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t take commonsense precautions when visiting Indonesia (or any new and different country) for the first time. There are precautions to take, and articles on this site tell you about them.

But broadly, provided you are prudent and bring a happy heart, a generous smile, and a positive, open outlook you can be confident your visit to Indonesia will be safe, secure, and wonderfully rewarding.

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Douglas Cole

Doug is a former journalist and broadcaster who lived and travelled in Indonesia and Southeast Asia from 2002 to 2018. He returned to Indonesia in mid-2022 after being stranded in Australia by COVID border closures. He is completing a book under the working title ‘INDONESIA – Safely, Easily, and in Comfort.’

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