Indonesia bombs jolt expats after years of peace

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Bombings are not new to expatriates in Indonesia. But the latest attacks hit a nerve because the luxury buildings were thought to be among the best guarded in the country.

Jakarta – Scenes of blood-smeared businessmen being stretchered out of luxury Jakarta hotels have had a chilling effect on expatriates and investors lulled by years of relative peace in Indonesia.

The bombs that tore through the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels Friday were apparently assembled in a guest room by Islamist radicals who then walked among businessmen and diplomats before detonating their devices.

Of the 16 men who sat at a Marriott breakfast table for a briefing organised by consulting firm Castle Asia, four were killed, including a New Zealander and three Australians, and the rest were wounded, a company source said.

"The method used in this attack was more sophisticated... so that's a lot more sinister, and a new twist," said Martin Hughes, director of Business Risk Indonesia.

"But no, I don't think it will stop investment. There will be a temporary hiccup in some instances but the show will go on," he said.

Australian sports consultant Geoffrey Gold, who was friends with several men at the meeting, described the carnage at the two hotels which left at least eight dead and 55 injured as "shocking".

"This particular bombing has struck a bit harder than the other ones, because things had seemed to be going so well in Indonesia in the last few years," said the long-time expatriate.

"For this to recur seems to be a hit below the belt."

But the foreign business community, vital to Indonesia's ambitions to unlock its vast economic potential, is battle-hardened after a decade of terror attacks and most defied expectations that they would cut-and-run.

"All the expats I know are fine, they're not worried, they're not thinking about getting out of the country. This sort of thing can happen anywhere so you just need to adjust," said Jessica Uekermann, a 32-year-old hotel manager.

"This has happened so many times already in this country," she said as she strolled with a friend through Jakarta's opulent new Grand Indonesia shopping mall.

Friday's blasts are the first major attack in Indonesia since 2005 bombings in Bali. But since 2000 there have been numerous incidents including a 2003 car bomb at the Marriott and a 2004 attack on the Australian embassy.

"Expatriates have been hit so many times with bombings both in Jakarta and Bali and there's a certain loss of sensitivity towards the fear that a bombing generates," Hughes said.

But he said the latest attacks hit a nerve because the luxury buildings were thought to be among the best guarded in the country, and because many of the victims were high-profile business people.

Indonesia's expatriate community is now much smaller than before 1998, when the regional economic crisis combined with the political chaos of the fall of long-time leader Suharto to trigger a mass exodus.

The foreigners who remain include many who speak the language, are pursuing long-term business plans, and have a vested interest in Indonesia's development.

However, newcomers and those planning postings to the gritty Indonesian capital are more jittery than the old hands.

"I don't want to go out tonight or really do anything. It's quite eerie. My parents are freaking out and want me to come home," said Heidi Fullick, a 22-year-old teacher from Australia who has been here for four months.

"I heard the blast but I didn't tell them I go to the Ritz for salsa classes at least once a week," she said. "I don't think it'll change what I do on a regular basis, though."

Indonesia, a diverse but mainly Muslim archipelago of 234 million people, has emerged from years of crisis to become an engine of growth in Asia and an unlikely beacon of democracy in an increasingly unstable region.

The stock market has already soared almost 50 percent this year and the economy is forecast to post growth of more than four percent in 2009, third only to China and India of the G20 group of rich and developing countries.

But Yodhoyono himself has said the attacks "will have wide effects on our economy, trade, tourism and image in the eyes of the world".

The stock market and the rupiah currency were resilient Friday but analysts are tipping more volatility in the weekend ahead.

And on the holiday island of Bali, which is still recovering from bloody terror attacks seven years ago that killed over 200 people, mostly foreign tourists, tourism operators are seriously rattled.

AFP / Expatica

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