Indonesia: Obama’s New Buddy Keeps Bad Company
On her recent Asian tour, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made Jakarta a key stop. The move signaled a new direction for American foreign policy in the region following that of the Bush administration — which was accused by critics of having neglected Southeast Asia, and of having alienated Indonesians with its military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While insiders and policy wonks might point out that the U.S. and Indonesia worked well together on counterterrorism issues during the Bush era — successfully undermining Jemaah Islamiyah, for instance — the perception lingers that Washington did not regard Indonesia, and Southeast Asia in general, as significant. That opened the way for China to forge intensified trade and diplomatic links in the region — both with its former enemies, such as Vietnam, as well as with strong U.S. allies, such as the Philippines, with whom China has unresolved territorial disputes.
Now, Obama’s apparent spring cleaning will see the United States deploy an ambassador to ASEAN, the regional organization comprising 10 Southeast Asian states. Clinton also deployed Obama’s trademark rhetoric on her stopover in Jakarta, saying that the United States will “reach out” to Indonesia as a potential ally and conduit into the wider Muslim world. And Obama himself is thought likely to pay a visit to Indonesia in late 2009, probably after the November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in Singapore.
Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, will stage parliamentary elections on April 9, the latest leg of a decade-long political transition. Clinton praised the country’s democratic transformation as proof that “Islam, democracy and modernity cannot only coexist but thrive together.”
Whether Indonesia can really provide the White House with a Muslim intermediary in the Sunni and Shiite heartlands of the Middle East and South Asia remains to be seen. But the archipelago does have some sway with at least some Muslim-majority countries. The problem for Obama is that it might not be the sort of leverage that he is looking for.
One such place where Indonesia enjoys close ties, for instance, is Sudan. Jakarta scorned the recent arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, saying it would undermine the so-called peace process in Darfur.
“We are very concerned with the implications the indictment might have on the Darfur peace process,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said. “We would like to hear more assessment from the ICC on how adverse the effect of the warrant will be.”
Indonesia has around 200 police in Darfur with the U.N.-AU peacekeeping force. More importantly, though, trade between the two countries is growing. As Sudan’s ambassador to Indonesia, Ibrahim Bushra Mohamed Ali, pointed out in a recent interview with the Jakarta Post, “Our bilateral trade increased to $781.39 million in the first 10 months of 2008, from $242.5 million in the same period in 2007.”
The growth is due in part to Indonesia’s significant oil interests in Sudan; state-owned Pertamina is among the companies granted concessions by Khartoum.
Following Obama’s election back in November, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono regaled a Washington audience with anecdotes of Indonesians crying with joy over the Bahasa-speaking senator’s victory. Call it realpolitik, or plain old chutzpah, but it seems that Jakarta is now following the Chinese lead when it comes to relations with Sudan: backing Khartoum and al-Bashir as part of a growing economic relationship, in a clear divergence from the U.S. line.
Obama’s telephone conversation with Yudhoyono on March 13 offers another example of a potentially thorny divergence. According to a statement issued by the White House, the two presidents discussed “regional and international issues, including the president’s commitment to a new and different kind of relationship with Islamic communities around the world.” The press release also mentioned “democracy and human rights in Burma” as a topic of discussion.
In Jakarta that same day, however, another statement was issued. This one welcomed the impending visit of Burma’s prime minister, Gen. Thein Sein, to Indonesia, describing the Burmese junta that Sein heads as “Indonesia’s friend.” At their meeting the following week, Yudhoyono and Sein went on to talk democracy, the plight of the Rohingya refugees and economic cooperation.
The Rohingya are one of many ethnic and religious minorities — to say nothing of ethnic and religious majorities — oppressed and marginalized by the military rulers in Burma. Some have found refuge in Aceh, the one-time secessionist Indonesian province on Sumatra’s northern end, itself recovering from the 2004 tsunami.
The relief for the Rohingya is certainly welcome. But Jakarta’s warm reception for Sein shows that Indonesia and its colleagues in ASEAN, of which Burma is a member, are not really committed to doing anything about democracy and human rights in Burma — nothing, anyway, that would breach ASEAN’s culture of non-interference, a principle that is to be codified in the body’s proposed human rights charter.
Indonesia’s many striking achievements since the fall of President Suharto in 1998 include building a vibrant multiparty democracy, manufacturing an economic recovery following the Asian financial crisis, reaching a peace settlement in conflict-wracked Aceh and overcoming the devastating 2004 tsunami. In a speech to the Asia Society prior to leaving on her Asia tour, Secretary Clinton stressed the two countries’ shared democratic values.
However, not only does Indonesia not share America’s views on two of the world’s most brutal regimes, it moreover regards both as allies. That could spell trouble for President Obama’s hopes of turning Indonesia into the United States’ privileged partner in Asia and the Muslim world.
Simon Roughneen is a freelance journalist and frequent WPR contributor who has reported from more than 20 countries. He is currently based in Southeast Asia.