Losing Friends in Indonesia

Losing Friends in Indonesia

Even moderates who have denounced terrorism fear being seen as US puppets.


A major casualty in President Bush’s “war on terrorism” has been the good will of moderate Muslims toward the United States. Nowhere is this more evident than in Indonesia. “The bottom has indeed fallen out of support for the United States,” note the American authors of “Changing Minds, Winning Peace,” a policy paper distributed to US embassies in October. “In Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, only 15 percent view the US favorably, compared with 61 percent in early 2002.”

This precipitous drop–the largest in the world, as one US diplomat in Jakarta points out with sadness–is twisting policies and politics in Indonesia, a fledgling democracy already struggling with a shaky economy, rampant corruption and internal separatist movements. “The genius of the radicals is that their aims have been augmented by Bush’s policies,” said Nurcholish Madjid, a highly respected Muslim scholar and a presidential hopeful. “Indonesians are not happy with the war against terrorism, despite the success of their police in fighting it, primarily because they don’t trust the US government,” said Sidney Jones, southeast Asia project director of the International Crisis Group (ICG). “They don’t want to be a part of a US-led campaign. On this, there’s virtually no difference between the moderates and the fringe radicals.”

Indonesians criticize Bush’s conflation of Arab terrorism with Islam, and complain that his policies demonstrate a double standard, chief among the examples being the US failure to respond to human rights abuses against Palestinians by Israel and visa policies that make it extremely difficult for Indonesians, no matter what their religion, to enter the United States. They condemn his disregard for the United Nations and worry about his unilateral war in Iraq. “The situation in Iraq today bears momentous implications on the global war against terrorism,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda warned at an international conference on security this month, adding that the “arbitrary pre-emptive war” against Iraq has set a precedent for other nations.

Words like arrogant, bullying, imperial, neocolonial and a new pharaoh sprinkle elite Indonesians’ comments about President Bush; more vehement adjectives pepper tabloids, Muslim websites and some clerics’ sermons. There is a sense that America, now the world’s only superpower, is a superbully, lacking respect for other nations’ opinions or even their right to have opinions. “Right now, if you believe Bush, Indonesia is known only as an exporter of terrorism,” said Rizal Ramli, a former minister of finance under President Abdurrahman Wahid (better known as Gus Dur). “That’s now our only famous export.”

Ramli and other political analysts worry about the negative impact of Bush’s war on terrorism on the political landscape in Indonesia. “The US foreign policy is now focused on terrorism–but the fact is, here and elsewhere, economic progress and recovery is much more important,” said Ramli. “Poverty is equated with radicalism, whether it’s religious or other forms of extremism. If we don’t see economic recovery–and for that to happen, we’ll need US help–in the long term, there will definitely be more extremists.”

Buddhists and Christians here are equally dismayed. Ignas Kleden, a sociologist with the Center for East Indonesian Affairs in Jakarta, says that Islamist hard-liners have come to the fore by playing on animosity against Bush. “They make use of the momentum, call for a demo–give out some money to students and others to show up–and they appear to the public, here and abroad, as speakers for Indonesia. They want to consolidate their position as an important wing in the country’s politics–which they are not.” One example of this occurred when fifteen terror suspects were arrested in Central Java. There was a well-organized protest of 20,000 people. No senior Indonesian official came to the defense of the police, notes the ICG’s Jones; on the contrary, there seems to be an orchestrated campaign to go after the police.

Extreme PC

Jones, who is heading a project to trace Indonesian terrorism and its roots, comments that although there are dangerous terrorists in Indonesia, many Indonesian Muslims still do not believe that Jemaah Islamiah (JI), an alliance of local groups, was responsible for acts including the Bali bombs in 2002 and the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta this past August. After the Bali bombs, conspiracy theories were rampant, she says, with the CIA heading the list of suspects. “The conspiracy theories started to die down with the openness of the trials of the Bali bombers and the saturation coverage in the press,” said Jones. They swirled again after the capture in Thailand of Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali. Intelligence experts in Singapore and the United States say that Hambali is a high-level figure in JI and received funds from Al Qaeda for the Bali bombing–claims that Jones says have been supported by various documents, researchers and testimony in the trials. Hambali is being held incommunicado by the United States, but the cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who is accused of being the spiritual leader of JI and who just won the appeal of his conviction for sedition, denies that he or his former student Hambali had any link to Al Qaeda. All they have done, he says, is campaign to impose Sharia–Islamic law. The leader of the Indonesian Mujahideen Movement, MMI, has, in the past, suggested that the person being held by the Americans is an imposter. The US authorities have refused to turn Hambali over or even to let Indonesian police directly interview him.

Indonesians argue that Hambali’s testimony would have helped in the recent trial of Bashir and is necessary for other upcoming trials. In recent years, there have been some fifty bombings in Indonesia, in addition to the Bali and Jakarta attacks. “I and other moderate Muslims are sickened by the bombings,” said Salim Said, an expert in military affairs who has taught in the United States. “But America doesn’t help us. We need Hambali for our trials to convince the conservatives inside and outside of Indonesia that he is really part of the terrorist plot.” Bush has promised access sometime in the future. In the meantime, many Indonesians remain skeptical; in December Bashir’s sentence was reduced from four years to three after his appeal victory.

There is a sort of Muslim political correctness at work in Indonesia, and even leaders who have spoken out against terrorism hesitate to condemn JI, whose name translates as “Islam community.” Hasyim Muzadi, the leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, has avoided taking a firm stand, for fear of being accused of kowtowing to the United States. Top government officials such as coordinating minister for politics and security Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (another potential presidential candidate) and police chief Da’i Bachtiar have condemned JI in speeches in the United States, but have yet to repeat those accusations publicly in Indonesia. Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose brief presidency has been marked with indecision and an unwillingness to deal with tough issues, has not banned JI or, for that matter, even publicly condemned the group. Instead, she has increasingly depended on the military to respond to the situation, reinforcing their already close ties.

Playing the Islamist Card

Political analysts say that the “back to the barracks” policy actively pursued by Gus Dur during his brief term as president is being slowed as Megawati bends to US pressure to bolster the military. In a May 2003 poll, 68 percent of Indonesians questioned said they wanted an authoritarian leader who can “save Indonesia.” Moderates already see the military as asserting political influence behind the scenes. Now the worry is that some officers–particularly those who remain close to former dictator Suharto and his still-powerful associates–might take center stage. When General Wiranto, the former chief of Indonesia’s armed forces and an indicted war criminal, announced his bid for the presidency, crooning nationalistic ballads to crowds, few analysts took him seriously. Now he is one of the leading contenders to run as the candidate of GOLKAR, Suharto’s political machine and one of the two major national parties.

As the mid-2004 presidential election approaches–the first direct election in Indonesian history–others are using resentment toward Bush’s policies to jockey for position. Vice President Hamzah Haz, yet another presidential hopeful, called the United States “the king of terrorists” because of its “war crimes” in Iraq, and he publicly disagreed with Megawati when she voiced support for the United States in the days following September 11. Both he and M. Din Syamsuddin, vice chairman of the 30-million-strong Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization and arguably its most influential, have been vocal defenders of Abu Bakar Bashir. (Syamsuddin likened Bush to a “drunken horse” and castigated the US “need for oil and gas from the lands of the Muslim world.”)

Indonesian moderates argue that in many ways the Bush Administration’s war on terror has made their job of nurturing democracy harder. The long imprisonment of Muslims without judicial review in Guantánamo is for many a display of US double standards regarding Muslims. Lilis Nurul Husna, director of NU’s Human Resource Studies and Development Institute, suggests that Bush’s policies run counter to his message of democracy: “The real message seems to be power equals right.”

Hard-liners, meanwhile, have taken their cues from the Bush Administration, as evidenced by proposals for an antiterrorism act that would allow suspects to be held without judicial review. In the first round of debates, liberal members argued that there were already laws on the books sufficient to the task; the draconian law, they argued, would bring back the dark practices of the Suharto era. In reply, supporters pointed to the US Homeland Security Act.

For its part, the Indonesian military has lifted pages directly out of the US military game plan in Iraq for its campaign against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has been waging a separatist struggle in that northwestern province since the 1970s. Starting this past May, when President Megawati declared martial law, the army has carried out its own “shock and awe” operation. Foreign journalists were for the most part denied entry, while Indonesian reporters were “embedded” with the army. Interviews with GAM fighters or suspected sympathizers were prohibited; TV feeds were broadcast from state-of-the-art government studios.

If that sounds familiar to Americans, there’s a reason: According to two sources quoted in a recent Human Rights Watch report, officers from Indonesia’s armed forces actively sought US advice and guidance on how to manage the media with respect to Aceh.

There are other similarities. The Indonesian campaign in Aceh, like America’s in Iraq, has not gone as quickly as planned. Six months into the operation, the military has killed about 900 GAM members and 300 citizens; more than 1,800 have been arrested. What was to have been a lightning blitz has been extended another six months. To avoid international criticism, Jakarta cast GAM as “terrorists” (one senior adviser to Megawati called the campaign the “blessing of September 11”). Indonesia flirted briefly with the notion of applying to the UN to have GAM officially declared as such, but then decided against it, since the government would have had to allow international observers into the region, access that has been denied since the declaration of martial law. “The international community should not allow the Indonesian government to use legitimate concerns about terrorism in Indonesia to deflect attention from equally legitimate concerns about the current crisis in Aceh,” warned Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

Muzzling the Press

The Indonesian press, robust in its investigation of what is commonly referred to as KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism) since the fall of Suharto, has suffered a spate of attacks–attacks that have received little attention domestically or internationally, thanks to the focus on terrorism. In Aceh, where the martial law commander has stated, “I want all news published to contain the spirit of nationalism,” some journalists have been physically threatened when they failed to heed the message. In Jakarta, the government has been using defamation laws that have been on the books since the colonial period to convict and sentence journalists, most recently for a story insulting the president and a cartoon lampooning the convicted Speaker of the House. “These prosecutions cast a shadow over all the human rights gains made in Indonesia” since the fall of Suharto, noted a recent Human Rights Watch report.

Powerful corporate interests are also using the court in an attempt to silence critics. Bambang Harymurti, editor in chief of Tempo magazine (Indonesia’s equivalent to Time), is now in court, fighting for the life of his publication against suits brought by a businessman who has charged Tempo and its editors with civil and criminal libel and defamation. All these attacks have created “a culture of fear within the media community,” according to Indonesian human rights lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis, who with a number of other concerned lawyers has worked on the cases pro bono.

In between court appearances, Bambang has been on the lecture circuit, talking to various groups about the importance of a free press. But recently his job has been made harder, as Indonesians see the idea of the free press under attack in the United States, with embedded journalists in Iraq and what Indonesians perceive to be one-sided reportage by CNN and Fox News (received here via satellite). To make his message more believable, he says with regret, Bambang has had to change his pitch: “I used to allude to American democracy and Jefferson and the Federalist Papers,” Bambang said. “Now, no more Jefferson. As a replacement, I started looking to England, but I’ve decided better to look to Europe–perhaps Rousseau and Montesquieu.”

Nurcholish Madjid, the Muslim scholar, agrees that the United States is no longer Indonesia’s sole template for democracy. “Indonesia is a nation in the making, born out of the imagination,” he notes. “In the 1940s, when we wanted to set up a political system, we looked to America, which was then under Roosevelt. We chose a presidential system, and like America, we took a bird to symbolize freedom–yours the eagle, ours the garuda. We placed our national values in a primary document and named it the Declaration of Independence.” Now, he says, Indonesia has turned away from the United States and is taking its cues from other established democracies.

And just as Indonesia has to redefine itself, he says, so must the world work toward what he calls a “new world equilibrium” that rejects Bush’s simplistic good-versus-evil, us-versus-them formula. “We can’t have a world like in the past, communism versus capitalism–that is too threatening to world peace,” he says. “We have to have a world order based on multiculturalism and pluralism: a world in which there is harmony and cooperation between opposites, like the wings of a bird, left and right, that allow the bird to fly.”

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