War on Terror: Why Indonesia Exasperates America
Richard Halloran (Former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington)
(This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher)
The turmoil in Indonesia was underscored on Tuesday with the bombing of the J W Marriott hotel in Jakarta, which killed up to 16 people and wounded 150. It also added to the already surging concern of American officials in Washington and at the US Pacific Command's headquarters in Hawaii, where one officer with access to intelligence reports lamented what he called "a chaotic situation".
Particularly troubling have been continued threats from terrorist organisations, notably the Jemaah Islamiah group, despite the arrest of 130 suspects since the Bali bombings last October in which 202 people died. The threats, plus other ills, have prevented Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, from emerging as a leader of a moderate Islam that many Muslims - and the United States - would like to see.
James Leach, chairman of a congressional subcommittee on Asian affairs, said that in Indonesia "extremist networks are larger, more capable and more active than was previously believed". Admiral Thomas Fargo, commander of US forces in Asia, agreed. "Indonesia is a key battleground in the struggle against terrorism and radicalism," he said. Other problems add to the chaos, including: first, a weak performance by President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose administration has been plagued by scandal. Moreover, the opposition is in disarray, with no sign of being able to mount a serious challenge for the presidency.
Second, separatist movements in Aceh and Papua. Elsewhere, religious frictions and ethnic violence are tearing at the national fabric.
Third, soaring piracy. The International Maritime Bureau in London has reported a 37 per cent rise in attacks around the world during the first half of this year, of which one quarter took place near Indonesia.
Fourth, backsliding by the Indonesian army, perhaps the most cohesive force in the country. It had begun to reform but has returned to abusing human rights, running illegal mining and lumber operations, and prostitution rackets.
US officers admit they are hindered from trying to bring about change in the Indonesian army. The US international military education and training programme flourished in Indonesia from 1989 to 1992, but was then halted by Congress. "We are now dealing with armed forces who have no window on the west," said John Haseman, a retired colonel and former defence attach?in Jakarta. Officers "may never agree with all of our teachings, but at the very least, it provided contacts and some insight for the Indonesian military on western thinking. People we know are easier to work with than those we don't know".
One Democrat, Senator Russell Feingold, has opposed the military educational programme because of a lack of interest in meaningful reform. "Commitment at the highest levels is what it takes to turn this relationship around," he said.
Besides looking to Indonesia for help in the war on terror, the Pacific Command hoped to see the emergence of a democracy as part of a defensive bulwark against China if it sought to dominate Asia and drive the US from the western Pacific.
One officer said that the Chinese "have been working overtime" to gain influence with officials in Jakarta to preclude Indonesia from allying itself with the US.
The inability of Ms Megawati to confront Indonesia's problems has caused dismay. "A broad pessimism about the administration has crept into newspaper commentary in Indonesia and the international press," said Anthony Smith, of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu.
In a recent assessment, he said Ms Megawati is seen principally as the daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno. (Sukarnoputri means "daughter of Sukarno"). "Her appeal is based solely on her lineage, not what she can offer as a political leader."
Attorney-General Muhammad Abdul Rachman has been tainted by scandal after he neglected to declare a luxury house as an asset, while Vice-President Hamzah Haz regularly courts the leaders of militant Muslim groups. Ms Megawati has appeased, rather than controlled, the army and has failed to lift the economy out of the doldrums.
With no relief in sight, it is little wonder that US radar screens are filled with gloomy images.