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Wednesday, June 19, 2013
- The United States is committing a major political blunder in Indonesia by focusing solely on terrorism and should concentrate instead on helping the country build its democratic institutions and revitalise its economy and education system, according to regional experts on Islam.
”The USA can help the situation by avoiding the impression that terrorism is the only defining factor” in bilateral relations, said Rizal Sukma, director of studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta and an executive board member of Muhammadiyah, the second largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia. ”The public face should be much broader.”
At the same time, the United States should not provide financial assistance to what it considers to be moderate alternatives to Islamic fundamentalists because to do so would undermine the those groups in the eyes of most Indonesians.
”Once accused of following the American agenda, they become irrelevant,” Sukma told a Washington seminar on Indonesia this month sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
For the Bush administration, that agenda includes enlisting Indonesia as a close partner in the war against terrorism and expanding military, police and intelligence ties to improve the Megawati government’s ability to counter the rise of Jemaah Islamiyah and other groups.
In November, U.S. security experts began training a special squad of Indonesian police in counter-terrorism under an 8 million U.S. dollar programme funded by the U.S. Congress. The U.S. military has also supplied Indonesia with high-tech communications and night vision gear and other equipment.
That programme has been complicated, however, by the Indonesian government’s refusal to prosecute military officers charged by a U.N. tribunal with committing atrocities in East Timor and continued reports of human rights abuses by the Indonesian military in Papua and Aceh.
Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department placed six current and former Indonesian officers on a watch list of indicted war criminals who cannot enter the United States. Among them is Gen Wiranto, the former head of the army who may run for president in this year’s presidential elections.
Also in January, Congress passed an amendment that bans the Bush administration from providing military training funds to Indonesia until the State Department determines that Indonesia is cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation of an ambush of eight teachers in Papua in 2002 that left two U.S. nationals dead and several seriously wounded.
That bill passed with strong support from several key Republicans. But many lawmakers are wary of providing military training to Indonesia out of fear that the army itself has been influenced by Islamic radicalism.
”There’s enough evidence of this complicity, that to give them any sort of military training, even if its in the name of the war on terror, is sort of an odd concept,” an aide to a senior House Republican who voted for the recent restrictions on military aide told IPS.
Sukwa said U.S. military assistance could only exacerbate Indonesia’s problems. ”I don’t think the military is the agent” to oppose terrorism, he said. ”You don’t need tanks, you don’t need F-16s. The key is intelligence.”
With parliamentary elections coming up in April and the first presidential primaries in July, military to military aid ”could create new problems in this new context,” he said. Already, Sukwa noted, the Indonesia military has ”expressed unhappiness” about the U.S. support for the police.
Osman Bakar, a professor at the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and a citizen of Malaysia, said U.S. intervention in domestic struggles against terrorists could also backfire.
Taking note of the recent deployment of U.S. military troops to the Philippines and U.S. intelligence assistance to Indonesia, he said there is a perception in the region ”that local governments are exploiting Sep. 11 and the war against terrorism to stifle” democratic movements.
He said U.S. policymakers would be wise to follow Sukma’s advice because Indonesia has made important advances in democracy even after experiencing major terrorist attacks in Bali and Jakarta over the last two years. ”In terms of winning hearts and minds, Indonesia is doing better than its neighbours,” he said.
In Singapore and Malaysia, two other countries where Islamic groups linked to al-Qaeda have been active, the governments have detained hundreds of suspected terrorists under security laws introduced by the British in 1948 to counter the rise of communist groups, Bakar said.
But Indonesia has avoided such draconian practices. Instead, when it captured the ringleaders of the Bali bombing, it placed them on trial.
Over the long term, that strengthens the belief in the public mind that ”the rule of law will succeed,” Bakar said. Indonesia ”can win the war because of the inner dynamics now being seen”.
Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at Centre for International and Strategic Studies in Washington and a former official with President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, said the United States has a strong interest in ”beating back the jihadists” but warned against seeing the conflict in Indonesia in black and white terms.
”Too many regimes have used the war on terror to put excessive pressure on groups they view as threatening,” he said. ”We shouldn’t make the same mistake we did during the last ideological struggle,” the Cold War. ”If so, it will be the blowback phenomenon again.”