By Joe Cochrane
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 19, 2006
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- In the run-up to President Bush's visit to Indonesia this week, two dozen members of a fundamentalist Islamic group raided and occupied a historic botanical garden in the mountain town of Bogor, outside Jakarta. Their target was the site where a construction crew was building a landing pad for Bush's helicopter. Their message was simple: Bush was not welcome in the world's largest Muslim-majority country.
Within 30 minutes, hammers were pounding again and the cement mixer had resumed turning, but as a media event, the gimmick briefly worked. Other, little-known Muslim groups began protesting Bush's visit and were given blanket coverage by local news outlets. Senior members of Indonesia's parliament accused Bush of slaughtering Muslims worldwide and claimed his half-day visit to Bogor was part of a plot to control Indonesia's economy.
The Jakarta government barely responded to the protests, and didn't need to. Relations between Indonesia and the United States are their warmest in decades, evidenced by the growing friendship between Bush and his counterpart, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
"These clowns are just making noises," Juwono Sudarsono, the Indonesian defense minister, said of the protesters. "Anti-Americanism is a high-tech industry."
Although the Indonesian government and most of the country's 230 million people are against the U.S. presence in Iraq, many are thrilled that Bush is coming to talk about American funding for education, anti-poverty and anti-corruption programs.
And in a marked turnaround in the relationship, the two countries have grown closer because of common military and security concerns, issues that Indonesian officials say are not on the official agenda for Bush's brief visit.
The Indonesian armed forces, known as the TNI, have long been seen as the only institution capable of preventing the country of 7,000 disparate islands from fragmenting along geographical and ethnic lines. But the United States had imposed sanctions on the military for most of the 1990s because of repeated reports of human rights violations, including rapes, kidnappings, murders of political activists and the widespread killing of civilians in such outlying provinces as Aceh and Papua.
The United States severed most ties with the Indonesian military after its rampage in the territory of East Timor in 1999. To date, no senior officer has been held accountable for any crimes. In 2002, East Timor was internationally recognized as an independent state.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, U.S. officials publicly criticized then-President Megawati Sukarnoputri for not doing enough to combat terrorism and for not arresting militants allegedly linked to al-Qaeda.
The Bush administration informed Congress early last year that it was fully restoring military training programs with Indonesia. Last November, the White House lifted a ban on selling military hardware to the TNI despite concerns from some lawmakers and outrage from Indonesian human rights activists and victim-advocacy groups.
The two countries now conduct joint military exercises and closely cooperate on counterterrorism. This month, an advance team of Indonesian soldiers arrived in Beirut aboard a U.S. military transport plane to join a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.
"In the post-9/11 era, many people recognized that Indonesia is important not only because of its geographically strategic importance, but its position in the Islamic world," said Paul Rowland, director of the National Democratic Institute in Jakarta, a U.S.-funded democracy-building organization. "Plus, there's a huge acceptance and support of democracy here."
After the confrontation between the United States and Indonesia in the 1990s over human rights, the Bush administration opted for a pragmatic approach. It saw Indonesia as an example of a country trying to move toward democracy after decades of authoritarianism under strongman Suharto, who ruled from 1966 to 1998.
And there were fears the country could break apart amid widespread religious and ethnic violence, terrorist attacks and a prolonged economic crisis.
Sudarsono, the defense minister, said in an interview that the U.S. ban on weapons sales and training programs for Indonesian military officers was counterproductive "not only for the development of the TNI, but it went against the grain of helping the only institution capable of holding the country together."
"The Americans see that they need the military in the fight against terrorism," said Jusuf Wanandi, chairman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. "Secondly, this has been the group they trusted for so long during the Suharto time because they're anti-communist and anti-China."
The restoration of ties was welcomed by reformers among former and current top Indonesian officers, who have said sanctions played into the hands of army officers who wanted the military to continue playing a leading role in politics as they did during Suharto's "New Order" regime.
"The gap of several years created the perception that we didn't need foreign military education," said Agus Widjojo, a retired army general, "and that such foreign programs only spurred reform ideas rather than traditional military thoughts."
The Indonesian military has taken some reform initiatives since the 1999 East Timor crisis, including giving up its appointed seats in parliament, selling off its business interests and putting its chain of command under a civilian defense minister. These moves won over skeptics in the U.S. Congress, which also has followed the White House in taking a softer approach toward the Indonesian military.
But analysts and some retired generals said they feared the reform drive had stalled. More input is needed now from political leaders, they said, but the country's civilian leadership is still too weak to confront obstructionist generals in the ranks.