Bush’s Big Indonesian Photo-Op

On his return from last week’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam, President Bush briefly touched down in Indonesia on November 20. Protests against the visit were held across the archipelago, demonstrating popular outrage against the Bush Administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and U.S. backing for Israel’s wars on Lebanon and Palestine. But the Jakarta Post noted, “The Bush couple need not worry [as] apart from the U.S. Secret Service, Indonesian Military personnel – who were trained during the Suharto era to oppress not foreign enemies but the Indonesian people – will also be deployed to guard Bogor.”

The historic botanical gardens where Bush was scheduled to arrive to meet Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Bogor, 40 kilometers south of Jakarta, were dug up to build an enormous asphalt landing pad for Bush’s helicopter. In the end, Bush landed in a nearby Sports Center instead of the formerly-pristine botanical gardens.

A group of fifty-three U.S. human rights, labor, religious and peace groups sent a public letter to Bush in advance of the visit condemning the failure to hold the Indonesian military (TNI) accountable for years of serious human rights abuses. The groups wrote, “restrictions on U.S. assistance to the Indonesian military are essential to promote concrete, demonstrable progress in the areas of military reform, accountability, and respect for human rights in Indonesia and Timor-Leste [East Timor].” They urged Bush “to maintain the best leverage the U.S. has – withholding prestigious U.S. military assistance, including foreign military financing and training such as IMET and JCET – to demonstrate that the U.S. government’s commitment to these issues goes deeper than words to actual action.”

The primary focus of discussions between the two Presidents was economic development and facilitation of trade deals, but Condoleeza Rice did tell Indonesian television that the meeting would give Bush a chance to discuss U.S.-Indonesian military ties. Bush administration support for the TNI is now a given. Normalization of military relations accelerated when the final legislated restrictions on weapons sales were waived a year ago. Thus there was little need to make additional assistance in this area a major item on last week’s agenda.

Press statements from Bush and Yudhoyono after the meeting were, not surprisingly, free of any reference to limits on military ties.

In March, 2005 testimony before the U.S. Congress arguing against re-establishing ties between Washington and the Indonesian military, Ed McWilliams, who headed the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999, said: “the Indonesian military poses a threat to the fledgling democratic experiment in Indonesia. It receives over 70 percent of its budget from legal and illegal businesses and as a result is not under direct budget control by the civilian president or the parliament. Its vast wealth derives from numerous activities, including many illegal ones that include extortion, prostitution rings, drug running, illegal logging and other exploitation of Indonesia’s great natural resources, and as charged in a recent Voice of Australia broadcast (August 2, 2004), human trafficking. With its great institutional wealth it maintains a bureaucratic structure that functions as a shadow government paralleling the civil administration structure from the central level down to sub-district and even village level.”

Since that testimony, existing limits on military assistance to Jakarta, passed into law after the Indonesian military destruction of East Timor in 1999, were lifted by the Bush Administration. Shortly after Bush left Indonesian airspace this week, McWilliams told us, “Bush Administration support for the TNI has expanded vastly beyond levels seen at any time in the last 15 years. TNI impunity, corruption and violation of human rights has continued and in some ways worsened. TNI involvement in illegal logging continues unchecked in West Papua and elsewhere. Efforts to hold TNI senior officials responsible for their orchestration of the 1999 bloodbath in East Timor have ground to a halt. Similarly, despite promises that justice would be done in the 2004 murder of leading human rights advocate Munir, senior ex-military officials implicated in the crime by evidence developed by a Presidential commission have not been prosecuted. In West Papua intimidation of human rights advocates have continued forcing some to flee abroad. Others face daily abuse in jail as political prisoners.”

McWilliams added, “It is a cruel irony that as the Bush Administration chooses to ignore the absence of TNI reform in favor of recruiting the TNI as an ‘ally in the war on terror,’ that ally continues to be a key sponsor of terror groups in Indonesia, including Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Laskar Jihad and the Front for the Defense of Islam, among others.”

In 1999, Australian Prime Minister John Howard described his government as the U.S.’s ”deputy” in the Asia-Pacific region. The recently signed “Framework for Security Co-operation” between Australia and Indonesia strengthens relations between Canberra and Jakarta, and strengthens Australia’s role as a U.S. surrogate in the region.

Dr Clinton Fernandes, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Studies at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, argued in the Australian press that the security deal will do nothing to support democratic reform in Indonesia:

“The TNI is not a neutral instrument of the elected government but a partisan force with its own agenda. Through its territorial command structure, it is embedded at every level of Indonesian society, including the bureaucracy, legislature, and economy[ … ]
Its officers engage in commercial activities that increase their personal wealth, and they influence the electoral process by supporting or opposing civilian politicians[ … ] The TNI as a whole has been fashioned for more than half a century into a tool for suppressing popular social forces in Indonesia. Kopassus is merely its most versatile and deployable formation and therefore plays a leading role in any crackdown on pro-democracy forces.”

The pro-trade development model Bush and Indonesian President Yudhoyono advocate offers as grim a picture for Indonesia’s future as increasing the power of the archipelago’s military.

Indonesia specialist John Roosa, a historian at the University of British Columbia, told us, statistics touting economic growth in Indonesia are useless for judging quality of life issues. One big issue is the disappearance of the rain forest. The government has been incapable of stopping the burning of forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan–the smoke has often blanketed Singapore and Malaysia during the dry seasons over the last eight years and has created respiratory problems for millions of people. Also, the fires have caused a major spike in the amount of greenhouse gases and have ignited the ancient peat bogs that are now, according to some scientists, releasing carbon every year equal to one-seventh of the world’s annual fossil fuel emissions. The forests in those areas and in Sulawesi and Papua are being rapidly cut down, especially now, with China’s insatiable appetite for wood. The loss of the Indonesian forest is one of the most important global issues today.”

Roosa added, “The White House press office said the two presidents ‘applauded the resumption of cooperation and capacity building activities between the U.S. Forest Service and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry’ and signed a memorandum of understanding on illegal logging, but I’d like to see the actual agreement before getting my hopes up. The problem is not just illegal logging, it is also legal logging — the government has given massive tracts of land out as concessions to loggers. Much of the illegal logging is actually being done by the legal loggers; they move into the forests adjacent to their concession areas. Environmental activists in Indonesia tend to advocate a moratorium on all industrial-scale logging precisely because the government has been unable to tell the difference between the illegal and legal logging. One may also note that the burning of the forests is usually done by legally recognized palm oil plantations.”

Earlier this month, the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID) targeted Washington-backed neoliberal policies when it released a report highlighting increased poverty in the country. The INFID study revealed that in 2006, the Indonesian government paid out about one billion dollars more in debt installments, than it spent on health, education and public services. The Jakarta Post quoted INFID spokesperson Donatus Marut saying, “According to INFID calculations this year, Indonesia needs Rp 200 trillion (US$22 billion) a year to halve extreme poverty by 2015, as stated in the Millennium Development Goals … Neck-deep in debt, we will not be able achieve the Millennium Development Goals on poverty alleviation by 2015, not even by 2020.”

Just days after Bush’s visit, the two concerns of rearming Indonesia and increasing trade came together at the Indo Defence 2006 Expo and Forum. U.S. weapons manufacturers took their place among regional and European weapons brokers at the arms bazaar, which Indonesia’s defense minister Juwono Sudarsono called an important platform for Indonesia to develop and build regional and international military ties.” The program for the event, which touts “A Holistic Approach to Regional Security”[sic], promises “over 400 of the leading names in the industry from 30 countries … will be there for the biggest ever defence industry showcase in Indonesia.”

Ben Terrall is a San Francisco-based writer.

John M. Miller is the Brooklyn-based National Coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network.

They can be reached at: bterrall@igc.org



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