Sunday, May 01, 2005

Why are the Indonesians so worried?

The Australian
18 January 2005

Thang Nguyen: Why are the Indonesians so worried?

SINCE the earthquake and tsunami hit Indonesia on Boxing Day, many countries around the world, led by Australia and the US, have together sent thousands of troops, aid workers and supplies to the province of Aceh, the area most affected, as part of an international relief effort to help victims of one of the world's worst catastrophes.

Before the tragedy happened, the image of foreign troops on Indonesian soil would be unthinkable. For the most part, this is because of the ongoing conflict between the Indonesian military (TNI) and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which had been fighting for independence from Indonesia for decades.

Also, because of Indonesia's poor human rights record and atrocities that the TNI has committed across the nation for years, foreign countries, namely the US, have either broken or frozen their military ties with Jakarta.

Today, it is heartening to see foreign troops working hand in hand with their Indonesian counterparts helping victims in Aceh. To be sure, the people of Aceh appreciate the assistance -- military or otherwise -- that foreign countries have been giving them.

But Jakarta has received the help from foreign friends with a sense of distrust -- if not xenophobia. Roughly three weeks after the tsunami, the Indonesian Government announced that it wants all foreign troops in Aceh to leave by March, at the latest. "Three months are enough. The sooner [foreign troops leave], the better," Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said. "We don't need foreign troops."

For one thing, foreign troops are not fighting in a civil war on Indonesian soil. Unlike the US troops in the Philippines, who are there to help Manila crush the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front, foreign troops have come to Indonesia for a good cause -- that is, to help devastated victims of a natural disaster.

Furthermore, foreign troops in Aceh will not be a financial burden for Indonesia. In other words, they are not some kind of loans that Indonesian would have to pay back.

Most importantly, the relief works in Aceh -- let alone its recovery from the tsunami -- will take more than three months. And, realistically, Indonesia will not be able to go it alone; it does not have the resources, financial and otherwise, to handle all the relief work and recovery single-handedly.

As the most prominent victim of the tsunami, Indonesia currently owes about $US48 billion ($63 billion) of international debt. This means Indonesia would have had to pay about $US3 billion in principal repayments this year, the amount it needs to recover from this crisis.

It seems obvious, then, that Indonesia's announcement that it wants all foreign troops out of Aceh by March is unnecessary, inappropriate, and ungrateful of the kindness that foreign friends have shown Indonesia in its hour of darkness.

"The presence of foreign parties in Aceh is purely based on the spirit of solidarity. To save human lives [sic]," Aceh's Serambi Indonesia newspaper said in one of its recent editorials. "[Foreigners' assistance] should be appreciated. We must not be suspicious. We are unable to do the things they are doing for us."

This is not the first time Indonesians have shown paranoia towards foreigners. Starting with their founding president, Sukarno, Indonesians have a history of being xenophobic. For instance, during the 2004 Indonesian presidential election -- which international observers hailed as a triumph of democracy in the world's largest Muslim nation -- some key international elections specialist groups, such as the International Foundation for Election System and the National Democratic Institute, worked hard to help make it a successful and democratic election.

These organisations, however, were accused of meddling in the election's outcomes. The then state minister for national development planning, Kwi Kian Gie, said in a cabinet meeting that foreigners had played a role in swaying public opinion in the aftermath of July 5 presidential election.

But the question remains: Why does Jakarta want foreign troops out so soon when Indonesia is devastated by the tsunami and, therefore, needier than ever before? The most plausible answer is that the foreign troops, along with international aid workers, are winning the hearts and minds of the Acehnese, and the TNI is not.

Whereas the Acehnese had been told that foreigners could not be trusted, they are now relieved by foreigners; whereas they had feared that foreigners would only come to drain their natural resources, they now receive food, water and medicine from international aid workers; and whereas they had been treated with violence by the TNI, they are now saved by foreign troops.

It is time for Indonesia to stop its xenophobia altogether, as it has not helped Indonesia and its relations with the world. The road to recovery for Aceh will have to be paved with solidarity, humanity, and trust, not xenophobia.

Thang Nguyen is author of The Indonesian Dream: Unity, Diversity, and Democracy in Times of Distrust (Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004).


Anonymous Anonymous said...







12:09 AM  
Anonymous Rini said...

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3:29 AM  
Anonymous zainuddin said...

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1:10 AM  

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