Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Whose war on terror is it, anyway?


Straight Talk

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Jakarta, Washington's ally, is getting a one-sided deal

Thang D Nguyen

US-INDONESIA relations have had their ups and downs, but the two countries seem to be closer than ever before. In March, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Indonesia. And last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did the same.

During a one-day visit to Jakarta, Mr Rumsfeld discussed issues such as bilateral military cooperation, the fight against terrorism, and the threat of piracy in the Strait of Malacca with his Indonesian counterpart Juwono Sudarsono.

The visits by Mr Rumsfeld and Dr Rice came on the heels of Washington's decision last November to lift its arms embargo on Indonesia, imposed because of the atrocities committed by the Indonesian military (TNI) in 1999 in Timor Leste, then East Timor.

One wonders what really lies behind Washington's recent gestures towards Jakarta. The Bush administration tells us that it wants to support Indonesia because the world's largest Muslim-majority nation is a democracy.

"One of the things that they have said is that they want to be a voice for moderate forms of Islam that understand that democracy … and Islam are by no means enemies of one another, and that people of all ethnic groups and all heritages can live together," Dr Rice said last year.

But is this the only reason why Washington is befriending Jakarta?

For one thing, Washington needs to protect US businesses in Indonesia. Being a resource-rich country, Indonesia is a land of opportunities for many US mining and energy companies, as well as those in other sectors. Good relations with Jakarta are a good thing for US businesses in Indonesia, as they enable US diplomats and policy-makers to help these firms in their operations, vis-à-vis Jakarta.

More importantly, by being close to Jakarta, Washington finds an agent through whom it can fend off China. It is no surprise that the US is concerned about the rise of China, both economically and politically, given its size.

And, given Indonesia's strategic and geopolitical position in South-east Asia, Jakarta is Washington's first choice as an ally in building a security ring to keep China at bay. Besides Indonesia, the US is also courting Vietnam — which was an enemy for several decades — for this purpose.

And, when the US approaches security "partners" like Indonesia, it tells these countries that it wants to help them enhance their defence systems. In other words, by buying US weapons, they would bolster their defence. So, the more weapons they buy from the US, the more secure they become, goes the US pitch.

However, there are no perceived threats within the region for South-east Asian countries, including Indonesia, to defend themselves against.

And, a growing China is a good thing for South-east Asia economically.

Therefore, there is no need for countries in the region to enter an arms race and thereby, benefit the US defence industry.

Most importantly, we are told, the US wants to help Indonesia in the global war on terror. For the US, the second front in the fight against terrorism is Indonesia — home to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network — which has experienced a series of major terrorist attacks in recent years.

But, whose war on terror is Indonesia fighting, really?

The major terrorist attacks in Indonesia — the two Bali bombings, the Marriott Jakarta blast and the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta — were assaults that represented backlash against America's backing of Israel in its conflict with Palestine, the US invasion of Iraq, and Australia's strong support of US foreign policy.

And most of the victims of the terrorist attacks were Indonesians, although foreigners were also among the victims.

Simply put, terrorism in Indonesia is nothing but a proxy war against the US. Enough Indonesian blood has been shed, and there is no need for Indonesia to go on fighting it and fattening the pockets of US defence companies.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. His writings can be read at www.thangthecolumnist.blogspot.com

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When protesting becomes wasteful noise

Business Times
Singapore, 13 June 2006


EIGHT years ago, demonstrations were a part of a movement that forced strongman Suharto out of power and ushered democracy into Indonesia. But now, they have become a nuisance to society and a problem for business in the country.

In the past three months, for instance, Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia have seen large demonstrations, ranging from support for a pornography Bill before Parliament, to opposition to the Indonesian version of Playboy magazine and a new, pro-business labour law.

To be sure, some of the issues that trigger these demonstrations are about deeply held taboos in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

Let's face it: even though most Indonesian Muslims are moderate, some are under the influence of hard-line Islamic groups that, of course, want Indonesia to become a theocratic state under syariah law.

During the Suharto era, no one could organise a demonstration on any issue, even if it was not a hot, Islam-related one. So for a nation that was under a dictatorship for decades, the right to demonstrate is no doubt a precious one.

But alas, it has become too commonplace.It is even more mundane when protestors in a demonstration are not doing it for a cause, but money! Yes--you read it right--for 20,000 rupiah (S$3.40) a day, there are professional protestors who are willing and able to carry banners, shout slogans and march in Jakarta's heat and polluted air as though they were protesting something they believed in. You can find the same people the next day in another demonstration wearing a different outfit, carrying a different banner, and shouting a different slogan. And they will do the same thing again the next day, as long as they get paid.

But more importantly, demonstrations have become a public nuisance: they worsen traffic jams in Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia. In these cities, traffic jams are already bad enough. And with demonstrations, traffic in Jakarta and other big cities becomes paralysed.

What is more, some of these demonstrations get violent, and thus public facilities get damaged and, in some cases, private premises--such as the Indonesian Playboy office, for example--get attacked.

As for business, of course, demonstrations are a problem. When demonstrations take place on major streets where business offices are located, most of them are forced to close since their employees cannot get to work.

This is a cost that no one but businesses affected by demonstrations have to bear.

And the more frequently demonstrations happen--and they do seem to be getting more frequent--the higher the cost to the business community.

Likewise, demonstrations worsen the image of Indonesia as a place for foreign investment. When it comes to doing business in Indonesia, foreign investors already have enough issues, such as corruption, labour, regulations, and the legal system; they don't need a business environment that is disrupted by frequent demonstrations.

In today's increasingly competitive world where other countries offer foreign investors, among other incentives, a business-friendly and politically stable environment, disruptive demonstrations are another reason why they avoid Indonesia.

To their credit, though, the Indonesian leaders know about the damage demonstrations do to the nation's foreign investment, which it has been trying hard to increase in recent years.

"It's a shame that the image we have built up has changed again. The perception isn't favourable anymore. It seems pointless for me to travel the world...telling investors that Indonesia is safe and welcomes investors,'' President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in response to a violent series of rallies against the new, pro-business labour law.

So, what can be done? Of course, the Indonesian government cannot prohibit demonstrations. But what it can do is, first, have a zero-tolerance policy towards protestors who get violent and damage facilities, public or private.

Second, the government should take tough measures to keep demonstrations out of streets with heavy traffic. There are parks or other public places where demonstrations can take place and thus do not block up roads and paralyse traffic in Jakarta and other cities. Third, and most importantly, the government should stand by decisions it makes that are right for the country against the pressure from demonstrations. In other words, just because protestors take an issue out to the streets, it does not mean they are always right, and a good government does not always appease demonstrators.

Take the new labour law, for instance. Protestors are against it because it is pro-business. But, as Manpower and Transmigration Minister Erman Suparno puts it, this new labour law is aimed at attracting more foreign investment (read jobs and tax revenue) to Indonesia.

The government's position in this case is sound and, therefore, should be sustained against the pressure from protestors. It might make the Yudhoyono administration unpopular, but because its returns are high and good for the country, it is a position worth maintaining.

Indonesians are proud of their democratic right to hold demonstrations. But when they overdo it, demonstrations become commonplace. And when demonstrations get violent, destructive and disruptive to society and business, they are a problem that should be dealt with properly.

The writer is a Jakarta-based writer.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Beware theocracy in Indonesia

The Straits Times


June 7, 2006

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA - FOLLOWING the fall of former president Suharto in 1998 and free elections since, Indonesia, the world's largest-Muslim majority nation, has become a young, promising democracy. Amid global debates on whether Islam and democracy can co-exist, Indonesia has, indeed, been an inspiring success story.

Although most Indonesians are moderate Muslims, there are, however, radical, hardline Islamic groups that are not happy with the country's democratic transformation.

These hardline groups want, instead, to turn Indonesia into a theocracy based on syariah, or Islamic law. And they have made several attempts towards that end.

In 2002, a motion to institute syariah in Indonesia was put before the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), but it was rejected. Hardline Muslim Indonesians have not, however, given up their pursuit of a syariah-based society.

More recently, these hardliners have taken to campaigning for the passage of an anti-pornography Bill, and are taking action against those who criticise it.

The Bill, still being considered by the MPR, is reportedly designed to end the sale, distribution, and consumption of pornographic products in the country. But this is not why critics of the Bill are against it. Among the many clauses of the Bill, one prohibits kissing in public; another prohibits women from wearing 'provocative' clothes that expose parts of their bodies, including the belly button; and another prohibits the reading of poems or documents in public with a 'sexy' expression or tone of voice.

For opponents of the Bill, the issue has become not pornography per se, but limiting their personal freedoms as individuals - as though they had to live under syariah. They have held rallies to protest against the Bill.

Unfortunately, these protests have met with attacks from extreme Islamic groups. Playwright Ratna Sarumpaet and dangdut (a form of Indonesian pop music) singer Inul Daratista, for instance, received personal threats from the Betawi Brotherhood Forum for participating in a rally against the Bill on May 3.

Likewise, when former president Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur, a Muslim leader who headed the influential Nadhatul Ulama (NU), was about to give a speech in West Java, it was disrupted by members of the Islam Defenders\' Front (FPI) because he had come out against the Bill.

In response, Gus Dur supporters - mainly members of the NU - called on the government of Indonesia to arrest FPI members who were behind this insulting incident and to disband the group altogether. The proposal for the FPI should be considered seriously because of its violent acts towards others.

Even though groups like the FPI are a minority in Indonesia, their extremism gives Islam and the Indonesian Muslim community as a whole a bad image.

But the question remains: Should the anti-pornography Bill be passed?

There are several reasons why it should not. First, the Bill itself cannot eliminate the porn industry in Indonesia, as its proponents claim.

With the Internet, it is impossible to stop sales and distribution of pornography, even if pornographic DVDs (digital video discs) and magazines are not sold in the market. As a matter of fact, the passing of the Bill would do the porn industry a service, as scarcity would drive up prices of pornographic products.

Second, the Bill itself cannot stop the consumption of pornography.

Lest we forget, pornography had existed for centuries in many cultures, including Javanese and Balinese, and in various forms of the arts, way before the making of 'blue films' and the invention of the video and DVD players.

Indonesians - like many individuals in other parts of the world - will continue to consume pornography, with or without the Bill being passed.

So, there is no point trying to stop it; in fact, it is counterproductive to do so because, as human nature dictates it, the more we are told not to do something, the more we are likely to want to do it.

And who knows how many of those who support the pornography Bill are actually consumers of porn themselves?

Third, the Bill is basically an application of syariah across Indonesian society.

Let's not forget that Indonesia is a nation of diversity and was founded on the concept of 'unity in diversity'. Although Islam is the main religion in Indonesia, the country's Constitution recognises other religions, namely Buddhism, Catholicism, Christianity, Confucianism and Hinduism.

Therefore, to pass the pornography Bill is to impose a set of Islamic laws or regulations on Indonesians of other faiths.

But most importantly, the passing of this Bill will, de facto, turn Indonesia into something close to a theocracy.

This is the last thing that should happen to Indonesia after it has taken a long, hard journey to become the democratic nation that it is today.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist and the editor of The Indonesian Dream: Unity, Diversity, And Democracy In Times Of Distrust. His writings can be read at www.thangthecolumnist.blogspot.com .