Clinton in Indonesia: What She Missed

She came to Indonesia as the new Secretary of State, and she came, she said, as a friend. Hilary Clinton met Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and later told the press that she “wanted Jakarta’s advice and counsel about how to reach out not only to the Muslim world but to Asia and beyond.” This overture from Barack Obama’s administration signaled the direction U.S. policy will take toward the fourth most populous nation on Earth.

Indonesia was an obvious stop on Clinton’s four-country tour of Asia. Less clear were Clinton’s comments. Clinton “praised the democratization process in Indonesia, which is a model for Islam.” But then she added: “As I travel around the world over the next years, I will be saying to people: If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”

That is, of course, exactly what the Indonesian political establishment, religious leaders, and the great majority of Indonesian people wanted to hear. But it couldn’t be further from the truth.

In her remarks in Indonesia, Clinton made no mention of genocide in Papua. She neglected to speak of how political and militant Islam is openly defying the constitution of Indonesia and taking control of several parts of the country. And she was silent about how the business and political elite treats the impoverished, uneducated, and unrepresented majority of the people.

Religious Intolerance

In direct contrast to Clinton’s words, Indonesia and its largest religion have become increasingly intolerant. As Clinton praised moderate Islam, less than a one-hour drive from the center of Jakarta, at an ASEAN scout jamboree site in the Cibubur suburb, hundreds of girls are still living in makeshift conditions more than six months after a brutal attack against their SETIA Evangelical School of Theology in East Jakarta. The attackers cried “Jihad, Allahu Akbar, attack, kill them, burn them,” and the crowd that gathered shouted similar slogans. During and after the attack, the police did practically nothing. More than 20 students suffered injuries, some from machetes. Instead of protecting the children and their right to stay on the campus, the authorities evacuated them to avoid confrontation with the Islamists.

In June 2008, members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) attacked secularists commemorating Sukarno’s relatively tolerant Pancasila state ideology at the national monument in the very center of Jakarta, which resulted in at least 70 people injured. More than 1,000 police officers stood by and watched the violence. The radical Islamist FPI, wearing long white robes not unlike those of the KKK, regularly attack bars, cafes and pork-selling establishments and other haram establishments. It almost always gets away with its actions, with the state either indirectly supporting the actions or not daring to intervene.

Ahmadiyah is one of the oldest Muslim sects in Indonesia, with 500,000 members and over 80 years of history. Yet it has suffered from countless attacks, their houses of worship burned down. The fundamentalist mainstream has pressured the Indonesian government to ban Ahmadiyah from preaching in public.

In August 2007, more than 70,000 members from around the Muslim world descended on Jakarta to call for a caliphate — or Islamic rule — in Southeast Asia. The government authorities allowed them to use biggest stadium in Central Jakarta, despite the fact that the group is banned in most of the countries in the Middle East.

“There is nothing we can do to stop this,” said Ditasari a political leader and former head of PRD, the only progressive opposition party in Indonesia that emerged during the so-called reformation period. “Indonesia has been hijacked by Islamists, and religion is in full control of society. We can’t reverse the process anymore. We can only slow it down to some degree.” Ditasari added: “This presidency is the worst thing that could have happened to Indonesia. Not because Yudhoyono is evil, but because he is too weak to confront the religious extremism, corruption and other major problems that Indonesia is facing. He is not willing to take decisive action to defend the constitution.”

The government’s recent Electronic Information and Transactions Law bans pornographic websites. But it also bans the spread of “false news” and “racial and religious hate messages.” The government could very well interpret these phrases to include any news or comment not approved by the establishment, as well as criticism of the religion. In December 2008, the government ratified the law and thereby criminalized any sex-related materials deemed to violate public morality, including traditional and modern music and dances, as well as dresses worn by women in different parts of archipelago.

Finally, several parts of Indonesia, most notably West Java and North Sumatra, are now controlled by Sharia law, which imposes religious justice and dictates the dress code for women. The current administration has done nothing to stop this trend.

Political Intolerance

Political killings and gross human rights violations take place regularly throughout the Indonesian archipelago. However, the international press has only covered the most extreme cases, such as the murder of human rights and anti-corruption activist Munir Said Thalib in 2004, onboard a Garuda Indonesia Airlines flight bound for Amsterdam via Singapore, allegedly by a Garuda pilot and an Indonesian intelligence officer.

“Since 1965, Indonesia was a staunch U.S. ally,” says Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, a member of the House of Representatives from the progressive Islamic National Awakening Party. “And those who forged such an alliance here and there control the mass media, so the criticism of the human rights in Indonesia very rarely makes headlines here or there.”

In December 2008, for instance, police officers and hired guns for the Arara Abadi Corporation attacked a peasant community in Riau province to gain control of the land, arresting 200 peasants, destroying 700 houses, and forcing 400 people to hide in the forest.

This year, once again, Fadjroel Rachman tried to run as an independent presidential candidate. The Constitutional Court rejected his candidacy, upholding the rule that a presidential candidate must be from a party or coalition of parties that won at least 20% of the votes. This rule effectively disqualifies anyone not deeply rooted in the regime.

Rachman is critical of the current government’s pornography law and its intolerant approach to religion. “The fight for democracy and democratic Islam has deep roots in Indonesian society, but it has nothing to do with the present administration,” he says, zeroing in on a specific piece of legislation the government has failed to back. “Right now Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono isn’t willing to even issue a government decree introducing affirmative action for women in parliament, a plan that would set aside 30% seats in the Parliament for women. The hard work of all those who fought for this affirmative action goes to waste.”

Economic Intolerance

The gap between the rich and the poor is greater in Indonesia than almost anywhere else. Jakarta is a city of luxury hotels and malls, with children playing in open sewers nearby. By the international poverty living standard of $2 dollars a day, more than half the population of Indonesia is poor.

“I just came back from Riau, a very wealthy province with 8% economic growth and trillions of Rupiah in their annual budget,” says leading Indonesian human rights lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis. “But they said that there are at least 1 million people that do not have electricity there.”

In 2006, a mining accident left more than 50,000 people homeless in Porong. Lapindo Brantas, the company responsible, is owned by the family of welfare minister Aburizal Bakrie. Last year, Forbes listed Bakrie as Indonesia’s richest man with a total fortune of about $9 billion. Bakrie retained his job and refused, until very recently, to pay any compensation to the victims. “The victims not only lost land, schools, houses, and other buildings,” says Lubis. “They lost a collective identity – the place they belonged to for a very long time. The fact that Bumi (one of the Bakrie’s close associates) bought three oil companies after the disaster should show the government that they do have money, just that they don’t want to spend it on compensating the victims.”

Ethnic Intolerance

Indonesia has occupied West Papua in much the same way that it occupied East Timor. “An estimated 100,000 Papuans, or 10% of the population, have been killed by the Indonesian military. This is a fraction of the true figure, according to refugees,” wrote journalist John Pilger. He quoted a refugee who made it to Australia after a harrowing trip by canoe: “They treat West Papuans like animals. They kill us like animals. They have created militias and jihadis to do just that. It is the same as East Timor.”

The United States, like other countries, has economic interests in West Papua, and so have looked the other way at Indonesia’s conduct there. These oil and mining interests supply the Indonesian government and U.S. with companies billions of dollars annually. Meanwhile, the economic conditions in West Papua are appalling, with health indicators considerably below the Indonesian average.

A new nonviolent movement is taking shape in West Papua, largely replacing an armed struggle that failed to achieve its objectives or international support.

U.S. Policy

The United States and Australia helped plan the 1965 coup that sidelined progressive leader Sukarno and brought in the military clique of General Suharto. Around 2 million people died — communists, union leaders, teachers, artists, and members of the Chinese minority. The United States also supported Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in December 1975, which resulted in one-third of the population either killed or starved to death.

Indonesia is once again important for the United States. There are still plenty of raw materials in Papua and elsewhere, as well as untapped oil resources. There is, of course, China, which the United States tries to isolate militarily. And there is Indonesia’s connection to the Muslim world. “Indonesia has a larger Muslim population than any other country,” says Nursyahbani Katjasungkana. “The United States thinks that Indonesia can control or at least influence Muslim population all over the world – under the U.S. leadership, of course!”

Obama lived in Indonesia as a child, shortly after the 1965 coup. He was known as “Barry from Menteng,” after the neighborhood where he lived. His step-father was an Indonesian army officer. If Obama wasn’t aware of this history as he grew up, he certainly should know it by now.

To break with the shameful past the United States played in this part of the world, the Obama administration should finally tell the truth, instead of showering the Indonesian establishment with sweet bouquets of clichés. He should speak the truth about what happened in 1965, about East Timor, about Papua and the role that big business played and still plays in this unfortunate country. It’s his obligation, both as “Barry from Menteng” and as the president of the United States.

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, journalist, filmmaker, and playwright, co-founder of Mainstay Press, and a senior fellow at The Oakland Institute. A contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, he is presently living and working in Southeast Asia and East Africa, and can be reached at: andre-wcn (at) usa (dot) net.