Thursday, November 18, 2004

Good News from an Unlikely Corner

Indonesia rarely impinges on the consciousness of most Americans, despite being the world’s fourth largest country -- and world’s largest Muslim country. Relatively few Indonesians have immigrated here compared with Koreans. It sells no recognizable brand-name products like Japan. U.S. companies do not “outsource” many jobs there as they do to China or India.

Nevertheless, something very important took place there that was largely ignored in the drumbeat of bad news coming out of Iraq. For the first time since independence, Indonesia’s people, about 150 million voters in all, went to the polls to choose a new president. The results, when confirmed on Oct. 5, will likely show that by an overwhelming margin they enthusiastically ousted the incumbent president, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The new president, former Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is a popular leader with a strong record of fighting terrorism. If there is anything the world needs these days it is more moderate, energetic and democratically inclined Muslim leaders. By all accounts the 55-year-old former security chief, fits that description precisely.

Indonesia has been the site of three of the most serious terrorist attacks by Islamic militants since the attack on America three years ago. The terrorist bombing of a nightclub frequented by foreign tourists in Bali in October, 2002, killed more than 200 revelers. Since then there have been two other serious bombings in Jakarta, the capital, the last one, aimed at the Australian embassy, took place as recently as Sept. 9.

The attacks were believed to have been sponsored by a revolutionary outfit called Jemaah Islamiyah, which is allied with al-Qaeda and has ambitions of forming a radical pan-Islamic fundamentalist state in Southeast Asia, stretching from Malaysia and southern Thailand through Indonesian into parts of the southern Philippines and northern Australia.

President Megawati was a secularist in the tradition of her father, Indonesia’s founding President Sukarno, but she never gave an impression that she took the threat of Islamic terrorism very seriously. It is true that the ring leaders of the Bali bombings were apprehended, tried, and sentenced to death on her watch – although most of the detail work was done by Yudhoyono as security minister.

But Megawati couldn’t be bothered even to join Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard at a ceremony in Bali honoring the victims at the one-year anniversary of the bombing last year. It was as if she were saying, hey, they were just a bunch of foreigners, anyway, why should I attend? American officials often grumbled about her lack of energy in pursuing terrorism. Little wonder that the U.S. was quietly rooting for Yudhoyono in the election.

The new president was a four-star general, which makes him suspect in the eyes of many. The Indonesian Army has a bad reputation for tactics it used to suppress various separatist movements in the vast and complex archipelago. He was chief of staff in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony that Indonesia occupied in 1975 then fought a bloody and tenacious insurgency before East Timor gained independence in 1999.

These abuses by the Indonesian armed forces are the reason why the United States still suspends funding for military aid or refuses to allow cooperation and contacts with the Indonesian military, even though the country is one of the major fronts on the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Hopefully that will change under Yudhoyono.

Those who worry that the ex-general might turn himself into another dictator should be encouraged by the way he acted when ex-President Abdurrahman Wahid, ordered him to use his powers as security minister to declare a state of emergency and suspend parliament. He refused, and that body went on to impeach Wahid for incompetence.

Ever since the long-time dictator Suharto was ousted in 1998, Indonesia has suffered through a succession of weak and erratic leaders. Megawati did some good things as president, but on the whole her lackluster performance failed to provide the leadership that Indonesia desperately needs to provide for a growing population or to seriously crack down on terrorism.

Indonesia is a largely Muslim nation often beset by civil strife and at times terrorist bombings which once had a longtime dictator that is now transforming itself successfully into a stable democracy – without any need for assistance from the U.S. At a time of seemingly unending bad news from Iraq and other GWOT fronts, that is reason for optimism.





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