It seems that the US’s hopes of making Indonesia its prime ally in Southeast Asia may be dashed. President Megawati Sukarnoputri is being forced to decide which to heed, Washington’s bully-tactics or her own cabinet’s opposition to their country becoming a US stooge.
Washington has been repeating its claims that al-Qa’ida, its current bogeyman, is present in Indonesia. So far the FBI and CIA have failed (as usual) to provide any evidence, yet Washington is urging Jakarta unabashedly to move against civil-action groups such as MMI and Laskar Jihad.
The US’s tactics have backfired, coming at a time when Megawati was trying hard to push through a harsh ‘anti-terrorism’ bill. She had been postponing the bill for fear of her opponents accusing her of kow-towing to the US, which would not be a good start to preparations for Indonesia’s general elections in 2004. Megawati’s only backers for the bill are the military, the police force and the intelligence organisations, who all demand that the law be enacted quickly to make it easier for them to move against suspects.
Most people in Indonesia, breathing some sort of political freedom after decades of iron-fisted rule, shudder at the thought of a law that will enable the government to arrest suspects without due process of law and without legal representation. Such laws have been put in place in Malaysia and Singapore, and have been welcomed by the US government. Now that ‘democracy’ is working against it, Washington is missing all the more the CIA-installed Suharto and all the instruments of state brutality that characterised his rule.
Anger and opposition to the US have been fuelled by the publication of an ‘investigative’ report by the CIA in Time magazine, claiming (again with little or no evidence) that members of al-Qa’ida in Indonesia had attempted to assassinate Megawati. The CIA’s ‘finding’ is based on the testimony of Omar al-Faruq, a Kuwaiti citizen handed over to US intelligence from Indonesia, who claimed to be a ‘medium-level’ operative of al-Qa’ida. The CIA also claimed that Faruq had made contact with Indonesian alim Abu Bakar Basyir, who heads the Indonesian Mujahiddin Council (MMI). Instead of turning public attention to ‘terrorism’ and Basyir, Faruq’s arrest and deportation set off a public outcry over the extent of Jakarta’s cooperation with the US. If the editorials and commentaries in Indonesian newspapers are any indication of public opinion, the US is increasingly resented everywhere.
The story in Time seems to be typical of current US propaganda: so-called investigative documents allege all kinds of links among Muslim groups that ultimately lead to Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa’ida. A similar method was also used on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is fighting for self-determination in the Muslim heartlands in the south of the Philippines. Last month the Philippine Daily Inquirer published a CIA report claiming to have tapped an Arabic-language phone-conversation between MILF leader Salamat Hashim and Usama bin Ladin in February 1999. It later transpired that the conversation was with former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid.
Such stories will be followed by violence, to be blamed on these imaginary ‘Islamic militants’, creating the only pretext the US needs to involve itself militarily in a region whose Muslim population is increasingly being dragged into the ‘anti-terrorism’ campaign. On September 23, a car-bomb exploded near a US embassy warehouse in Jakarta. Almost immediately US officials in Washington stepped up their claims of ‘terrorism’ in Indonesia, trying to justify more action against Muslim groups.
Indonesia’s ‘anti-terror’ campaign, unlike that of its neighbors, has been low-key. Thanks to pressure from action-oriented groups that have held Megawati in check, Jakarta is wary of going out of its way to please the US, despite promises of military assistance. Jakarta has been pressured to take action against groups such as MMI, Laskar Jihad and the Defenders of Islam (FPI), but the lack of legislation to legalise such actions is frustrating Washington’s bully-tactics for the time being.
Anti-US sentiments are also being expressed by organisations long praised in the west as ‘moderate’, such as the Nahdatul Ulama. The NU, the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia (though not the most influential), has responded coldly to a US suggestion to Jakarta that so-called moderate ulama be engaged in its ‘war on terror’. Hasyim Muzadi, chairman of NU, has warned US officials that stories of ‘terrorism’ within Indonesia could cause damage not only to “Indonesia and Indonesian Muslims”, but “could also inflict damage on the US.”
Hamzah Haz, Megawati’s vice-president, has vowed to protect Abu Bakar Basyir, the man who seems to be number one on the US’s southeast Asian hit-list. Likewise parliamentary speaker Amien Rais, who has recently been outspoken and blunt in his aversion to Jakarta’s becoming a US stooge. “Since the Cold War, the CIA has always been interfering in other countries’ affairs,” he said. “It is unacceptable for a foreign party to make a fool of us. Those who try to arrest our citizens should be deported.”
Muhammadiyah, another large Muslim organisation, has criticised Jakarta’s weakness against western countries who point accusing fingers at Indonesia. Even the official Indonesian Council of Ulama has joined the chorus of voices to demand that Jakarta protest to Washington over the latter’s “propaganda against the nation”.
The coming weeks will tell whether post-Suharto Indonesia is to be forced to listen to its people, or to join the rest of Southeast Asia, which is being forced to cooperate with the US. The Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s ‘anti-west’ view seems to have reignited itself after months in sleep-mode, especially following the decision of the US and Canada to tighten visa regulations for Malaysians. Mahathir, whose government has detained 63 Muslims without trial, accusing them of ‘militancy’, came out openly against the US’s anti-Muslim hysteria, even urging Muslim countries to use oil as a weapon. When asked whether the North American visa ruling showed that his efforts to combat terrorism were not being appreciated, a sour-faced Mahathir answered that he “doesn’t do things for other people to appreciate… but we do things because they are right.”