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Bush: Six Hours ‘Charm Offensive’ in Indonesia


These days Indonesia is hardly a country where George W Bush would enjoy taking relaxing stroll and talking to the people. Not that there are many places left for walking anyway: almost everything had been privatized and Jakarta doesn’t have almost any public parks or decent sidewalks. But let’s imagine that he would find some well hidden promenade, get out from the car and surrounded by his men from Security Service, take a few steps on Indonesian soil. Chances are that he would be stalked, yelled at, insulted; maybe even attacked.

So is it some sort of masochism which brings him here again, despite polls which suggest that only 30 percent view his country favorably, down from 75 percent just six years ago?

His visit had been perfectly orchestrated; result of flawless if sometimes grungy cooperation between the U.S. and Indonesian Security Services. Mr. Bush landed at secondary Halim Airport located in the heart of dirt poor East Jakarta. He stepped on Indonesian soil just to transfer himself from the Air Force One to the Presidential Black Hawk which took off almost immediately bringing him to the city of Bogor, some 40 miles south from the capital, almost to the doorsteps of Bogor Palace, one of the symbols of Dutch colonial rule and the place where deposed (after the 1965 U.S. sponsored coup) President Sukarno spent his last years under house arrest.

Upon arrival at the palace, he literally jumped out of the car and after confused and badly orchestrated photo session at the entrance he proceeded to one of the halls still decorated by the portrait of (theoretically) ousted fascist dictator Suharto. On the surface, feelings of antipathy didn’t seem to be mutual. Mr. Bush couldn’t give Indonesia better ratings: “It’s very important for the people of America to understand that this vast country has got tremendous potential? It’s got a prominent role to play in the world in showing how it’s possible for people to be able to live together in peace and harmony? I admire Indonesia’s pluralism and its diversity. I admire your president, his commitment to reform and strengthening democracy.”

Mr. Bush, not unlike the majority of the U.S. mass media, loves to use positive clichés when talking about Indonesia. This country is supposed to be the living proof that Islam and democracy can coexist. Somehow (using some extremely abstract and hard to understand logic) Indonesia should demonstrate that Iraq and Afghanistan still have a chance and that Mr. Bush was correct in making decision to invade them.

The problem is that Indonesia is not democratic and definitely not tolerant or pluralistic. Hundreds of churches are burned down every year while even the word ‘atheist’ is banned. State allows only a handful of ‘officially accepted religions’ which have to be engraved in the ID cards. Unconstitutional, oppressive and medieval ‘sharia’ by-laws are enforced in several parts of the country and political establishment doesn’t want to or doesn’t dare to challenge them. Some 300 thousand members of the Chinese minority (those who refused to change their names to Indonesian ones and fully deny their own identity) have no rights or citizenship.

Human rights activists are intimidated or directly murdered by the state apparatus, the most striking example of it being the case of Mr. Munir who was poisoned on board of Garuda Indonesia airliner by the pilot/secret service agent. Some members of progressive movements and political parties (including PRD) are still ‘disappeared’. No apology or compensation was yet given to the millions of those who suffered imprisonment, detention, interrogation or torture after 1965 military coup. History is still fully manipulated and perverted, blaming the coup on the Communist Party (PKI). No family of those who died in the aftermath of the coup (between 500 thousand to 3 million) had their loved ones rehabilitated. Suffering of the victims of genocide in East Timor and the mass murder in Papua, Aceh and Ambon had never been openly acknowledged: no military official had received lengthy sentence.

While the number of those who are considered extremely poor living on lesser than one dollar a day is increasing (even according to official Indonesian statistics which tend to be inaccurate and under-stated, it is 25 percent of the population), middle class is dramatically shrinking, converting Indonesia to the nation of ‘haves’ (minuscule minority) and ‘have nots’. Not one political party in the last elections dared to criticize savagely pro-market system. Unions exist to defend owners of the businesses against the employees. There is hardly anything public left: even water is privatized, fact which may soon lead to one of the gravest humanitarian disasters in Southeast Asia. Indonesia has one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the region. Without any exception, mass media is owned by big business conglomerates which are stubbornly refusing to challenge this unsustainable, hopelessly corrupt and inhuman system.

That’s the country which Mr. Bush hailed as pluralistic and democratic; country which the U.S. Secretary of State previously described as “our friend”. The U.S. mass media didn’t stir from its course either, The New York Times claiming that: “?Since Suharto’s departure from power in 1998, a real democracy has begun to take root. In its recent report card on the country, Freedom House judged that ‘the political system is open and democratic in its basic structures’, even while some of its institutions still ‘function poorly or are sanctuaries of undemocratic and abusive behavior’.”

There is hardly any chance that the U.S. would ever adopt decisively critical approach towards Indonesia. During Suharto’s dictatorship, western mining and oil companies acquired (through bribes) extremely favorable conditions for their operation in this sprawling and naturally rich archipelago. After Suharto stepped down, corruption increased (Transparency International is continuously rating Indonesia as one of the most corrupt nations on earth) while most of the old contracts survived. Indonesia also became a bottomless source of cheap, unorganized and unprotected labor force. It is straight-jacketed by enormous foreign debt and therefore easily controllable from outside.

Bush didn’t intend to discuss any of these issues. He probably subscribed to the line adopted by local media and rulers for decades: “if something is not mentioned, it may go away”. Or, more likely, he didn’t want to touch any of these topics, because the status-quo is precisely what he desires.

Talks between the U.S. and Indonesian presidents were held behind the closed doors. It was later made public that they included the U.S. offer to help with an outbreak of bird-flue epidemic, as well as its willingness to launch small programs to aid Indonesian schools and promote growth.

Bogor Palace had been encircled by four layers of barbed wire, some 20 thousand police and military personnel had been employed to ensure security of two leaders. Thousands of demonstrators were kept at bay in both Jakarta and Bogor.

“We came here to see Bush”, lamented one old lady who traveled from surrounding village. “But all we were shown was the army.”

Massive demonstrations were rocking the capital and the city of Bogor for several days. They were mainly organized by the hard-core Islamic parties with their slogans raging from “Bush is a Jewish puppet” to “Bush is the real terrorist”. But there were others present as well, including “Anti-Imperialist Masses” and Green Peace.

The paradox is that historically, the U.S. had not been viewed here as ‘the enemy of Islam”. Recent protests and anti-American sentiments are the direct result of the current U.S. policy in the Middle East but especially of the invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the past, Islamist’s main goal was to destroy Communist Party (PKI) as well as all other progressive and “atheist” movements. The U.S. offered ‘helping hand’ in 1965 becoming staunch ally of oppressive system which consisted of multitudes of elements, not least the religious ones.

There is still a chance that the U.S. and Indonesian elites (secular and religious) will mend their differences and find the common language once again. Their joint rule over the broken, oppressed and poor majority of Indonesian people (since 1965) shows that they have many common goals and interests.

It seems that the only reason why Mr. Bush visited Indonesia was in order to extend his hand and to offer his friendship. But his hand was not extended to Indonesian people; it was extended to those who were beating and oppressing them for decades.

Andre Vltchek: novelist, journalist and filmmaker, co-founder of Mainstay Press publishing house for political fiction. His recent books include novel ‘Point of No Return’ and a book of political essays ‘Western Terror: From Potosi to Baghdad’. He produced 90 minutes documentary film about Suharto’s dictatorship and its impact on present-day Indonesia ‘Terlena – Breaking of a Nation’. Senior fellow at Oakland Institute he lives and works in Southeast Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]

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