Megawati’s Indonesia and US regional policy

Defense Donald Rumsfeld, security issues in the East Asian region are starting

to look much clearer. A widespread belief that Indonesia is edging towards

disintegration should now be laid to rest.

It has become a truism of secessionism that, to be successful, it often requires

the support of an active external sponsor. Some examples of successful

secession, and fragmentation, include Panama from Colombia (supported by the

United States), Bangladesh from Pakistan (India), the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia

(U.S. and NATO) and East Timor (Portugal and the United Nations).

Indonesia has numerous trouble spots but only two, Aceh and West Papua,

officially Irian Jaya, have the clear goal of secession. Dissent in Riau, near

Singapore, is largely rhetorical and the recreation of Republic of South Maluku

in Ambon is a faint echo of the secession movement of 1950 amplified by communal


It has been suggested, however, that the success of one secessionist movement in

Indonesia could, domino-like, trigger more. This raises the issue of external

support. The only country that has the capacity to meaningfully support

secession is the U.S. To do this, the U.S. would need to be convinced that its

strategic and economic interests were best served by such a political


On his recent visit to Indonesia, Rumsfeld said that he would like to see

renewed military aid to Indonesia’s armed forces, the TNI. This is despite a

lack of meaningful reform of the TNI and indeed its reinvigorated political

influence, as well as the fading of an already dim prospect of trial for those

responsible for the carnage in East Timor in 1999.

The reason for U.S. support of the TNI is because the Bush administration has

decided that, as a part of its renewed focus on East Asia, the unity of

Indonesia serves a greater strategic purpose.

Despite the superficial friendliness of the visit to Beijing by Powell and

Rumsfeld, China is now seen by the U.S. as the major strategic threat, not just

to Asia but to the world. Russia, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan already

flank China, and Southeast Asia completes the circle.

There has long been a view in Southeast Asia that an economically enhanced China

would throw its weight around in a region it has historically considered its

"backyard". Hence the states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

developed the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), as well as a less formal strategic

coalition. The lynchpin of ASEAN, and of a China-containment coalition, is

Indonesia. And Indonesia has been a useless strategic partner since 1997.

If within Indonesia, Aceh and West Papua were successful in their bids for

independence this would not necessarily destroy the core of the state. However,

as two of the largest sources of state revenue from oil and minerals

respectively, their loss would further damage Indonesia’s still moribund


Even more so than East Timor, their loss would send Indonesia’s political elite

into a rage, which despite everything has remained committed to the idea of

maintaining a united (and unitary) state, and somewhat paranoid about external

desires for fragmentation (from Australia). This sentiment remained strong under

the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid, and has been further enhanced by the

election of Megawati Sukarnoputri.


ascension of Megawati to the presidency poses more questions than can easily be

answered. Will reform of the TNI be halted and its political role enhanced? Will

Megawati, a secular nationalist, be much tougher on recalcitrant provinces such

as Aceh and West Papua, than her predecessor. Will she be able to keep her

coalition of political support together any longer than Wahid, given her

unpopularity amongst traditional muslims? How will she deal with a Parliament

which is now willing and able to assert its authority over the president? And

will the return to power of many Suharto cronies and their allies prevent much

needed reform of the nation’s economy, particularly its banking and finance

sectors? Sceptics see Megawati as a short term leader, beholden to the armed

forces and the old financial elite for her new position. To them, her rise from

Vice President to President seems like ‘back to the future’.


another country supported secession, particularly in Aceh, Indonesia could be

expected to question the repayment of existing U.S.-backed loans from the

International Monetary Fund (IMF) and would bring the ARF undone. It would also

further limit the compromised use of the Straits of Malacca, and probably close

the main Indian-Pacific Ocean nuclear submarine passage of the Ombai-Wetar

Straits in East Nusa Tenggara.


this end, a united Indonesia with a mollified political elite all under the

watchful eye of a re-armed TNI fits the larger U.S. game plan much better.

Australia’s primary concern in this is securing the border between East and West

Timor, and this was no doubt part of Powell and Rumsfeld’s trade-off with the

TNI. Thus assured, Australia is even more strategically dependent on the U.S.,

which may partially explain Canberra’s curious support for Bush’s National

Missile Defence (NMD). Australia is also likely to become even more outspoken in

its support of Indonesia’s existing territorial integrity, despite the

experience of East Timor in 1999, and regardless of domestic popular concerns

about human rights violations in the republic’s eastern and western most



with support for Suharto’s New Order during the Cold War, such a political

scenario will not resolve Indonesia’s many regional problems, but rather screw

the repressive political lid back down again. In the greater strategic game

there remains a school of thought which believes that repression is acceptable.

*The authors teach international politics at Deakin University in Australia.



Scott Burchill

Lecturer in International Relations

School of Australian & International Studies

Deakin University

221 Burwood Highway

Burwood Victoria 3125





Leave a comment