Saturday, May 11, 2002

War on terror, or war on democracy?

The New York Times

JAKARTA - Spend a few days in Indonesia and you will find many people asking you a question you weren’t prepared for: Is America’s war on terrorism going to become a war against democracy?

As Indonesians see it, for decades after World War II, America sided with dictators, like President Suharto, because of its war on communism.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, America began to press more vigorously for democracy and human rights in countries like Indonesia, as the US shifted from containing communism to enlarging the sphere of democratic states.

Indonesians were listening, and in 1998 they toppled Mr Suharto and erected their first electoral democracy.

Indonesians are still listening and they are worried they are hearing America shift again - from a war for democracy to a war on terrorism, in which the US will judge which nations are with it or against it not by the integrity of their elections or the justice of their courts, but by the vigour with which their army and police combat Al-Qaeda.

For Indonesia, where democracy is still a fragile flower, anything that encourages a comeback by the long-feared, but now slightly defanged, army and police - the tools of Mr Suharto’s long repression - is not good news.

“Indonesian democrats have always depended on America as a point of reference that we could count on to support us,” said prominent Indonesian commentator Wimar Witoelar.

“If we see you waffling, whom do we turn to?”

There is a broad feeling among Indonesian elites that while some of the more authoritarian countries, like Malaysia or Pakistan, have suddenly become the new darlings of Washington as a result of the war on terrorism, Indonesia is being orphaned because it is a messy, but real, democracy.

“We sometimes fear that America’s democratisation agenda also got blown up with the World Trade Center,” said Indonesian writer Andreas Harsono. “Since Sept 11, there have been so many free riders on this American anti-terrorism campaign, countries that want to use it to suppress their media and press freedom and turn back the clock.

“Indonesia, instead of being seen as a weak democracy that needs support, gets looked at as a weak country that protects terrorists, and Malaysia is seen as superior because it arrests more terrorists than we do.”

Indeed, many people here believe that retrograde elements in the army and police have helped stir up recent sectarian clashes in Aceh and the Maluku islands to spur Parliament to give the security services some of their old powers back.

Jusuf Wanandi, who heads a key strategic studies centre here, said: “Some senior military people said to me: “Why doesn’t the government give up all this human rights stuff and leave the problem to us? They said the Americans should normalise relations again (with the Indonesian Army) and we”ll do the job for them.”

“That is not the right approach, because we do not trust yet that the reforms of the military here have been adequate.”

In fairness, the Bush team has kept aid for Indonesia at US$130 million and made it the official policy in all diplomatic contacts that Indonesia should continue fighting its war for democracy, while contributing what it can to the war on terrorism.

Nevertheless, some top Pentagon officials are definitely pushing to let the Indonesian military make a comeback and to restore ties with the Indonesian military that were suspended after the army ran amok in East Timor in 1999.

Indonesia is just beginning to try military officers involved in those killings. If there is any hope of senior army officers being held accountable for East Timor, it will certainly be lost if America signals that all it cares about now is that the new anti-terrorism laws being debated by the Indonesian Parliament give the army anything it wants.

America needs to be aware of how its war on terrorism is read in other countries, especially those in transition.

Indonesia is the world’s biggest Muslim country. Its greatest contribution to us would be to show the Arab-Muslim states that it is possible to develop a successful Muslim democracy, with a modern economy and a moderate religious outlook.

Setting that example is a lot more in America’s long-term interest than arresting a few stray Al-Qaeda fighters in the jungles of Borneo. ***

Downloaded from The Straits Times website on May 11, 2002

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