Monday, December 20, 2010

Obama's Potemkin Visit to Jakarta

Ed McWilliams
Published in December 17 issue of Arena, Australia

by Edmund McWilliams

In early November President Obama indulged himself with a nostalgic visit to the place he called home for four years of his youth. He charmed ordinary Indonesians with formal and informal remarks drawn from recollections of Indonesia of four decades ago. More troublingly, President Obama also praised Indonesians in ways that betrayed a broad ignorance of the ugly reality faced by many in this archipelago today.

Obama made much of the "tolerance" that Indonesian (and US) officials contend the post-Suharto Indonesian governments have fostered within Indonesian society. "Here can be found the ability to bridge divides of race and regions and religions", he said. He described Indonesia as a "country that has figured out how to create a genuine democracy despite great diversity". Obama also commended the triumph of that democracy: "Indonesia has charted its own course through an extraordinary democratic transformation from the rule of an iron fist to the rule of the people". While President Obama can be forgiven a bit of dewy-eyed reminiscing, his false depictions of Indonesia today, presumably shaped by his advisers, are a dangerously unstable basis for US policy formulation.

The Indonesia Obama chose not to see is one of significant social tensions often aggravated by a government and especially a security force which stoke these tensions for political and economic gain. The democratic progress of the last ten years, moreover, has been a victory for the Indonesian people who struggled against a brutal, corrupt military and an unaccountable police system that is a threat to further democratic progress. The real Indonesia was reflected in the interviews I conducted with Indonesians in Jakarta who were not invited to the major events celebrating the US President's brief return.

An activist from the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam described the ongoing assaults targeting that group's several hundred thousand adherents. In recent years mobs have destroyed twenty-seven Ahmadiyya mosques, most recently in the province of Riau on September 27. A video clip of a mosque's destruction shows a mob almost casually attacking the building, eventually destroying its central pillars and causing the massive roof to collapse. At one point a uniformed Indonesian police officer leisurely walks through the video frame, seemingly oblivious to the ongoing violence. Government complicity in this persecution extends beyond security force failure to take action. Indonesian Minister for Religious Affairs Suryadhama Ali recently told the media that the solution to the ongoing strife between the Ahmadiyya and the more traditional Muslims was the banning of the Ahmadiyya sect. His recommendation, which has drawn no rebuke from Indonesian President Yudhoyono, only encourages further thug violence targeting the Ahmadiyya and a continued failure of the security forces to rein in the attackers.

State condoned and executed violence is especially apparent in West Papua, where generations of Papuans have faced extraordinary brutality since the coerced annexation of the land over four decades ago. Tens of thousands of Papuans have been killed by security forces while the surviving Papuan population has been marginalized by government-organized migration of non-Papuans to West Papua. The systematic brutalizing of the Papuans, described in recent testimony before a US House subcommittee as "creeping genocide", was revealed most recently by release of secret Indonesian military documents. These documents, which surfaced during the Obama visit on the blog of investigative journalist Alan Nairn, show that Indonesian special forces (Kopassus) targeted leading church and other civil society and government leaders for intelligence collection, intimidation and worse. The importance of these documents lies in their revelation that criminal human rights abuse by the special forces targeting Papuans is not simply a matter of individual security personnel operating outside regulations as is regularly claimed by the Indonesian government and US officials. Rather, the documents make clear that the beating and torture of individual Papuans constitutes a military policy that ignores internationally recognized civil and political rights and Indonesian law. The documents together constittute a doctrine that has been funded and implemented, requiring approval at senior level and thereby implicating senior military leaders.

President Obama meets with President Yudhoyono at the Istana Merdeka State Palace Complex in Jakarta, Nov. 9, 2010.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Two weeks before Obama's arrival in Jakarta, other indisputable evidence of security force brutality in West Papua surfaced. Video footage of the torture of two Papuans and the beating of villagers by security forces shocked the international community. While the beating was perpetrated by regular military personnel (Kontras), it remains unclear what forces carried out the torture. Possible culprits include the national police mobile brigade (Brimob) and the US and Australian sponsored "Detachment 88". Detachment 88, purportedly an anti-terror unit, was involved in the December 2009 murder of Papuan rebel figure Kelly Kwalik, who bled to death from a leg wound while in the organisation's custody (see Carmel Budiardjo's article in Arena Magazine no. 106). NGOs and journalists have reliably reported Detachment 88's use of torture in Maluku, Poso and Aceh. It is also possible that the torturers in the video were from either the civilian or military intelligence agencies, both of which operate widely in West Papua. President Obama's silence on these breaking stories disappointed but did not surprise human rights advocates in Indonesia.

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has been reluctant to publicly acknowledge either ongoing security force abuses in West Papua or these forces' unaccountability. The Indonesian government was clearly troubled by the surfacing of the torture videos on the eve of President Obama's and Prime Minister Gillard's visits. President Yudhoyono convened his senior ministers, and a government spokesperson assured there would be a prompt military investigation. Calls by Papuans and other human rights advocates for an independent investigation were ignored. On November 5 army personnel faced a judge in Jayapura; senior military officials told the media that the tribunal was convened to hold the perpetrators of the video abuses accountable. In a classic bait and switch, the military produced for trial not those responsible for the torture but rather the troops depicted beating villagers. The identity of the torturers remains unknown. In one respect, it appears the government demonstrated both alacrity and sophistication in responding to the surfacing of the torture videos. Within days of the videos appearing on the internet, five major NGOs who carried the footage on their websites suffered simultaneous cyber attacks. Analysts assessed that the coordinated attack could only have been the work of a government, or government agencies with substantial resources. US officials have yet to comment on either the bait and switch trial or the cyber attack.

President Obama's limited travel within Jakarta was carefully crafted to obscure a reality that his public comments carefully ignored. He did not see a march by thousands of labor supporters who were protesting new proposed labor legislation that would impede workers' right to organize, to obtain insurance or to press for a minimum wage. Nor did he see the extraordinary wealth gap between rich and poor Indonesians. While he marveled at the gleaming skyscrapers that dominate the Jakarta landscape, he did not see the filthy hovels that crowd beneath them and along the city's canals, where millions of Indonesians survive without access to adequate food, health care or education. Notwithstanding the manifest non-egalitarian nature of Indonesia's economy, Obama congratulated the nation's leaders that in Indonesia "development and democracy reinforce one another". In reality, development continues to be at the expense of democratization, much as it was during the three decades of Suharto dictatorship. Indonesian human rights advocates and journalists describe an endemic atmosphere of intimidation enforced by security forces which collude with major domestic and international firms bent on "development" of the archipelago's vast natural resources and enormous labor pool. Those who report on corrupt dealings or the destruction of the environment are subjected to physical or threatened abuse targeting them and their families. A journalist in Papua who reported critically on plans for a massive agriculture plantation that will dispossess local people was found murdered earlier this summer. Human rights advocates who reveal security force brutality suffer similar threats, and both often fall victim to legal suits which employ Indonesia's notoriously corrupt judicial system as a weapon in service of commercial and security forces interests. Usman Hamid, a prominent human rights advocate and former director of the key human rights advocacy group Kontras, is facing a legal suit alleging defamation. The false charge arose as a result of his determined pursuit of justice in the murder of his predecessor at Kontras, the renowned Munir Said Talib.

Ignoring the reality of security forces that operate brutally and without accountability before the law, the Obama administration is expanding financial, equipment and training assistance to those forces. After a decade of withholding assistance to the Indonesian special forces, the Obama administration announced in July that it was resuming collaboration with the organization, notwithstanding its repression of Papuans and lengthy record of human rights abuse throughout the archipelago. The administration is also continuing assistance to Detachment 88, which has been credibly accused by human rights groups and the media of torture, beatings and kidnappings.

The US government's willingness to co-operate with security forces that continue to commit human rights abuses, operate illegally and remain unaccountable was enshrined in the "comprehensive partnership" signed by Obama and Yudhoyono. US support for security forces that threaten human rights and democratic development is born of blindness to the reality of current day Indonesia. President Obama's brief visit only reinforced a deliberate misperception by US policy makers of Indonesia's complex and growing challenges.


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