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Rice Making Up for Lost Time in Southeast Asia and Indonesia

Updated On: Mar 17, 2006

After skipping the ARF meeting last year hosted by ASEAN, Rice is making up for lost time by saying that the US was committed to the Southeast Asian region, and urging Indonesia to take up a leadership role.

"Your challenge now is to expand the peace, the opportunity, and the freedom that we see in much of Southeast Asia to all of Southeast Asia," she said.  "To achieve this great purpose, the United States is eager to work with ASEAN through our new enhanced partnership, and we look to Indonesia... to play a leadership role inSoutheast Asia and in the dynamic changing East Asia."

The United States now regards Indonesia as its “strategic partner”. Rice reiterated that Indonesia had “earned” close military ties with the US having been through various democratic reforms and cooperating closely with the US in the fight against terrorism. 

Earlier reports that Indonesia would not provide additional guards for Rice’s visit may have prompted tight security beefed up by the US Marines, just to be safe, and contributing to what turned out to be 2000 Indonesian guards. Rice side-stepped some rather noisy anti-American protesters outside the US embassy saying such demonstrations showed democracy was working in Indonesia.

While on the surface relations between US and Indonesia seemed to be on the mend and increasing in importance, there are several Indonesian groups against increasing US presence and Indonesia’s willingness to reach out to the world’s only superpower.  Straits Times reported that some Indonesians while welcoming the compliments from the US about the democratic progress made by Indonesia, also wanted to keep the US at an appropriate distance.

There are also Americans who are wary of Indonesia’s authenticity and sincerity in reforms. Some human rights groups say progress in reforming Indonesia's military and police has been too slow and that the United States has not paid enough attention to abuses committed by the military, losing important leverage to push for change. Before U.S. President George W. Bush's administration provided any assistance to the Indonesian military, it should demand to see evidence of real reform, said Lisa Misol of the New York-based Human Rights Watch group.

Rights activists in Indonesia were also worried that the Indonesian government would agree to the signing of a Bilateral Immunity Agreement (BIA) during Rice’s trip to Jakarta.  The BIA according to the Human Rights Working Group would “endanger our public interests, democracy, justice and human rights values.”

Since Sept 11, both countries have had a common enemy – terrorism and it helped both countries to get closer. Indonesia remains a key card as a voice of moderation in the Islamic world and Rice hopes it might have some influence in the Middle East, particularly over the militant group Hamas, which won the Palestinian elections in January. US generosity displayed during the December 2004 tsunami disaster helped to cement ties.  Besides military aid, tsunami aid, the US has also offered help to fight infectious diseases such as HIV Aids, and most recently committed US$11.5 million to support Indonesia's effort in fighting avian flu.

Indonesia was also receiving US funds for its Islamic school in Jakarta. Despite benefiting from American aid, a small crowd gathered outside the school and about 100 police, some carrying riot shields, fanned out in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, Rice was impressed by the school and said: "I know Americans have a certain thing in mind, a certain image in mind when they hear the word madrasah. Well I wish Americans could see this madrasah, this Islamic school because here you have young boys and young girls in their traditions but learning the national curriculum, working together quite joyful.” And MORE American goodies for Indonesia: the US will be dispensing some US$150 million in education grants to almost 1,000 Indonesian schools - including madrasahs - over the next five years in addition to the US$8.5 million set aside to develop an Indonesian version of the Sesame Street children's television programme.

Before Rice’s visit, there was speculation that she would face prickly questions regarding Jakarta's demand for direct access to Indonesian militant Hambali, who has been held by the Americans since 2003. Hambali is suspected to be the mastermind behind the bombings on Indonesia's holiday island of Bali in 2002 in which more than 200 people were killed. However, careful not to break the fragile growing Indonesian-US ties and keeping an eye on the massive US benefits for Indonesia, Wirajuda said Hambali would not be a "central issue" of official meetings but could be mentioned. It may be such reasons and others that another topic that could have been contentious, a long-running dispute over whether U.S. company Exxon Mobil Corp or Indonesia's state-owned energy firm would operate a promising new oil field, was settled on the eve of Rice's visit with a compromise giving the U.S. firm the dominant role.

Sources:

Rice plays up importance of SE Asia, urges Indonesia to show leadership (CNA, 15 March 2006)

US pleased with Indonesia's cooperation in combating terrorism (CNA, 14 March 2006)

Rice seeks to boost ties with Indonesia on trip (The Star, 14 March 2006)

Activists want more details on Rice’s visit (Jakarta Post, 16 March 2006)

Indonesians say: Thanks for the compliments, but … (Straits Times, 16 March 2006)