Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Israeli Repression Adds to U.S.-Indonesian Trouble

By Gee, John | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 28, 2001 | Go to article overview

Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Israeli Repression Adds to U.S.-Indonesian Trouble


Gee, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


ISLAM AND THE MIDDLE EAST IN THE FAR EAST: Israeli Repression Adds to U.S.-Indonesian Trouble

John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore and the author of Unequal Conflict: Israel and the Palestinians, available from the AET Book Club.

U.S.-Indonesian relations went through a rocky patch at the end of 2000. A war of words took place between U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard, and Indonesian Defense Minister Muhammad Mahfud, who repeatedly accused Gelbard of meddling in Indonesia's internal affairs: Gelbard had made some blunt remarks about certain military and political appointments. The U.S. Embassy in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, closed its gates for a few days at the end of October following threats that it was going to be attacked.

Claims by some political leaders that the U.S. supported the dismantling of the Indonesian state fueled a series of incidents damaging to relations between the two countries. These included the deportation in October of an alleged spy, a U.S. citizen who had been traveling in West Papua (where a secessionist movement exists), as well as a series of demonstrations against foreign (including U.S.) companies accused of exploiting local people and resources and damaging the environment.

When the U.S. reacted by advising its citizens to defer nonessential travel to Indonesia, the Indonesian government objected that the advice also would encourage other foreign nationals not to travel there. (The U.S. subsequently amended its advisory, telling tourists to exercise great caution.) At a popular level, some saw the U.S. move as confirmation of its desire to weaken and fragment Indonesia.

Washington has emphasized to Indonesia that it does not support any secessionist movement within its territory. The U.S. considers that East Timor was a special case: the territory had been under Portugese rule prior to 1975 and its incorporation into Indonesia did not enjoy international legitimacy. Its move toward independence, therefore, does not set a precedent for other areas under Indonesian jurisdiction, which shared a longer common history under Dutch rule.

There is good reason to take Washington's public stance at face value in this instance. Indonesia is a significant trading partner. It also carries a large debt burden, and its ability to repay all or much of what it owes would be diminished by the secession of territories which produce oil and gas (such as Aceh or the province of Riau) or other resources (notably copper, produced in West Papua).

The U.S. government accepts Jakarta's rule over West Papua (until recently officially known as "Irian Jaya" in Indonesia). That authority was established following 1969's "Act of Free Choice," when, with the connivance of the U.N., a carefully selected and thoroughly intimidated assembly of Papuan leaders voted unanimously to become part of Indonesia. The biggest foreign enterprise operating in the region is Freeport-McMoran Copper & Gold Inc., a New Orleansbased company which runs a giant copper mine where over 6,000 are directly employed. After former President Suharto unseated President Sukarno in 1966, the first foreign company to invest in Indonesia was Freeport, which secured a contract to mine a mountain of copper ore in West Papua. The American firm has been subjected to a barrage of criticism in recent years because of its links to Suharto and the environmental damage it has caused.

Given its distrust of Islamic movements in general, the U.S. is wary of the movement demanding independence for the staunchly Muslim region of Aceh in northern Sumatra. The secessionists have never received political encouragement or material support from Washington.

Although the claim that Washington supports the dismemberment of Indonesia is, therefore, groundless, previous U.S. support for the Suharto regime--and its backing of Israel--makes it easy for populist political leaders to play upon such suspicions.

It was unfortunate for the U. …

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