Indonesia sours against the US

Threats of anti-American violence result in travel warning and the Embassy's closure through Monday.

Last fall, believing Indonesia's democratic transition was steaming ahead, the US State Department reworked its approach to the world's fourth most-populous country. Out with soft-spoken conciliation, in with a more frank and forceful style to speed the way to democracy.

With the change in style came substance: lavish aid programs to help build a free press and democratic institutions. The new approach would help the US cement a relationship with an emerging crop of leaders and send a message to retired generals and other opponents of reform to back down.

Instead, the US-Indonesia relationship has foundered. For the past week the US Embassy in Jakarta has been closed, after a series of rowdy demonstrations sparked by a wave of anti-American broadsides from senior politicians. The Embassy said yesterday it would stay closed through Monday.

Triggering the closure has been a surge in anti-American feeling following the fighting in the Middle East.

"The US immediately condemned us when three UN workers were killed in West Timor [in September], but they don't say a word when a hundred Palestinians are killed," says Aisyah Amini, a legislator and member of the parliament's foreign affairs committee. "The US has a double standard."

Although the relationship was already under strain, anger over perceived US support for Israel in predominantly Muslim Indonesia provided the impetus for an increased number of bomb threats and demonstrations at the US Embassy.

To be sure, even before renewed violence in Israel, parliament had threatened to kick Ambassador Robert Gelbard out of the country and Minister of Defense M.D. Mahfud has accused Mr. Gelbard of "interfering" in senior military and government appointments and complained about "foreign spies" trying to discredit Indonesia.

The Embassy has shot back, saying in an October statement the US is "deeply concerned by these kinds of false statements emanating from the Ministry of Defense and elsewhere."

"This arrogance from the US cannot be stood for," says Ms. Amini. "They have no right to talk about our internal problems. If what Gelbard says is the policy of the US, then we have a problem with that policy."

The US has been surprised by the turn of events, to say the least. "The attitude is, 'we give the Indonesians so much money and they're turning on us. What are we here for?' " explains one Western diplomat. The US has committed $206 million in aid in the current fiscal year, and projects that total will rise to $275 million next year. Much of this money is going to "democratization programs" that would have not been allowed under former President Suharto.

The State Department has stood by Gelbard, making it clear he is no rogue diplomat. "The issues of reform, of open economy, of need for anticorruption steps, and in fact the responsibility of the host country to protect diplomats and foreign visitors ...; these are all things that are very important to us," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. Gelbard left Indonesia Wednesday for "a long-planned trip ... for personal reasons," according to the State Department.

The irony of a flagging US relationship at a time when Indonesia has the best shot at democracy in more than 40 years is generated by a few factors, perhaps chief among them a miscalculation about the pace of change.

Many of the politicians, soldiers, and bureaucrats who profited from Mr. Suharto's authoritarian regime remain key, respected figures in public life. The US was perhaps counting on strong ties to new President Abdurrahman Wahid, but his is a weak presidency, buffeted by opposition in parliament and opponents within his Cabinet and the military. A Wahid aide says the president and Gelbard "remain on very good terms."

But an ambitious group of politicians is discovering that attacking an "imperialist" US strikes a chord with voters for whom the struggle for independence against the Dutch in the 1940s remains fresh. Rather than focus on Indonesia's social and political problems - separatism, communal conflicts that have left a million citizens displaced, an ongoing economic crisis - it's much easier, and popular, to attack a foreign government that many consider a bully.

Gelbard, named ambassador shortly before Mr. Wahid's election in October 1999, has become their perfect foil. He has chased drug lords in Latin America and butted heads with the likes of Slobodan Milosevic. He couldn't be more different from his cautious predecessor, speaking his mind forcefully and directly, something the Javanese, Indonesia's dominant culture, find offensive.

In one of his first acts here, Gelbard told politicians they should leave a bureaucrat favored by the US in charge of Indonesia's $50 billion bank restructuring effort. This ran him straight into conflict with Amien Rais, a national Muslim political leader and opponent of the moderate Wahid.

Mr. Rais has since played a key role, whipping up sentiment against the US and Gelbard personally ever since. "If there is an Indonesian citizen who did not feel insulted by Gelbard, that person must have lost his sense of nationalism and patriotism," he told Tempo Interactif, an online news service, this week.

Amid the war of words, radical groups have threatened to search hotels and airports for Americans and force them to leave the country. One group in the central Java town of Solo went to hotels and frightened some foreign guests, though no one was hurt.

"To the uninformed, this makes us all look like hooligans and xenophobes looking for scapegoats," says Wimar Witoelar, a Wahid spokesman and aide. "But it's only a minority ... motivated by domestic political interests.

"We welcome and appreciate the US desire to participate in social change," adds Mr. Witoelar. But "many Indonesians have problems listening to ... a foreigner. He's [the ambassador] fallen into a trap set by opponents of change - they use his style to claim that America is insensitive to our needs."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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