Indonesia's Choices

The American war on terrorism has provided an opportunity for the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, to play off the competing interests of the United States.

It's a game that can only go so far before Indonesia loses.

As a series of Monitor articles this week made clear, that multi-island Southeast Asian nation remains a hotbed of global militancy among radical Muslims, and a potential home for Al Qaeda. Recent religious violence there far surpasses that in the Mideast.

And yet President Megawati Sukarnoputri and a powerful Army – whose commitment to the rule of law is weak – refuse to crack down, irritating the US.

At the same time, Indonesia's Army wants the US to resume military ties, which would bring badly needed arms and training. Those ties were broken off in 1999 after atrocities were committed during Indonesia's withdrawal from East Timor.

So far, the US is holding fast in demanding trials of soldiers and others responsible for those atrocities, which included the murder of Monitor contributor Sander Thoenes. In March, the government did set up a human-rights tribunal for 18 suspects. But the Army pressure is strong on Ms. Megawati to avoid holding it accountable. She needs military support as much as she needs to avoid offending Muslim political parties by arresting Islamic militants.

Can the US demand both human-rights accountability and also gain Indonesia's cooperation in the war on terrorism?

Some US officials may want to make a choice in favor of dropping the trials and working closely with Indonesian officers – as they are doing in the Philippines – to eliminate groups that share Al Qaeda's goals.

With the need to protect Americans, the US may want to ignore its interest in rights. And in enlisting Indonesia in the war, the US may decide to bend its principles.

Rights versus safety – it's becoming a recurring conflict in this war. But diplomacy is the art of the possible, and the US should keep pressing Indonesia wisely to seek both justice for past atrocities and an end to terrorism. Both will serve Indonesia well.

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