Indonesia at a crossroads: Handle with care

When I was a foreign correspondent visiting Indonesia years ago, I would arrive in Jakarta, take an ancient taxi or betjak pedicab, sprinkle my visiting cards around at the homes of generals, cabinet ministers, and old friends I wanted to see, then go back to my hotel and wait for a few days.

There was no point in trying to reach these sources at their offices. In part, it was because Indonesia was then so poverty-wracked that they were all moonlighting at other jobs, but in part because in Indonesia's easy-going culture they had their own way of making contact.

Eventually, the invitations would trickle back, sometimes circuitously: Drop in for Sunday breakfast with general so-and-so; maybe afternoon tea with the foreign minister; maybe a late-night tête-à-tête with someone who did not want to be seen with a foreign journalist.

All this was immensely frustrating to hustle-and-bustle US businessmen, flying in, expecting instant appointments, trying to close deals overnight, then rush to the next Asian country.

But it was the Indonesian way, and in it there is perhaps a lesson worth pondering as we observe Indonesia today at something of a crossroads. The lesson for Westerners is patience and a recognition that things in this mystic land are not always what they seem. Sometimes they are as complex as the wayang, the popular Indonesian shadow play in which puppets are manipulated behind a back-lit curtain.

One of the most populous countries in the world, an island archipelago home to more than 200 million people, Indonesia is, for the most part, curiously overlooked in the world scheme of things. It rarely leads the TV network news or makes the front pages.

After declaring independence from the Dutch in 1945, President Sukarno ruled Indonesia for 20 years. He badly mismanaged the country, but as late as the '60s, I watched him still exerting his mesmeric control over audiences of many thousands. An abortive communist coup against the military in 1965 led to his downfall and the installation of Army General Suharto. For the next three decades, President Suharto ruled Indonesia tightly, but permitted widespread corruption. Ousted in 1998, he was succeeded briefly by two weak presidents, and finally last year by Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Sukarno.

With the advent of terrorism, and its linkage with Muslim extremists in Indonesia, that country has suddenly been catapulted onto the Bush administration's radar screen.

Here cool analysis is needed. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. But it is not an Arab country. Nor do the majority of Indonesia's Muslims follow Islam with the hard-line fervor that is prevalent in many Arab countries. Nevertheless, the sprouting of a variety of extremist cells and groups professing sympathy with Osama bin Laden is cause for concern.

Ms. Megawati is not the politically Messianic figure that her father was, but she is popular and has the support of the Indonesian Army, which has long played a critical political role in the country. She is currently providing a period of welcome political calm and deserves US support.

This should not be intrusive, lest it inflame the extremists and alienate the moderates in her country. As one of the few foreign journalists in Indonesia covering the overthrow of Sukarno in 1965, I was relieved that the US resisted any temptation to intervene, leaving Indonesians to work an outcome that was not unwelcome to the US.

That same diplomatic deftness is required now. A major infusion of American troops to hunt down Al Qaeda sympathizers would be destabilizing to a fragile government and is not required.

The Indonesian Army is formidable. But it could benefit from American military training and aid, and certainly it could benefit from American encouragement for reform. Military ties between Indonesia and the US, once strong, have been suspended for three years because of the Indonesian Army's tarnished reputation following human rights abuses in East Timor. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is directing its antiterrorism effort through Indonesian law-enforcement agencies and is beginning careful talks with the Indonesian military.

The US effort must be determined, but not intrusive. The skill with which it is orchestrated may determine whether Islam in Indonesia veers toward the radical or remains moderate. Indonesia may have been long ignored, but the stakes now are high. The direction of huge non-Arab, Muslim countries like Indonesia and Pakistan versus the more extreme Muslim lands of the Arab Middle East will have a major impact on the war against terrorism.

• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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