Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Skeptical Note on Bush’s Recent Visit to Indonesia

On Monday, 20 November 2006, the US President, George W. Bush was on a brief visit to Indonesia, the largest Muslim populated country in the world. He was in an Asian tour from Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. Indonesia was his last stopover before returning home. Accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State Condollezza Rice, Bush held a meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, followed by a discussion with several prominent Indonesian scholars and thinkers in economics, educations, politics and regional development. The visit was only six hours, but the preparation for and reactions to the visit had become headlines in the Indonesian media for weeks.

To welcome the six hours visit, the Indonesian government must spent a whopping 6 billion Indonesian Rupiah (more than half a million US Dollar), not a small amount of money for a country like Indonesia, just to build two unused helipads especially meant for President Bush’s arrival in Bogor in the vicinity of Indonesia’s famous Bogor Botanical Garden, a major center for botanical research that host many exotic plants. And to make matter worse, the Bush entourage did not land there and instead the landed in a sport stadium nearby and used motorcade to arrive at Bogor Presidential Palace to meet President Yudhoyono. The helipad is a total waste of taxpayer’s money and at the same time, it poses some danger to the ecosystem in the Garden.

Civic groups have called the preparations for Bush’s short visit in Indonesia simply overwhelming. The security was over-prepared, the guards were over-acting and no wonder that the people, too, were over-reacting. On the contrary, the government said that preparations, including the construction of two helipads in Bogor Palace and the interruption of public communications and transportation during the visit, were acknowledged as a normal measure.

Why so much preparation by the Indonesian government to welcome President Bush when the reaction on the ground against the visit was so overwhelming?

To begin with, Indonesia is the largest Muslim populated country in the world while President Bush is considered to be the public enemy number one in the Muslim world. Moreover, in the post-9/11 world, the American image worldwide and in Muslim world in particular is declining each day. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of war against terror and spreading democracy contributed to this major decline of American image worldwide. These policies have been considered as direct confrontation against the Muslims.

So, even though the fundamentalist Muslim group is a minority and the majority of Indonesian Muslims are moderate, but these policies have angered even the moderate Muslims. If the fundamentalists consider Bush as public enemy number one, the moderate vent their anger and protest as an expression of solidarity to the suffering of their Muslim bothers and sisters in countries dominated and exploited by the US and its allies. It is thus of anyone’s guess that a personality like President Bush is not welcomed.

Similarly, other local issues such as U.S.-based multinational companies operating in various parts of Indonesia, which have been criticized for running their operations based on unfair agreements and the lack of responsibility to the environment, is also on the minds of most protesters. With issues like these, the protestors against Bush do not solely belong to Muslim groups alone but also from other groups belonging to other ideological affiliation who are against the hegemonic policies of the US government.

Thus, before and during Bush’s visit to Indonesia, there were reports on anti-US demonstrations staged by these groups in various parts of Indonesia. From Yogyakarta to Jakarta, from Surabaya to Surakarta, demonstrations were endless with American symbols such as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken had been targetted by the demonstrators, while Bush effigies were burnt.

On the other hand, Indonesia is still struggling to re-build its economy and other social structures devastated almost a decade ago by the Asian crisis. The transition from authoritarianism into a full-fledged representative democracy is hard and demanding. The rotten system has to be overhauled and it is not an easy task. Helps and cooperation from various sources must be utilized in the best possible way for the benefit of Indonesia. A lending hand from a government like the US, the oldest democracy in the world, is welcomed.

This, I think, is the reason why President Yudhoyono was very enthusiastic to welcome President Bush to Indonesia. But was it worth enough for Indonesia to make such a meticulous preparation just to welcome a President that has a dipping popularity at his home front? What will Indonesia gain from this brief, seemingly insignificant visit?

Many analysts in Indonesia have been skeptical about the outcome of this visit for Indonesia. The lack of important substance discussed during this brief visit added to this skepticism. Quoting Bantarto Bandoro from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Jakarta, the visit is much more important for Bush than to Indonesia’s need. With the depleting support at home, a successful visit to a Muslim nation like Indonesia would boost the confidence of Bush to take the challenges at home and abroad in the months to come.

Expressing similar view, Dewi Fortuna Anwar from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) said that the visit would have helped restore the US’ image among Muslims in Indonesia in particular and, most importantly, in the Muslim world. But what is important now is for America to realize its promises to Indonesia, she said. During this visit, Bush had offered Indonesia financial help to fight bird flu, assistance in establishing a tsunami early warning system, and technology for alternative energy. In addition, the U.S. had committed US$55 million to support Indonesia's fight against graft and to develop economic strategies for more jobs, and $157 million for assistance in education and health.

Muslim intellectual like Azyumardi Azra, the former rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta, said that the visit would give less to Indonesia but would give major boost to the US’ image worldwide. The fact that the $157 million in aid promised in 2003 to President Megawati for education and health had yet to be disbursed was a clear indication of Bush’s reluctance to engage Indonesia more seriously. It is more of a lip service than a genuine effort to engage an important partner like Indonesia.

To conclude, apart from being in the headlines of national and international news agencies, Indonesia virtually gained nothing from this visit. So much wasted, yet so little gain. I think the following quotation from a citizen who wrote in a leading Indonesian newspaper, not untypical of many, can serve as a reflection to this visit.

He wrote: “Bush came to Bogor to discuss education and economic development for ordinary people. But what was the use of these discussions when the schools in the surrounding areas were closed in order to provide high-security and while all street vendors were banned during his visits? ... We are sick of U.S. intervention...Stop your unilateral acts Mr. Bush!”

But then, will President George W. Bush ever learn “something” from his Asian tour this time? I don't think so.