The Washington Diplomat / October 2003
By Larry Luxner
Indonesia is a country of superlatives. It boasts the world's fourth-largest population, its most crowded island, its biggest ethnic diversity — and its most infamous Islamic boarding school.
Pesantren al-Mukmin, as the school is known, has produced nearly all of Southeast Asia's top terrorist suspects. The scariest is Abu Bakar Baasyir, a militant Muslim cleric who co-founded the school, established links with al-Qaeda and in early September was sentenced to four years in prison for attempting to assassinate Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Another teacher at al-Mukmin was Riduan Isamuddin (alias Hamali), who participated in various terrorist attacks in both Indonesia and the Philippines, including the October 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali which killed 202 people and injured hundreds more.
Some of al-Mukmin's students include Asmar Latin Sani — believed to be the suicide bomber responsible for the August attack on Jakarta's J.W. Marriott Hotel in which 12 people died — and Fathur Rathman al-Ghozi, who was convicted in the December 2000 bombing of a Manila commuter train in which 22 people died.
Pesantren al-Mukmin has been the subject of much media scrutiny lately, including a front-page story in the Sept. 3 edition of The Wall Street Journal that questioned Indonesia's commitment to the fight against terrorism.
Yet Indonesia's ambassador in Washington, Soemadi Djoko Moerdjono Brotodiningrat, says such criticism is unwarranted.
"This cleric, Baasyir, has become big news because the international media always puts him on the front page. Initially, average people didn't realize who he was, and now he's very famous, even though his boarding school is relatively small," Brotodiningrat told The Washington Diplomat in a recent interview.
The controversial school, which provides Islamic education to 1,500 students, is located in Solo — a city in central Java that also happens to be the ambassador's hometown.
All the more unfair, says Brotodiningrat, because "last year, the highest body of the land decided to reject a proposal to impose Sharia law for Indonesian Muslims, and that got only a few lines in the international press."
It doesn't help that Indonesia's vice-president, Hamzah Haz, recently accused the United States — not al-Qaeda — of being the world's major terrorist threat, because of its invasion of Iraq and steadfast support for Israel.
"Of course, this creates a problem for me, but we are bound to have a coalition government with many political parties and different political orientations," the ambassador explained. "Apart from that, members of the government are politicians, and from time to time, acting in their capacities they make statements. Like in the U.S., politicians have their own views, though this doesn't necessarily represent the government."
He added: "There have been several demonstrations against the U.S. And whenever the rallies break up, the demonstrators go to McDonald's to buy hamburgers and Coca-Cola, and stop at Citibank to withdraw money from the ATMs. So yes, there is some resentment, but no, I don't think Indonesians hate Americans."
Brotodiningrat was interviewed at the opulent Indonesian Embassy, built in 1902 by gold-mining tycoon Thomas Walsh for the then-astronomical cost of $830,000. In 1951 — the year after bilateral relations were established — Indonesia bought the 50-room mansion on Massachusetts Avenue for only $355,000.
Since then, 15 ambassadors have headed the mission, though Brotodiningrat is the first career diplomat to serve in Washington since 1968. Before presenting his credentials here in February 2002, the 62-year-old envoy held a variety of posts in Jakarta, Brussels, New York and Geneva. He also spent three years as Indonesia's ambassador to Japan, and has headed nearly a dozen Indonesian delegations to such world bodies as the United Nations, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the WTO.
"As the one who serves as a bridge between our two countries, I can say that the relationship is basically good," said Brotodiningrat, who directs an embassy staff of 68, including 26 diplomats. "As you know, we are not bound by any treaty or special relationship. To substantiate a little bit, the U.S. position on Indonesia for us is satisfactory. We are now in a period of reform and democratization, and the United States supports this very much."
With 220 million inhabitants, Indonesia is the world's fourth-largest country in population after China, India and the United States. An estimated 87% of all Indonesians profess Islam, making it the world's most populous Muslim nation. Its people are scattered across 17,000 islands, though one island — Java — contains more than half of the total population in an area smaller than Louisiana.
"Here in the United States, you have a number of Indonesian experts, but there's a mass of Americans who simply don't know about Indonesia," the ambassador complained. "Ours is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. They don't even know that we have a population of 220 million, that we extend over three time zones, and that we have more than 350 ethnic groups, more than any other country in the world.
"That's why it's in the interests of the United States to see that a country with the largest Muslim population in the world continues to strive toward democracy."
Asked about influence from Saudi Arabia's ultraconservative Wahabi sect, he said: "Fundamentalists who follow Wahabism are numerically very small, but they make a lot of noise. They capture the attention of the international media. If you examine the court proceedings, you immediately see that many of those who appear before the court are foot soldiers. They are not aware they're part of a larger scheme, or Jemaah Islamiah, let alone al-Qaeda."
Even so, Brotodiningrat said Indonesia is taking "concrete steps" to fight terrorism, including applying a rarely used death sentence to convicted terrorists.
Last month, a court in Bali sentenced Indonesian militant Imam Samudra to death after ruling that he was behind the Bali nightclub bombings. Samudra, who trained in Afghanistan, is the second Islamic extremist sentenced to face a firing squad for involvement in the attack, which investigators say was carried out by Jemaah Islamiah, which reportedly has ties to al-Qaeda.
"Before 9/11, the U.S. press always called us the third-largest democracy in the world," said tthe ambassador. "After 9/11, we've been presented as the largest Muslim country in the world. And I'm afraid it's more negative than before. I try to explain in my speeches that yes, we cannot deny that we're the largest Muslim country, but we're also democratizing. Between Islam and democracy there is no contradiction. You can be both Muslim and a democrat."
Indonesia also has 25 million non-Muslims, including Christians, Hindus and Buddhists — which may partly explain why the country continues to reject Sharia law the way it is practiced in Saudi Arabia or Iran.
"Our constitution respects all religions, including Islam. One of our five guiding political principles is belief in God," he said. "Next year is an election year, and we'll see what happens, but many Indonesians like me would like the country to remain as it is. Even though I'm a Muslim, I don't want the government to tell me how I should act as a Muslim."
Aside from the growing terrorist threat, Indonesia also faces deep internal ethnic divisions.
East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, achieved independence two years ago only after a 24-year Indonesian occupation that left thousands of people dead and most of the country in ruins. Nevertheless, the two countries say they have put the past behind them and are now cooperating, even in defense issues.
Some observers say East Timor's successful bid for independence has given fuel to other separatist movements, such as the one in Indonesia's rebellious Aceh province.
In mid-September, eight members of Congress criticized Malaysia for returning 12 Aceh rebels to Indonesia, saying the Malaysian government violated international laws protecting refugees seeking political asylum.
According to the State Department's latest human rights report, abuses "were most apparent" in Aceh, where the Indonesian government makes no distinction betwen civilians and rebels. "[Indonesian] soldiers and police murdered, tortured, raped, beat and arbitrarily detained both civilians and members of separatist movements," the report said.
Brotodiningrat conceded that "Aceh is definitely a problem," but he insists that Indonesia is not in any immediate danger of breaking up.
"East Timor was different. When we proclaimed our independence, what we meant by Indonesia was the former Netherlands East Indies, and East Timor was not part of that. They joined us only in 1976," he said. "Personally, I don't think [Indonesia] will fall apart, because we've experienced similar phenomena before, and we managed to overcome them. Basically all countries support our national unity and territorial integrity."
One bright spot seems to be the Indonesian economy. Last year, the country's GDP grew 3.6%, and per-capita income, which had suffered during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, is now around $1,000 a year.
In addition, inflation has been brought down to 9%. The Indonesian rupiah is still one of the world's most worthless currencies — it currently trades at 8,452 to the dollar — yet Brotodiningrat says "the rupiah is surprisingly very resilient, even after the Marriott bombings. By macroeconomic indicators, the economy is doing alright, but that has not yet translated into the microeconomic dynamism that we wish. We still have a problem."
Tourism, which had been doing well, was clearly devastated by the Marriott and Bali bombings. The State Department has issued some very specific warnings against Americans traveling to Indonesia, though the ambassador says that "at the corporate level, they're still coming."
The United States remains one of the largest investors in Indonesia, with investments concentrated in mining and energy.
"We'd like the Americans to diversify into manufacturing, telecommunications and other areas," said the ambassador. "The most useful promotion of Indonesia comes from the American investors themselves."
Before wrapping up the interview, we asked Brotodiningrat if there was any particular message he wanted to get across to the American people.
"Yes," he said. "Look at Indonesia as a country in which Islam and democracy can not only co-exist, but where Islam can be democratized. And if you're worried that Indonesia can become more dangerous than Afghanistan, all I can say at this point is that it's far-fetched. Afghanistan became what it is now beginning many years ago. Those who have this fear should come to Indonesia and see for themselves what it's like."