The Washington Diplomat / April 2006
By Larry Luxner
The world's largest Muslim nation has a PR problem.
Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat, Indonesia's new ambassador to the United States, says most Americans think his country is violent hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and ethnic strife — and that his No. 1 priority is to change that unflattering image.
"Indonesia has strategic importance on its own merit as a country with a sizeable population, located at the crossroads of two oceans, and as a country inhabited by 200 million Muslims," Parnohadiningrat told us over lunch last month. "But we are very disappointed with the idea people have in the United States that hundreds of thousands were killed in civil unrest and atrocities by our military. It's hard to understand how people can believe such a horrendous story."
Given Indonesia's history, it's not hard at all. And so, Parnohadiningrat certainly has his work cut out for him.
Born and raised on the island of Java, the 54-year-old diplomat served in Geneva, New York and Vienna before being named ambassador to Australia from 2001 to 2002. He was then appointed secretary-general of Indonesia's Foreign Ministry, a post he kept until beginning his current assignment in Washington earlier this year to replace Soemadi Brotodiningrat.
Even in the best of times, Indonesia faces challenges few other countries must deal with. For starters, the country consists of over 17,000 islands, yet nearly half of its 220 millon people are crowded onto on one island: Java.
"Indonesia is a vast country," says the ambassador. "If you fly from the western tip to the eastern tip, it takes you seven and a half hours nonstop."
The recent past has not been kind to Indonesia. In 1997, the country was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis, forcing the government to devalue the Indonesian rupiah to almost nothing and sparking inflation of over 5,000%. The following year, Indonesia's economy shrank by 13.8% — the largest single-year contraction for any country since the Great Depression.
On Oct. 12, 2002, al-Qaeda terrorists bombed a tourist resort on Bali, killing 202 people. Three years later, terrorists struck Bali again, killing 26 people and destroying the island's famous tourism industry. The worsening bird flu epidemic, which so far has claimed 22 lives in Indonesia, has helped keep tourism to a minimum.
Yet all of this pales in comparison to the tsunami disaster of Dec. 26, 2004, which hit the island of Sumatra, killing around 210,000 people (including 167,000 Indonesians) and making half a million homeless. So far, around $4.4 billion in aid has been delivered out of $5.8 billion needed, according to Parnohadiningrat.
Despite all the natural and man-made disasters, Indonesia's economy grew by 5.5% in 2005, and the government is shooting for 6% growth this year.
Another bright star is the country's significant strides toward democracy. According to Freedom House, "Indonesia consolidated its position as the world's third-largest democracy in 2004 with three separate free and fair elections."
The Washington-based watchdog organization, in its latest annual report, went on to say that "in April , Indonesia held what some have called the world's most complicated one-day elections, in which over 100 million Indonesians went to the polls and completed highly complicated ballots to elect the parliament. The first round of Indonesia's first-ever direct presidential election followed in July and was carried out peacefully."
Those elections were won by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is widely seen as a reformer dedicated to rooting out corruption and improving ties with the United States.
Such warm feelings were very much in evidence during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit last month to Jakarta, where she praised Indonesia's cooperation in fighting terrorism and its pursuit of democracy as an "inspiration" to the Muslim world.
"I think Indonesia has a very big role to play as an example of what moderation, tolerance and inclusiveness of society can be," Rice said, telling local reporters in Jakarta that "I understand that the United States has had to do things that are not that popular in much of the world. We are fighting a very tough enemy, an enemy that has been felt here in Indonesia with bombings in Bali and Jakarta."
Far from being a major source of terrorism, as some experts have alleged, Parnohadiningrat insists that Indonesia is a victim of it.
"You must realize that our own people, our own Indonesian citizens, have been killed by the hundreds," he told the Diplomat."It is the duty of the state to protect its citizens, and therefore, we're fully committed to fighting terrorism for our own reasons. There are things we can work together on, like information sharing and police-to-police operations."
In fact, Parnohadiningrat insisted several times during our interview that "democracy can go in parallel with Islam" — the religion professed by 88% of Indonesia's inhabitants (Roman Catholics and Protestants comprise most of the remaining 12%).
"What I understand about Islam is that it gave a free hand to its followers, to seek the best possible way of living together with others. That means the principle of tolerance, the principle of seeking commonality among members of society. This can only flourish in a democracy, because democracy embodies the principle of free expression."
The ambassador acknowledged that Indonesia's poor image abroad stems in part from the abuse of power by the Suharto regime, which ruled Indonesia for 32 years.
"In the past, we believe that the right path to development and fighting poverty was by implementing centrally coordinated economic policies, because the government stressed community rights over individual rights," he said. "Policies were imposed from the top down, not the bottom up. The government was too powerful."
Corruption, dating from the days of the Suharto regime, continues to be a serious problem in Indonesia, which was ranked 133 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. Likewise, press freedom has eroded sharply, particularly during the Megawati administration that immediately preceded Yudhoyono's election. The country dropped from its No. 57 ranking in the Reporters Sans Frontieres 2002 global survey of press freedom to 117th place in 2004.
"The sharp drop is a function of attacks on and the killing of journalists, the use of criminal defamation charges to prosecute journalists, and the effective closure of strife-torn Aceh to independent media," according to Freedom House.
Indeed, long-simmering ethnic disputes plague the country from Sumatra in the west to Papua in the east, threatening to escalate at any time.
So far, however, only East Timor has actually succeeded in breaking away from Indonesia. The former Portuguese colony, which chafed under Indonesian military occupation for 24 years, finally became independent in May 2002 — but at great cost.
According to Freedom House, "as Indonesian forces consolidated their control over East Timor, they committed widespread abuses against the local population. Civil conflict and famine may have killed up to 200,000 Timorese during Indonesian rule."
Parnohadiningrat dismisses such claims as propaganda.
"I served in East Timor and I know there was a conflict between those who wanted to be part of Indonesia and those who didn't," he said. "At the time of its independence, I read a number of articles speculating that Indonesia would fall apart. But Indonesia is prospering, and only a few people want to secede. If you're talking about 200,000 out of 220 million people, I don't think this is very serious."
In fact, he says the separatist movement in Aceh province has lost steam.
"Last August, we concluded an agreement with the Free Aceh Movement in Helsinki. Since then, the rebel group, together with Indonesians, have rehabilitated Aceh with the presence of monitoring missions."
As a reward for Indonesia's help in anti-terrorist operations, the United States last November lifted a six-year arms embargo — a major political coup for Yudhoyono, who had visited Washington twice in an effort to get the embargo lifted.
"There has been an exaggeration on the part of some influential people here to ban the export of weapons to Indonesia," said Parnohadiningrat. "Rather than being banned, we would have preferred an intensive dialogue. We need to reform our own military establishment, but not by [the United States] imposing a weapons embargo."
He added: "We don't have the money to buy new equipment. We have very limited resources. Although we don't feel threatened by any country, we are prone to natural disasters, and we need spare parts for C-130 military transports, which are very handy for that kind of operation."
Now that the arms ban has been lifted, the ambassador's next challenge is to get the Bush administration to relax immigration rules a bit.
"After 9/11, we found it very difficult for our students to go to the United States to study, because of very tight scrutiny in granting visas," he said. "This resulted in a 13% drop in the number of Indonesians studying in the U.S. from 2001 to 2004. We hope this number will increase again."
Parnohadiningrat conceded that anti-American sentiment is still rampant throughout Indonesia — not as bad as before the tsunami, but still strong enough to spark occasional demonstrations in the streets of Jakarta. One reason for this is Washington's traditional support of Israel — not a very popular position in the world's largest Muslim country.
Yet Indonesia openly accepted aid from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. Among other things, the JDC raised $2 million for tsunami victims and even built a mosque in Banda Aceh as a symbol of interreligious friendship, according to Michael Schneider, the JDC's honorary executive vice-president.
Whether that translates into closer ties between Jerusalem and Jakarta remains to be seen.
"It very much depends on how our people perceive relations between Indonesia and Israel," says Parnohadiningrat. "We haven't yet come to believe that the majority of our people would allow the opening of diplomatic relations with Israel. And since we are a democracy, we have to listen to our people."
In the meantime, Indonesia's man in Washington has a little advice for U.S. policymakers hoping to improve bilateral relations:
"Don't interfere in our affairs and act as if you know better than us how we should overcome our problems, because we are doing it ourselves. Let's conduct a dialogue, but don't act as if we are a country that needs to be told what to do." - END -