It is a worrying sign when western leaders and their sidekicks — media, NGOs and thinktanks — welcome a new government in any Muslim country. When warm words of hope and congratulation are accorded to the new president of the world’s “most populous Muslim country”, it is highly recommended for a Muslim political observer to examine the praises poured on him.
Even before the second phase of the presidential elections began last month, western-backed NGOs and thinktanks, who have been up in arms against the country’s traditional ulama and madrasah institutions, were pouring praise on Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won an election whose results were largely predictable, given the incumbent’s low-level campaigning. Immediately, the Indonesian democratic system was hailed as “free and fair”.
Western news agencies have portrayed Susilo as a general who is more at home “in meeting rooms than on the battlefield” and “more known for his large library than prowess in combat”. Susilo has been hailed as everything from a confidence-booster for Indonesia’s economy, to a general who is interested in a peaceful solution to Aceh, and even someone who is capable of addressing “terrorism”.
Western allies are really more interested in who is capable of doing their bidding. Since Suharto, every incoming president has been unable to address either the economic problems or the Aceh conflict in a just manner. Many of the top military generals under Suharto are still there, Susilo being one of them, despite claims that there is no blood on his hands. When the Aceh peace accord broke down, Susilo was the chief security advisor to Megawati Sukarnoputri’s government, and oversaw the onslaught on hundreds of villages. Bakhtiar Abdullah, a spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), described Susilo as “well-educated”, but said that he “understands the political impact and implications of dialogue, but... is still a military man and thinks militarily.” Such a man will be a boost for the western powers in their fight against the Indonesian Muslims’ reassertion of their Islamic identity.
Most Indonesian presidents since Suharto have been an unknown quantity; Susilo is no exception. The only way to engage such a leader is to groom him from the beginning. The stage was set for Susilo’s impending victory, with the US and Australia congratulating him even before the official results had been announced. Phrases such as “urbane general” and “US-educated” depict him as a fresh face in Indonesian politics.
On September 22 the US-based Carter Center hailed the elections as a watershed in Indonesia’s progress from dictatorship to democracy, while the US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a grant of US$2.4 million to “help develop democracy” in Indonesia. Overall Washington has spent US$25 million on these presidential elections.
Western-backed NGOs, the loudest the International Crisis Group, headed by Australian Sydney Jones, hinted that western admiration for Susilo will only continue if he tackles the madrasahs. ICG is one of the organizations that insist that “Jema’ah Islamiah”, an organization whose existence has yet to be proven, are led by the pesantren (Islamic boarding-school system) ulama such as Abu Bakar Ba’syir. “You have got to be willing to take tough actions against... institutions. You have got to make a serious public information campaign inside Indonesia, which has not been done,” Jones said recently.
The US — whose interventions in Indonesian politics since Sukarno’s day are well-documented — has much to rejoice about. Since the demise of Suharto, the military general whom it helped into power by a CIA coup, Muslim leaders and Islamic groups are increasingly making their voices heard and asserting their Islamic identity, which was suppressed under Indonesia’s de-Islamization campaign, known as pancasila. With the declining role of the military in politics, and the sidelining of “mainstream” and “moderate” Islamic organisations such as Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyyah, the US is finding it harder to impose its ‘war on terror’ on the whole region.
Little wonder, then, that John Howard, Australia’s hawkish prime minister, timed his threat to launch “pre-emptive” strikes in southeast Asia to coincide with the news that Susilo was almost certain to be the next president. Howard has referred unabashedly to his role as America’s deputy sheriff in the region, and his latest threat to the southeast Asian countries has drawn condemnations, most notably from Malaysia and the Philippines. But with an ex-general set to become the fourth president since Suharto, Canberra, which has been setting up spy-centres in the region for the US, has every reason to smile: Alexander Downer, its foreign minister, says that Susilo “has a lot of affection for Australia”, and on September 24: “[He] is somebody we can work with exceptionally well. He’s somebody I know very well.”