|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
9 - 15 August 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Jumping into the gameThe US throws its weight around southeast Asian politics by pulling Indonesia into its strategic orbit. In Canberra, Scott Burchill and Damien Kingsbury map the changes ahead
Following visits by US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld at key stops in the East Asian region, security issues are starting to look much clearer. The widespread belief that Indonesia is edging towards disintegration should now be laid to rest.
It has become a truism of secessionism that success depends on the support of an active external sponsor. Some examples of successful campaigns for secession, and fragmentation, include Panama from Colombia (supported by the United States), Bangladesh from Pakistan (supported by India), the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia (backed by the United States and NATO) and East Timor (pushed through by Portugal and the United Nations).
Indonesia has numerous trouble spots, but only two, Aceh and West Papua (officially Irian Jaya), have the clear goal of secession. Dissent in Riau, near Singapore, is largely rhetorical and the recreation of the Republic of South Maluku (Malaccas), in Ambon, is a faint echo of the secession movement of 1950 amplified by communal conflict.
It has been suggested, however, that the success of one secessionist movement in Indonesia could trigger a domino-effect -- which again raises the issue of external support. The only country that has the capacity to meaningfully support secessionist movements is the US. And before it would do so, the US would need to be convinced that its strategic and economic interests were best served by such a political separation.
On his recent visit to Indonesia, Rumsfeld said that he would like to see renewed military aid to Indonesia's armed forces, the TNI. This is despite a lack of meaningful reform of the TNI and indeed its reinvigorated political influence, as well as the fading of the already dim prospect of trial for those responsible for the carnage following East Timor's vote for secession in 1999.
In light of the Bush administration's renewed focus on East Asia, US support for the TNI shows that a unified Indonesia serves a greater strategic purpose. Despite the superficial friendliness of Powell and Rumsfeld's visit to Beijing, China is now seen by the US as a major strategic threat -- not just to Asia, but to the world. Russia, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan already flank China, and southeast Asia completes the picture.
There has long been a view in southeast Asia that an economically enhanced China would throw its weight around in a region it has historically considered its backyard. This threat spurred the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to form the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), as well as a less formal strategic coalition. The linchpin of ASEAN, and of a China- containment coalition, is Indonesia. And Indonesia has been a useless strategic partner since 1997.
If Aceh and West Papua were successful in their bids for independence, this would not necessarily destroy the core of the state. However, as two of the largest sources of state revenue from oil and minerals, respectively, the loss of these provinces would further damage Indonesia's still moribund economy. Even more so than East Timor, their loss would enrage Indonesia's political elite, which despite everything, has remained committed to the idea of maintaining a united (and unitary) state. Paranoia about external pressures for fragmentation, from Australia, for example, would increase. These sentiments remained strong under the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid, and has been further enhanced by the election of Megawati Sukarnoputri.
The ascension of Megawati to the presidency poses more questions than can easily be answered. Will reform of the TNI be halted and its political role enhanced? Will Megawati, a secular nationalist, be much tougher on recalcitrant provinces such as Aceh and West Papua? Will she be able to keep her coalition of political support together any longer than Wahid, given her unpopularity among traditional Muslims? And will the return to power of many Suharto cronies and their allies prevent much needed reform of the nation's economy, particularly its banking and finance sectors? Sceptics see Megawati as a short-term leader, beholden to the armed forces and the old financial establishment. To them, her rise from vice-president to president seems like "back to the future."
If another country supported secession, particularly in Aceh, Indonesia could be expected to question the repayment of existing US-backed loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and would bring the ARF undone. It would also further limit the compromised use of the Straits of Malacca, and probably close the main Indian-Pacific Ocean nuclear submarine passage of the Ombai-Wetar Straits in East Nusa Tenggara.
To this end, a united Indonesia with a mollified political elite, all under the watchful eye of a re-armed TNI, fits the larger US game plan much better. Australia's primary concern in this is securing the border between East and West Timor, and this was no doubt part of Powell and Rumsfeld's trade-off with the TNI. Thus assured, Australia is further strategically dependent on the US, which may partially explains Canberra's curious support for Bush's National Missile Defence (NMD) programme. Australia is also likely to become even more outspoken in its support of Indonesia's existing territorial integrity, despite the experience of East Timor in 1999 and regardless of domestic popular concerns about human rights violations in the republic's eastern- and western-most provinces.
As with support for Suharto's New Order during the Cold War, such a political scenario will not resolve Indonesia's many regional problems, but rather screw the repressive political lid back on tight. In the greater strategic game there remains a school of thought which believes that repression is acceptable.
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