Obama, the Dalai Lama and Indonesia

By webadmin on 07:16 pm Feb 21, 2010
Category Archive

Pitan Daslani

In meeting with the Dalai Lama last week, Barack Obama sent a message of hope to oppressed people around the globe. But what does the encounter mean for Indonesia?

The message: In the name of human rights protection, undemocratic regimes must realize that America stands up for victims of oppression.

Indeed, Obama’s White House seems to have emphasized human rights protection over possible strategies for decreasing the country’s huge trade deficit with China. The red carpet that Obama rolled out for Tibet’s spiritual leader, a man Beijing sees as a dissident worthy of punishment, has surely increased the tension in already strained Sino-United States relations.

Beijing now has an additional excuse to continue its rejection of Obama’s call to strengthen the yuan. The US trade deficit is likely to continue to increase. Even in the absence of a stern counterattack from China over the Dalai Lama’s visit, pressure would continue to mount in the United States’ trade and business dealings with the Asian giant.

The message sent to Beijing over the visit flies in the face of China’s sense of sovereignty and territorial integrity. For China, Tibet — like Taiwan — is a province and an integral part of the nation.

Even the Tibetan leader has proposed what he calls a “middle road” approach, which Washington has endorsed, for “greater cultural identity and human rights.” But such a strategy will not likely satisfy Beijing.

Though Beijing will probably not retaliate strongly against Obama’s diplomatic flirtation with the Dalai Lama, a lack of strategic support for America could be devastating. The US is concerned about China’s potential resistance to efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear program, particularly in light of Beijing’s warming ties with Tehran over the last decade.

Obama told Senate Democrats a day before receiving the Tibetan leader that to continue “putting constant pressure on China and other countries to open up their markets,” he needs to meet separatist leaders.

A similar strategy here would be counterproductive for Washington’s relations with Jakarta. In fact, I can’t imagine he would want to spoil his nostalgic visit with such misguided signals. Indonesian political leaders do not expect Obama to meet separatist leaders during his March trip to Jakarta, though he may raise the need for “preserving the cultural identity” of Papua — which hosts the massive mining operation of US copper and gold giant Freeport — during his meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

But the era of pressuring Indonesia on Papua or other issues has passed. The world’s third largest democracy needs a more balanced relationship with the superpower. Obama and Yudhoyono could write a new chapter under an equal partnership. Indonesia is quite a different country than it was during the four years he lived in Jakarta from 1968 1971.

According to Nasir Tamara, author of “Indonesia Rising,” China and India have been given higher priority in Indonesia’s foreign policy, while efforts have been made to foster close relations with Islamic energy-producing countries. Asean is no longer a high priority, while political and defense relations with Russia have also improved.

During a 2005 speech in Washington, Yudhoyono declared that “Indonesia is now an outward-looking country, very much eager to shape the regional and international order and intent on having our voice heard.”

US relations with Indonesia improved significantly after the December 2004 tsunami, after which extensive American aid poured in, with one-third of US households reportedly donating to tsunami relief.

Bilateral relations also warmed when Washington lifted an embargo on military equipment and resumed training for Indonesian Military officers in the United States, despite many Indonesians’ hostility toward former President George W Bush.

The US also supported Indonesia’s bid to become a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, and Indonesia gladly took on a role as bridge between the US and the Muslim world.

Obama has yet to reveal what concrete actions might boost Americans’ perception of and attitude toward the Muslim world. The US needs to listen to Indonesian Muslim leaders’ concerns about terrorism and the war against it. Obama’s spectacular Cairo speech set the tone for better relations with the Muslim world, but this needs to be substantiated during his visit to Indonesia. It is not just Obama who needs to embrace Indonesia; the rest of America must do the same.

Indonesia needs to put its own house in order if it wants more attention from the US. This nation’s lack of legal certainty is a key problem, and its protection of civil rights for minority groups is far from satisfactory.

President Obama has stood up for human rights in other contexts, so we should urge him also to address infringements or violations of rights against minority groups here.

Given that his meeting with the spiritual leader of Tibet risked straining Sino-US relations, Obama can certainly afford to meet with leaders of minority religions here in Indonesia with little diplomatic fallout.

Most people here hope that because Obama once lived in Jakarta and grew up with an Indonesian stepfather, he might help Indonesia more than his predecessors. This remains to be seen. But at the end of the day, if Indonesia fails to capitalize on Obama’s unprecedented trip, only Indonesians will be to blame.

Indonesian politicians must be reminded that this opportunity is too dear to squander. Politicians distracted by dirty tricks in the Bank Century case must put aside petty politics and take full advantage of next month’s visit.


Pitan Daslani is executive chief editor of Campus Asia magazine. He can be reached at pitandaslani@gmail.com.