Megawati's Indonesia and US regional policy
It has become a truism of secessionism that, to be successful, it often requires the support of an active external sponsor. Some examples of successful secession, and fragmentation, include Panama from Colombia (supported by the United States), Bangladesh from Pakistan (India), the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia (U.S. and NATO) and East Timor (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 Republic of South Maluku 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, domino-like, trigger more. This raises the issue of external support. The only country that has the capacity to meaningfully support secession is the U.S. To do this, the U.S. 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 an already dim prospect of trial for those responsible for the carnage in East Timor in 1999.
The reason for U.S. support of the TNI is because the Bush administration has decided that, as a part of its renewed focus on East Asia, the unity of Indonesia serves a greater strategic purpose.
Despite the superficial friendliness of the visit to Beijing by Powell and Rumsfeld, China is now seen by the U.S. as the 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 circle.
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". Hence the states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations developed the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), as well as a less formal strategic coalition. The lynchpin of ASEAN, and of a China-containment coalition, is Indonesia. And Indonesia has been a useless strategic partner since 1997.
If within Indonesia, 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, their loss would further damage Indonesia's still moribund economy.
Even more so than East Timor, their loss would send Indonesia's political elite into a rage, which despite everything has remained committed to the idea of maintaining a united (and unitary) state, and somewhat paranoid about external desires for fragmentation (from Australia). This sentiment 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, than her predecessor. Will she be able to keep her coalition of political support together any longer than Wahid, given her unpopularity amongst traditional muslims? How will she deal with a Parliament which is now willing and able to assert its authority over the president? 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 elite for her new position. 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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 even more strategically dependent on the U.S., which may partially explain Canberra's curious support for Bush's National Missile Defence (NMD). 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.
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 down again. In the greater strategic game
there remains a school of thought which believes that repression is acceptable.
*The authors teach international politics at Deakin University in Australia.
Lecturer in International Relations
School of Australian & International Studies
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Burwood Victoria 3125