Modern Indonesia Extolled as Global Model

BOGOR, West Java ~ US President George W. Bush praised Indonesia’s “pluralism and its diversity” during his visit here this week and said the world should look to the predominantly Muslim country as an example.

“It’s very important for the people of America to understand that this vast country has got tremendous potential,” he said as he met here on Monday with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Muslim and non-Muslim civic leaders.

“It’s got a prominent role to play in the world in showing how it’s possible for people to be able to live together in peace and harmony,” the US president said as he opened a seven-hour visit.

Indonesia’s estimated 245 million people are 88 percent Muslim, five percent Protestant, three percent Catholic, two percent Hindu, according to figures from the Central Intelligence Agency.

“I admire Indonesia’s pluralism and its diversity. I admire your president, his commitment to reform and strengthening democracy,” Bush said with Yudhoyono at his side in the meeting.

The US president was here on the last leg of a week-long Asia visit that took him to Singapore, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City. He was to make a stop in Hawaii and then return to Washington.

Bush shrugged off angry protests against his visit to Indonesia by Muslims who oppose the Iraq war and are unhappy at the US presence in Afghanistan.

“I applaud a society where people are free to come express their opinion,” he said at a joint press conference with President Yudhoyono.

“It’s to Indonesia’s credit that it’s a society where people are able to protest and say what they think. And it’s not the first time, by the way, where people have showed up and expressed their opinion about my policies,” he said.

“That’s what happens when you make hard decisions,” said Bush.

A storm of protests greeted the US president upon his arrival here, with thousands of people expressing their anger at Bush’s policies.

Asked how he would comfort Muslims who fear that his policies target them, Bush replied: “I believe freedom is universal and democracy is universal. I don’t believe it’s the sole right of the United States, or the sole right of Methodists.

“I believe the vast majority of people want to live in moderation and not have extremists kill innocent people,” said the US president.

Bush pledged during the APEC summit in Vietnam on Friday to help fight avian influenza in Indonesia, which has the world’s highest death toll at 56.

“If there is an influenza outbreak in Vietnam, it could affect Indonesia and the people of America. Therefore we need to work in a collaborative way to deal with this great threat,” Bush said.

“We continue to form partnerships on this issue,” Bush said.

A joint statement said that both Indonesia and US also agreed to accelerate negotiations to extend research work of the US Naval Medical Research Unit (NAMRU) number 2 facilities in Indonesia.

NAMRU laboratories have been assisting the Health Ministry in confirming suspected avian flu cases in the country over the past two years.

Meanwhile, analysts said that Bush’s visit signaled that Indonesia was a strategic partner to the US.

“Bush’s decision to come proves that we are a strategic partner for the United States,” said Bantarto Bandoro, political analyst with the private think tank Center for Strategic International Studies.

Bandoro said critics had ignored the positive aspects of the visit while airing their main fear that Indonesia’s policy-making would fall under Washington’s shadow. Even the region stood to gain, he said.

“Our relations with the United States, up to a certain point, also impact on the strategic environment in Southeast Asia,” Bantarto said, adding that many worry that any problems in bilateral relations could impact on the stability of Southeast Asia.

“The good side of the coin is that the visit gives a good boost to Indonesia’s international credibility,” said Arbi Sanit, a political observer from the state University of Indonesia.

“Good ties with the United States also means good ties with its allies and that will certainly be to our advantage,” Sanit said.

Hermawan Sulistyo, from the Ridep Institute for Democracy and Peace, said Bush’s visit was an “honor” for Indonesia.

“The question is how to make use of the visit to promote more bilateral cooperation and to put through our views on the various international issues, including the Middle East,” Sulistyo said.

While the visit would benefit Jakarta, Bush also stood to gain through this foreign trip following the defeat of his Republican Party in mid-term elections, he said.

“For Bush, the visit becomes important because his position has greatly weakened domestically in the United States,” Sulistyo said, pointing to Indonesia’s growing regional importance.

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