By Brian D. Hanley
US President Barack Obama arrived in Indonesia this week for a historic visit. “Barry,” as he is affectionately known here, spent four of his formative years in Jakarta, Indonesia’s bustling capital.
Obama’s visit offered a unique opportunity for the United States to acknowledge Indonesia’s global civic, political, economic, social and cultural progress, and to encourage ongoing government and civil society attention to the Herculean task of sustainable peace-building in Indonesia, across Southeast Asia and beyond.
Indonesia, which is a nascent democracy and has a long history of secular moderation, is the world’s fourth most populous country with more than 250 million inhabitants living across 17,000 islands. The country has enjoyed a remarkable period of peace and stability. However, much work is required to consolidate peace in Indonesia’s former and current conflict zones, and to counter violent extremism.
Obama’s visit – several times postponed – stirred many emotions. Some Indonesians protested continued US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ongoing desperation of the Palestinian people, which is blamed not only on Israel but also on US policy. Human rights advocates were up in arms over proposals that the United States re-establish military ties with Indonesia’s Kopassus special forces, many of whom are blamed for decades of human rights violations across Indonesia and in its former colony, Timor-Leste.
Although these issues are important and need to be addressed, Obama did not let them dominate the agenda and negatively impact his important visit, as most Indonesians want to embrace a new way forward for US-Indonesian relations.
By focusing on issues such as economic cooperation, environmental stewardship, good governance, poverty eradication and the struggle against terrorism, Obama set the tone and pushed his ambitious global agenda forward. To get bogged down in negativist approaches serves little purpose when positive ones have been proven considerably more effective.
Obama considered Indonesia as an important platform to address the Muslim world, building on the olive branch extended in Cairo last year.
Addressing Indonesians and global citizens, Obama had an opportunity to revive the hope for a more peaceful world that propelled him to high office, at a time when the world needs it most. No domestic challenges or shifts in governance – big or small – should detract Obama from his commitments to bridge the divide between the so-called Muslim and Western worlds, and the global East and West, North and South.
Obama also provided gentle, humble encouragement to Indonesia to not only uphold its international obligations, but also to take a lead role in promoting religious tolerance and advancing democracy, human rights and freedom – regionally and globally. Southeast Asia is a great place to start, and Indonesia has already demonstrated leadership by encouraging democracy in neighbouring Burma. In addition, Indonesia has much to offer Thailand and the Philippines, as they grapple with low-level insurgencies and sporadic bouts of political instability.
Beyond its role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia should be tapped as a strategic player in advancing international peace and security elsewhere. Indonesian support and encouragement could be one of the keys to solving the riddle of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as many view it as an impartial and fair Muslim interlocutor. Reasoned, reasonable diplomacy in the United Nations should be pursued by the growing number of concerned parties, with Indonesia playing a lead role.
Likewise, Indonesia could well be the lynchpin in reigniting a Middle East peace process, which has again stalled. Magnanimous gestures towards Israel, such as diplomatic and economic ties, could serve as incentives for a new way forward for all the players involved.
Indonesia’s important role should not be discounted as a global stakeholder, and the United States should cultivate the relationship with its powerful G20 partner and ally. It’s time to move beyond the paradigms of colonialism, paternalism and imperialism, and embrace dialogue and multilateral cooperation. In doing so, finding common ground will become the common thing, and citizens can live in peace within a framework commanded by respect for the rule of law.
Many Indonesians have been enamoured with Obama since he hit the presidential campaign trail. Let’s build on this powerful, positive and personal relationship and start transforming history through open, honest and constructive engagement.
Brian D. Hanley is Asia Director with Search for Common Ground, a conflict-resolution NGO based in Washington.