Obamas ‘do’ Indonesia! Hyperbole over human rights

They came, they saw, they said a lot of blather about tolerance and democracy and meatball noodle soup, then they left. That pretty much sums up the 20-hour visit by the US first couple to Indonesia this week.

If I was Indian I’d be pretty annoyed (but I’ll get to that later). If I was Indonesian I’d probably be like the people I saw silently staring at Obama’s gleaming, wailing motorcade as it streamed through the deserted streets of central Jakarta this morning: mute, a little resentful and thoroughly unimpressed.  

Excuse me if I’m too cynical – you can always read something else, something dripping with meaningless hyperbole and rank cliché, something like Obama’s speech to students at the national university.

Human rights activists and victims of ongoing abuses by the Indonesian military had begged and pleaded with this White House — that’s the one that recently re-commenced military contacts with Indonesia’s notorious Kopassus special forces unit — to use the visit to pressure Jakarta to stop the killings and torture and, according to some, the genocide that is taking place in the eastern region of Papua.

Did Obama listen to these appeals? Nope. Unless he said something to President Yudhoyono behind closed doors, he ignored them altogether. He only mentioned Papua once, in passing as a prop for one of his rhetorical flourishes. 

Instead of clearly standing up for the speechless and powerless, he effectively praised the torturers for the great model of tolerance and pluralism they are showing to the world. Stiff cheese to Indonesians who care about human rights and justice – this White House is not on their side.

I’d be annoyed if I was Indian because only a couple of days earlier, Obama had been in Delhi lecturing the Indian government about its failure to speak out against the military’s abuses in Myanmar. The double standards are appalling, even more so when they are dressed up with such pomp and fanfare.

The best part of Obama’s speech today, in my humble opinion, was his challenge to those who believe development comes before democracy. This is an argument President Yudhoyono has made publicly in the past – ie sometimes emerging democracies have to sacrifice democratic principles and the rule of law in order to tackle poverty. Once living standards have risen, democracy can become the priority.

Obama almost achieved the inspirational heights that he constantly aspires to when he argued that this was a false dichotomy:

Today, we sometimes hear that democracy stands in the way of economic progress. This is not a new argument. Particularly in times of change and economic uncertainty, some will say that it is easier to take a shortcut to development by trading away the rights of human beings for the power of the state. But that is not what I saw on my trip to India, and that is not what I see in Indonesia. Your achievements demonstrate that democracy and development reinforce one another…

Of course, democracy is messy. Not everyone likes the results of every election. You go through ups and downs. But the journey is worthwhile, and it goes beyond casting a ballot. It takes strong institutions to check the concentration of power. It takes open markets that allow individuals to thrive. It takes a free press and an independent justice system to root out abuse and excess, and to insist upon accountability. It takes open society and active citizens to reject inequality and injustice.

These are the forces that will propel Indonesia forward. And it will require a refusal to tolerate the corruption that stands in the way of opportunity; a commitment to transparency that gives every Indonesian a stake in their government; and a belief that the freedom that Indonesians have fought for is what holds this great nation together.

Otherwise, Obama was as predictably patronising as Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard the week before. Most of the time he wandered on the margins of the ridiculous, as when he claimed Indonesia – one of the most corrupt countries in the world – was going to lead the G20 in transparency and accountability. I can only assume he misspoke. Very disappointing.

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