US credibility takes a nosedive in Indonesia

US ambassador to Indonesia, Scot Marciel (pictured left shaking hands with the Indonesian president), needs to get out a bit more and listen to ordinary Indonesians. If he did he would know that his performance at a press conference on Friday was an insult to those who aspire to live in a democracy that respects the rule of law.

As reported in the Australian media, the ambassador apparently walked out of the press conference which was called to respond to leaked US diplomatic cables making explosive allegations of abuse of power against President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other political leaders.

The conference was not called, it seems, to answer journalists’ legitimate questions, but merely to give a show of openness to what amounts to naked propaganda. That propaganda seems intended to give the impression, ridiculous as it is to anyone who follows Indonesian affairs, that there are no serious issues about corruption or abuse of power in the world’s “third biggest democracy”.

Here’s how the The Age’s Tom Allard described proceedings:

At an extraordinary and, at times, awkward press conference after the meeting, Mr Marciel declined to confirm or deny the veracity of the cables or comment on the specific allegations they contained.

But he said, generally speaking, such cables contained “candid and often raw information” that was “often incomplete and unsubstantiated”.

“We express our deepest regrets to President Yudhoyono and to the Indonesian people,” he said, adding that the publication of the cables was “extremely irresponsible”.

Mr Marciel abruptly left the press conference shortly afterwards, leaving Mr Natalegawa to answer questions alone.

Natalegawa reportedly dismissed the apparently naive suggestion that the allegations might be investigated, saying categorically they would not.

Showing how much he respected the Indonesian people, Marciel dutifully repeated the “attack-the-messenger” approach of the State Department that it is “irresponsible” to report allegations of serious abuses of power about a US ally.

The ambassador commented only in order to discredit his own embassy’s cables and to attack those who chose to inform the Indonesian people about the allegations contained therein. It reminds me of his predecessor, Cameron Hume, who reportedly told journalists in his final days in Jakarta that human rights issues in Papua were of absolutely no concern to the United States as it mulled re-opening military ties with the Kopassus special forces blamed for committing atrocities in the region.

President Barack Obama pretends he has some affinity with ordinary Indonesians. After all, he knows the words “satay” and “nasi goreng”. He also claims to support their aspirations for genuine democracy and justice. But apparently Obama doesn’t think they deserve to know what he knows about alleged abuse of power by their elected leaders and their lackeys.

What was left of US credibility took another blow today with the publication in the The Age of more US cables, provided by Wikileaks, showing the US embassy in Jakarta had defended an alleged Indonesian war criminal and sought to hide what the US knew about his involvement in the 1991 Dili massacre and other atrocities in East Timor.

According to the report, the Jakarta embassy argued that army general Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, recently appointed by Yudhoyono as deputy defence minister, should be allowed to enter the United States (to attend a G20 meeting, no less) despite his alleged involvement in war crimes and state-sponsored terrorism by Indonesian forces in East Timor.

It took objections from the US embassy in Dili and a frank assessment of the implausibility of the general’s denials to convince Washington to overrule Jakarta and deny him a visa.

But even then, Washington kept its decision hush-hush, so as not to upset its partners in the Indonesian political elite, the same people who featured in other secret diplomatic cables about alleged abuse of power and corruption.

It’s not just about the rule of law, justice, alleged corruption and abuse of power. It’s about the impunity of the Indonesian military for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in places like East Timor, Papua, the Molukus and Jakarta during anti-communist purges, anti-Chinese massacres, anti-separatist wars and anti-democracy crackdowns under the Suharto dictatorship. Hundreds of thousands of people died in these murderous rampages but the generals responsible are rarely, if ever, held to account.

Instead they rise through the ranks, gain political influence and the wealth that goes with power, and are coddled by the United States. One of the Jakarta embassy cables described  Sjamsoeddin as crucial to military ties that are the “cornerstone of our efforts to ensure regional stability”.

So the US relationship with Indonesia, nay, the region as a whole, hinges on military ties, not justice or the rule of law.

How did that strategy go in Egypt?

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