The Heritage Foundation

News Releases on Asia

May 14, 2001

May 14, 2001 | News Releases on Asia

US Must Be More Realistic In Aiding indonesia, Analyst Says

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2001-Indonesia, the world's fourth most-populous nation, is in the grips of its most severe political, economic and security crisis since 1966. A new Heritage Foundation analysis concludes that the United States can help the violence-torn nation of 217 million, but only if Indonesia first takes concrete steps to help itself.

"Until the Indonesian government reforms its economy and its military and strengthens its civilian institutions," writes Heritage Southeast Asia Analyst Dana Dillon, "the United States should withhold assistance and limit military engagement with this troubled country."

Indonesia's latest round of turmoil started in 1999, when the province of East Timor seceded. Since then, U.S. policy toward Indonesia has been geared toward promoting political, economic and military reform, but it hasn't been successful.

Dillon writes that American aid efforts have failed largely because U.S. policy has been based on "myths" about Indonesia. For example, he observes, U.S. officials persist in regarding Indonesia as the world's third-largest democracy-even though the nation has held just one fair election (in 1998).

Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid-who has been censured by his parliament twice and could face impeachment-said in an interview Sunday that he supports laws that jail people for insulting the president. "For me, this is democracy," Wahid told The Washington Post.

Given these realities, Dillon argues, it is far too early to place Indonesia firmly in the democratic column.

The analyst also labels as "myth" the contention that Indonesia is in constant danger of breaking apart. He notes that no other provinces have followed East Timor's lead of secession.

Dillon suggests a more realistic approach to helping Indonesia would:

  • View economic recovery in Indonesia as the key to regional stability. Indonesia has done less to recover from the 1997 Asian financial crisis than any other country in the region, Dillon notes. The United States should help Indonesia design sound economic policies and provide generous assistance-but only after the government implements basic reforms, such as reducing the number of state-owned enterprises and balancing the budget.
  • Demand accountability for the Indonesian military. Until the Indonesian military can be brought to trial for human rights abuses, Washington should continue to withhold State Department funds to educate and train Jakarta's military and suspend the sale of lethal military equipment, Dillon writes.
  • Train Indonesia's political elite to strengthen the country's civilian institutions.Strengthening all the branches of the central government and helping local governments to become more independent should be among Washington's priorities. A good starting point, Dillon says, would be to help Indonesia create a civilian-led Ministry of Defense, ultimately giving civilians more control over the military.

"Patience is important," Dillon cautions. "U.S. policy-makers cannot make the Indonesian government move toward greater economic and political freedom any more rapidly than the political situation in Jakarta warrants."

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