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Monday, May 26, 2003

Megawati deserves greater U.S. support

LOS ANGELES -- What country has the largest population while probably remaining the least known among Americans? It's Indonesia -- an awesome archipelago of maybe 13,000 islands and some 220 million people. Most of them are moderate Muslims, and there are more of those in Indonesia than anywhere.

Its leader is Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, founder of modern postcolonial Indonesia. She may not be the second coming of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the steel-nerves department, but she's no dishrag diplomat when it comes to quashing terrorism and separatism. She has ordered her military -- known as the TNI -- to contain rebel forces in Aceh, the resource-rich westernmost province which is now, by her decree, under martial law.

The line in the sand has been drawn: Aceh will not become independent like East Timor because, if it does, Megawati and many others believe, Indonesia will violently shatter as one aggrieved province after another disintegrates, in the manner of the former Yugoslavia.

Too bad the United States cannot help the mild-mannered Megawati, a democrat, as it once propped up the autocratic and corrupt Suharto, her father's successor. The Bush administration is encumbered by the well-intentioned but ill-conceived Leahy-Feingold congressional amendment, which limits U.S. military aid to the TNI. This bodes to become a dagger in the heart of the budding Indonesia democracy.

For at the very time the embattled Megawati, democratically chosen, could use the well-trained American military in her backyard to help modernize and democratize her military, Congress forbids it. The hard-to-follow logic is that because the TNI did so many bad things under the past dictatorship while it was greatly supported by U.S. military aid the U.S. should do relatively nothing for Megawati now that Indonesia is becoming a moderate-Muslim democracy.

This is American do-good-ism at its nightmarish worst. The Western human rights groups that have cowed Congress into this madness will have mainly themselves to blame if Megawati falls and Indonesia reverts to military rule. U.S. President George W. Bush knows the deal. Indeed, his administration figured out the strategic vitality of Asia more quickly than its Clinton predecessors.

Take only the Iraq reconstruction mess (if one could) and the small-potatoes tax cut (as one should) out of the picture, and lately it has been practically all-Asia, all of the time at the White House. Two weeks ago new South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun blew in for a public fence-mending trip that he and Bush handled well. Last week the glamorous and articulate Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo huddled with America's commander in chief and returned home bearing U.S. contracts, official expressions of support for her war on terrorism and a big smile.

Bush likes her -- and why not? Like Megawati, she's against terrorism and she's smart. This past weekend it was Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's turn, with a bonus barbecue at the Crawford ranch thrown in. Now there's a rumor Bush may pop over to Australian Prime Minister John Howard's neighborhood for the world rugby championship in October, stopping along the way in Manila to see Macapagal Arroyo.

If he does, Bush should also stop over in Jakarta and see Megawati. She is no obnoxious French President Jacques Chirac taunting the American tiger but rather a potential moderate-Muslim ally in a region two key American allies call home: Australia and Singapore.

Indonesia under her leadership is positioned to become a successful democratic gem more rapidly than, say, Iraq. Its economy appears to be back on track. Its rupiah, once a sickly currency, is now buoyant against the sagging dollar. Its stock market has gained 25 percent in value over the past two months. And politically Megawati has benefited not only from revulsion among moderate Muslims toward the Bali massacre and other terrorist acts of violence but from her opposition to the invasion of Iraq as well.

Alas, her Indonesia suffers from the indifference of the American public not only because it is far away and, for the time being, has no U.S. troops being shot at, but also because it has but the tiniest diaspora stateside. By contrast, in America there are about 800,000 ethnic Japanese, more than a million Koreans, almost 2 million Filipinos and countless Chinese. The number of Indonesians in the U.S. is barely 40,000.

Yet an aide to a leading military official in the Asia-Pacific has only one map on his wall. Mammoth China or strategically vital Japan or the troubled Korean Peninsula? No, it's of Indonesia. The officer points to the westernmost point and has you imagine Seattle. He goes easternmost and mentions Portland, Maine. "But it doesn't go as deep as Texas does in the United States," he admits. Even so, he is pretty confident his commander in chief will locate Indonesia on his own geopolitical map very soon.

Tom Plate is a UCLA professor and director of the nonprofit Asia Pacific Media Network.

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