Bush to meet Muslim leaders in Indonesia

BUSH’S FLYING VISIT

He will meet Muslim leaders and offer sweeteners to win over moderates and improve the US image in Muslim world.

Terrorism will top the agenda during US President George W. Bush’s visit to Indonesia.

As the most populous Muslim country in the world, observers said that his visit next week is also aimed at cultivating Indonesia’s moderate Islamic ground at a time when US standing here and the Arab world is at an all-time low.

Mr Bush is expected to meet several key Muslim leaders for an ‘open and frank discussion’ when he arrives in Bali on Oct 22.

They include Mr Hasyim Muzadi from the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and Mr Syafii Ma’arif from the Muhammadiyah, the two largest Muslim organisations in the country with an estimated 60 million members.

Washington is keen to do more to win over the moderate Muslim ground in Indonesia. The NU and Muhammadiyah are seen as a bulwark against religious extremism.

Before the Oct 12 Bali bombings, radicals were a small but potent and noisy force. They were strong enough for major political players to take notice.

Religious zealots dominated discourse in Indonesian politics and grabbed the media spotlight. But after Bali and the Jakarta JW Marriott attack, the tide began to shift.

Diplomatic sources said that Mr Bush is likely to offer a ‘package of goodies’ to groups like NU and Muhammadiyah in the form of education funds for religious boarding schools.

This is in line with a panel report that recently called on the Bush administration to do more to improve its image in the Arab and Muslim world through greater funds for education and public diplomacy.

Clearly the intention is to use the moderates as a counterweight to fringe radical groups.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri will welcome Mr Bush in Bali. Indonesian officials said a major focus of discussions would be efforts to combat Islamic militancy.

They refused to disclose any concrete plans that have been drawn up by both sides.

But observers speculate that Jakarta might make a pitch for more funds to help security and intelligence agencies here.

One issue that will be raised by Ms Megawati is access for Indonesian police to interrogate terrorist Riduan Isamuddin alias Hambali.

Hambali was captured in Thailand in August and is being held by the Americans in an undisclosed location.

While some are critical that Mr Bush is only spending a few hours in Bali – his trip is of great significance to the Megawati administration.

A diplomat explained: ‘It shows his support for the Indonesian government and how America wants to help Jakarta in the war against terrorism.’

PRESIDENT BUSH’S FLYING VISIT

The US President’s agenda on his four-day Asian trip:

JAPAN
Koizumi to send troops for Iraq

INDONESIA
Key meeting with moderate Muslims

THAILAND
Reward for nabbing Hambali

PHILIPPINES
Arroyo’s military wish list

SINGAPORE
Stepping up trade and terror fight

BUSH’S AGENDA

JAPAN (Oct 17-18)
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi

Mr Koizumi is expected to tell Mr Bush that Japan will send personnel to help in the reconstruction of Iraq.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme is another key topic.

PHILIPPINES (Oct 18)
President Gloria Arroyo

The Philippines will ask for more US military and development assistance.

Terrorism will be discussed.

The Philippines is one of the countries Mr Bush will praise publicly but privately he will express serious concerns.

THAILAND (Oct 19-21)
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra

Thailand will be praised for making up for initial feet-dragging over terrorism with Hambali’s capture.

Issue of sending non-combat troops to Iraq to help in reconstruction might also be discussed.

SINGAPORE (Oct 21-22)
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong

First time that an American leader has visited the Republic since 1992.

Meeting likely to focus on topics that will strengthen bilateral ties, such as security, trade and Washington’s war against terrorism.

INDONESIA (Oct 22)
President Megawati Sukarnoputri

Terrorism will top the agenda.

Indonesia is another country Mr Bush will praise publicly but still has concerns about.

Visit is also aimed at cultivating Indonesia’s moderate Islamic ground and he is expected to meet several key Muslim leaders for a discussion.

AUSTRALIA (Oct 22-23)
Prime Minister John Howard

Federal Parliament has been recalled from recess at a cost of A$2 million (S$2.36 million) to hear Mr Bush’s 30-minute address on Oct 23.

It is being billed as a chance to thank Australia for sending troops to fight against Saddam Hussein.

The presidential visit is expected to boost efforts to negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement between the two nations.

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