Jakarta’s dilemma : How to say no to needed foreign help


A month after the Dec 26 earthquake and tsunamis, thousands continue to suffer and struggle to begin life anew. The Straits Times examines the issues involved and the rebuilding so far.


Indonesians, wary of hidden agendas, would rather help themselves.

FOR the first time ever, a US aircraft carrier, the Abraham Lincoln, is berthed off the coast of Aceh. The vessel is leading a flotilla of eight warships delivering relief supplies to stricken tsunami victims.

On its flight deck, Sea Hawk and Sea Knight helicopters take off on sorties every day to air-drop crates of food and water to remote areas.

On the ground, those receiving the supplies accept them gratefully, a sentiment that on the surface seems to hold throughout the country.

The national media has fallen in line behind the aid flow, but in Indonesia, things are almost always not what they seem.

There are elements in the country which worry about the foreign help – these voices are coming from the political and intellectual elite, Indonesian armed forces (TNI) and Islamic extremist groups.

They might be small but are of significance.

And they have brought to the fore an acute dilemma within the Indonesian psyche when it comes to dealing with the outside world.

Indonesians want to be masters of their own fate, but are forced by circumstances time and again to seek help.

The episode has also pointed to splits within President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government, even as it added to pressures for fast results.

The bottom line is this: The outpouring of generosity has done little to change the views of many Indonesians, who remain wary of foreigners.

Some Indonesians suspect the West could be using the aid as a cover ‘to entrench themselves in the country for reasons other than humanitarian interests’.

Mr Syamsir Siregar, head of the state intelligence body BIN, told The Straits Times: ‘The Americans are here to help us in a big way. But they have other interests too. One of them is to keep watch on the Malacca Strait, which is a chokepoint for world trade.

‘The Australians, too, may have this agenda.

‘In fact, all militaries, including the TNI, if deployed on foreign territory would take advantage of the situation to gather intelligence for national security purposes.

‘We appreciate their help. But we should remain aware of what they are doing while in Aceh.’

This thinking is shaped in part by post-independence history. Indonesians have never forgotten the US’ clandestine support for the separatist movement in South Sulawesi and Sumatra in the 1950s.

Neither have they forgiven Australia for backing East Timor’s independence in 1999, even if there are signs of warming ties today. Politics and religion are also coming into play. Muslim hardliners view Western aid as nothing more than a bid to convert vulnerable victims.

To mollify such groups, political leaders – among them Vice-President Jusuf Kalla – said Indonesia could handle the tsunami reconstruction alone after March 26 before others stepped in to say this was not a deadline for non-Indonesians to leave.

The Jakarta Post summed up the mood in a stinging editorial titled Xenophobia Thicker Than Humanity: ‘It has become all too evident that there is a growing feeling of xenophobia here, at least in certain parts of society. We accept the foreigners’ relief, but … we are suspicious of them and do not appreciate what they have done.’

But Singapore and Malaysia are viewed differently. There is a higher comfort level given historical links and common Asean membership.

Said Mr Syamsir: ‘Our neighbours come here as friends. They are sincere.

‘Singapore, for example, has played a big role in this crisis. It is a small country but very important for Indonesia because they have this ability to get the big powers to listen to them. The tsunami summit happened because of the initiative of the Singapore leadership.’

So, many hope that some good might yet come out of the tsunami, if it paves the way for Jakarta to strengthen its links with other countries.

One who believed it would is Mr Jusuf Kalla. ‘I anticipate cooperation with Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the US will increase,’ he told The Straits Times.

‘They came to our help immediately when disaster struck. It will surely affect other facets of our ties – political and especially economic links in the long run.’

Only time can tell if he will be proven right.

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