Subject: McBeth continues his attacks on Sen. Leahy

The Straits Times (Singapore)

November 8, 2008 Saturday

Getting off on the right foot

BYLINE: John McBeth, Senior Writer

THERE will be two immediate effects from Mr Barack Hussein Obama's election as United States President: he will now be able to use his second given name, Hussein, and Americans will finally stop the dispiriting practice of slagging off their own president - at least for a while.

For Indonesia, it will mean a US president who will have no problem finding it on a map - and who may well pay his first visit next November when he attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Singapore.

He could come even earlier. As unlikely as it may seem now given the state of the US economy and other distractions, he told a reporter in July that he would like to give a speech in Indonesia within 100 days of his election.

Washington sources say they hear the trip will take place 'within months' of his Jan 20 inauguration and is being planned as an effort to reach out to Muslims - Indonesia being the world's largest Muslim-majority country.

No doubt worried about how it might be perceived by conservative voters, Mr Obama noticeably steered clear during the election campaign of talking about the four schoolboy years he spent in Jakarta between 1967 and 1971.

But he clearly does feel emotional ties to the country, which may explain why the 2009 Senate Appropriations Bill contains no specific conditions on Indonesian military aid for the first time in 16 years.

The prime mover behind those measures has always been Democrat Senator [] Patrick Leahy who endorsed Mr Obama late last year, not long before the legislation was tabled in the Senate.

In a sign that he is not letting up, however, Senator Leahysent a letter to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in early September seeking an accounting of past human rights cases - most of them committed by the military in East Timor, Aceh and Jakarta.

Golkar legislator Marzuki Darusman says that declined to talk to a visiting Indonesian parliamentary delegation last month because he was annoyed the Indonesian president had not replied to his letter.

Getting off on the right foot with the new <> Obama presidency may be important for Jakarta, but accountability for past abuses is one thing the Yudhoyono administration is probably incapable of delivering.

Watching tearful Indonesians and Americans alike rejoicing over the [] Obama victory, a former Indonesian ambassador pointed to the influence of what he referred to as 'dark forces' still lingering from a previous era.

'When you have to deal with that, it is not easy,' he told me. 'People act on the assumption that they (the dark forces) can do something, but you don't know exactly what. You just have to take it into account.'

Look how the past remains present with two of Indonesia's most controversial figures, ex-military commander Wiranto and cashiered Special Forces chief Prabowo Subianto, both running for the presidency next year.

The pair are bitter rivals, going back to the power struggle that erupted after president Suharto's fall in 1997. But both have so far refused to face questioning for their alleged involvement in human rights violations.

The ambassador believes the best Indonesia can do is build on the remarkable progress that has been made towards democratic government over the past decade. 'We can be the car that sells itself,' he says.

Indonesians must also learn to engage more with the US Congress, rather than standing back and allowing a small minority of legislators to dictate the shape of the US-Indonesia relationship.

For all the fanfare that accompanied last month's visit to Washington, the parliamentary delegation failed to meet any of the US Congressmen who have been critical of the country's human rights record or its treatment of Papua.

Instead, it had sessions with only five friendly Republicans, much to the disappointment of US State Department officials and members of the US-Indonesia Society who had hoped the Sept 22 to 25 visit would represent something of a turning point.

The trip was funded entirely by the parliamentary secretariat and the Congressional appointments were all made by the Indonesian embassy in Washington, which may explain the timid approach.

'It worries me a little that the embassy didn't want to put them in the lion's den,' says one US official. 'We told them that this is totally the wrong way to look on it. It seems they wanted to have nice meetings and not put the parliamentarians in confrontational situations.'

Mr Theo Sambuaga, the delegation leader, said they decided not to accept an offer to meet Mr Tim Reiser, <> Senator Leahy's influential senior aide, because he was not an elected representative.

Congressional Black Caucus chairman Donald Payne did not respond to requests for an appointment and, in the end, the Indonesians also failed to meet the only other Democrat on their schedule because he was caught up in a vote on the House floor.

The timing of the visit could not have been worse, of course, coming as the financial crisis was shaking Washington. But the delegation's experience suggests it would also be nice if Congressional critics did some engaging of their own.

Despite their long history of dictating policy towards Indonesia, neither [] Senator Leahy nor Mr Reiser have ever been to Indonesia. Now, with Mr Obams's victory and Democrats securing a virtual stranglehold on Congress, perhaps it is time they did.

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