The Magazine


Jan 22, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 18 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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Still, while lashing out at Sri Bintang and Tempo, the regime is giving ground on many fronts. The administrative court has shown genuine independence, for example ruling that the closing of Tempo was illegal, though the journal remains shuttered while the government appeals the decision.

Three years ago, a national human-rights commission was created by presidential decree. To the surprise of many, it has issued reports critical of the government with regard to Tempo, the case of a murdered labor organizer (which has attracted much attention), and the killings of civilians by soldiers in Irian Jaya. The commission is growing increasingly bold and is gradually winning the respect of independent human-rights advocates.

Among these activists, views of the United States are a curious mix. On the one hand, they resent their government's close ties to Washington; on the other, many of their own groups receive grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Another AID effort sent a bevy of young Indonesian economists to American schools. The knowledge they acquired there became the basis for the economic liberalization now powering Indonesia's growth.

With President Clinton, Indonesian human-rights advocates have had their share of disappointment.

They were given to believe that, to punish Jakarta for human-rights abuses, the U.S. trade representative might lift Indonesia's favorable status under the General System of Preferences. But when Clinton visited Indonesia for the 1994 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Suharto presented him with a batik shirt, and this, they joked bitterly, led the United States to back down.

The Indonesians" mixed feelings extend not only to the U.S. government but to some Western activists as well. The Scott paper company had announced plans to initiate foresting in the primitive reaches of Irian Jaya. But protests by Western environmentalists impelled Scott to withdraw, perhaps chastened by the bitter controversy enveloping the Louisiana-based Freeport company over its mining operations on that island. The upshot is that the foresting concession has been taken over by a Portuguese firm -- which Indonesian environmental advocates fear will prove a tougher adversary than the U.S. firm would have been.

During our meetings, ambivalence toward America was best reflected by some labor militants in Medan. In response to a sharp expression of anti-American anger, I asked for a list of grievances. They were three: the supposed sellout on trade; America's "silence" about the mistreatment of East Timor; and finally, and it seemed most importantly, "You have closed your consulate in Medan." (The consulate was a recent casualty of cuts in the State Department budget, which had left only one post, other than the embassy, in this archipelago of 17,000 islands.) The reason for the militants" anger over the closing? American diplomats had been interested in human rights, and this had stayed the hand of government repression. "A very big protection came from the U.S. consulate," explained the Indonesians, lamenting their loss -- and perhaps ours, as this sprawling Islamic nation lurches toward the post-Suharto era.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He traveled to Indonesia with the Puebla Institute, paid for by the United States Information Agency.