Commentary

US and Indonesia: A Strengthening Partnership

in Program

 

On the morning of November 5, 2008, I sat in a cramped, sultry cyber
café in Madiun, Indonesia, surrounded by a crowd of Indonesian men and
women who anxiously waited with me to watch the results of the American
presidential election occurring thousands of miles away. Dozens of
people gathered around the computer screen as shades of blue and red
began to cover the east coast. With a mix of broken English and
Indonesian, I explained the puzzling concept of the Electoral College
and broke down the basics of the American, two-party system. In return,
my Indonesian friends shared with me about their own presidential
election coming up in 2009 and discussed the various candidates they
were choosing between in the approximate forty political parties
represented in Indonesia.

Over the next hour, as the sun-and
sweltering humidity-began to rise in Indonesia, the polls closed in the
Midwest back in the United States. We continued to discuss politics and
soon an argument broke out between a man and woman over the policies of
two of the presidential candidates running in the Indonesian election.
More people quickly jumped into the debate, and as each side
passionately defended their respective positions on the economy,
counterterrorism policies, and the role of religion in politics, I
reflected on the similarities between their debate and ones I have had
with my own friends over politics in the United States.

As the
discussion unfolded before me, I realized how remarkable this scene was
considering that Indonesia had only been a democracy for a decade. In
1999, the country had successfully transitioned from thirty years of
authoritarian rule under President Suharto to become a flourishing,
democratic society with legitimate and peaceful elections within only a
few years. Furthermore, the original participants that had started the
political argument were a Muslim male and a woman wearing a jilbab.
These individuals were part of the 85 percent of Indonesian citizens
who follow the Islamic faith. Indonesia not only consists of the
largest Muslim population in the world, but it is also the third
largest democracy behind the United States and India[1].
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged this coexistence of
Islam and democracy when she visited Indonesia in 2009: “If you want to
know if Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go
to Indonesia.”[2]

Later
that morning, while the second call to prayer reverberated throughout
Indonesia, the last polls closed in California and the political debate
stopped as we waited in silence to hear who would be the new, American
president.  Finally, the much-anticipated words flashed across the
computer screen:  Barack Obama was the new President-elect of the
United States of America. In a matter of seconds, deafening cheers
erupted throughout the cyber café and turned into a massive celebration
in the streets. Chants of “OBAMA! OBAMA!” rang throughout the city and
scores of people surrounded me to shake my hand and tell me
congratulations. A woman approached me with tears in her eyes and said
she could not believe that a man who once lived in Indonesia was now
President of the United States. I stood in stunned amazement at the
personal connection these individuals felt to an election that was not
even their own and marveled at the sight of hundreds of Muslims
celebrating the victory of a United States president.

Unlike any
other American president, Barack Obama has lived in Indonesia and
possesses a special connection with this vast archipelago that is
shared by many Indonesian citizens. In the months following the
election, the same question was asked to me numerous times, “When is
President Obama going to visit Indonesia?” Now, over one year later,
this question can be answered as President Obama will make his first
official visit to the country where he spent part of his youth and will
shed light on one of the United States’ most important allies that most
people know very little about.

President Obama’s planned visit
at the end of March, which has now been postponed until June due to the
debate over health care reform, has been much anticipated by
Indonesians since November 2008 and will have far-reaching implications
for the two countries in the upcoming years. Indonesia and the United
States are set to increase cooperation with each other and formally
launch the “Comprehensive Partnership,” which will layout a strategic
collaboration between the two countries on issues ranging from
education and social issues to military and counterterrorism
cooperation. Funds for exchange programs, such as Peace Corps and the
Fulbright program, are projected to expand to promote better
understanding between the two countries, and joint exercises between
U.S. and Indonesian counterterrorism forces are expected to increase as
Indonesia has proven to be a reliable, highly effective partner in
countering militant Islam and terrorist cells.[3]
The United States will benefit tremendously by strengthening its
relationship with a close ally in the Muslim world, and President
Obama’s visit will also raise Indonesia’s profile in the international
community and make it more attractive to foreign investors.

These
examples are only a handful of tangible results that will be
established by President Obama’s visit to Indonesia.  This is not only
the beginning of a more comprehensive partnership between the two
countries, but it also symbolizes the United States’ commitment to
democratic values and the Muslim world. President Obama has already won
over the hearts of many Indonesians, and his return to Indonesia is a
positive step towards generating a constructive relationship between
the governments and citizens of both countries.

 

 


[1] The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency.

                < https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/id.html>

[2] Landler, Mark.  “Clinton Praises Indonesian Democracy.”  The New York Times.  19

                February 2009:  A10.

[3] Embassy of Indonesia Press Release. “Indonesia, US to Sign Comprehensive

                Partnership This Year.”  The Jakarta Post.  30 January 2010.

 

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