Despite Military Crackdown in Papua & Other Rights Abuses, Obama Hosts Indonesian President in D.C.

October 27, 2015



John Sifton

Asia advocacy director, Human Rights Watch. His new book is titled Violence All Around.

Allan Nairn

journalist and activist who has covered Indonesia for decades.

On Monday, President Obama met Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, at the White House to discuss climate change, trade and strengthening U.S.-Indonesian ties. President Obama described Indonesia as one of the world’s largest democracies, but human rights groups paint a different story, citing the military’s ongoing repression in West Papua as well as discriminatory laws restricting the rights of religious minorities and women. Indonesia has also been criticized for attempting to silence any discussion about the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Indonesian genocide that left more than 1 million people dead. We speak to John Sifton of Human Rights Watch and journalist Allan Nairn, who has covered Indonesia for decades.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country. On Monday, President Obama met at the White House with Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, who is also known as Jokowi, to discuss climate change, trade and strengthening U.S.-Indonesian ties.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our partnership is very much in the interests of the United States, given Indonesia’s large population, its leadership in the region, its democratic traditions, the fact that it is a large Muslim country with a tradition of tolerance and moderation, and its role in trade and commerce and economic development.

AMY GOODMAN: During his visit to the White House, Indonesian President Jokowi announced Indonesia intends to join the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal the United States has forged with 11 other nations.

PRESIDENT JOKO WIDODO: [translated] Indonesia is an open economy. And with the 250 million population, we are the largest economy in Southeast Asia. And Indonesia intends to join the TPP.

AMY GOODMAN: Indonesian President Jokowi was planning to head next to the West Coast but has decided to cut his U.S. trip short due to raging fires that have resulted in haze and toxic fumes covering much of Indonesia, as well as parts of Malaysia and Singapore—many of the fires illegally set in order to clear land for palm oil and paper plantations. The fires have been described as one of the biggest environmental crimes of the 21st century. According to the World Resource Institute, since September the fires have generated more carbon emissions than the entire U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s human rights record is also coming under criticism. On Monday, President Obama described Indonesia as one of the world’s largest democracies, but human rights groups paint a different story, citing the military’s ongoing repression in West Papua as well as discriminatory laws restricting the rights of religious minorities and women. Indonesia has also been criticized for attempting to silence any discussion about the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Indonesian genocide that left more than a million people dead. Last week, Indonesia’s largest writers festival, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, was forced to cancel a series of events tied to the anniversary of the massacre, including a screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Look of Silence.

To talk more about Indonesia, we’re joined by two guests. In Washington, John Sifton is with us, Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. His new book is titled Violence All Around. Allan Nairn is also with us, journalist and activist who’s been reporting on Indonesia for decades. He’s joining us from Guatemala City.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! John Sifton, in this meeting that Jokowi is having, the Indonesian president is having, with President Obama, can you talk about the issues you feel President Obama needs to raise with the Indonesian president?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, it’s too late now, and President Obama already used the clichéd term of Indonesia as a tolerant Muslim democracy. We had hoped he would have talked about how Indonesia is going astray. It’s losing some of its tolerant qualities and principles, and starting to give too much power to Sunni extremist groups, which want to basically make Indonesia a place that’s unfriendly to Shia, to Christians, to Baha’i, to secularists and to women.

AMY GOODMAN: You consulted with the State Department, is that right, on this visit? What did you tell them?

JOHN SIFTON: Of course. Whenever there’s a world visit, you know, we talk to the State Department and to the White House. And in this instance, we said, "Please avoid this cliché." Unfortunately, President Obama didn’t. But did he raise issues of human rights behind the scenes in his bilateral meetings with President Jokowi? I’d like to hope so. He has expressed interest in the Papua issue in the east, a very problematic situation in the east which has been going on for years. In the past he’s raised that issue, and I would have hoped he would do so again.

But really, the more existential threat to Indonesia right now is this growing religious intolerance toward Sunnis—I mean, excuse me, toward Shia, towards Christians, towards others who are not Sunni extremists. It’s not really, you know, part of the Indonesian society, but there are fringe groups which are pushing this agenda and have exercised the heckler’s veto.

The worst problem, though, is the onerous new restrictions that are being placed on women at the local level, all kinds of little laws restricting their movements at night, making sure they have to wear a hijab, wear skirts of a certain length, prohibiting them from riding motorcycles, or, rather, straddling motorcycles—they can sit sideways, but not forwards. These little laws have a cumulative impact that are incredibly derogatory and discriminatory towards women and girls.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, can you talk about the significance of President Widodo’s visit to the United States? John Sifton just mentioned West Papua. And if you can place it, especially for viewers and listeners in the United States who may know very little about the Indonesian archipelago?

ALLAN NAIRN: West Papua is on the eastern end of the archipelago, and it’s legally, in the eyes of the U.N., considered part of Indonesia. But the Indonesian government—the army, the police, the intelligence—treat it as if it’s an occupied foreign land. They shoot demonstrators. They arrest anyone who speaks for independence or against the army, who raises a Papuan flag. A few years ago, I released a series of internal documents from Kopassus, the U.S.-trained special forces, which showed that they had a massive network of intelligence informants, modeled on that that Israel uses in the West Bank, and there’s this ongoing terror in Papua.

President Jokowi has indicated that he would like to pull back on a lot of this army and police and intel repression in Papua, but the security forces have resisted them—resisted him, and he has not been brave enough to overrule them. Obama could have, with one word, facilitated the pullout of the repression from Papua by saying that the U.S. would cut off all military aid unless they stop the terror in Papua. By doing that, he could have strengthened the hand of Jokowi and others in the government, because the government is divided on this, who want to rein in the army and the police. But apparently, Obama didn’t do that.

The U.S. has always maintained a separate channel to the army, from the days of the Suharto dictatorship, and even before, when the U.S. was trying to overthrow the founding president, Sukarno. And that strengthens the hand of the army—and the CIA works with the police—against an elected civilian president like Jokowi. It previously happened with Gus Dur, who was a Muslim cleric, a reformist president, who was undermined and, in effect, ousted by the army. And one of the key sources of army power is the fact that they had their separate channel to Washington. In fact, as Jokowi was meeting with Obama, Ash Carter, the secretary of defense, was welcoming General Ryamizard, the defense minister of Indonesia, who is the chief ideologist in favor of killing civilians. He said, previously, that anyone who dislikes the army is a legitimate target for killing. Reacting to a massacre of civilians, of children, in Aceh a number of years ago, he joked about it and said, "Well, children can be dangerous, too."

In terms of the religious intolerance, there is indeed a trend toward religious intolerance in Indonesia, as there is in Europe and the United States in this moment since the 9/11 attack, and then the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had set in spiral a series of events. And the main backer, the main outside backer, of this religious intolerance in Indonesia is Saudi Arabia. They’re going into the local mosques, spreading around a great deal of money, pushing this intolerant ideology. And also, I’ve seen, just talking to people over the past couple years, that one of the main things that gives credibility to a lot of these Saudi-funded extremists who go around urging people to abandon the Indonesian tradition of tolerance is when they see in the news the news of the Obama drone attacks against various Muslim countries and things like the Israeli invasion of Gaza. If Jokowi had stood up and said privately and publicly to Obama, "The U.S. should stop this, the U.S. should stop arming Israel," that would have been consistent with a lot of the pro-Palestinian rhetoric, hypocritical rhetoric, that one sees from politicians inside Indonesia. And it also would have had real impact, because the U.S. always likes to claim that the moderate Muslim nations are with Washington. Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world. Usually, when the U.S. says "moderate Muslim nations," they mean radical dictatorships like Saudi Arabia. Indonesia isn’t like that, though. Indonesia is a quasi-democracy like the United States, and if Jokowi had spoken out in that way, it would have had a huge impact.

Also, there are other major issues on the table between Jokowi and Obama, Indonesia and the U.S. One is Freeport-McMoRan, the massive mining corporation, based largely in West Papua, which extracts huge amounts of gold and copper. They pay bribes to the Indonesian army and officials to be able to do that. They spoil the rivers. Many of the rivers there turn colors never seen in nature. They cut off the mountains. And the local Papuan population surrounding the mines often live with hunger and lack of clean water. The Freeport contract is up for renewal. There’s a big battle going on within the Indonesian government as to whether it will be renewed or whether Indonesia will take over the mine itself, as it has the technical capacity to do. But the U.S. and Obama have been pushing Indonesia to, yes, extend this contract. The U.S. has for years backed the repression in Papua in large part because of Freeport. The previous leader of Freeport, Jim Bob Moffett, used to be a golfing partner of the dictator, Suharto. Accounting records leaked would show that Freeport was paying massive bribes to the Kopassus special forces to repress the local population. Last year, I interviewed a former senior Indonesian official who told me that he had received two personal checks from Freeport worth hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars as bribes, although he said to me he didn’t cash the checks. This is a violation of local Indonesian law and also the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, but neither the Indonesian or U.S. governments have dared to move against Freeport to try to stop this type of corruption. But this contract is on the table, and Indonesia could change things drastically by not renewing it, but Obama and the U.S. is twisting their arm to continue to give Freeport free rein in West Papua.

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