Thu, 20 Mar 2003

War should not lead to bad ties with U.S.: Minister

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja and Kurniawan Hari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Despite its antiwar stance, Indonesia is opting to take the pragmatic route in response to an imminent U.S. strike on Iraq by maintaining amicable ties with Washington.

Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono underlined on Wednesday the importance of maintaining good relations with the U.S. "in a bid to strengthen the ongoing peace effort and domestic stability."

Susilo said despite the difference in opinion on how to disarm Iraq, Indonesia should remain objective in determining its stance toward the U.S.

"We have to calculate whether severing ties with the U.S. or boycotting their products would be effective in our efforts to achieve world peace and domestic stability," he said.

He asserted that the government fully understood people's resentment against the U.S. war plan; however, there were a lot more interests at stake should Jakarta take a radical stance toward Washington.

"We have to consider that currently the country is currently striving to emerge from a prolonged economic crisis," Susilo said.

Indonesia has long relied on the U.S, due to its outright authority in the International Monetary Fund, from which Jakarta is seeking financial assistance. The U.S. is also the second export destination of Indonesia's products and one of the largest investors.

Cutting ties with the U.S., therefore, would cause economic conditions in Indonesia to crumble.

Separately, President Megawati Soekarnoputri said, "We are following with deep concern the worsening situation in Iraq, and have urged cooperation between countries to revitalize the UN in solving the crisis," in a joint media statement with visiting Swaziland King Mswati III.

The world's most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, may face a rocky period should war break out, as domestic constituents will urge a radical stance against the U.S.

As in 2001 when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, several groups including Anshor, the youth wing of the country's largest Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has asked the government to expel U.S. diplomats from the country, following Washington's ultimatum to Iraq.

If the diplomats did not leave voluntarily within 48 hours from the start of any attack, "there will be the possibility of a forced expulsion by the people," an Anshor statement said.

Should war break out, the movement will also try to close down all U.S. companies operating in the country, lower U.S. flags in public places and launch a national boycott of American products.

Ahmad Syafii Maarif, a noted moderate Muslim figure who heads the second largest Islamis group Muhammadiyah, described President George W. Bush as a "war criminal."

A similar view was also expressed by the House of Representatives foreign affairs commission, which condemned the U.S. intention to attack Iraq, saying it violated human rights principles.

Commission chairman Ibrahim Ambong suggested that a U.S. military attack on Iraq should inspire the Indonesian government to pull its diplomatic mission out of Washington.

"We are still monitoring the latest progress (in Iraq). Pulling out the Indonesian ambassador from the U.S. is still an option," Ambong told a media conference on Wednesday.

He added that the commission would soon send a statement to House leaders, the government and the UN regarding the U.S. policy.

Analyst Juwono Sudarsono said that the government should consider several factors before taking a stance, should war begin in the coming hours.

"I would suggest that the government should say that it 'deeply regrets' the attack to maintain balance," Juwono told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

The former minister of defense proposed that the stance should be Indonesia "deeply regrets the attack as it will create a long- lasting mistrust of U.S. motives, which will offset any gain the U.S. might derive from a military strike."

He added that the government could not afford to condemn the U.S. as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had also brought discredit upon Muslims around the world.

On the other hand, though, the government would be considered weak should it only express regret over an attack, Juwono said.

During the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, Megawati came under great pressure domestically for simply regretting the strike. A wave of protests then was directed not just at the U.S. but also Megawati's administration.

Megawati finally condemned the attack, provoking Washington's ire and creating uneasy relations between the two countries.