Subject: AFP: Obama Eyes Indonesia As Key US Ally

Obama eyes Indonesia as key US ally

Shaun Tandon

WASHINGTON, Feb 20 (AFP) -- With its giant population and moderate brand of Islam, Indonesia is fast emerging as a cornerstone US ally for President Barack Obama's administration, observers say.

Obama spent four years of his childhood in Jakarta and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, took a nearly 6,000-kilometer (3,500-mile) detour there this week between Tokyo and Seoul on her first official visit abroad.

Clinton said the United States was committed to building a "comprehensive partnership" with Indonesia.

"Certainly Indonesia, being the largest Muslim nation in the world, the third-largest democracy, will play a leading role in the promotion of that shared future," Clinton said in Jakarta.

In November, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also appealed during a visit to Washington for a "strategic relationship" with the United States.

While Indonesia was a Cold War ally of Washington, relations were held back for years by disputes over widespread human rights abuses under former dictator Suharto who fell in 1998.

Jonah Blank, the chief policy adviser on South and Southeast Asia for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Obama had a "golden opportunity" to make Indonesia a pivotal US ally.

"I think there is greater cause for optimism now than I think we've had at any other point since the founding of Indonesia as a modern nation-state," Blank told a Washington seminar.

"This is the first time that we have a president who can speak Bahasa Indonesia, who doesn't have to be told why Indonesia matters," he said.

Lieutenant Colonel Desmond Walton, who handles Southeast Asia policy at the Pentagon, said the US relationship with Indonesia was "underdeveloped" considering the archipelago's vast size and economic potential.

"I think the trends are encouraging so that we can start to let this relationship really emerge into its rightful place as the key US relationship in Southeast Asia," Walton said.

Both Blank and Walton said they were speaking in a personal capacity.

In a study released Thursday, scholars John Haseman and Eduardo Lachica said that elevating the relationship with Indonesia would contribute to the US goal of democracy in the Middle East.

"Helping Indonesia strengthen its democratic system is not only a worthy goal for America's democratic project, its success can give the project better footing elsewhere in the Muslim world," they wrote.

But Haseman acknowledged "there might be some jealousy" on the part of the Philippines and Thailand, smaller but longstanding US allies in the region.

The US Congress in late 2005 removed sanctions on military assistance to Indonesia, a sore point for the country's establishment.

Walton and Lachica recommended the Obama administration move further by encouraging Indonesian participation in international peacekeeping and easing remaining restrictions on US training for Indonesian forces.

They said the United States was hindering trust through its blanket refusal to train some Indonesian units, arguing that human rights abuses were a matter of the past.

But T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA said Indonesia has not yet held military officers to account for past atrocities or put firm civilian control over the army.

"How best can the United States encourage democracy in Indonesia to take root? The first rule of thumb is to make sure (the military) is under control of the civilian government," he said.

Indonesia carried out a brutal 24-year occupation of East Timor, culminating in a bloody rampage by military-backed guerrillas that killed 1,400 people in 1999 when the territory voted to break away.

Some 15,000 people also died in Aceh in a three-decade separatist conflict that ended with a 2005 peace deal.

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