US Needs to Look Behind Indonesia's Successes

Jakarta, Indonesia may be on its way up, at least in the eyes of Western policymakers. And if one looks at economic indicators -- record-low interest rates, a strong currency and domestic spending, and one of the world's best performing stock indexes -- Indonesia does seem poised for developed world classification.

But is it really in what one of President Barack Obama's advisors called an "indispensable" position to help the United States promote freedom and upward mobility?

At a US Embassy-sponsored discussion in Jakarta this week, Samantha Power, a presidential advisor and the director of multilateral affairs at the US National Security Council, said Indonesia was proof that emerging powers are positioned to lead - "in governing the global economy and managing the threats posted by climate change, but also ... as champions of human rights, openness and democratic change."

She reassured the audience of diplomats and international affairs experts that the United States understood each country must find its own path to democracy, and was adamant about US support for human rights.

The US must live its values and lead by example, Power said, noting the Obama administration's efforts to ban torture and promote human rights at home. Among the other pillars holding up US foreign policy are support for civil society and access to information, curbs on corruption and a push for more multi-lateral action, she said.

Most important in US efforts to make friends, was engaging and partnering with emerging democracies. And that is where Indonesia becomes "indispensable."

"Many of President Obama's core pillars are evident in Indonesia's growth and development today," Power noted, highlighting how Indonesia's achievements "underscore the linkages between economic development and democracy."

What was troubling about Power's speech, however, was not how much she sought to disprove the stereotypes about US democracy promotion efforts, intolerance or nation building, but rather the glowing review she gave to Indonesia without even mentioning its very evident shortcomings.

What about clashes in Papua, malnutrition, high maternal death rates, threats from the Information and Communication Ministry to curb Internet content and a Corruption Eradication Commission that has been hijacked by powerful politicians seeking to serve vested interests?

A recent assessment of Indonesia's prospects for growth and democratic governance from Harvard's Kennedy School -- ironically the institute Power once taught at -- outlined Indonesia's jobless growth rate (due to lack of competitiveness and restrictive labor regulations) and social indicators that place it behind less developed countries in the region.

"An Indonesian child is nearly three times as likely to die before his or her fifth birthday as a Vietnamese child," the authors of the report write. "Progress in providing access to clean water and sanitation has been slow ... Mothers in Indonesia are [also] more than three times more likely to die in childbirth than Vietnamese mothers. These basic indicators of well-being are the most direct measure of government effectiveness ... Successive reformasi governments have failed to achieve this modest objective."

Near the end of her discussion Power reminded Indonesians how they must have felt during the authoritarian years of former president Suharto; a time when people lived under a regime where money for textbooks was siphoned off to pay for the car of the local police chief. Yet, these experiences still happen in Indonesia today.

Indonesia is turning outward, but its image campaign is merely a smokescreen for all of the problems lurking beneath its own soil. And by being too supportive of what has been called democracy's shinning light in Southeast Asia, the United States effectively gives Indonesia a free pass against human rights abuses and intolerance.

Power is not to blame. It was clear her visit was merely a polite gesture to ensure ties don't sour between the US and Indonesia, where president Obama has already canceled three planned visits.

But it's time the US government paid more attention to what is going on behind the trade deals and educational exchanges on which it is so focused. On the same day Power gave her speech, Washington appeared to be moving in that direction. With calls of human rights abuse and a gross lack of development coming from the remote province of Papua, 50 US legislators signed a petition calling on the Obama administration to seek justice for the genocide committed in against Papuans.

Maybe it's time he listened.