By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 21/11/06):
Slipping into Jakarta yesterday for a six-hour visit, George Bush’s main aim was to strengthen a key “war on terror” alliance. But the US president’s fleeting appearance inadvertently highlighted the endemically unstable condition of a region that Australians, looking north and west, label the “arc of insecurity”.Mr Bush’s minders dared not risk a stay in the Indonesian capital. Instead the president was whisked by helicopter 30 miles south to a heavily guarded former colonial palace at Bogor, where President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono awaited him. Yet even there thousands of Muslim activists were waiting, chanting slogans such as “We hope Bush dies”.
Tensions surrounding Mr Bush’s visit arise specifically from US policies in the Middle East. Mr Yudhoyono promised before the meeting, for example, that he would demand a timetable for creating a Palestinian state. But Indonesia’s insecurities, stemming partly from the nihilist terrorism of the Bali bombers and a violent Islamist minority, long preceded Mr Bush’s presidency and will certainly outlast it.
Indonesia’s democratic institutions are but a fragile creation of the past decade. Mr Yudhoyono is the country’s first directly elected leader. Since independence from the Dutch it has seen numerous religious, tribal or secessionist conflicts ranging from Aceh on Sumatra’s tip to the troubled birth of East Timor. And its 220 million people are also, for the most part, poor and prey to the maladies affecting developing countries, not least an investment-starved economy, corruption and misgovernance.
Indonesia’s tainted legacy of colonialism, authoritarianism and poverty is shared in spades by its smaller Pacific neighbours whose problems have been ramifying of late. And despite yesterday’s big bash in Bogor, only Australia and New Zealand among the heirs to the western empires are taking much notice.
Papua New Guinea, occupied variously by the British, Germans and Japanese, has endured a post-independence history of misrule and a separatist insurgency on Bougainville island. Now it is embroiled in a row with Canberra over an Australian-led military and police mission in the Solomon Islands, another corrupt, impoverished former British possession that saw street riots last spring.
The Solomons’ prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, told last month’s 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum that the mission had “totally strayed” from its assistance goal and effectively become an occupying force. But despite PNG support, his call for the Australian presence to be reined in was overruled by other forum leaders presumably anxious to keep Canberra’s aid dollars flowing. Australia has meanwhile imposed a travel ban on PNG government members.
Increasingly muscular attempts by Australian prime minister John Howard’s conservative government to impose order in other parts of the “arc of insecurity” are also coming under fire. Coup fears in Fiji this month led to the dispatch of Australian warships and security personnel. That prompted Fiji’s military commander to claim he was under attack from mercenaries. And Australia and New Zealand were in action again last week, sending troops to Tonga after rioting and arson left eight people dead. The former British protectorate ranks 186th in the world in terms of GNP.
This spate of controversial trouble-shooting has triggered new debate over where Australia’s interests and responsibilities lie – and over Mr Howard’s perceived behaviour as a “deputy sheriff” to Mr Bush. But despite mutterings about a backlash against a new colonialism, Mr Howard shows no qualms. Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at the Pacific Islands Forum, he said Canberra had a right to insist on certain standards. “It’s not being unreasonable, it’s not being arrogant, it’s not being bullying to simply state that we as Australians will be generous and helpful but we do respectfully require as conditions of our aid an improvement, improvements in governance and more economic progress,” he said.
Lord Palmerston could not have put it better. Yet the problem for Mr Howard, playing policeman on the far side of the world, is that were he alive now, Pam, like his modern-day successors, probably would not give a fig.