Indonesia Sees the U.S. as a Tyrant

Times Staff Writer

For the last five years, the United States has preached a message here of democracy and respect for human rights. But for many Indonesians, the Iraq war is teaching a different lesson: The United States can use its unrivaled military power to enforce its will anywhere, anytime.

The United States’ use of force in Iraq has evoked anger and apprehension here among many people who see it as evidence that the Bush administration is seeking to dominate the world.

Indonesia, which was ruled until 1998 by a brutal military dictatorship, is now in the position of criticizing the United States and its allies for mounting an “illegal” war.


“We are saddened to watch their show of strength, which is not only destructive but also retrogressive and wrong,” said President Megawati Sukarnoputri in a speech Monday. “There are signs today that humanity is suffering setbacks because the law of the jungle is being practiced ... where the strong feel they have a right to impose their will against the weak.”

Vice President Hamzah Haz, who is aligned with militant Muslims, was harsher in his criticism of the United States and President Bush.

“The U.S. has always boasted about upholding human rights and democracy,” Haz told worshipers at a mosque here last week, “yet without U.N. approval and with objection by many countries, it invaded Iraq. If Bush is not the king of terrorists, what else can we say about him?”

While the United States says its goal is to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and liberate the Iraqi people, many in this predominantly Muslim country believe Washington’s real aims are to seize Iraqi oil and protect Israel.

As Iraqi military resistance appears to crumble in the face of the U.S.-led advance, some say the United States will have difficulty restoring its international credibility unless it forms a broad-based government to assume power in Iraq.

“The push for democracy must be decided by the resident culture, not by America’s foisting democracy on Third World countries,” said former Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono. “The time is perhaps for some humility on the part of America.”


Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country and has the largest Muslim population, but many take pride in the fact that it is also the most tolerant Islamic country.

University of Indonesia professor Salim Said contends that Indonesians appreciate America’s culture and respect for freedom but dislike what they perceive as its arrogance. Unfortunately, he says, Washington has become even more of a bully since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Many Indonesians see the attack on Iraq as an American attempt to control the world,” explained Said, who received his doctorate in political science from Ohio State University and recently lectured there. “Before this anti-terrorism policy, we had a very big hope that America would help us establish democracy. Now we doubt it.”

Mounting civilian casualties in Iraq, broadcast daily here on television, have contributed to the antiwar sentiment. There have been protests in Indonesia nearly every day since the war began, but most demonstrations have drawn only a few hundred people, in part because Indonesians do not see the Iraq war as an attack on Islam.

Some activists have attempted to shut down American symbols such as McDonald’s and KFC franchises. At least once, anti-American radicals harassed foreigners on the street, but police arrested the militants.

In the biggest antiwar protest so far, more than 100,000 people marched last week through this capital city.

“The U.S. has no mandate to invade Iraq,” said Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, a member of Indonesia’s human rights commission and a protest organizer. “America has no right to invade and kill Iraqi people.”

Din Syamsuddin, secretary-general of the influential Council of Indonesian Ulemas, which sets standards of behavior for Muslims, said Bush should be tried as a war criminal before an international tribunal.

“In our opinion, the U.S. has lost credibility as a democratic country,” he said. “The U.S. should not talk anymore about democracy and human rights because what happened in Iraq is a violation of human rights and democracy.”

A crucial issue for Muslims everywhere is Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Many Indonesians believe the U.S. has a double standard for Israel.

They believe that one of the main reasons the United States invaded Iraq was because it was one of the few Arab nations both strong enough and independent enough to challenge Israel.

Indonesians also question why the United States has never used its formidable military and economic power to bring about a fair and lasting peace between Israel and all its neighbors.

“Many Indonesians say the problem in Israel could be solved if America wanted to solve it,” Said observed. “Why don’t they solve it? Because they have their own interest in having Israel there to bully its neighbors.”

Whether Washington attempts to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict will be crucial in restoring its credibility, he added.

“If in the end they see America as reaping the benefit of Iraqi oil and do not solve the problem of Israel,” he said, “that will divide opinion in Indonesia and the rest of the world.”