INDONESIA: Megawati strives to stay with US

October 24, 2001


JAKARTA — The most right-wing elements among politically organised Islam have sought to use the US "war on terrorism" to seize the political initiative in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

At the same time, Megawati Sukarnoputri has been striving to maintain a position of support for the United States despite the manifestations of opposition to the US from many sectors of Indonesian society apart from fundamentalist Muslim opinion.

The bombing of Afghanistan, especially the reports of bombing of civilian targets such as Red Cross warehouses, has caused an escalation in street mobilisations by right-wing fundamentalist groups, which are now happening almost daily.

The most prominent organisation involved has been the Islamic Defenders Front, the FPI, which has a history of targeting left-wing organisations and "centres of immorality" such as coffee shops, bars and brothels.

The police have acted violently against the FPI demonstrations, on one occasion chasing them back to their head office and then occupying the office. The police have come under heavy criticism from Muslim groups as a result but, far from backing down, have said they will now revive dormant cases against the FPI.

Another strong critic of the US and of the soft line of the Sukarnoputri government has been the fundamentalist Justice Party, the PK, whose weekly magazine Sabili has called for a jihad against the US. The party estimates that 30,000 people will mobilise for its first anti-US demonstration.

The conservative Suharto-appointed Islamic Scholars Council also issued a call for a jihad immediately after Bush announced the planned retaliation, although it later moderated its rhetoric. Numerous other Islamic organisations have issued similar statements.

Popular tabloid dailies, such as Rakyat Merdeka, have also kept up a sustained campaign against the US from day one.

The widespread anti-US sentiment has also increased the opportunity for traditional anti-imperialist Sukarnoists to enter the debate. In particular, the sister of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Rachmawati, has launched a series of broadsides against her sister for giving in to "NEKOLIM", former president Sukarno's acronym for neo-colonialism.

The Sukarnoist youth organisation, Marhean Youth Movement, has been one of the non-Muslim organisations to mobilise in protest against US policy. There have also been anti-US demonstrations by women's organisations and street children's organisations.

Some non-government organisations have issued statements condemning the US attacks on Afghanistan (as well as the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York).

Despite the protests, the government remains in basic alignment with the US. Under increasing pressure from the Islamic political parties and groups and public sentiment generally, Sukarnoputri softened her support for the US on October 14.

Since then, her officials have continued to sit on the fence, trying to be seen as both supporting and remaining independent of the US.

Megawati's softening of her public support for Washington on October 14 was motivated by a need to ensure that her vice-presidential partner, Hamzah Haz, and his party, the Muslim United Development Party, are constrained in their manoeuvring against her.

However, it has not only been Haz's party that has been scoring points against the president.

MPs from the National Awakening Party, the party that backed former president Abdurrahman Wahid, have also attacked her for changing her position too slowly and then only as a means of accommodating some Islamic opinion. The MPs have criticised her for merging with the interests of the US and of capitalism.

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