At 50–Quo Vadis ASEAN

October 20,2016

At 50–Quo Vadis ASEAN

by Tess Bacala

As the international backlash continues over Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, the lack of due process and the consequent deaths of “suspects” in his campaign, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN), along with its individual member states, has been characteristically silent.

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For instance, ASEAN’s leaders and ministers met at their summit in the Lao capital Vientiane last September and discussed a range of issues in the region and beyond. But neither the organization nor its members raised a whimper about rights concerns on the extrajudicial killings of supposed drug users and pushers since Duterte assumed office on June 30.  News reports put the figure of alleged users and pushers killed at more than 3,000 since Duterte took over.

ASEAN’s silence on this issue was not particularly a surprise, but it was the latest example of how it is not the organization’s habit to tell off a member state about its domestic issues.

More typically, it was an outside state like the United States, though not a disinterested country, that brought up the issue of human rights at the September 6-8 summit, where Duterte made his debut on the regional stage.

To human rights advocates across the region, the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits, held back to back this year, should have been an apt occasion to discuss a subject that is otherwise anathema to the Southeast Asian organization, especially given its theme, ’ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together’, which defines the vision of the ASEAN Community for the next decade.

At the ASEAN-US summit in Vientiane, President Barack Obama called to mind a “common vision” for the region — “(a)n open, dynamic and economically competitive Asia-Pacific that respects human rights and upholds the law-based order.”

But this is far from how the situation is from the view of the sectors that have been at the receiving end of certain governments’ systemic suppression of dissent at home. This also comes at a time when the ASEAN Community has been formed with its three pillars — political security, socio-cultural, and economic – and where its peoples can enjoy “human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

ASEAN continues to steer clear of human rights issues in line with the principle of non-interference in its member states’ internal affairs. But as ASEAN turns 50 next year, critics say this adherence to non-intervention should not be absolute, especially now that economic integration is going full throttle after the launch of the ASEAN Community’s in December 2015.

Economic but not political openness

The organization has shown much more openness – and willingness to let go of sovereignty concerns – in the areas of economics and business rather than in political areas such as human rights.

“ASEAN has promoted a harmful contradiction. Member states have abandoned ASEAN principles of ‘non-interference’ and ‘state sovereignty’ in relation to capital and economic policy but doggedly retained them in relation to human rights,” says the alternative document titled ‘Vision 2025: ASEAN Women’s Blueprints for Alternative Regionalism’.

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Ryerson University (Canada)’s Dr. Sorpong Peou

Over recent decades, Southeast Asia has experienced three ‘miracles’: economic growth, the disappearance of mass atrocities, and efforts to promote regional peace and community building,” said Dr. Sorpong Peou, chairperson of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Canada. “Large-scale killings or genocide such as those in Indonesia (1965–66), Cambodia (1975–1978 under the Khmer Rouge), and East Timor (1975–1999 under the Indonesian occupation) “have all disappeared from contemporary Southeast Asia.”

“But authoritarianism keeps threatening to return,” wrote the Cambodian-born scholar in a commentary published by the East Asia Forum in March. “Below the surface of official declarations lies an acceptance among most ASEAN leaders that democracy and human rights should not be pushed too fast and too far.”

Appreciation and interpretation of human rights are subject to national interest rather than international human rights standards,” said Jaymie Ann Reyes, program manager of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism. The Working Group, a coalition of individuals and organizations that include civil society and academics, engages ASEAN on specific rights initiatives.

Rights? It depends

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Some human rights themes and focuses are more acceptable to ASEAN such as women’s rights, children’s rights, and rights of persons with disabilities,” Reyes added.

All 10 member states have ratified the UN Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Rights of the Child, and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “But there are more ‘sensitive’ issues that are not discussed for fear of violating the principle of ‘non-interference,’” she said.

One of these is refugee protection. The majority of ASEAN countries have not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1954 Statelessness Convention.

A wide range of other rights concerns continues to exist today across the region of 620 million people.

In Indonesia, the vigorous implementation of the death penalty, the enactment of more discriminatory laws against women, and violent attacks against religious minorities are bedeviling the government, according to Human Rights Watch.

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Neighboring Malaysia recently passed the National Security Council Act (NSCA), which empowers the government to declare martial law in areas where there are perceived security threats. Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, passed in Parliament just a month ahead of the Vientiane summit, is seen as yet another attempt to muzzle freedom of expression in the city-state.

The decades-old Internal Security Act, which allows arrests without warrant and indefinite detention without trial, remains firmly in place in Singapore. (A similar law in Malaysia was abolished in 2012. Yet four years later, the NSCA came into force.)

Thailand’s new constitution — approved in a referendum on August 7 — is seen to reinforce the military’s two-year hold on power.

“For the people in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, the democratic crisis has meant increasing crackdowns on journalists, human rights lawyers, opposition politicians, bloggers, activists and religious leaders. Political deterioration has also contributed to internal conflict in Southeast Asia,” said Yuyun Wahyuningrum, senior advisor on ASEAN and Human Rights at the Human Rights Working Group, a coalition of more than 50 groups advocating for human rights in Indonesia.

The Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), sees “a trend of shrinking civil society space” despite “ASEAN’s aim to be a people-centered and people-oriented community”.

In Cambodia, government critics have been jailed, and more oppressive laws passed. For instance, Kem Ley, leader of the advocacy group Khmer for Khmer, was gunned down in broad daylight in the capital Phnom Penh on July 10 this year.

Although Myanmar has ceased to be a pariah state, its democratic transition has been marked by concern over discrimination against Rohingya Muslims, who are stateless in the mainly Buddhist country.

Punishment under Hudud

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Critics have also dubbed as medieval Brunei’s announcement in October 2013 to impose a tough shariah penal code system, after its chairmanship of ASEAN that same year.

Yet ASEAN prides itself on having an “overarching human rights institution” such as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

In fact, the ASEAN Chair’s statement in Vientiane commended the commission for “the progress of (its) work” and urged it to “promote the mainstreaming of human rights across all three pillars of the ASEAN Community”. But how such “progress” is measured and improves the rights landscape is not clear.

On the eve of the Vientiane summit, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights appealed to ASEAN leaders “to press the Lao government to cease the abuses that have consistently placed Laos at the bottom of rights and development indexes measuring rights, press freedom, democracy, religious freedom, and economic transparency.”

This referred to the unresolved disappearance of Lao activist Sombath Somphone, missing since December 2012. The Lao government had earlier said the issue had no place at the ASEAN meetings.

Looking back, ASEAN’s road to setting up a human rights commission – whose limitations its own commissioners concede – has been far from smooth. The commission’s creation was already a feat by itself.

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ASEAN launched in Bangkok in 1967

The regional grouping laid down the ASEAN Charter in 2008, which stipulated the creation of a human rights body. AICHR was created in 2009. In a process criticized by civil society for falling short of international standards, ASEAN drafted an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2012.

From being taboo, human rights principles were slowly integrated into ASEAN documents, institutions, and language. ASEAN bodies and government representatives are slowly adopting and using human rights language,” said Reyes of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism.

But the AICHR’s limited mandate does not include receiving and investigating rights complaints. “It is high time it (AICHR) evolved from promotion to the protection of human rights,” said a statement by the Thai Civil Society Network on ASEAN and AICHR.

Today, “all ASEAN human rights instruments recognise universal human rights standards with caveats: the principle of non-interference and due regard to the different culture, history, and socioeconomic condition in each ASEAN member state,” Ranyta Yusran, research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law, said at a legal conference in Beijing in May.

Wahyuningrum of the Jakarta-based Human Rights Working Group said: “Human rights and democracy issues (in the region) are not going to simmer down. How is ASEAN going to keep up with these changes if it remains too bureaucratic and difficult to engage with?”

But she said there are encouraging signs. At a recent meeting she attended in Bangkok on legal aid and witness protection for victims of cross-border trafficking, participants acknowledged the political differences among the member states they were representing, but nevertheless focused on cooperation. The participants wanted to develop a cross-border witness protection standard operating procedure, which is a “good start,” she said.

Although AICHR has not adapted to “the changing context and structural challenges” of rights protection, Wahyuningrum credited it with initiating activities that have helped set “different platforms for subregional debate on human rights and clarified the ASEAN dimension on responses to human rights issues”.

For Reyes, there has also been “more robust engagement between and among non-governmental and civil society organizations,” though this faces challenges.

All eyes are now looking to 2017, when the Philippines takes its turn as ASEAN chair during the organization’s 50th year. The country has had a record of speaking up against rights abuses in ASEAN, but there are questions about how – and whether it can still do this credibly – given the furore over extrajudicial killings in the Duterte government’s crackdown on illegal drugs.

Tess Bacala wrote this as a fellow of the Reporting ASEAN project of Inter-Pres Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific (  This story was produced under the “Reporting Development in ASEAN” series of Inter-Press Service Asia-Pacific. 

Australia’s Contentious Strategy in the South China Sea

October 15, 2016

Asia Pacific Bulletin

Number 358 | October 13, 2016


Australia’s Contentious Strategy in the South China Sea

By Orrie Johan

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Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop

Considerable disagreement persists over an ideal Australian policy response to China’s actions in the South China Sea (SCS). In recent days, the Opposition Defense Minister from the Labor Party challenged current government policy by arguing that Australia should begin staging freedom of navigation exercises (FONOPs) in the fiercely contested South China Sea. This view was criticized not only by senior figures in the current government, which holds a razor-thin parliamentary majority, but also by a number of highly influential former leaders of the Labor Party. Australia does not have a direct sovereignty stake in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. However, as an island nation which is heavily reliant on regional and global trade, Australia’s economic and military security are reliant on the region remaining stable and open.

Australia’s approach to the SCS is also shaped by its relations to the region’s major players, each of which has differing views of how they would like Australia to engage in the South China Sea. Australia has traditionally relied on the U.S. as its primary ally to protect against external threats and the two countries share strong cultural, economic, and defense ties. But U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and the stability which it has provided is increasingly challenged by China’s rise. Australia’s economic prosperity relies heavily on China’s rapid economic growth to sustain demand for Australian exports — particularly natural resources and services.

Australia faces expectations from the U.S. to assist its efforts to uphold the current regional order. These efforts include support for arbitration cases like that of the Philippines and conducting FONOPs in disputed areas. From China, Australia faces pressure to refrain from challenging China’s approach of using unilateral or bilateral means to resolve many of these disputes. This would undoubtedly include Australia refraining from conducting U.S.-style FONOPs.

Australia’s domestic debate on how to respond to China in the South China Sea is mostly dominated by two competing schools of thought. The first is that Australia should stay in lock-step with the U.S. in challenging China’s unilateral moves in the South China Sea, while the second group recommends supporting the U.S.’s position, but moderating Australia’s responses at the same time to avoid Chinese repercussions. Proponents of each view can be found in both the left-leaning Labor party and the right-leaning Liberal party, as can be seen by the criticism of the Opposition Defense Minister’s recent comments from figures linked to both major parties. The question of whether Australia should participate in U.S. FONOP exercises or even conduct its own represents one of the major fault-lines between these two camps. An additional minority view held by the Greens party and some others proposes reducing Australia’s ties with the U.S. Public opinion in Australia meanwhile has strongly positive views of both the U.S. and of China.

Supporters of Australia’s participation in FONOPs tend to emphasize the importance of the U.S. alliance to Australia and the threat of Chinese unilateralism to Australia’s strategic neighborhood. They maintain that Australia relies on the U.S. not only for its security from external attack, but also to maintain the stability of the region and the international law regime that secures Australia’s economic trade. They argue that Australia should firmly support the U.S. in its dealings with China and should conduct FONOPs because doing so furthers both Australian and U.S. interests. They also argue that Australia has the capabilities to conduct FONOPs, as U.S. FONOPs have used just a single ship in the past. Australia could spare a P-3 Orion aircraft or a frigate for this purpose. Support for this view predominately comes from Australia’s defense and security communities and is also supported by senior figures in both major Australian political parties.

The mainstream opponents of FONOPs agree on the importance of the U.S. alliance to Australia, but they also emphasize China’s importance to Australia and focus on potential risks from Chinese retribution to an Australian FONOP. Australia’s economy relies heavily on China and the Chinese government has punished other countries economically for taking stances which China strongly opposes. Opponents to FONOPs often also argue that Australia supports the U.S. in other ways and that it does not make sense for Australia to conduct FONOPs since no country other than the U.S. has conducted them thus far. This group supports increased flexibility within the U.S.-Australia alliance when cooperation would affect relations with China. Support for this perspective predominately comes from Australia’s diplomatic and business communities, as well as senior figures in both major Australian political parties. A minority of members of Australia’s defense community supports it as well.

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The Australian government’s actions in the South China Sea thus far fall in the “flexible alliance” camp. Prime Minister Turnbull has built stronger security ties with regional neighbors like the Philippines and Vietnam, a trend which the U.S. and other regional powers support as a way of preserving the rules-based regional order and reducing China’s unilateral leverage in the region. His government has also voiced support for U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea and has been one of the few countries that has consistently and openly supported the Philippines’ use of an arbitration tribunal to challenge China’s claims in the SCS, despite Chinese opposition to both measures. However, the Turnbull government has thus far decided not to conduct a freedom of navigation operation close to disputed islands in the South China Sea, indicating that they believe such an action risks escalating tensions with China. While Australian military forces periodically patrol the South China Sea in the name of regional stability and intelligence gathering under Operation Gateway, Australian forces thus far have not publicly traveled within the limit of territorial waters that China claims in order to replicate U.S. FONOPs. Instead the Turnbull government has stated its support for a diplomatic approach to encourage China to compromise.

Australia is not facing a binary choice between a security partner (the U.S.) and an economic partner (China); the U.S. is a major economic partner for Australia as well. Australian prime ministers over the last two decades have therefore often stated that Australia does not have to choose between the U.S. and China. Turnbull seems to be following this approach by showing the U.S. that it supports American freedom of navigation operations and by showing China that Australia will not participate in any FONOPs itself. If Turnbull remains in office, then this policy is unlikely to change unless Australia begins to feel that Australian civil and military assets risk losing their ability to travel safely through the South China Sea.

Orrie Johan is a researcher at the East-West Center in Washington. He recently obtained a master’s degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University.

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia-Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington

APB Series Coordinator: Alex Forster, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please contact

The Erudite and Prolific Noam Chomsky: A Man of Conviction

September 29, 2016

The Erudite and Prolific Noam Chomsky: A Man of Conviction

Knowledge and Power–A Documentary

Manufacturing Consent is my favorite Noam Chomsky book. It reminds me of the awesome power of government in shaping public perception and influencing the way we think about public and foreign policy.

The media dominates our lives for as long as I can remember. When I was very much younger in 1950s I relied on the media and the radio for news and views and never realised that I was being manipulated by Big Brother to support causes which I would not  have agreed to if I had access to sources of information other than what the government was sending out through the airwaves for public consumption.

Fortunately, to day I can no longer be led to accept “official truths”from my government and its controlled media. I have always maintained a posture of doubt and will not accept anything I read without subjecting them to careful scrutiny. Naom Chomsky’s books have influenced the way I think.–Din Merican

A Trump Presidency possible: Preparing for Donald J. Trump

September 24, 2016

A Trump Presidency possible: Preparing for Donald J. Trump

Embassies that once assumed Clinton would win struggle to know what to expect from her rival

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The End of Obama’s Neo-Liberalism–It was good while it lasted

Donald Trump’s September surge in the polls has set off alarm bells in capitals across Europe and Asia that are ill-prepared for a Republican victory in November.

Although he was barely present in New York this week as world leaders descended on the UN, the Republican candidate was a constant theme of conversation on the sidelines of this year’s General Assembly.

“Everyone is freaking out that he might actually win,” said one senior European official in New York this week. “It would make Brexit seem easy to deal with.”

Many governments in Europe, Asia and Latin America have been openly critical of some of Mr Trump’s foreign policy positions, with French president François Hollande going so far as to say last month that the Republican nominee “makes you want to retch”.

However, until recently they were working under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win comfortably in the autumn. Now, with Mrs Clinton holding a lead of little over two points in the polls, they suddenly find themselves having to adjust to a very different election, where a Trump victory is at least a possibility.

“Until recently, the main question we were asking was what sort of impact the election rhetoric would have on a Clinton administration, in terms of trade deals, military intervention and so on. But the polls are telling us we have to at least seriously entertain the idea that he has a chance to win,” said one Australian official.

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My Answer: Why not? She is no different from Mr Trump. It’s Politics–Din Merican

If Mr Trump’s views on Russia have been the most controversial aspect of his foreign policy approach in the US, in Europe and Asia it is his scathing criticism of traditional alliances that has garnered the most attention. At various stages in the campaign, the Republican candidate has suggested the US might not defend NATO allies and has said Washington should spend much less on defending Japan and South Korea.

Diplomats in Washington say that in the run-up to the Republican convention in July, representatives from the Trump campaign, including co-chairman Sam Clovis and then campaign manager Paul Manafort, told them that Mr Trump’s statements about America’s allies were less policy proposals and more opening statements in a negotiation.

In recent weeks, however, embassies in Washington have been receiving instructions to get a more precise understanding of the priorities of a Trump White House and who would be the senior officials in the administration.

“We have been told we need much more detailed planning about what a Trump administration would mean, the specific policies we should expect and who the key players would be,” said one Asian official. “But even at this stage, this is almost impossible to say.”

One of the complications in this election for foreign governments has been the rift between Mr Trump and large parts of the Republican foreign policy establishment, a section of which is openly supporting Hillary Clinton. Most of the small group of foreign policy advisers currently working with Mr Trump are much less well-known, giving diplomats in Washington little insight into the campaign’s thinking.

Mr Trump did receive some praise from the one leader who he met this week in New York, Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who said the Republican candidate would “no doubt” make a strong leader. Asked about Mr Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, Mr al-Sisi said that “during election campaigns many statements are made and many things are said; however, afterwards, governing the country would be something different.”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned on Tuesday about the consequences of the US pulling back from its global role in ways that Mr Trump has often proposed.

“Can you imagine the soccer game where the referee decides to go back in the changing room? The first few moments, everyone says that’s great, and they’re away. After a time, it’s chaos,” Mr Blair told a Reuters event in New York. He added that Mrs Clinton was someone of “enormous wisdom, common sense and integrity.”

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang took the diplomatic route. “No matter who gets elected, I believe China-US ties will grow steadily and in a positive direction,” he told the Economic Club of New York.

Indonesian Islam: Neither White Knight nor Damsel in Distress

September 22, 2016

Asia Pacific Bulletin

Number 354 | September 22, 2016


Indonesian Islam: Neither White Knight nor Damsel in Distress

by Benjamin Nathan

In the fifteen years since 9/11, the attitude of the American media and foreign policy community towards Indonesian Islam has followed two parallel paths. The first is that Muslims in Indonesia have the potential to influence the thoughts and actions of Islamic extremists in the Middle East. The reasoning behind this viewpoint is easy to see: Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, an overwhelming majorityof whom reject acts of religious violence. American policymakers from both parties naturally see this state of affairs as a useful diplomatic tool for combating extremism in the Middle East.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz echoed this theme in 2009, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “Indonesia Is a Model Muslim Democracy” that “if [Indonesia] continues to make progress on religious tolerance, it can point the way for other majority Muslim countries.” In November 2015, The New York Times described a recent anti-ISIS media campaign led by the Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) as a “welcome antidote to jihadism” and as a solution to the problem that “Western leaders often lack credibility with those most susceptible to jihad’s allure.”

The second path of American thinking about Indonesian Islam is that Islamic extremists in the Middle East have the potential to influence the thoughts and actions of Muslims in Indonesia. This is an idea of Indonesia as a teetering domino, a fortress of religious moderation under internal siege from a worldwide pox of Islamic fundamentalism. In this view, the fact that 90% of Indonesians are Muslims makes the country vulnerable to radicalization, moderate as Indonesia’s mainstream form of Islam may be. In its 2016 budget, the State Department listed Indonesia as a “focus country” for its Antiterrorism Assistance and Countering Violent Extremism programs. The United States provides financial and technical support for Detachment 88, Indonesia’s most prominent antiterror group, and also funds organizations deemed capable of “grass-roots counter-messaging” against extremism.

These twin perspectives assume the potential for widespread, persuasive communication between Indonesian Muslims and their coreligionists around the world. This assumption is largely off base. Chief among its flaws is that cultural and religious disparities between Indonesia and the Middle East, while impossible to measure precisely, are stark.Indonesians speak not Arabic but Malay, an Austronesian language whose resemblance to Arabic consists only of a scattershot of shared vocabulary. Indonesian Muslims generally make a point of distinguishing themselves from inhabitants of the Arab world. The Indonesian term kearab-araban, roughly equivalent to “over-Arabness,” is not a term of respect.

Even if they could easily communicate with other Muslims around the world, Indonesians would have few opportunities to do so. Indonesians are simply not well-placed around the globe to influence the ideological tide of worldwide Islam. Indonesia’s diaspora, aside from those who live in neighboring Malaysia, is small relative to population size. Of the Indonesians who travel to the Middle East, most are female domestic workers. The Saudi government caps the number of Indonesians allowed to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage at 168,800 per year –just .08% of the country’s Muslim population.

And even if it were conceivable that Indonesian anti-extremist rhetoric could dissuade Muslims around the world from joining groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, it would still be misleading to claim that organized Islam in Indonesia is an outstanding example of peace and tolerance that transcends historically-bound political conditions. The New York Timesarticle that called attention to Nahdlatul Ulama’s anti-ISIS efforts made no mention of the fact that the group played a central role in the murder of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists from 1965 to 1966. Its popular reputation as a moderate organization that “stresses nonviolence, inclusiveness and acceptance of other religions” is the result of an astonishingly narrow focus on the present day.

The reason why Nahdlatul Ulama and similar organizations no longer coordinate mass violence is that their institutional legitimacy is now secure-they face no challenge to their influence that compares to the threat they once faced from organized communism. Their professed tolerance is a result of political stability, not a cause. The historical record on this point is clear: when immersed in the power struggle of the 1960s, NU proved just as susceptible to the temptations of political violence as the extremist groups its leaders denounce today. It is therefore hard to imagine how Indonesia’s present-day brand of tolerance could take hold in such politically unstable regions as Syria and Nigeria.

The same factors that limit the usefulness of Indonesian Islam as a counterweight to extremist groups in the Middle East apply with equal strength to attempts by extremist groups in the Middle East to make inroads in Indonesia. The wide political and cultural reach of groups like NU and Muhammadiyah have provided resistance against the ideological incursions of Salafi proselytizers and the recruitment efforts of the Islamic State. Even as mainstream Indonesian Islam grows more conservative in areas like LGBT rights and inter-religious tolerance, its institutions constrain foreign radicalization.

ISIS, for its part, seems both unable and unwilling to carry out major terrorist attacks in Indonesia. In a January 2016 report for USAID, political scientist Greg Fealy estimated that only 250 to 300 Indonesian citizens-roughly one for every million-have traveled to join ISIS. Neighboring Australia’s per capita rate is five times as high. While the attacks that killed four people in Jakarta on January 14 were widely interpreted as a sign that ISIS had expanded its focus to Indonesia, evidence suggests that central ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria did not have a planning role. The attack was an amateurish and homegrown operation with no proven connection to ISIS beyond hazy funding links and an impossible-to-disprove link of ‘inspiration.”

Indonesia today faces issues that dwarf the threat of terrorism in their scope and significance, such as the economy and institutional political weaknesses. According to the Global Terrorism Index, Indonesia would not match Nigeria’s 2014 casualty count from terrorism if an equivalent to January’s Jakarta attack occurred five times a day for an entire year. The US foreign policy community should not let the strategic priority of preventing the spread of terrorism distort their view of Indonesia’s own pressing needs. A strong Indonesia, after all, fits well within the policy interests of the United States. The world’s fourth-most populous country is an important economic and strategic partner, not least because of China’s increasing ambitions to establish its influence in Southeast Asia.

There is a risk, moreover, that funding local counter-terrorism efforts will incur more than just an opportunity cost. The Indonesian military, sidelined since Suharto’s downfall in 1998, views access to counter-terrorism funding as a potential wedge for reestablishing its influence in national politics. A remilitarization of Indonesian society would surely damage the country’s young democratic institutions. It could also thwart key American policy goals like the protection of religious freedom and human rights. The military has recently been involved in programs like bela negara (“defend the nation”), a training program for lay citizens that aims to target such social ills as latent communism and homosexuality. If American policymakers insist on enlisting Indonesia in the fight against terrorism, they must take care to avoid treatments that cause more harm than the targeted disease.

About the Author

Benjamin Nathan is a former researcher at the East-West Center in Washington. He graduated from Williams College in 2015 and is an alumnus of the Critical Language Scholarship program in Malang, Indonesia. He can be contacted at
The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.


Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Alex Forster, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please

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