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Reaction to U.S. aid in Indonesia mixed JAKARTA - In the world's most populous Muslim nation, not everyone is entirely happy to see Americans in helicopters handing out food and water to the hungry victims of last week's tsunami. Though Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday expressed hope that the sight of U.S. soldiers passing out aid would help ease anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, many Muslims say they cannot ignore that the same U.S. military that invaded Iraq and Afghanistan is now engaged in its largest operation in South Asia since the Vietnam War.
"It's true we need help from the U.S. right now, but many Muslims feel the need to ask: `Is there any political interest here, or is it really just humanitarian help?'" said Moeslim Abdurrahman, a moderate Muslim leader in Jakarta. With Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on a tour of devastated coastlines in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, such doubts are standing in the way of hopes that the enormous aid effort will provide a silver lining to the worst natural disaster in decades.
In addition, some hope the need for cooperation will help resolve bloody separatist movements in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, while perhaps undermining whatever public support there may be for a radical Islamist group blamed for a series of bombings in Indonesia over the past two years. Yet on the ground, early reactions have been mixed. The gratitude that many victims feel for the aid campaign has been tempered by the perception that the Bush administration reacted sluggishly to the first reports of the calamity. Bush did not address the disaster publicly until three days after the earthquake and tsunami.
"They blew it, initially, having Bush wait so long before he said anything," said Sydney Jones, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, an independent, non-profit organization that tries to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. "I'm sure there's gratitude; it's just that the image of the U.S. was so negative that it remains to be seen whether this can overcome that." The Bush administration has defended its response, saying it didn't publicize everything it was doing and that its initial pledges - $4 million, then $15 million, then $35 million - were always intended as initial steps. On Friday, the United States increased its pledge to $350 million.
"We immediately started scrounging around for every fund that we had, every bit of rice that we knew of somewhere," said U.S. Ambassador Lynn Pascoe. "We did everything we could except triple the speed of the aircraft carrier to get it here as fast as we could possibly get here." In Washington, Bush administration officials, members of Congress and analysts have suggested that the outpouring of humanitarian aid and the need for coordination could have positive results for U.S. and global security beyond saving lives.
One of the reasons for such efforts, Powell said Tuesday, is that "we believe it is in the best interest of those countries and it's in our best interest. It dries up those pools of dissatisfaction that might give rise to terrorist activity." U.S. military commanders are hoping to improve ties with Indonesia's military, which they see as a potential ally in the war on terror despite a U.S. arms embargo because of concerns about human-rights violations during the East Timor conflict in the late 1990s.
In India, some noted a close U.S. cooperation with the Indian Navy that could improve rocky relations. In Sri Lanka, officials hope the mutual losses and need to work together could help the government renew peace efforts with the secessionist Tamil Tigers after years of bloody war. Along the northern coast of Sumatra, Indonesia's worst-damaged area, U.S. officials are pushing for resolution of another independence movement by residents of the Aceh region. But the government did not respond to a rebel cease-fire offer, and there have been reports of at least one gun battle as the international aid was being delivered.
Though Indonesia became a democracy seven years ago after the fall of longtime dictator Suharto, it also is home to a secretive group known as Jemaah Islamiyah. The group has links to al-Qaida and has claimed responsibility for several recent bombings, including one in Bali in 2002 that killed 202 people, many of them Australians. So far, there has been no sign of rivalry emerging in the delivery of aid between Islamic and Western groups, as was seen after a killer earthquake in Cairo in 1992, and other incidents.
"The majority of Indonesians are quite appreciative, especially the Acehnese. Everyone is just amazed at the capacity of the U.S. with the Abraham Lincoln (aircraft carrier) coming in here and all these Seahawk helicopters," said Rizal Sukma, director of studies at Indonesia's Center for International and Strategic Studies and an Acehnese whose teenage niece still is missing after the flood.
"A lot of people think that the U.S. will not pay attention to anything unless it has to do with terrorism, that it doesn't care about democracy or human rights anymore," Sukma said. "This will insert a new element into people's perceptions." Unfortunately for the United States, among other elements of that reputation in the region are the highly unpopular invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, anger at tougher visa procedures to enter the U.S. and ire over U.S. support for Israel.
Some Indonesians say they are insulted by Western debate about whether Muslims can be democratic. Others blame the United States for fueling the radical bombers with its allegedly anti-Muslim foreign policies. People in the region who have tapped into Internet chat rooms since the tsunami say they are filled with conspiracy theories, as well as talk about foreign occupation and the United States allegedly trying to Christianize the country.
Government officials dismiss those as the concerns of a minority. They praise the United States and global response to the crisis. But at the same time, one focus of a Thursday donor summit that Powell will attend in Jakarta is to make sure the West doesn't lose interest after the initial crisis and fail to fulfill the financial pledges. The Indonesians are aware of complaints that Iran received only a small fraction of the $1.1 billion it was promised after the earthquake in Bam killed 26,000 people exactly a year before the tsunami.
"While the response (to the tsunami damage) has been magnificent, it doesn't mean it's sufficient," said Marty Natalgawa, spokesman for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry. "We feel it is incumbent to put the same weight on reconstruction and rehabilitation, so the victims of this calamity will not be forgotten."



Posted in Earthquake @ 05 January 2005 00:02 CET by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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