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1-15 Feb 2005

The Other side of American charity in SE Asia 

By Farish A. Noor 

The tsunami tragedy that struck the countries of Southeast and South Asia recently has been compounded further by the vicissitudes of politics. Thus far we have witnessed both the redeeming demonstration of human charity that extends beyond borders, as well as the less-than-dignified posturing of governments that can only think within the constrains of their borders. 

The tsunami tragedy in Southeast Asia was quickly transformed into a gross pantomime of states and governments: The country worst hit by the catastrophe was undoubtedly Indonesia, with more than a hundred thousand killed in the northwestern province of Aceh, and a further three hundred thousand missing and displaced. Almost immediately the government of neighbouring Malaysia came to the fore to offer aid and assistance, but not without the prompting of the Malaysian public, who loudly condemned the initial indifference of the Malaysia media that hardly gave the event the coverage it deserved on the first day of the tragedy. 

Malaysia’s apparent charity is also laced with political concerns, for when the tragedy struck the Malaysian government was engaged in a nation-wide round-up of illegal Indonesian migrant workers who were being sent back to Indonesia. The Malaysian government went as far as resorting to the use of national reserve forces, and threatened the illegal immigrants with punishments that included whipping as well as fines. 

But the most visible actor on the stage in Indonesia’s Aceh province today has to be the United States of America, alongside its ally Australia. The American government has directed its troops and naval forces to Aceh, sending in soldiers as well as army helicopters to help with the relief effort. No doubt, this act of apparent benevolence was likewise coloured by genuine political concerns as well: The Americans know very well that at the moment the image of the USA is at an all-time low in Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim nation. 

Coming as it did at a time when the image and standing of the United States is at its lowest ebb, the tsunami tragedy was – ironically – a boon for some. The American government knows very well that its reputation and credibility has suffered greatly of late, and in the battle for hearts and minds of the Muslim world countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are of enormous strategic importance as they have come to be cast as ‘model Muslim states’ that Washington believes ought to be followed by other Arab countries. 

America therefore has tried its best to win over the support of Southeast Asian Muslims in both Indonesia and Malaysia, and in the case of the former has gone as far as setting up ‘American corners’ in Indonesian universities, to showcase the American way of life and to illustrate the meaning of American values. American NGOs, donor agencies and foundations such as the Asia Foundation are also at the forefront of pumping in millions of dollars to ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ Indonesian and Malaysian Islamist NGOs, think-tanks, universities and other institutions, with the hope of ensuring that both countries do not fall into the hands of the more anti-American streams of political Islam. 

But at the same time Washington seems oblivious to the fact that its arrival in Indonesia is not without precedent. Despite President Bush’s pledges to help Indonesia recover from the tsunami catastrophe, the people of Indonesia remember the role that America played for so long as the strongest supporter of the Soeharto regime, from 1965 to 1998. Indonesians also recall with horror the collusion of the US – notably its intelligence agencies like the CIA – in the bloodbath that led to the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965. 

Today, America’s relief efforts show the same signs of political machiavellism of the past. In areas like Aceh, there is now a veritable race among foreign donor agencies to get as much help on the ground as soon as possible. The US has a head start thanks to its logistical advantage. But another reason why it is so prominently visible is because it has also eliminated other donor agencies and sources of funding: Local Indonesian relief groups, many of them linked to local Indonesian Islamist parties like the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS) and movements like the Hidayatullah have been sidelined from Aceh, on the grounds that they might be working alongside radical Islamist forces. 

To make things worse, Washington’s ‘War on Terror’ in Southeast Asia has also obstructed many Arab and South Asian donors who find that they cannot donate to Aceh for fear of being accused of funding ‘radical Islamist groups’. As a result of these restrictions, Muslim relief organisations from countries like Malaysia, Pakistan, the Gulf states and beyond are forced to make the long trip to Aceh themselves, to hand over the money and aid they have collected personally. A Malaysian Muslim-based relief group has recently complained that unlike the Americans and their Western allies, Muslim NGOs are treated with suspicion and made to feel unwelcomed by the US and the Indonesian authorities. 

So deep is the scepticism of American intentions and its agenda towards the Muslim world that even the leaders of moderate Islamist organisations in Southeast Asia are not impressed by the US’s latest humanitarian efforts. As Ahmad Azam, President of the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM) noted: “After the 11 September tragedy, followed by the attack on Afghanistan on the pretext of blaming Osama Bin Laden for it, and then invading Iraq on the questionable basis of supposedly amassing weapon of mass destruction (WMD), the Muslim world will never trust the U.S. anymore as a nation that stands for freedom, human rights and justice. The treatment on the so-called terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, the massacre of Iraqis in Falluja as well in Afghanistan while at the same ignoring the series of assassinations of Palestinian leaders has destroyed whatever credibility the US had left as an advocate for peace.” 

Such sentiments have also become the norm among leading advocates of human rights and democracy in the region. In the words of Chandra Muzaffar, president on the Movement for a Just World, one of the leading NGOs in Malaysia, Washington’s relief efforts may well come to naught, for “we have now reached a point where there is widespread antipathy towards Washington amongst Malaysian Muslims.” 

As for the Acehnese themselves, they have their own doubts and suspicions about the role and agenda of the US and its Western allies in Aceh. Why, they ask, are the Americans there now, to hand out aid, shelter and medical supplies? Why were they absent when the province of Aceh was caught in a civil conflict with Jakarta and the Indonesian army; when thousands of Acehnese were murdered and buried in secret mass graves in the jungle; and when the social infrastructure of Aceh including its schools and colleges were being destroyed? The answer is obvious enough: For when the Aceh uprising was at its peak and the Indonesian army was at its most brutal in the province, it was Washington – under the leadership of successive US presidents from Gerald Ford to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton – who was the strongest supporter of the Indonesian regime itself.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian Political Scientist and Human Rights Activist, based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin. He can be contacted on

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