“The rise in economic freedom in China has been hugely beneficial to China and to the world. I hope in time this will lead to a greater political opening because I am convinced that the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together.” So said British Prime Minister David Cameron in a speech on Tuesday to students in Beijing.
Contrast Cameron’s determination to challenge China on its human rights record with President Obama’s failure to raise human rights issues on his trip to Indonesia. Just a day before Mr Cameron’s speech in Beijing, the American president made a comparable speech at the University of Indonesia. But instead of focusing on bilateral relations between the US and Indonesia, Obama used this stage in the world’s most populous Muslim nation to set out his vision for rebuilding ties with the Muslim world.
As Obama touched down in Jakarta, a carefully-timed news story was breaking. Last July the Obama administration lifted a decade-long ban on US military assistance to Indonesia’s security forces, Kopassus. This agreement was based on the understanding that Kopassus would use this extra capacity to fight terrorism. However, yesterday’s news story, based on leaked documents, revealed that Kopassus engages in “murder [and] abduction” and define civilian dissidents as the “enemy” in the Papua province, where a successionist movement has long been active.
These documents suggesting the systematic targeting of civilians by US-supported security forces could have been both an embarrassment and distraction for Obama. But they could also have spurred him on to address the pressing issue of human rights in Indonesia. Regrettably, however, Obama did not amend his message.
Even before this story broke, human rights groups had been calling on President Obama to challenge the Indonesian government over a raft of alleged abuses. “Obama should encourage Indonesia to take concrete measures to protect free expression and religious freedom, and to require accountability from the armed forces,” said Sophie Richardson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch, on the eve of the president’s arrival.
Perhaps this was never going to be the time nor the place. But by praising the country’s diversity, democracy and tolerance and failing to mention the country’s restrictions on freedom of expression and religion, Obama missed an important opportunity. Whilst Indonesia has made progress on many human rights issues since emerging from authoritarian rule nearly 12 years ago, it still has some distance to travel.