US Hopes Obama Trip Will Boost Trade with Indonesia

March 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Doug Palmer

2010-03-16T103621Z_11355208_GM1E63G1FMP01_RTRMADP_3_INDONESIA

Barack Obama’s impersonator Ilham Anas of Indonesia poses in front of an image of U.S. President Barack Obama after being interviewed by Reuters TV in Obama’s former school, State Elementary School 01 Menteng, in Jakarta March 16, 2010. Obama is scheduled later this month to visit the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where he is a popular figure. Obama studied at State Elementary School 01 Menteng from 1970-1971.

REUTERS/Dadang Tri

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States hopes President Barack Obama’s visit next week to Indonesia will help spur reforms that boost trade with Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the world’s fourth most populous nation.

“Economic nationalism, regulatory uncertainty and unresolved investment disputes give pause to American companies seeking to do business in Indonesia,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke said in a speech on Wednesday.

To increase trade, “it’s incumbent upon Indonesia to make market-oriented reforms that will make it a more attractive market, not just for U.S. companies but companies all around the world,” Locke said.

“Growing trade with Indonesia is a piece of the president’s broader plan to create jobs here at home by growing market access overseas.”

Obama is returning to the country where he spent part of his youth for talks in Jakarta with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and a stop in Bali to meet civil society groups and urge further progress on democracy.

Indonesia — a majority Muslim nation of 230 million people — and the United States are expected to sign a “comprehensive partnership” agreement, which Locke said would be a “blueprint for cooperation on a whole host of issues.”

Two-way trade between the United States and Indonesia was just $18 billion last year, a tiny chunk of the $788 billion in trade the United States did with all Pacific Rim countries in 2009.

“In fact, Indonesia does less trade with the United States than some of its smaller, less populous ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighbors like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand,” said Locke, who will be leading a clean energy trade mission to Indonesia in May.

The United States exported $5.1 billion of goods last year to Indonesia, led by civilian aircraft and farm goods such as soybeans, animal feeds and cotton.

U.S. imports from Indonesia were just $12.9 billion last year, included clothing and textile goods, furniture, electronics, computer accessories and coffee.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will visit Indonesia just weeks after Obama but Locke downplayed the idea that the back-to-back trips were a demonstration of Washington and Beijing vying for influence.

“I don’t think these visits in any way were set up to compete against each other,” Locke said.

But Ernie Bower, director for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he did see a healthy competition between the United States and China for “hearts, minds and markets” in Southeast Asia.

China “really picked up its game” in Indonesia with help it provided during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and Obama’s trip helps set the stage for more U.S. involvement in a strategically important region, Bower said.

But Indonesia has a long way to go before it is ready to join a proposed regional free trade agreement with the United States, said Mark Orgill, manager for Indonesia at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.

A much less ambitious trade deal between ASEAN and China already has raised concerns among Indonesia’s manufacturers, Orgill said.

The United States began talks this week on the proposed Transpacific Partnership pact with Australia, Chile, Singapore, New Zealand, Peru, Vietnam and Brunei. Two other ASEAN countries, Malaysia and Thailand, have expressed interest in joining the talks.

“Indonesia fights battles at home” over moves to open its market, Orgill said.

Editing by John O’Callaghan

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Malaysian Polygamy Club Draws Criticism

January 9, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Liz Gooch, New York Times

articleLarge
Mohamad Ikram Ashaari and his four wives and children at his home in Kuala Lumpur.      Palani Mohan for International Herald Tributne.

KUALA LUMPUR — Rohaya Mohamad, 44, is an articulate, bespectacled medical doctor who studied at a university in Wales. Juhaidah Yusof, 41, is a shy Islamic studies teacher and mother of eight. Kartini Maarof, 41, is a divorce lawyer and Rubaizah Rejab, a youthful-looking 30-year-old woman, teaches Arabic at a private college.

The lives of these four women are closely entwined — they take care of each others’ children, cook for each other and share a home on weekends.

They also share a husband.

The man at the center of this matrimonial arrangement is Mohamad Ikram Ashaari, the 43-year-old stepson of Hatijah Aam, 54, a Malaysian woman who in August established a club to promote polygamy.

“Men are by nature polygamous,” said Dr. Rohaya, Mr. Ikram’s third wife, flanked by the other three women and Mr. Ikram for an interview on a recent morning. The women were dressed in ankle-length skirts, their hair covered by tudungs, the Malaysian term for headscarf. “We hear of many men having the ‘other woman,’ affairs and prostitution because for men, one woman is not enough. Polygamy is a way to overcome social ills such as this.”

The Ikhwan Polygamy Club is managed by Global Ikhwan, a company whose businesses include bread and noodle factories, a chicken-processing plant, pharmacies, cafes and supermarkets. Mr. Ikram is a director of the company.

While polygamy is legal in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, the club has come under fire from the government and religious leaders, who suspect it may be an attempt to revive Al-Arqam, a defunct Islamic movement headed by Mrs. Hatijah’s husband, Mr. Ashaari Mohamad, who is the founder and owner of Global Ikhwan. Al-Arqam was banned in 1994 for “deviant” religious teachings.

The club denies allegations that it is trying to revive Al-Arqam, and says that the aim of the club is to help single mothers and women past “marrying age” find husbands.

The Ikhwan Polygamy Club says it has 1,000 members across Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, the Middle East and Europe. It recently started a branch in Bandung, Indonesia, and plans to open another one in Jakarta. Most of the members are employees of Global Ikwan or former members of Al-Arqam.

Members get together regularly for meetings and relationship counseling, which is given by senior members of the group.

Under Malaysian law, it is legal for Muslim men to marry as many as four wives, although they must obtain permission from an Islamic, or shariah, court to marry more than one. Women’s groups say it has become easier for men to obtain permission to take multiple wives in recent years, a development they say coincides with a rise in Islamic conservatism in Malaysia.

While some states require men to obtain the consent of their existing wives before seeking court permission to marry another wife, Sa’adiah Din, a family lawyer who practices in the shariah courts, said other states no longer required the wives’ consent.

In 2008, 1,791 men applied to the shariah courts, which apply only to the country’s Muslim population, for permission to take another wife, up from 1,694 in 2007. The government could not provide figures on the total number of polygamous marriages, but researchers including Norani Othman, a sociologist at the National University of Malaysia, said the number could be as high as 5 percent of all marriages.
Despite the growing number of polygamous marriages, the club’s effort to promote the practice has put it in the sights of the authorities.

The Department of Islamic Development Malaysia, a government department that is responsible for the promotion and administration of Islam, is investigating the activities of the Ikhwan Polygamy Club and says it believes Mr. Ashaari and his family may be promoting teachings contrary to Islam. A spokeswoman would not provide further details, saying the investigation was continuing.

Al-Arqam had asserted that Mr. Ashaari had the power to forgive the sins of Muslims, an act Muslims believe can be done only by God. Some reports have suggested that the movement had as many as 10,000 members when it was banned.

A leading religious official, Harussani Bin Haji Zakaria, the mufti of Perak State, said followers of Al-Arqam had claimed that Mr. Ashaari had the power to send people to heaven or hell.

Mr. Harussani said he believed the polygamy club could be a front to resurrect Al-Arqam. “I think because they have been banned they want to attract people to come to him again,” he said, referring to Mr. Ashaari.

The club has also been criticized by women’s groups like Sisters in Islam, a nongovernmental organization based in Malaysia.

Ms. Norani, the sociologist, who is the lead researcher in a Sisters in Islam project investigating polygamy, said the practice could be harmful to women and children, particularly those born to first wives.

She and her fellow researchers have interviewed 2,000 men, women and adult children who have experienced polygamous marriage.

Although she stressed that her comments were based on preliminary observations, Ms. Norani said many of the first wives interviewed reported feelings of resentment and depression after their husbands took a second wife, and “a significant number” had considered divorce.

She said she knew some well-educated, financially independent women in Kuala Lumpur, including business executives and lawyers, who had chosen to become second or third wives.

“Usually they marry late, they do a second or third degree, they put off marriage until later and they find it difficult to find an unmarried man,” she said. “One of them said ‘all the good men are either married or gay.”’

With 17 children among them, ages 6 to 21, Mr. Ikram’s four wives all have their own homes near their workplaces, but on weekends they gather at the family’s five-bedroom house on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Most of the older children are at boarding school or university, but the children of primary-school age stay at the family house, where they are usually cared for by the first wife, Juhaidah, during the week.

Mr. Ikram takes turns spending nights with each of his four wives. “It’s like one, two, three, four,” said Dr. Rohaya, pointing to each of the wives.

The wives usually meet Mr. Ikram at the family house but they say there is no strict arrangement, and Mr. Ikram sometimes comes to their individual homes during the week.

On weekends, at the family house, the women take turns doing the cooking.

“We share clothes,” Dr. Rohaya said. “We’re like sisters, really.”

None of the women grew up in polygamous families, and although they admit to having had some initial reservations, they all said they were happy and would recommend polygamous marriage to their daughters.

Mr. Ikram rejected suggestions from the women’s groups that polygamous marriages may benefit men while causing hardship for women.

“Actually, in a polygamous marriage it’s more of a burden to a man than to a woman because the husband has to face four different women, and that’s not easy,” he said, prompting laughter from his wives.

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US Envoy Writes of Israeli Threats

April 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy Barbara Crossette

john_gunther_dean In the wake of the accusation by Chas Freeman that his nomination to lead the National Intelligence Council was derailed by an “Israeli lobby,” a forthcoming memoir by another distinguished ambassador adds stunning new charges to the debate. The ambassador, John Gunther Dean, writes that over the years he not only came under pressure from pro-Israeli groups and officials in Washington but also was the target of an Israeli-inspired assassination attempt in 1980 in Lebanon, where he had opened links to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Dean’s suspicions that Israeli agents may have also been involved in the mysterious plane crash in 1988 that killed Pakistan’s president, General Mohammed Zia ul Haq, led finally to a decision in Washington to declare him mentally unfit, which forced his resignation from the foreign service after a thirty-year career. After he left public service, he was rehabilitated by the State Department, given a distinguished service medal and eventually encouraged to write his memoirs. Now 82, Dean sees the subsequent positive attention he has received as proof that the insanity charge (he calls it Stalinist) was phony, a supposition later confirmed by a former head of the department’s medical service.

Dean, whose memoir is titled Danger Zones: A Diplomat’s Fight for America’s Interests, was American ambassador in Lebanon in August 1980 when a three-car convoy carrying him and his family was attacked near Beirut.

“I was the target of an assassination attempt by terrorists using automatic rifles and antitank weapons that had been made in the United States and shipped to Israel,” he wrote. “Weapons financed and given by the United States to Israel were used in an attempt to kill an American diplomat!” After the event, conspiracy theories abounded in the Middle East about who could have planned the attack, and why. Lebanon was a dangerously factionalized country.

The State Department investigated, Dean said, but he was never told what the conclusion was. He wrote that he “worked the telephone for three weeks” and met only official silence in Washington. By then Dean had learned from weapons experts in the United States and Lebanon that the guns and ammunition used in the attack had been given by Israelis to a Christian militia allied with them.

“I know as surely as I know anything that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, was somehow involved in the attack,” Dean wrote, describing how he had been under sharp criticism from Israeli politicians and media for his contacts with Palestinians. “Undoubtedly using a proxy, our ally Israel had tried to kill me.”

Dean’s memoir, to be published in May for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Memoir Series by New Academia Publishing under its Vellum imprint, has been read and approved for publication by the State Department with only very minor changes, none affecting Dean’s major points. Its underlying theme is that American diplomacy should be pursued in American interests, not those of another country, however friendly. A Jew whose family fled the Holocaust, Dean resented what he saw as an assumption, including by some in Congress, that he would promote Israel’s interests in his ambassadorial work.

Dean, a fluent French speaker who began his long diplomatic career opening American missions in newly independent West African nations in the early 1960s, served later in Vietnam (where he described himself as a “loyal dissenter”) and was ambassador in Cambodia (where he carried out the American flag as the Khmer Rouge advanced), Denmark, Lebanon, Thailand (where Chas Freeman was his deputy) and India. He takes credit for averting bloodshed in Laos in the 1970s by negotiating a coalition government shared by communist and noncommunist parties.

He was sometimes a disputatious diplomat not afraid to contradict superiors, and he often took–and still holds–contrarian views. He always believed, for example, that the United States should have attempted to negotiate with the Khmer Rouge rather than let the country be overrun by their brutal horror.

As ambassador in India in the 1980s he supported then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s policy of seeking some kind of neutral coalition in Afghanistan that would keep the American- and Pakistani-armed mujahedeen from establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state. For several years after the Soviet withdrawal, India continued to back Najibullah, a thuggish communist security chief whom the retreating Soviet troops left behind. After the mujahedeen moved toward Kabul, Najibullah refused a United Nations offer of safe passage to India. He was slaughtered and left hanging on a lamppost.

It was in the midst of this Soviet endgame in Afghanistan that Dean fell afoul of the State Department for the last time. After the death of General Zia in August 1988, in a plane crash that also killed the American ambassador in Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, Dean was told in New Delhi by high-ranking officials that Mossad was a possible instigator of the accident, in which the plane’s pilot and co-pilot were apparently disabled or otherwise lost control. There was also some suspicion that elements of India’s Research and Analysis Wing, its equivalent of the CIA, may have played a part. India and Israel were alarmed by Pakistan’s work on a nuclear weapon–the “Islamic bomb.”

Dean was so concerned about these reports, and the attempt by the State Department to block a full FBI investigation of the crash in Pakistan, that he decided to return to Washington for direct consultations. Instead of the meetings he was promised, he was told his service in India was over. He was sent into virtual house arrest in Switzerland at a home belonging to the family of his French wife, Martine Duphenieux. Six weeks later, he was allowed to return to New Delhi to pack his belongings and return to Washington, where he resigned.

Suddenly his health record was cleared and his security clearance restored. He was presented with the Distinguished Service Award and received a warm letter of praise from Secretary of State George Shultz. “Years later,” he wrote in his memoir, “I learned who had ordered the bogus diagnosis of mental incapacity against me. It was the same man who had so effusively praised me once I was gone–George Shultz.”

Asked in a telephone conversation last week from his home in Paris why Shultz had done this to him, Dean would say only, “He was forced to.”

Barbara Crossette, United Nations correspondent for The Nation, is a former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief in Asia and at the UN.

She is the author of So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1995 and in paperback by Random House/Vintage Destinations in 1996, and a collection of travel essays about colonial resort towns that are still attracting visitors more than a century after their creation, The Great Hill Stations of Asia, published by Westview Press in 1998 and in paperback by Basic Books in 1999. In 2000, she wrote a survey of India and Indian-American relations, India: Old Civilization in a New World, for the Foreign Policy Association in New York. She is also the author of India Facing the 21st Century, published by Indiana University Press in 1993.

Thailand Accused of Mistreating Muslim Refugees

January 29, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy Simon Montlake, The Christian Science Monitor

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The Rohingya Muslim people, subject to horrible state persecution  in Burma, have sought refuge in Bangladesh; recently hundreds were refused entry into Thailand.

BANGKOK, THAILAND – Hundreds of Muslim refugees from Burma (Myanmar) are feared missing or dead after Thai troops forced them onto boats without engines and cut them adrift in international waters, according to human rights activists and authorities in India who rescued survivors. The revelations have shone a spotlight on the Thai military’s expulsion policy toward Muslims it sees as a security threat.

Nearly 1,000 refugees were detained on a remote island in December before being towed out to sea in two batches and abandoned with little food or water, according to a tally by a migrant-rights group based on survivors’ accounts and media reports. The detainees, mostly members of Burma’s oppressed Rohingya minority, then drifted for weeks. One group was rescued by Indonesia’s Navy, and two others made landfall in India’s Andaman Islands.

Photos of refugees on a Thai island show rows of bedraggled men stripped to the waist as soldiers stand guard. In a separate incident, foreign tourists snapped pictures of detainees trussed on a beach. Thailand’s Andaman coastline, where the abuses took place, is a popular vacation spot.

PM Abhisit Vejjajiva has launched an investigation. Military officials have denied any ill treatment of refugees, while offering conflicting accounts of how they ended up lost at sea. The military has accused the Rohingya, who often travel via Thailand to Malaysia to work or seek asylum, of assisting a Muslim-led insurgency in southern Thailand.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is pressing Thailand for access to 126 Rohingya that it says are in Thai custody. These include 46 boat people reportedly detained on Jan. 16 and handed over to military custody. It said a second group of 80 Rohingya, which reportedly had previously been pushed out to sea and drifted back, had been transferred to the tiny detention island.

There was no sign Thursday of any detainees there, said a Western source in the area. Villagers said boat people had been held there by local guards under military command, before being towed out to sea by fishing vessels. Rickety vessels said to have carried the refugees were beached on the island, the source said.

Amid accusations of a military cover-up, the Thai government has promised a full accounting. “The military has agreed to a fact-finding investigation … [but] we’re not dependent on their input alone,” says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a spokesman.

That probe will expose Mr. Abhisit’s weak command of the military, which sees the Rohingya and other undocumented Muslims as a threat, says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok. He says there’s no evidence that the Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect, have joined insurgents in the Malay-speaking south, where more than 3,500 people have died since 2004.

“Abhisit is … beholden to the military for getting his job – and keeping his job,” he says.

Thailand has long been a magnet for millions of economic migrants as well as refugees escaping persecution in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Human traffickers often play a role moving both groups, exposing those on the run to egregious abuses. Thailand has a mixed record on hosting refugees.

Most Rohingya, who are denied legal rights in Burma, begin their journey in Bangladesh, where more than 200,000 live in unofficial camps. A further 28,000 are registered with the UNHCR. From there, men pay smugglers for passage across the Indian Ocean to Thailand, usually as a transit stop to reach Malaysia, a Muslim country with a sizable Rohingya population. Some Bangladeshis also travel there.

In recent years, boats crossing during winter months have increased. Between 2004 and 2008, the number of Rohingya detained by police rose to 4,866, up from 2,763, says Kraisak Choonhavan, a government lawmaker.

Some of these Rohingya have been repatriated to Burma. Others have paid smugglers to complete their journey to Malaysia, or become victims of traffickers, say rights activists. That appears to have changed as the military has got involved.

In security briefings, military officials repeatedly draw a link between Rohingya refugees and separatist violence in the south, says Sunai Pasuk, with Human Rights Watch, which has received reports of sea “pushbacks” since 2007. “This is not just an isolated incident. There must be a policy behind it,” he says.

Mr. Kraisak, a deputy leader of the ruling Democrat party, criticized the violation of human rights. But he said the outflow of refugees from Burma was a problem that Thailand can’t handle alone. “We have to confer on the international stage. Thais have been too tolerant,” he says.

In interviews with Indian security officials, survivors said uniformed Thai personnel shot four refugees and tossed another into the sea before forcing their group to board a wooden barge. Some 400 crowded onto the barge, which was towed to sea for about 18 hours with armed soldiers aboard. They shared two bags of rice and two gallons of water, according to a transcript in the South China Post.

The barge drifted for more than a week. Of 300 people who tried to swim to shore, only 11 survived. An additional 88 were rescued by the Coast Guard.

The Rohingya people are very oppressed in Burma.  The people, from western Burma’s Arakan State, are forbidden from marrying or travelling without permission and have no legal right to own land or property.

Not only that but even though groups of them have been living in Burma for hundreds of years, they are also denied citizenship by the country’s military government.

For decades this Muslim group of ethnic-Indo origins have been considered the lowest of the low in this mainly Buddhist country. In 1992, 250,000 Rohingyas, a third of their population, fled over Burma’s border into Bangladesh to escape the persecution. Years later more than 20,000 of them are still in the same refugee camps and around 100,000 more are living illegally in the surrounding area.

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Thailand No Closer to Stability Post-Thaksin

April 27, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

Thailand no Closer to Stability

By Farish A Noor,MMNS

Almost three weeks after the elections in Thailand, the country seems no closer to having a stable government of its own. The snap elections called by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, prompted by huge anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok and other major cities, led to the collapse of the Thaksin government. It also raised serious questions about the future economic development of Thailand that was seen as a model state in the post-1997 economic crisis era. But under the leadership of Thaksin the Thai economy was rapidly re-floated at a domestic political cost, thanks to the injection of large doses of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from other neighbouring countries like Singapore.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the reported plan to sell a large share of Shin Corporation, the Thai media and communications conglomerate, to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings. The deal was said to be worth several millions and would have added substantially to the wealth and power of the Thaksin family and its clique of compradores and clients, but was subsequently shot down by local Thai economists who claimed that it was tantamount to ‘selling’ Thailand to foreigners.

But local economic nationalism was not the main or only factor that contributed to the fall of the Thaksin government: The political unrest in the four southern provinces of Patani, Jala, Satun and Narathiwat has led to the loss of hundreds of lives and a state of military emergency in the South and the disruption of local economic life there. Local Southern Thai leaders who come from the Malay-Muslim minority communities claim that the brutal methods used by the Thai army and police have made things worse, and the insurgency is set to grow more bloody in the weeks and months to come.

The fallout of the recent elections however means that nobody in Bangkok knows how the ‘Muslim problem’ in the South will resolve itself, or even if it is capable of being resolved at all. One of the tactics used by the opposition parties to bring down the Thaksin government was to boycott the elections in toto, on both a district and national level. The net result is that Thaksins Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party managed to win a substantial number of seats but were denied an effective majority. Worse still, there is now no effective opposition in Parliament either. The recent by-elections held on 23 April managed to fill an added 40 seats that were left vacant, but there are still many of the 500 Parliamentary seats to be filled.

Here then lies the first dilemma: Thailands constitution has no provision whatsoever for a situation where seats in the Parliament are left empty. The continued boycott by the opposition parties of all elections at local level means that many of these seats will remain vacant till the 30 day post-election grace period is over. When the day comes, Thailand will – for the first time – be without an effective government.

The second dilemma is faced by the Muslim minority and other disenfranchised communities in the country. The Muslims of Southern Thailand have been supporters of the Democratic opposition party and were disappointed with the election results that brought Thaksin to power in the first place in 2002.

The result of the first victory of Thaksin was both the marginalisation of the democratic party and the intensification of violence in Patani and the neighbouring Muslim provinces. Now that Thaksin has been forced out of his seat, the question remains as to who will run the country and which Thai leader and party will return to address the problem of violence in the Muslim provinces. Thus far no single party has even begun to address this issue, and while the stalemate continues in Bangkok the violence in the south also continues unabated.

Next month will therefore be a crucial date in Thai history as it grapples to put together a new government without a democratically chosen head of state. Thai analysts argue that there is little choice but to call for yet another election, this time with the opposition parties encouraged to take part. This still leaves the question of Thailands domectic politics to be addressed however, and it remains unclear whether many of the Thai Muslims of the south still believe in the democratic process and will remain to support the Thai Democratic party.