- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2000

The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta remained closed yesterday amid an explosion of anti-American outrage that threatens to scuttle U.S. influence in Indonesia, widely viewed as the linchpin of Southeast Asian security.

Threats against U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard along with anger among Muslim extremists over Israel's shooting of Palestinians have soured a 35-year friendship between the United States and the world's fourth-most-populous nation, with 205 million people.

Indonesia is also the world's most-populous Muslim nation.

What has soured Indonesia is in part the sense that a hectoring United States has held the country up to ridicule over its failure to stem violence in East Timor while ignoring strides the country is making in recovering from the economic crisis of 1997 and the collapse of its authoritarian government a year later.

The State Department warned Americans on Monday to beware of danger in Indonesia, where American honeymooners used to vacation and thousands of American tourists and businessmen once wandered freely as respected guests.

Indonesia is a founder of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which led the diplomatic and economic battle to isolate communism in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the 1980s.

But the struggle to protect Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia from communism is over, and the 1997 Asian economic crisis has shaken governments, exposing the lack of democracy and deeper ethnic and religious rivalries.

"There has been a rise in anti-American rhetoric by some national political leaders and extremist groups," said the State Department Monday.

"Some foreign travelers in troubled areas have been subject to arbitrary arrest, detention and deportation and, on at least one occasion, false accusations of espionage.

"There have been a number of acts of intimidation and violence directed at American companies and U.S. diplomatic facilities. Security officials have sometimes been unwilling or unable to intervene," the warning said.

Indonesia has been teetering on the brink of economic, political, ethnic and religious chaos ever since the ouster of authoritarian ruler Gen. Suharto in 1998 by a pro-democracy movement.

A major percentage of U.S. exports flow to Southeast Asia, and Indonesia is the largest economy in that traditionally pro-Western bloc. Indonesia's turmoil would affect Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and possibly Indochina and Burma.

About 40 percent of the world's petroleum and other trade passes through the key Malacca and Lombok straits, bordering Indonesia, and turmoil there could cut off Japan from its Middle East fuel imports and its export markets.

If Indonesia succumbs to the forces tearing at its integrity, said professor James Clad of Georgetown University, the threat to American interests would be profound.

"It is impossible to imagine Southeast Asia as a coherent, stable region without a coherent stable Indonesia," said Mr. Clad.

"A fragmenting Indonesia opens the door for mischief from religious extremists and from China which will take advantage of the crisis."

Some of the violence and threats directed at Americans are seen by analysts as attempts to discredit President Abdurrahman Wahid, whose leadership is weak and who has been unable to rein in violence in East Timor, Aceh, the Moluccas and elsewhere in the giant archipelago.

Two large Islamic political groups are critical of Mr. Wahid, and analysts say they are exacerbating the unrest in the country by failing to call for calm and possibly by inciting extremists to take action.

Last weekend a group of Islamic militants in the city of Solo on the main island of Java went to hotels demanding Americans staying there be expelled within 48 hours.

At the U.S. Embassy, which has closed its consular and visa services this week after several days of limited operations due to threats, Muslim youths have protested American support for Israel. The U.S. consulate in Surabaja also has been attacked.

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