International Herald Tribune
Indonesia steps onto the stage
JAKARTA Indonesia's 1,000-man contribution to the Lebanon peacekeeping force is a significant move for the Middle East as well as for a nation which has long punched far below its weight in international affairs.

This low profile has been cause for regret given that Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority country and has an abiding commitment to pluralism and a determinedly secular constitution.

It has also made a generally successful transition from centralized authoritarian government to devolved democracy and hopefully settled a long-standing secessionist war in Aceh Province.

There are plenty of lessons here for the Middle East and in particular an Arab world which often gives the impression that Mecca and el-Azhar give it precedence over the more numerous Muslims of South and East Asia.

But even a modest role for Indonesia in the affairs of the Middle East may create some domestic political problems for a country where very diverse interpretations of religion and nationalism are reflected not just in the democratic system but in the make-up of the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Indonesian troops have participated in UN peacekeeping before. But Lebanon is a particularly difficult assignment and thus provides the potential for large contributors to the force to become players in the wider issue of peacemaking between Israel and the Arabs. Indeed, they may not be able to avoid it.

Indonesia's large force is evidence of it willingness to be a player. Likewise the desire of the United States to bring the Indonesians into the process was reflected in Israel's withdrawal of objection to participation by a country with which it does not have diplomatic relations.

Despite widespread concern within Indonesia about U.S. policies in the Middle East and in particular its unstinting backing of Israeli military actions, relations between Jakarta and Washington have seldom been better. The United States desperately needs to show that it has Muslim friends who were elected and believe in pluralism.

But Indonesia itself remains torn between a sense of loyalty to the Muslim world, which it sees as victim, and its own commitment to pluralism, peacemaking and freedom of speech.

This was neatly summed up by the fact that on Saturday, the day the UN force commitment was agreed, an invited Israeli journalist was unable to get a visa to attend a media conference in Indonesia to which he had been invited.

Since the fall of President Suharto, Indonesia has been making occasional tentative efforts to develop a dialogue with Israel. But a desire not to present a cause to Muslim fundamentalists at a time of Israeli military actions against Palestinians has stymied progress toward official links.

On a wider front, there are several historic reasons for Indonesia's long lack of diplomatic clout. In the eight years since Suharto's fall, the nation has been preoccupied with democratic development, economic recovery from the Asian crisis, the Aceh question and the tsunami and other natural disasters.

But Indonesia has also learned from its acceptance of foreign military help after the tsunami and the role of mediation over Aceh that open societies can benefit from international interaction, that national interests are better served by dialogue and cooperation than by fiercely nationalist or ideological stances.

Hence there is a sense here now that Indonesia deserves some standing in a world wracked by unilateralist policies and religious intolerance and confrontation.

Its image is still sullied by low- grade insurgency, fueled by heavy- handed military actions in Papua which are causing problems with Australia. Papua may yet cause problems with the United States as a result of congressional responses to Christian activists who are eager to paint Papua as an example of "Muslim oppression."

But in Lebanon, the Indonesian military will be keen to show off its professionalism. The contingent will be mainly drawn from the elite strategic unit, the 25,000-strong Kostrad, which Yudhoyono himself once commanded. One of its senior officers is the president's son.

Civilian politicians are happy to see the military being kept busy overseas with a high profile and prestigious, if dangerous, mission.

Indonesia is not going to use this to try to follow the likes of Brazil or India to make a deliberate, focused attempt to play a bigger role internationally.

But the 1,000-strong contingent is more than a gesture, and the engagement of this nation should benefit both the peace process and the cause of Muslim pluralism and democracy.