Some alternative perspectives on David Cameron’s Visit to Indonesia

by indonotes

David Cameron (from Wikimedia Commons, Photo by Remy Steinegger, shared under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License)

Despite being largely ignored by the British press, there was an outpouring of comment online from Indonesians in response to David Cameron’s visit to Indonesia. An analysis of the debate reveals a mixture of pride and scepticism.

David Cameron’s visit to Indonesia on 11th April as part of his Asian tour was rather overshadowed by his trip to Burma/Myanmar. When the British press did pay attention to Indonesia, some reports stuck largely to the official line, with David Cameron highlighting the economic opportunity Indonesia represented, and treating Indonesia as an example of the possibility of the coexistence of Islam and democracy.[1] More critical accounts tended to juxtapose Cameron’s praise of Indonesian democracy with some of its problems, including oligarchic rule, corruption, limitations on religious freedom, and an unaccountable military.[2] Based on these perspectives they had rather different views on news of a deal between the Indonesian airline Garuda and Airbus and Cameron’s promotion of British arms exports to Indonesia.

So what of Indonesian perspectives? There were some efforts made in the mainstream British press to incorporate Indonesian perspectives, but these were really quite limited. The Guardian included a couple of responses from students who saw Cameron’s speech.[3] The Independent covered a speech by the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in which he argued, somewhat uncomfortably for David Cameron, that in Indonesia a symbiosis of government and industry had helped recovery from economic crisis.[4] In the Guardian Deborah Orr worried about Cameron’s praise for Indonesia tainting it in the eyes of Islamic extremists.[5]

Yet although Indonesian views on Cameron’s visit were almost an afterthought in British press accounts, the proliferation of Indonesian online newspapers and the dynamism of the Indonesian blogosphere mean there is ample material available for analysis. Indeed, David Cameron’s speech at Al-Azhar university described Indonesia as ‘a country where more people use Twitter more intensively than any other nation on the planet’.[6] Those attending the speech were encouraged to ‘tweet your favourite line’.[7]

In this context, Twitter provides an interesting entry point to the wide range of responses to Cameron’s visit to Indonesia. Tweets that I came across (I translate a selection below) indicated a mixed reaction, combining pride with a decent degree of scepticism:

Public lecture by British PM David Cameron at Univeristy Al-Azhar Indonesia has finished. Knowledge he conveyed was really good

British PM David Cameron has a public lecture, issue of terrorism yet again 😐

Watching ‘stale’ lecture from Mr Cameron at Al Azhar University. #phony (gombal)

David Cameron public lecture as Al-Azhar, using lots of Indonesian in sentences praising Indonesia. When thing are complex like this have to take a subjective perspective.

British PM.. David  Cameron gives a public lecture at Al Azhar University, Jakarta @Metro TV pretty likeable.. and [in English] I’m proud of Indonesia.

There are limitations on how representative Tweeted responses will be of wider sentiment in Indonesia. Those Tweeting are likely to be younger and better off than most. However, Indonesia is full of Internet cafes (warnet) and you can get access for an hour for around the price of a glass of tea, meaning even those on modest means in urban areas can easily get online. In addition, as the speech was broadcast (with subtitles) on a national television channel, it had the potential to reach a wide audience.

Beyond Twitter, the diversity of responses also came through in the Indonesian language online press and blogosphere. Some Indonesian sources echoed Cameron’s message.[8] There was also appreciation of the ‘Indonesia mampu memimpin dunia’ (Indonesia can lead the world) motif in Cameron’s speech as well as Cameron’s care to avoid the impression that extremism was synonymous with, or exclusive to, Islam.[9]

However there was also a good amount of scepticism, expressed with a range of ways. Ismail Hasani of the Setara Institute argued in the liberal English language Jakarta Globe ‘Of course it was lip service, they know Indonesia’s reputation on human rights…  In terms of political liberties, we are doing OK, but our civil liberties are going nowhere.[10] Cynicism about Indonesian politics was sometimes combined with  a nationalist suspicion of western politicians. One blog argued that ‘‘Behind his praise, David Cameron touched on problems that may obstruct Indonesia’s development’, listing terrorism, conflict with minorities such as Ahmadiyah, human rights abuses and corruption. The blogger concluded that foreigners praise the Indonesian governmentbecause ‘it is profitable for them’.[11] One more radical blog derided Cameron as a ‘stooge (kaki tangan) of neocolonialism’ and lamented that Indonesians  ‘still inherit our genetics as slaves from our grandparents’, listening to Cameron ‘lecture’ Indonesians ‘as if he has forgotten’ that he was not leader of this country.[12] A more self-consciously Islamic response was offered by Muhammad Ismail Yusanto, spokesman for Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. He criticised the UKs relationship with USA and involvement in foreign interventions. He also contrasted democracy as popular rule as opposed to Islam, the rule of Allah. Yet many of his points echoed other, less self-consciously Islamic critics. Yes, Yusanto conceded, there has been a transition from the Suharto era, and there are now elections, but the change that occurred has not been ‘substantial’. Corruption, social conflict, poverty, disillusionment with the legal system are moving Indonesia away from a ‘just society’. Cameron’s words were ‘empty praise’, the ‘praise of a salesman to a prospective customer’  that if not watched out for will ‘lull us all’, and ‘close our eyes to facts of a number of very striking failures’.[13]

The scholar Benedict Anderson, drawing on the words of the Filipino nationalist Jose Rizal, used the phrase ‘the spectre of comparisons’ to capture the somewhat disorientating sensation of seeing the same thing from two different perspectives: ‘simultaneously close up and from afar’. There is definitely something of this sensation in reading British and Indonesian sources on Cameron’s trip to Indonesia. However, there is also a sense of standing  amid a cacophony of sometimes mutually unintelligible voices. My aim here has been to record a bit of that cacophany.