Approaching election year, it's guessing time again on who exactly is speaking for the public good. One day it's fuel subsidies, the next it's rice, and yet another day we were made to wonder whether indeed a 40-year-old U.S. laboratory should be closed down in our national interest.
A tempest rose in the past weeks over a Central Jakarta-based biomedical laboratory, Naval Medical Research Unit No. 2 (Namru-2), listed on the U.S. Embassy's home page as one of its several foreign service posts in Indonesia, and one of four representative institutions of the U.S. military here.
The lab, with its American and Indonesian researchers, has been accused of engaging in intelligence operations after a quiet existence for decades in a densely populated part of the city.
Avian influenza was the trigger for the controversy, as over the past year bird flu samples were sent to the lab, situated in the compound of the national health institutes under the Health Ministry. The laboratory provided a short-cut in the otherwise long process of confirming suspected cases of bird flu, which has taken 107 lives across the country. Earlier, samples had to be sent to the facility of the World Health Organization in Hong Kong.
Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari eventually gained a reputation of being the Cabinet's nationalist, refusing to continue sharing samples despite a global consensus to the contrary.
She even published a book in which she famously suggested the United States might be deliberately spreading viruses in Indonesia, hinting the Namru could be involved in this.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this was a "nutty idea", but not long after that other Indonesian officials chimed in, echoing the health minister. The latest development has seen a continued impasse in the negotiations of a renewed memorandum of understanding which would be the basis of the Namru's continued existence in the country.
Was Minister Fadilah eying the election year, if not for herself then for her National Mandate Party and its founder Amien Rais, famed for his "national interest" statements?
But then the Foreign Ministry also stepped in, dismissing requests that all Namru staff enjoy diplomatic immunity. It said that such immunity does not extend to researchers even though they are part of the foreign service.
How to break the impasse?
As pointed out by U.S. health secretary Michael Leavitt, it is Indonesians who stand to benefit from the facility and the expertise of the Namru researchers.
Initially set up in 1970 to study potential illnesses affecting U.S. military personnel in tropical countries, officials say Namru now has a widened mission in collaboration with Indonesia. Shared research interests include malaria, emerging infectious diseases and viral diseases including dengue fever.
The embassy denies its laboratory staff engage in any intelligence activities, and maintains that Namru is transparent and that guests are welcome.
If it is obvious that we need each other, then the hopes are on the shoulders of those involved in negotiations over the new MoU to replace one that expired in 2005.
Rhetoric on both sides merely heats up the war of words, while a verbal war doesn't hurt the interests of candidates on the campaign trail to 2009.
A new MoU would need to break down conditions such as transparency and access to laboratory research results. Negotiators seeking the best for Indonesian interests would also want to ensure transfer of technology, as claimed by the U.S.
Namru-2, we are told, was set up initially "at the invitation of Indonesian ministry of health officials".
When our guests engage in spy games, surely the welcome mat must be withdrawn. Otherwise, the average citizen is grateful to anyone who can help us deal with all these diseases plaguing what we thought had become a modern nation.