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Jakarta Post

US backflip on Modi ban a fillip for Prabowo

  • Jemma Purdey

    The Jakarta Post

Melbourne, Australia   /   Fri, May 23, 2014   /  10:01 am

Advisors to Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto will be closely watching developments in the India-US relationship in the lead-up to Narendra Modi'€™s inauguration as India'€™s new prime minister, following his Bharatiya Janata Party'€™s (BJP) resounding victory in recent elections.

There are several reasons why Prabowo'€™s Gerindra Party apparatchiks should have been watching the Indian elections with interest for their own campaign. Both nations are among the largest democracies in the world (India is the first and Indonesia is third after the US). Notwithstanding their differences in political system (Indonesia as a direct presidential election, whilst India'€™s prime minister is elected via the parliamentary system as its head of government), both share similarities in terms of the influence of dynastic, money and religious issues in politics and both face large challenges in the face of continuing poverty and increasing wealth disparity.

India'€™s longer history of democratic party politics, campaigning and elections potentially provides Indonesia with as much instruction as US-style politics, to which Gerindra has looked for its strategy and approach for this campaign. But for the Prabowo crew this week the greatest lesson will be in the prevarications and inconsistencies of international diplomacy and its instruments for enforcing any human rights standards within that regime.

The victory of Modi'€™s BJP in the Indian elections had threatened to create awkwardness in US-India relations, as in 2005 Modi was banned from entering the US for his alleged involvement in the massacre of Muslims in his home state of Gujarat where he was chief minister in 2002. The murder of around 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, was carried out over three days of horrific and targeted violence in the state.

The US was not alone in barring Modi from entering its territory. Canada also refused to grant him a visa and the UK declined to meet with the then chief minister. The snubs followed investigation results that pointed to police involvement in the murders, with the chain of command running all the way up to the chief minister.

Since that time, undercover journalists, lawyers and victims'€™ groups have exposed the murderers within the Gujarati police ranks and Hindu radical groups. Trials have led to the prosecution of some for the killings, but those higher up in the chain have been immune to such prosecution, including Modi, who was absolved from any wrongdoing by India'€™s Supreme Court only last month when it reaffirmed a 2012 decision finding him innocent.

Modi'€™s popularity at home since the massacres, moreover, has only grown and his ascension to prime minister in the face of a demoralized Congress Party appeared increasingly inevitable. The US and other countries with bans on Modi, therefore, had adequate lead-time to prepare their positions on '€œModi the prime minister'€ come May 2014.

Not surprisingly, geopolitics has trumped concerns the US and the UK once had about his human rights record. The election of an individual to a position of national leadership can, it seem, erase history. US President Barack Obama telephoned Modi earlier this week to congratulate him and invite him to visit Washington. He described the India-US relationship as '€œone of the defining partnerships of the 21st century'€, for its economic opportunities and its potential to counterbalance the rise of China in the region.

Prabowo, like Modi, is currently barred from entering the US due to his alleged involvement in the kidnappings of student activists in 1998 in his position as head of Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad), and for which he was subsequently demoted.

Throughout his current campaign as Gerindra'€™s presidential candidate and indeed since he entered politics in the early 2000s, the question of Prabowo'€™s human rights record, not only in relation to the kidnappings but also to his role as Army'€™s Special Forces (Kopassus) commander during the occupation of Timor Leste, have been irritants. Although it would seem increasingly minor ones. A case to try him for the student kidnappings filed in a Jakarta court by a team of lawyers on the eve of Prabowo'€™s official announcement of his presidential bid looks unlikely to have significant political impact.

In terms of Prabowo'€™s ability to carry out the international obligations of the presidency, the Modi-Obama rapprochement appears to indicate that the current ban on Prabowo'€™s entry to the US will not prove a hurdle. As Prabowo now infamously responded to a question for Al Jazeera television about his US ban, '€œNelson Mandela was also blacklisted from the United States at one time, am I not in good company?'€

Following these developments between India and the US, Prabowo and his team probably now have no doubt that the ban on his entry to the US would not endure past his election as Indonesia'€™s national leader.

Such is the inadequacy and ineptitude of current international instruments to bring human rights violators to account and the supremacy of national interests in international relations.

The writer, a research fellow at Deakin University, Melbourne, is the author of '€œChinese Indonesians, kongkow and Prabowo: A story of reconciliation in post-New Order Indonesia?'€, part of a book titled Religion and culture: Domestic and international implications for Southeast Asia and Australia, edited by Joseph Camilleri and Sven Schottman, 2013.

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