The uproar over Indonesia's top military general being denied entry to the U.S. has thrown the countries' bilateral relations relations into the spotlight.
General Gatot Nurmantyo was denied boarding onto an Emirates flight to Washington Saturday at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport as he prepared to attend a counter-extremism conference this week at the invitation of his American counterpart, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr.
The U.S. ambassador and deputy ambassador to Indonesia both apologized for the incident, which appeared to have been the result of a security screening glitch.
But the diplomatic damage had already been inflicted. Gatot chose not to travel on a rebooked flight after he was denied boarding on Saturday evening. By the next day, anti-America signs had started popping up around Jakarta.
“The U.S. Embassy was, and remains, prepared to facilitate the General’s travel to the United States,” it said in a statement. “We remain committed to our strategic partnership with Indonesia as a way to deliver security and prosperity to both our nations and peoples.”
But Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry said the apology did not go far enough. “This issue is very important and we are trying to continue to insist that the U.S. immediately give an explanation,” said Minister Retno Marsudi. The Jakarta Post's editorial board has called it a “diplomatic scandal” and said the embassy’s response reflects “outstanding ignorance of the gravity of the incident.”
It will also likely burnish the public image and nationalist credentials of Gatot, a freewheeling general who has frequently clashed with current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and may be eyeing political office himself in 2019.
“The incident certainly wouldn't hurt Gatot’s image. In fact, politically speaking, it has certainly boosted his profile,” said Evan Laksmana, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. “It has now become a domestic political issue, as most parties and politicians are effectively siding with him in demanding an explanation from the US, claiming that the incident insulted Indonesia, and so forth.”
“That said, he has been laying relatively low in the past 48 hours, leaving the military spokesperson to do the talking," said Laksmana. "This suggests at the very least that he knows how the incident could quickly become a political issue.” Gatot broke his silence on Tuesday to tell reporters that Indonesian President Joko Widodo had told him he no longer needed to travel to America to attend the conference on Indonesia’s behalf.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said General Gatot's office was warned of potential delays due to security issues, and there has been speculation that he incited the incident to increase his public standing.
“Gatot's rejection of the chance to visit the U.S. has the effect of upsetting the White House while showing his courage in putting the U.S. on the spot to his admirers in Indonesia,” said Arbi Sanit, a political scientist at the University of Indonesia.
The incident comes at the heels of a major release of declassified U.S. Embassy files on the 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia that were received coolly by the Indonesian defense establishment.
It also comes during a restive time for the Indonesian military, which has been asserting its cultural capital in recent months with what some experts believe are eyes on the 2019 presidential election. Jokowi is the first Indonesian president without military ties.
Military relations between the U.S. and Indonesia, which were strong during the Suharto dictatorship, were scaled back in the 1990’s during the East Timor independence conflict. But President Obama resumed financial aid and training for Indonesian forces in 2010.
The Indonesian Army’s official Twitter account posted a quote from the first president, Sukarno, on Monday, that said, “If you are looking for a leader, look for one who is hated or feared by foreigners, because," he Tweeted, "such a leader will defend you from foreign interests.”
There has been a powerful wave of nationalism across Indonesia in recent years, from diplomacy to nationalizing its vast natural resources. Sukarno himself famously helped to found the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War.
The impact of the Gatot affair will become more clear in coming days as more statements are issued from both governments.
“But the lack of clarity from the American side, not to mention the manner in which the denial was delivered via Emirates Airlines, will almost ensure this incident remains a potent political issue, putting Jokowi in a tough spot,” said Laksmana. “If he doesn't respond forcefully, then he could be painted as yet another foreign agent.”