"I hope that, as a result of our efforts, as a result of our helicopter pilots' being seen by the citizens of Indonesia helping them, that value system of ours will be reinforced," said Colin Powell, one week after the tsunami wrought havoc across South and Southeast Asia.
Contemplating the public relations benefits of aid efforts following so many deaths may seem callous, but the United States wasn't the only country hoping to benefit from images of uniform-clad do-gooders distributing food and water to traumatized villagers.
The Indonesian province of Aceh, "Ground Zero" for the tsunami, has been under declared or de facto martial law since mid-2003 (and through most of the 1990's before that). In May 2003, the Indonesian military launched its largest offensive in nearly 30 years, in Aceh. Weeks later, Indonesian Communications and Information Minister Syamsul Muarif complained that the news from Aceh focused on "soldiers dragging corpses" instead of efforts to rehabilitate schools. "We are weak in international public relations, and because of that, reports by foreign media are often damaging," he explained.
Most observers say it's a well-deserved bad rap.
Indonesia insists its Aceh offensive is targeted at armed pro-independence forces (the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym, GAM). However, the organization Human Rights Watch found "extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and torture" of young men the military believes, "often without evidence, to be members or supporters of GAM." Amnesty International documented "human rights abuses so pervasive that there is virtually no part of life in the province which remains untouched." They concluded, "The Indonesian security forces bear primary responsibility for these human rights violations, although GAM has also committed serious human rights abuses."
Over the years, a litany of well-documented human rights concerns has increasingly isolated the Indonesian military on the world stage. To help clean up its image, the Indonesian government has turned to U.S.-based PR and lobbying firms.
Hill & Knowlton and White & Case contributed to Indonesia's lobbying bill for mid-1991 through 1992, which totaled $6.8 million. Based on a 1991 communications plan commissioned from the Robinson Lake Sawyer Miller firm, Indonesia "gave foreign journalists information kits, with T-shirts and calendars, which try to explain its side of 'negative stories,'" reported the Australian. Following the Indonesian military's 1991 massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters in East Timor, the government paid Burson-Marsteller $5 million, "to help improve the country's human rights and environmental image," according to the Far Eastern Economic Review. In 1996, Indonesia signed another $5 million contract with Burson-Marsteller
In early 2001, Indonesia's Sekar Mahoni Sakti Foundation hired Advantage Associates, "to create a positive view of Indonesia with the U.S. Congress, Administration, and Department of Defense," according to U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act filings. One goal was "to lift an embargo on spare parts for the C-130 military aircraft."
More recently, the war on terror has been Indonesia's PR theme.
Then-Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri was the first foreign leader to visit the United States after September 11, 2001, arriving one week after the attacks. "Jakarta had considered postponing the trip," Stanford professor Donald Emmerson told a Congressional hearing. "In the end, the American side decided it wanted to proceed, knowing the public relations value of early and visible support by the ruler of the world's largest Muslim population."
Indonesia also realized the PR potential. The government retained APCO Worldwide in 2003, to pitch its importance as a "front-line state in the war on terrorism," wrote the PR trade publication O'Dwyer's. The deal included media outreach and legislative meetings. In 2004, Alston & Bird contracted with an Indonesian logging magnate to "position" the country "as a solid ally in President Bush's war on terror and one that is committed to democracy and human rights." In addition to policymakers and reporters, Alston & Bird was directed to sway other U.S. "opinion-shapers," including "think tanks and academia."
Indonesia's most influential ally may be former U.S. Senator -- and current Alston & Bird special counsel -- Bob Dole. In January 2004, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that Indonesia had hired Dole as a lobbyist. "Among the issues Dole might address is the restoration of a program to train Indonesian military officers in the United States," according to National Journal's CongressDaily.
Shortly afterwards, Indonesia denied having a "blanket contract" with Dole. Government spokesperson Marty Natalegawa said, "There is an expression of readiness from the gentleman to help Indonesia on a case-by-case basis."
Other U.S. image assistance followed. In December 2004, six U.S. Pacific Command officers led a three-day discussion for Indonesian Army, Navy and Air Force members, on "how to present information and news to the press." The Jakarta Post reported, "The officers shared experiences in dealing with the media." One U.S. officer "hailed the Indonesian military program to embed journalists during the operation to crush rebels in Aceh." He remarked, "We did the same in Iraq."
Yet the payoff has been slow in coming. A ban on U.S. military assistance for Indonesia, enacted after the military's post-referendum devastation of East Timor in 1999, remains mostly intact, although it has come under increasing attack from the Bush administration and some members of Congress.
Then came the tsunami. While the Indonesian military's involvement in humanitarian efforts is necessary and normal, local and international observers have complained of aid obstruction and continued operations against supposed GAM rebels. Australian journalists who witnessed a military attack were told by an Indonesian commander, "Your duties here are to observe the disaster, not the conflict."
In a PR faux pas, Indonesia's first head of relief operations in Aceh was Major General Adam Damiri, who has been indicted by a United Nations-backed tribunal for war crimes in East Timor. After he was replaced, the Washington Post remarked, "Damiri's continued role at the air base could have complicated U.S. efforts to provide humanitarian assistance."
Now, the momentum might be on the Indonesian military's side.
In January 2005, Powell offered Indonesia spare parts for C-130 military aircraft. U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, long a proponent of close military ties, declared during a mid-January visit to the country, "Everybody loses a great deal ... when you cut off [Indonesia's] contact with [our] military." Reports in influential media like the New York Times wrongly claim, "Even proponents of the [Indonesian military] sanctions ... acknowledge that the best hope for developing an army whose conduct fits a democracy is to train officers in the United States."
"The tsunami must not be used as an excuse to sweep away U.S. military restrictions on Indonesia," warned the East Timor Action Network's John Miller. But if that happens, many U.S. PR firms share the blame.