SINGAPORE — Many observers believe the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster has opened up Aceh and the rest of Indonesia to the West. In fact, Aceh has been intermittently “closed” to international scrutin for 30 years amid the struggle by Acehnese secessionists to create an independent state. Now, as the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) assist in the delivery of Western humanitarian relief — and Jakarta seeks to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Acehnese — the political reality could change.

TNI’s decision to restrict the movement of relief workers outside Banda Aceh and the government’s announcement of a March deadline for foreign troops to leave Aceh have clearly dampened hope for a possible Indonesian “reconciliation” with the West, especially the United States and Australia. The TNI may have strengthened its political hand amid rising nationalism in Indonesia and growing concerns of Western interference.

Perhaps less noticeable has been the concurrent rise of political Islam, since Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s inauguration as president in October. Two radical Muslim parties, the PKS and PBB, seem to have gained a political foothold. Both PKS and PBB supported Yudhoyono’s candidacy against the established secular political parties Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which backed incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Today the PKS and PBB presidents also occupy the presidency of the Consultative Assembly and the State Secretariat, respectively. As an indication of their political strength, these two parties opposed and delayed the ministerial appointment of two female economists who were deemed either too close to the International Monetary Fund or too supportive of liberalization.

Although the election of Vice President Jusuf Kalla as Golkar chairman may have taken some of the Islamist pressure off Yudhoyono, the PKS has undoubtedly distinguished itself as the best organized and most admired humanitarian relief organization in Aceh, rivaling both the TNI and Western aid agencies.

Concerns have been expressed that the PKS and PBB could press for the introduction of Muslim law (Shariah) in Indonesia. Their growing influence in the entourage of Yudhoyono could encourage the activities of radical Muslims and their religious schools across the archipelago. It may also embolden Jemaah Islamiyah members who support embattled cleric Abu Bakar Bashir in his treason trial and the “Bali bombers” in their appeal of court sentences.

Political Islam in Indonesia is fanned by developments in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces. The explosion of violence there took on a political dimension when Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra accused Malaysia (which denied the charges) of allowing jungle training camps for Thai Muslims and Indonesian extremists in support of the Thai insurgency. But pointing the finger at Jakarta could encourage Indonesian Muslim radicals to help their brethren in southern Thailand fight Buddhist Bangkok even more, just as Filipino Muslims resist Catholic Manila.

Indonesians have been particularly incensed by Canberra’s controversial decisions to deploy missiles with a 1,100-km range and to set up a 1,000 nautical-mile maritime surveillance zone. Both moves are viewed as encroaching on Indonesian sovereignty. This fear is heightened thanks to Australia’s close collaboration with America in the fight against terror.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard is perceived in Jakarta as U.S. President George W. Bush’s deputy in the region. And many have never forgiven Australia for the humiliation of having helped “liberate” Christian-majority East Timor.

Canberra should thus tread carefully in its approach to Aceh’s relief operations, even though it has pledged a generous $760 million in aid, the majority of which is going to Indonesia.

The rise of political Islam also has clear links to broader Muslim issues as moderate Indonesian Muslims have become increasingly critical of Washington’s policies on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yudhoyono’s first overseas trip after his inauguration was to attend Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s funeral in Cairo, a clear indication of Indonesia’s Islamic priorities and convictions. Meanwhile, Jakarta’s relations with Washington remain cool, although the U.S. supports Yudhoyono, especially his fight against terrorism in Southeast Asia.

Aceh may be a small opening for TNI and U.S. military cooperation, but Washington-Jakarta rapprochement appears limited by the domestic Muslim lobby.

In the tsunami relief operations, Australia, the U.S. and other Western countries and organizations must stay aware of rising political Islam and Indonesian nationalism in tandem, and not be taken in by the illusion that a seemingly pro-Western Indonesia is in the making.

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