US aid greeted with cheers, suspicion

Associated Press

Jakarta, January 4:

US soldiers are being welcomed like heroes as they haul food and water into battered Indonesia — but their long-term presence could raise concerns that Washington is using the tragedy to establish a permanent military outpost in Southeast Asia.

But so far the US relief campaign for Indonesia’s Aceh province after the December 26 earthquake and tsunami appears to be winning over even the harshest critics in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where many were furious over the US attack on Iraq.

Analysts said a successful relief effort could help boost the US sagging image among Muslims here while setting the stage for a resumption of ties between the two countries’ militaries — something Indonesia has long demanded and rights groups opposed.

“It seems there is a change of attitude with Bush,” said Azyumardi Azra, an Indonesian scholar. “It seems he wants to take a conciliatory approach to us and other Muslim countries. This is a good sign.” US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who arrived in Thailand yesterday, said the US relief effort was not a public relations exercise.

“... we are not doing this because we are seeking political advantage, ...We’re doing this because these are human beings in need, in desperate need.”

Indonesia is expected to get a substantial portion of the $350 million in aid from Washington. In addition, the US military is mounting its largest relief mission in southern Asia since the Vietnam War. The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its battle group are operating off northern Sumatra island, and US airlift operations are being flown out of Utapao.

Analysts said Indonesians’ change of heart is mostly due to the tragedy’s enormity and their government’s limited ability to respond.

Muslim leaders said US assistance could help mute bad feelings about the US.

But they insisted it would also be viewed as little more than a goodwill effort if the US doesn’t change its foreign policy in the Mideast.