Obama reaches out to Muslims on visit to Indonesia

Obama calls for building bridges with Muslim world. Pro-democratic parties concede defeat in Myanmar. Afghans upbeat about future, according to poll. Troops at Britain's 'Abu Ghraib' trial may be guilty of war crimes. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Rukeyya Khan
9 November 2010

US President Barack Obama met with Indonesian President Susilo Bamband Yudhoyono on Tuesday in the second leg of his ten day trip in Asia. At a joint news conference with President Yudhoyono, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to ending the mistrust between the Muslim world and the United States, adding that progress was 'incomplete' and an 'earnest, sustained' effort was still underway to reach out to the Muslim world. The remarks come a year after Obama's address at Cairo University where he had pledged a new beginning in .

Obama also used his trip in Indonesia to sign a 'comprehensive partnership' with President Yudhoyono that includes greater cooperation on economic and security issues. The partnership is set to enhance bilaterial trade and investment, advance sustainable food security and improve collaboration with multilateral and regional institutions, including Asean.

Ahead of Obama's visit to Indonesia, China wrapped up a three-day official visit to the country by announcing that Beijing was to invest $6.6bn to improve ailing infrastructure. At today's news conference, President Obama said the US was not interested in 'containing' China, though these remarks come a day after Obama endorsed India's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a move that is widely seen as an attempt to contain China's influence in Asia.

The openSecurity verdict: Over a year after Obama's Cairo speech where he called for mutual understanding and respect between the US and the Muslim world, there have been few significant overtures by the Obama administration. A poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in June found that Obama's credibility has slumped in key majority Muslim nations. In Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, the survey found a significant percentage drop in Muslims expressing confidence in Obama. For many Muslims, the policies of the Obama administration have not differed markedly from the previous administration.

The 'new beginning' promised in Cairo has faced set backs. Among these setbacks, legal wrangling in the US and diplomatic issues have meant the detention facility at Guantanamo remains open, and military trials, considered unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, still administer 'justice' to inmates held without charge. Additionally, Islamophobia in the US has been steadily gaining strength, riding high on the back of a polarised and heavily publicised debate surrounding a mosque in lower Manhattan (misleadingly termed: 'Ground Zero' mosque). Anti-Muslim prejudice has become a 'lucrative industry' in the US and a potent source of income for electioneering in American politics. No doubt, the tone of the debate surrounding Muslims in America will continue to fuel scepticism among Muslims around the world and can be considered a setback in the battle of hearts and minds.

But more significantly, it is US foreign policy in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine that continues to affect perceptions among Muslims in Indonesia and elsewhere. On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Obama today criticised Israeli plans to build 1,300 new apartments in East Jerusalem. Talks on halting settlement construction have made little headway following the lifting of a moratorium on construction in September this year. Raising the stakes today, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, called on the international community to recognise the Palestinian state ahead of a meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday. It remains unclear how the US will overcome the deadlock between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In counter-balancing China's influence in Asia, it is evident how US foreign policy and shortcomings undercut its appeal in Muslim majority states. Critically, Obama's support for a permanent seat for India at the UN Security Council has aroused suspicion and competition in Pakistan, and will likely lead to the country deepening its relationship with China. Significantly, it may also have implications for Pakistan's commitment to fighting terrorism on its western border with Afghanistan. The ISI-Taliban nexus is unlikely to be broken, and duplicitous double dealings by Pakistan's intelligence agencies are unlikely to change if Pakistan feels India is gaining leverage in the region and on the international stage.

For China, US support for an Indian presence on the Security Council is likely to cement it's unrelenting support to Pakistan, Myanmar and North Korea - a defensive strategy against what it perceives to be encroachment of its influence in Asia. For Indonesia and other non-aligned countries in Asean, the continuation of Sino-US rivalry heralds an opportunity to play both rivals against one another, and pressure both for maximum extraction of political and military dividends.

Pro-democratic parties concede defeat in Myanmar

Pro-democratic parties have conceded defeat in Myanmar following a general election. On Tuesday, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) declared it had taken eighty percent of available parliamentary seats in the country's first poll in twenty years. The pro-junta party's success has stirred anger among opponents who say the ballots were rigged.

Complaints have been submitted to the country's election commission with opposition parties demanding recounts and reruns. Reports also suggest that the main opposition parties, including the National Democratic Force, may consider a legal challenge against the outcome. Commenting on the unofficial election results, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday that voting was 'insufficiently inclusive, participatory and transparent.'

Meanwhile, 20,000 refugees are heading home to Myanmar after fleeing to neighbouring Thailand as a result of clashes between government troops and ethnic Karen fighters which broke out following the general election. The clashes were in part a reaction against perceived unfairness of the elections as well as attempts to 'force ethnic minority troops to join a border guard force - which would put them under state control.'

Afghans upbeat about future, according to poll

A national poll by the Asia Foundation in Afghanistan has found that forty seven percent of those surveyed thought Afghanistan is moving in the right direction, up from forty two percent in 2009. Most respondents cited insecurity as the biggest problem facing Afghanistan, closely followed by unemployment, corruption and a poor economy. Significantly, the Asia Foundation found that support for the Afghan government’s attempts to negotiate with armed groups was significantly higher in 2010 than in 2009. At least eighty three percent of respondents said they support the Afghan government's talks with insurgents, up from seventy one percent last year.

Elsewhere, it has emerged that up to 1,000 Canadian troops may stay in Afghanistan beyond the end of their mission next year to assist in a non-combative capacity. Their continued presence is thought likely to help the transition process of handing over control of Afghan provinces to local security forces. A timetable for a handover is currently being drawn up by US General David Patraeus ahead of a Nato summit in Lisbon on 19 November. It is anticipated that up to two-thirds of 300 districts could be part of a piecemeal handover process.

Troops at Britain's 'Abu Ghraib' trial may be guilty of war crimes

British troops who interrogated hundreds of Iraqis in a secret prison near Basra may be guilty of war crimes, according to lawyers representing more than 200 inmates seeking damages for injuries they say they suffered at the hands of British servicemen. The high court was told yesterday that detainees were routinely 'starved, deprived of sleep, subjected to sensory deprivation and threatened with execution' at the detention facility, described as Britain's 'Abu Ghraib.'

The court also heard that some detainees were subject to electric shocks and sexual humiliation. During the preliminary court hearing yesterday, it was revealed that a total of 1,253 interrogation sessions were recorded by UK servicemen. Film evidence is likely to contribute to legal proceedings to gauge the extent to which torture and ill-treatment of prisoners were routinely used.

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