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President Barack Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia provides a critical opportunity to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to human rights and democracy in the region.  His stop in Jakarta should be used to recognize the potential of Indonesia in particular as a long-term partner of the U.S. in promoting respect for human dignity throughout the region.

The world’s third largest democracy, Indonesia is the only country Freedom House ranks as Free in Southeast Asia, a region where political rights and civil liberties remain severely restricted. Indonesia plays host to the ASEAN Secretariat, which is based in Jakarta, and in 2011, will succeed Vietnam as the chair of ASEAN.  Indonesia has also played an instrumental role in the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has explicitly stated his intention to “set an example for the ASEAN human rights body.”

“While Indonesia has made impressive gains in the respect for fundamental human rights, President Obama’s visit presents an important opportunity to engage its leadership on continuing areas of concern,” said David J. Kramer, executive director at Freedom House. “In particular, we urge President Obama to raise concerns both privately and publicly related to recent setbacks to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.”

In April, the controversial blasphemy law, which severely restricts the freedom of religion, was upheld by the Constitutional Court. In October, the Religious Affairs Minister signaled his intent to ban the Ahmadiyah sect, a group whose activities have been “frozen” under a joint ministerial decree. Militant non-state actors continue to undermine religious freedom through violence and intimidation and at times, state authorities have been reluctant to confront perpetrators. Additionally, they have further restricted the activities of minorities for the sake of religious “harmony.”

Freedom of expression online has also become an increased area of concern in Indonesia with the passing of the 2008 Information and Electronic Transaction Law, Information Technology Criminal bill, which assesses criminal penalties for online defamation, including jail terms longer than mandated for defamation in the existing penal code.

“While government officials publicly maintain their commitment to human rights, this must be reinforced with strong actions as well,” said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, senior program manager for Southeast Asia and International Religious Freedom.  “President Yudhoyono must demonstrate moral leadership and ensure that violence against religious minorities is never tolerated.  Indonesia should also strive to be a model for other ASEAN countries and protect online speech by eliminating criminal defamation penalties.”

Indonesia is ranked Free in Freedom in the World 2010, Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties, and Partly Free in Freedom of the Press 2010.

For more information on Indonesia, visit:

Freedom in the World 2010: Indonesia<

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