In times of tragedy, xenophobia rears its ugly head

Harry Bhaskara, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Xenophobia in some sectors of society has reached alarming levels. Every time there is the slightest hint of the presence of foreign forces of any kind in the country, the ugly head of xenophobia pops up.

This is evident from some of the discussions taking place on radio, television and the Internet. Statements like "foreigners are infringing on our sovereignty" and "why should the government allow them to come in" are common.

There is nothing wrong with being alert, but it is entirely different to be concerned about something which is baseless. For example, a Singapore plane with search and rescue equipment and a U.S. naval oceanographic survey ship, the Mary Sears, are currently in Indonesian territory simply to help Indonesian authorities locate the missing Adam Air jetliner.

They are here because Indonesia lacks the technology to locate the missing Adam Air Boeing 737-400. It is exactly because of the country's technological limitations that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono asked friendly countries to help in the search.

It is good to remind alarmists that remote sensing technology is now so advanced that advanced countries can train their satellites on any spot in the world. So there is virtually nothing we can conceal anyway. In fact, the U.S. has provided Indonesia with satellite imagery to help find the Adam Air plane.

The Singapore Fokker-50 airplane is equipped with sonar technology to detect objects on the ground as well as on the water's surface, while objects on the seabed can be detected by the Mary Sears.

It is simply rude to talk badly about our foreign friends while they may be working at this very moment with local forces in the southern Sulawesi waters off Pare-Pare, searching for the jetliner.

There are worrying signs that xenophobia is here to stay, judging from recent events. When foreign countries scrambled to Aceh after the December 2004 tsunami, the Indonesian Military (TNI) responded by restricting the movement of international aid workers and foreign military personnel.

Foreign military ships and planes also were required to be accompanied by military liaison officers and to get clearance from the TNI for all their movements.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla then told foreign troops to leave Indonesia within three months, amid allegations that the troops were engaged in espionage on behalf of their governments.

There were also concerns that the largely Western foreign volunteers were out to convert the mainly Muslim Acehnese to Christianity.

Fortunately, voices of reason made themselves heard, protesting the restrictions and even questioning the true motives of the TNI.

This ugly xenophobia again appeared after last May's earthquake in Yogyakarta. The government wasted no time in appealing for international help, but no sooner had foreign medical personnel and volunteers arrived to help victims than top leaders in Jakarta demanded to know how long they would be there.

Just like the volunteers who streamed into Aceh two years ago and Yogyakarta in May, the crews of the Singapore plane and the American ship are motivated by a strong sense of compassion for the 102 people aboard the missing jetliner.

Indonesia seems to be saying, we will take your money and aid, now get out.

If we are unable to overcome our xenophobia, the international community will be forgiven for perceiving us as an ungrateful nation.
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