Soas academic targeted over Indonesia claims

Politics lecturer Michael Buehler faces sustained attacks after raising questions about covert lobbying ahead of US visit by country’s president

December 6, 2015
Barack Obama and Joko Widodo shaking hands, Oval Office, White House
Source: Corbis
Official visit: Joko Widodo of Indonesia met President Obama in late October

When Michael Buehler saw that his name was trending on Twitter, he realised that an all-out vilification campaign against him had reached a new level.

Dr Buehler, a lecturer in comparative politics at Soas, University of London, did not foresee the hostility that he would face when he posted last month a short article on Indonesian politics on a little-known academic blog called New Mandala.

It raised questions about alleged covert lobbying by Indonesia ahead of a visit by its president, Joko Widodo, to the White House to meet Barack Obama in late October.

Dr Buehler revealed that $80,000 (£53,000) had been paid by a Singaporean consultant to a Las Vegas PR firm to lobby on behalf of Indonesia, according to papers filed with the US Department of Justice.

The Swiss academic also highlighted what he saw as the “tepid” reception received by Mr Widodo and the “disappointing” economic returns (three non-legally binding memoranda of understanding and a defence agreement) from the first official US visit by an Indonesian president for 10 years.

“The seemingly ill-conceived and poorly executed visit reflects the Indonesian government’s lack of coordination on a foreign policy agenda,” he wrote on 6 November.

The story was quickly picked up by the Indonesian media, but was misreported as Dr Buehler claiming that Indonesia had paid $80,000 for Mr Widodo to secure a meeting with Mr Obama.

“I never said this,” explained Dr Buehler, whose research focuses on the politics of Southeast Asia.

He told Times Higher Education: “All I did in my article was to suggest that the lobbying company was hired without the knowledge of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he said, adding that there was “nothing illegal about employing lobbyists”.

However, the distorted story was shared more than 10,000 times on social media, prompting Indonesian officials to hold press conferences to denounce Dr Buehler – knocking down what he called their “straw man” story and ignoring the wider implications of his claims.

Dr Buehler found himself criticised by Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Indonesian Embassy in Washington and the US Embassy in Indonesia.

Attacks on him also came from various parts of the Indonesian media and academia.

“I have been called a liar, a spy, an agent working for a US mining company trying to destabilise Indonesian politics,” he said.

“I have also been accused of having a political agenda to discredit the current government on behalf of political opponents of the president,” he added.

Articles have also suggested that Mr Widodo should sue the academic and that Dr Buehler was “used by the Chinese government”, while an Indonesian professor has suggested that Soas should investigate Dr Buehler because his article may “affect the credibility of the university”.

“The real story is the reaction by the Indonesian government to my article – denounce, deny, deflect…just like during the New Order authoritarian military dictatorship,” he said.

This is significant because it “comes at a time of growing intolerance in Indonesia, a creeping militarisation of the bureaucracy, growing nationalism and a comeback of censorship”, he added.

About 100 academic experts on Southeast Asian politics have now signed a letter in support of Dr Buehler, while Lawrence Sáez, head of Soas’ department of politics and international studies, said the department “fully supports” his work and “unequivocally rejects the attacks and intimidation he has faced…as well as efforts by the government of Indonesia to tarnish his academic integrity”.

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