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Reaching out beyond the barriers

Duncan Graham, Contributor, Surabaya

It is probably one of the most difficult jobs on the diplomatic circuit in Indonesia: To get United States policies, values and lifestyles understood by people who have never been to America.

For some, it is the great democracy; for others it is the great Satan. Demolishing myths and substituting facts is no task for the weak-willed.

The latest recruit to this "challenging task" -- as she prefers to label the assignment - is the energetic Claire Pierangelo; marathon runner, linguist, economist and now U.S. consul general in Surabaya.

"There's a lot of interest but not a whole lot of knowledge about the U.S. in Indonesia," she said. "Its important for people to meet face to face in order to form their own opinions on issues beyond the simple headlines of the day.

"Nor was there much depth of knowledge of Indonesia in America until the terrible tragedy of the tsunami. That's now changing. One in five Americans donated to the tsunami victims.

"A priority in my job is community outreach. By that I mean getting to know Indonesian people and help them develop their own ideas of what America is and what it means. Of course, it was easier to do that in the old days."

Indeed. Now there are real obstacles to add to the cultural, historical and language differences. Since Ms Pierangelo took up her post in July the consulate's high steel fences have been shielded so the lovely old Dutch house can no longer be seen by passersby or the queues of visa applicants.

There is always a heavy police presence outside waiting for the next demo, and the roadside barriers in Jl Dr Sutomo have been strengthened.

It is an annoying impediment to the free flow of traffic and Pierangelo will not comment on when or if it will be removed. By comparison, within a couple of kilometers the French consulate runs an open-door policy with free access to a substantial library, exhibitions and regular film nights.

If the average Indonesian cannot saunter into the U.S. consulate, then the staff have to get out to meet the people. Ms Pierangelo has already visited a pesantren in Malang and has been confronted with questions about her country's attitude toward independence in Papua.

The issue has been made more sensitive by reports that some members of the U.S. Congress have proposed a bill questioning the validity of Papua's inclusion in the Republic in the 1969 so-called Act of Free Choice.

"I said we continue to support the territorial integrity of Indonesia but we are concerned about some human rights issues," Ms Pierangelo said. "Members of Congress are free to discuss international issues and propose legislation, but that doesn't mean they become law."

Her colleagues visit schools and other education institutions to explain how the U.S. works, and distribute information on exchange programs and fellowships. More than 11,000 Indonesians have utilized these in the past 50 years. (The figure for Australian government scholarships over the same period is 8,000.)

The Pesantren Leaders Program gives educators the chance to study in public and private schools in the U.S. and meet religious leaders of all faiths. This is part of a US$ 157 million four-year educational aid package for Indonesia.

The U.S. has had a consulate in Surabaya since 1896. With a staff of about 50 locals and 10 expatriates it is the largest foreign mission in Indonesia's second-largest city. This is despite the fact that probably fewer than 2,000 Americans live in the consulate's coverage area. This extends east from central Java across to Papua.

Australia, the country next door, has no office in Surabaya even though Western Australia has a "Sister-State" relationship with East Java.

Pierangelo said her country recognized the importance of the East Java capital and its significance to Indonesian business, industry and politics. "I want as many people as possible to get to know America," she said.

"It's not my role to dictate. I want Indonesians to know and understand us. I'll have succeeded if they've met a variety of people and been exposed to a variety of opinions -- and they remember the effort we've put into that ambition."

Her previous overseas posting was in Vietnam where she worked on trade issues. She joined the U.S. State Department in 1985 after studying international relations at Johns Hopkins University where she graduated with a master's degree.

She has also studied at the National Defense University and has served in Britain, Haiti, Malta and Italy -- the birthplace of her grandparents. Her linguistic abilities include Italian, French, Spanish, Haitian Creole and Vietnamese.

With this background, it is not surprising that she has yet to encounter any great culture shock.

After being offered the Surabaya job she studied Indonesian intensively in Washington, but finds limited opportunities to practice her skills now she is in Indonesia, such are the security concerns. It also hampers chances of running marathons, which she did in Washington.

Operating under tight security is not the best way to meet the people but so far Ms Pierangelo seems to have done a reasonable job if comments in the small foreign community are any guide.

Her predecessor Philip Antweiller had a low-profile reputation -- his successor is said to be more direct and outspoken -- an analysis she found amusing.

While sipping tea served by men, she rejected local gossip that she had been chosen for the job to show a predominantly Muslim nation that in the West women can rise to high administrative positions. She also dismissed the idea that she might give the job a soft touch.

"Gender is not a criterion for selection," she said. I was offered the position. Who wouldn't want to come to Indonesia?"

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