Updated at 8:15 a.m. ET on 2017-10-24
Indonesia’s military chief was initially stopped from boarding a flight to the United States over the weekend due to “security protocols,” but he decided to cancel the trip after the issue was quickly resolved, U.S. homeland security officials said Monday.
American officials gave no further explanation about the incident at Sukarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta that caused a diplomatic spat, but U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and embassy officials apologized for it on Monday.
Still, Indonesian officials pressed Washington to explain why Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo was denied permission to travel to the United States despite an invitation from the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Monday, Indonesian officials said that an apology from the U.S. embassy to Gatot did not go far enough.
Gatot was preparing to fly to Washington via Dubai on Saturday to attend a two-day conference on countering violent extremism, as the guest of Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., America’s highest-ranking military officer.
In a statement emailed to BenarNews by a spokesman, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said the embassy had informed Gatot’s office that “due to U.S. security protocols when he arrived at the airport he may be delayed in his ability to board his flight.”
“The issue with his boarding approval was quickly resolved,” the statement said. “The passenger was rebooked on another flight and cleared to board. He chose not to travel.”
The statement did not elaborate on the term “security protocols,” but it emphasized Washington’s dedication “to ensuring that all persons traveling to the United States are screened and properly vetted.”
“We regret that the passenger and his wife were inconvenienced,” it said. “We are committed to our Strategic Partnership with Indonesia as a way to deliver security and prosperity to both our nations and continue working to further deepen that relationship.”
Gatot and his wife were set to board an Emirates flight from Jakarta, when his delegation received a notice from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials denying them entry to the United States, despite having proper visas, according to Maj. Gen. Wuryanto, the spokesman for the Indonesian armed forces (TNI).
“We are still waiting [for an explanation],” he told BenarNews, explaining that the general did not encounter any issues during his previous U.S. visit in February last year.
The conference, organized by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank, started on Monday in Washington. It featured former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former CIA Director David Petraeus, a former Army general, as keynote speakers.
On Sunday, the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta said that U.S. Ambassador Joseph Donovan had apologized to Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi “for any inconvenience to General Gatot.”
Retno summoned Erin Elizabeth McKee, the deputy U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, on Monday.
During the meeting, McKee apologized for the “inconvenience that this incident caused” but did not explain what precipitated the denial of entry, Marsudi told reporters.
“General Gatot is able to travel, there are no restrictions and the United States welcomes his participation in the conference that General Dunford invited him to and there are absolutely no issues with his ability to travel to the United States,” McKee told reporters after meeting Marsudi at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry office.
“We apologize,” she said. “I also apologized again to Minister Retno.”
During an ASEAN-Plus meeting of defense ministers in Manila on Monday, Mattis, the American defense chief, apologized to his Indonesian counterpart over the incident involving Gen. Gatot and guaranteed there would be no recurrence of it, the Jakarta Post reported.
Gatot’s airport experience was humiliating for Indonesia, according to Indonesian experts on foreign affairs.
“It’s embarrassing. It ruins the ethic of bilateral relations,” Teuku Rezasyah, an international relations analyst from the University of Padjadjaran in West Java, told BenarNews.
It was unethical, he said, considering that the information about the general’s denial of entry was delivered by airline representatives, not U.S. authorities.
“If there is a good intention, it should have been conveyed directly through government institutions,” he said. “From Pentagon to TNI headquarters, for instance."
Hikamahanto Juwana, an international relations expert from the University of Indonesia, questioned how a government official could be denied entry despite an official invitation from a top military officer.
“The Indonesian government must protest strongly against this incident, but the public must be patient and give the government the opportunity to take steps to safeguard the state honor,” Juwana said.
Meanwhile, Fahri Hamzah, the deputy speaker of the Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR) called on the government to demand that Washington reveal the reasons for Nurmantyo’s entry denial, saying the country should not be satisfied with an apology from the ambassador.
“The foreign minister should conduct a further investigation because it is impossible for this mistake to be solely technical and administrative,” Fahri told CNN Indonesia.
“I suspect there is a certain reason [for] refusing the arrival of Gatot,” Fahri said, without elaborating.
Another lawmaker, Abdul Kharis Almasyhari, told BenarNews that Indonesia should demand that the reason be made transparent.
“If he cannot enter, why was he invited?” he said. “That’s totally unethical.”