U.S., Indonesia at odds over “spy lab”.

NEGOTIATIONS over whether a controversial US military laboratory should remain in Indonesia have reached a knife-edge, as officials argue about biological sample-sharing and the diplomatic status of staff in the facility.

Politicians and sections of the media have joined the fray over the work of US Naval Medical Research Unit No2, known as NAMRU, which was established in Jakarta in 1970 and is one of five such facilities worldwide.

Harnessing the anti-US rhetoric of founding president Sukarno, Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari has been among those leading the charge, telling weekly news magazine Gatra in its latest edition, on stands yesterday, that “there are many amongst us … who forget that we are a sovereign nation. (On this issue) I will sacrifice everything”.

Dr Supari may in fact be close to sacrificing her job, after a senior government source told The Weekend Australian that her bellicose rhetoric, including comments on the bird flu epidemic in a rambling treatise entitled “Time for the world to change: the hand of God in bird flu” – had made life “awkward” for fellow ministers.

The heated debate over NAMRU boils down to the facility’s work on tropical diseases including malaria, dengue fever and infant diarrhoea as well as bird flu – work that Dr Supari said had been of “minimal use” because the complaints had still not been eradicated. The Americans argue that NAMRU’s value is significant, including in training and research.

However, Dr Supari and others have also been playing the international espionage card, suggesting the US wants diplomatic immunity for centre staff so they can spy on Indonesia.

Parliamentary foreign affairs committee member Effendy Choirie warned this week that any evidence of spying at the facility “must be pursued – if it’s there, however small, NAMRU must be closed”.

Fellow committee member Mutamimul Ula called on Thursday for an “investigation into (the spying) allegations”, adding that “there is this flavour of intelligence activities”.

US officials threw open the doors of the centre this week to a small number of news organisations, including The Weekend Australian.

The mostly Indonesian research staff expressed surprise that their efforts had become such a topic of concern.

“As Indonesians we are proud to be working in a top-notch laboratory,” pediatric specialist Narain Punjabi said. “Our papers are also published in top-notch journals.”

Another researcher at the centre, bemoaning a recent decision by Dr Supari to halt all sharing of biological samples with NAMRU scientists, said: “As scientists, we don’t think about profits, just what we can contribute to society … there is here a very real danger, for instance, of developing a bird flu treatment that doesn’t include the Indonesian form of the virus.”

And there lies the key to the mess: Dr Supari’s indignation at the notion that US companies might be developing commercially profitable bird flu vaccines based on Indonesian samples of the virus.

Her paranoia led to a recent moratorium on sending bird flu biological samples out of the country, something the World Health Organisation warned was putting Indonesian lives at risk.

US deputy ambassador John Heffern was at pains this week to point out the facility operates under the direction of Dr Supari’s ministry.

As officials on both sides negotiate a new memorandum of understanding for the centre’s continued existence, the issue of diplomatic immunity for its 19 US staff members could yet become a sticking point.

Indonesia so far is refusing to budge on that, and Mr Heffern admitted that “the US decision to remain here will be based on what status Indonesia accords NAMRU’s direct-hire staff”.


Additional story here:

Well, let me recap. They’ve done little to nothing to eradicate the virus in poultry, they have the highest death rate from the H5N1 virus of any nation, the lab has mostly Indonesian employees and works under the direction of Dr. Supari’s ministry, they’re refusing to share viral samples so that a vaccine could be developed, and they’re accusing the U.S. lab directors of wanting to “spy” on Indonesia.

Sounds like a demand for baksheesh to me. Close the damn lab and then refuse to let Indonesians or anybody that has traveled to Indonesia into countries that are concerned about the mutated virus. Heh.

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