Indonesia: Troubled transition in world’s largest Islamic nation

Indonesia 2000

By Holger Jensen

June 09, 2009

JAKARTA , Indonesia, June 25, 2000 -- How do you govern a nation of 17,508 islands stretching roughly the distance from New York to Moscow with 220 million people from 300 distinct ethnic groups speaking 365 languages and dialects?

With great difficulty even in the best of times. And these are the worst of times for Indonesia.

Some say the vast archipelago once known as the Dutch East Indies may disintegrate before it can become that rarity: an Islamic democracy. Others say the world's fourth most populous nation -- predomåinantly Muslim but host to Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities -- is merely "re-inventing itself" after decades of dictatorship enforced by military brutality.

But all agree its nearly-blind president faces a daunting array of problems, some inherited, others brought on by himself, that lengthen the geographic and demographic odds of Indonesia enjoying peace or prosperity any time soon.

Muslims and Christians are slaughtering each other in the Moluccan spice islands and communal clashes have spread to Sulawesi. The army, thoroughly discredited and demoralized since the fall of autocratic President Suharto in 1998, is doing nothing to stop the mayhem or prevent individual soldiers from taking sides.

In an amazingly frank interview, Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono confessed that "the army's legitimacy and social acceptance are so low it is immobilized." In effect, it has given the warring communities a green light to fight it out among themselves, he said, "until eventually people will get tired of the anarchy and ask for firm government again."

Sudarsono cited "logistical problems" in getting troops to the Moluccas; lack of spare parts for military transport planes; the army's reluctance to act for fear of being accused of human rights violations, as it was in East Timor; and the government's belief that "if we send in soldiers and policemen things will only get worse."

Asked why the army found it so difficult to reach the conflict zone when a Muslim militia calling itself the Holy War Troops recently made the 1,600-mile journey by sea from Java, Sudarsono said the paramilitaries were backed by "rich people in Jakarta trying to destabilize the situation so it will lead to the overthrow of our president."

On the westernmost island of Sumatra, Aceh's independence war is technically on hold but the truce is bloody, and other provinces are becoming openly rebellious. On Indonesia's eastern rim, West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) has proclaimed its independence, peaceful for now but threatening violence if it remains unrecognized by the Jakarta government.

On Java, the most populated island, police are shooting farmers trying to reclaim land stolen during Suharto's reign. But they have not been able to curb rising crime in Jakarta. The capital is prowled by vigilante mobs that have killed 103 suspected thieves and other lawbreakers so far this year. Last week five were doused with gasoline and burned to death.

Armed forces chief Admiral Widodo calls it "destructive anarchy." Sudarsono, a political science professor before he became defense minister, attributes it to the worst economic crisis suffered by any nation since World War II. And U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard worries that the government is on "sensory overload," facing so many problems it doesn't know which to tackle first.

While other Asian countries are recovering from the crash of 1997, Indonesia has not. The value of the rupiah is one-fourth of what it was three years ago, now 8,600 per dollar. Per capita GDP has sunk from $1,300 to $500. Only 10 percent of the population is considered middle class while 60 percent lives below the poverty line, pegged at $1.50 a day.

Crippled by debt that amounts to a far greater share of its GDP than our S&L crisis, Indonesia needs to dispose of assets linked to $80 billion in defaulted loans now held by the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency. But only 2.5 percent of those assets have been sold, and the choices are bleak.

The government does not want to sell Indonesian companies at a fraction of their original worth to foreign interests. Nor does it want to sell them back to the same Indonesian businessmen, many of them Suharto's cronies, who defaulted on their debts and took the money offshore.

Gelbard, an economist by education, has two short words of advice: "Junk rusts." And while it is rusting, the investment climate remains dead.

The government is currently negotiating with Suharto, now under house arrest, to give back the billions he and his family allegedly stole during his 32 years in power. Figures as high as $45 billion have been bandied about. But much of that money may be invested in the now bankrupt assets held by IBRA. Chances of recovering any of it are slim.

Amidst all this chaos and confusion, President Abdurrahman Wahid -- universally known by his nickname Gus Dur -- dozes off during meetings, issues wildly contradictory statements, favors the advice of his masseur over that of his economists and steers such an erratic course everyone agrees the ship of state is adrift.

"An appalling manager," says Douglas Ramage of the Asia Foundation. "He is susceptible to almost any influence with no mechanism to filter out the kooks."

"Our Dan Quayle," says Jusuf Wanandi, director of the Indonesian Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He talks too much and talks nonsense most of the time. He has no coherence in foreign or domestic policy, no sense or interest in what the economy is all about and a team that is hopelessly inept. His Cabinet ministers are dummies."

To be fair, Wahid is sailing uncharted waters in a country that had never known democracy before his election last October.

For 52 years it was ruled by just two dictators, Sukarno and Suharto, with the military at their bidding. When Suharto was forced to resign by massive rioting over the collapsed economy, the army backed his appointed successor, Jusuf Habibie. But he enraged the generals by allowing the secession of East Timor, which finally gave teeth to the tame legislature and resulted in Indonesia's first free and fair election.

Wahid was the surprise winner in a tight race against Sukarno's daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, whom he promptly appointed vice president. Expectations were high that the sharp-witted, if physically frail, Muslim cleric would lead Indonesia out of its most turbulent period in more than a generation.

He had enormous moral authority for standing up to Suharto and criticizing the army's human rights abuses in East Timor. And he was welcomed by all of Indonesia's ethnic, religious and political minorities as a staunch defender of their rights.

Though Wahid was legally blind, no one faulted his vision of what Indonesia needs: an economic revival; a depoliticized military; a reformed judiciary; an end to endemic corruption; an accounting -- if not atonement -- for past abuses; a stronger commitment to pluralism and the preservation of national unity.

Foreign governments were hugely impressed because the stakes are huge. In Gelbard's words, "The idea of a strong, democratic and prosperous Indonesia holding together would be a good example to the Islamic world." Conversely, "atomization would have enormous security implications for the United States and the region as a whole."

Two-fifths of the world's shipping passes through Indonesian waters. The country has huge natural gas reserves that could fuel all of North Asia. It is also an oil producer, the only Asian member of OPEC, with a manufacturing base that has the potential to become an economic powerhouse rivaling Japan.

But it is also the world's largest Islamic nation, and thus ripe for penetration by Muslim extremists seeking to wage jihad against the infidel.

The problem with Wahid's vision was implementation. Indonesia had no constituencies for reform. They had to be created from scratch. And the new and inexperienced president had to play the game of coalition politics with parties still dominated by the same corrupt elites and special interests that thrived under Suharto.

The awful mess he inherited is best described by Laksamana Sukardi, former minister of investment and state enterprises development:

"We were a country where rule of law did not exist," he wrote in the Jakarta Post. "The military shared power and benefits with a dictator. The dictator issued decrees and the military backed them up with force and intimidation. Meanwhile, our legislature was not a legislature.

"It was a social club for elites that that rarely even bothered to go to their legislative chamber because they literally had nothing to do.

"Indonesia's courts grew more and more stagnant and corrupt. Who needs judges and laws when laws and justice have no meaning? Our courts became like Christie's auction house, where the items for sale every day were the decisions of the judges.

"Instead of good governance we had a regime that did everything in its power to break down the most fundamental institutions of state and society. Instead of transparency, we had a murky system where most information was either unavailable or inaccurate.

"Instead of rule of law we had a rotten legal system that had all the external appearances of legality -- laws, judges and courts -- but with no internal integrity and no predictability. Instead of developing a civil society, we had a dismantling of civil society. The signal was clear: either take part in the corrupt patronage culture or get out of the way."

Given these obstacles, it is surprising that Wahid has anything to show for his eight months in office. And he does.

Indonesia has a free press, inexperienced but vocal in its criticism of the president. It also has a functioning legislature, equally critical of his brand of government. The military has been depoliticized and the accounting of its past abuses has begun.

Gen. Wiranto, the former armed forces commander widely accused of having a hand in the bloodbath that followed East Timor's vote for independence last year, has been retired from the military and "suspended" from the Cabinet. Attorney-General Marzuki Darusman has set up a 64-strong team to investigate the violence and promises to prosecute any military officer who colluded with the anti-independence militias there.

In Aceh, Wahid has negotiated a three-month truce, hoping to persuade secessionists to give up their demands for independence in return for substantial autonomy. And government investigators are probing human rights violations in both Aceh and West Papua.

A joint military and civilian recently has convicted 24 soldiers of murdering 26 students captured in a raid on an Islamic school in Aceh, ostensibly to flush out armed rebels. Human rights groups complain that only lower ranks were prosecuted, not the officer who gave the order. But it was the first time the armed forces were ever held accountable for atrocities in a war that has claimed 5,000 lives this past decade.

The army has just announced a major reshuffle of 100 senior officers, up to the rank of two-star general. Sudarsono, the defense minister, says military commanders in "restive areas" are being replaced by Hindu generals from the island of Bali, on the assumption that they are more neutral and will not take sides in Christian-Muslim conflicts.

The joke is that the army may soon run out of Hindu generals if the unrest spreads.

Wahid also has opened the war on corruption by having the governor of the Central Bank arrested for graft. But the rot runs so deep even Marzuki admits that only five of 60 prosecutors in his office are competent and clean, "How can I do my job?" he asks. "All these people are my colleagues, my friends."

Wahid himself has been linked to a new scandal in which his masseur allegedly walked off with money from a state agency. And critics charge he is pocketing millions donated by friendly Arab governments on his frequent trips abroad.

"The smell of KKN is beginning to creep into the government," says Wanandi, referring to the Indonesian acronym for Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism. "After all the abuses Suharto committed, stealing the wealth of the republic, the people won't stand for it again."

The people are certainly disillusioned with Wahid's inability to revive the economy. Most of his former political backers have turned against him, and the president's health has become an issue. He is too blind, they say, to pick competent aides or distinguish good advice from bad.

Even his brother, Hasyim Wahid, admits that he is too open, too vulnerable to snake oil salesmen and too gabby for his own good. "Gus Dur is the easiest president in the world to approach. Anyone can meet him," he says. And Gelbard, a big fan, concedes that "sometimes he says things we all wish he didn't."

But Wahid has two things going for him. Whatever his failings, he is Indonesia's first democratically elected president. And there is no obvious alternative. That should help him survive the roasting he is sure to get when he makes his first state of the nation report to the People's Consultative Assembly, the only body with the power to impeach him.

Under the rules of Indonesia's new democracy, Wahid has to make an accountability speech each year of his five-year term. This one is scheduled for mid-August, too early for him to be ousted after less than a year in office, and he has promised to get rid of incompetent Cabinet ministers who "give him a headache."

Next year will be a different matter, however, if the 700-member assembly remains deeply unhappy with his performance. And that could bring Megawati out of the shadows.

The vice president has been strangely silent during Wahid's travails. She has not said or done anything to indicate that she even wants the job. Some believe she is being quiet like a fox, waiting for her boss to be hoist on his own petard. But there is a lingering suspicion that she simply has nothing to say.