Indonesia's center is shrinkin

Posted in Broader Middle East , Asia | 22-Jan-09 | Author: Gary LaMoshi| Source: Asia Times

DENPASAR, Bali - In a nation torn between an authoritarian past and growing Islamic radicalism, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has held the center. But while presiding over five years of respectable economic growth free of major upheaval, Yudhoyono hasn't expanded that space. Despite his cool approach, the center has shrunk like an ice floe in the nation's tropical waters.

Yudhoyono - popularly known as SBY - beat incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri in 2004 in Indonesia's first direct presidential election, the last piece of the country's political reformasi following the end of president Suharto's three decades of autocratic, military rule. SBY ticked all the right boxes for the emerging democracy.

He was a general under Suharto, but his signature command was

in United Nations peacekeeping. He was the first to endorse a key post-Suharto reform by resigning his military post to become minister of mines under president Abdurrahman Wahid; under Suharto, generals regularly doubled as ministers. SBY earned a graduate degree in the US, and, just before taking the presidency, finished his PhD in economics. He ran on his reputation for honesty, a forthright bearing, and Javanese bloodlines. Java, home to more than half of Indonesia's 230 million people, still dominates national politics.

Empty suit

To some, SBY came across as an Indonesian version of Dwight Eisenhower, the former general who served two terms as US president during the 1950s. As with Eisenhower, SBY had also never before run for office before the presidency, and detractors saw him as little more than an empty suit. While SBY had all the right credentials, his resume lacked depth. It was hard to identify a meaningful accomplishment in his career or find a big idea in his campaign platform. In 25 years of public and military service, he'd barely left a footprint.

After nearly five years as president, many of those same criticisms apply. No policy or initiative stands out as a hallmark of his administration. More than a decade since Suharto resigned in disgrace, there's been only incremental progress on reformasi. Yudhoyono has reacted to rather than initiated events. Ending the secessionist war in Aceh was a direct result of the 2004 tsunami. In the aftermath of that devastation, SBY's government rejected the approach that Myanmar took with Cyclone Nargis last year and let international aid workers enter the war zone, setting the stage for a negotiated settlement.

On corruption, the biggest issue facing Indonesia's economy, progress has been incremental. There have been more prosecutions, including one of SBY's in-laws, but no landmark victory and no change in the prevailing attitude among officials that public service is a license for personal enrichment and that bribery and connections are the best ways to succeed. As a result, domestic and foreign investors still mainly shun Indonesia, and its long-term development prospects remain bleak.

Enter the dalang?

Supporters would contend that SBY, like Suharto, conducts politics Javanese-style, from behind the scenes, like the dalang manipulating the archipelago's traditional shadow puppets with an unseen hand. Even in that optimistic scenario, SBY's position center stage is under assault from all sides.

On one side there's the military that held the lead role under Suharto. Reforms separated the armed forces, known by its Indonesian acronym TNI, from the police and drove it out of politics. TNI was rewarded with the resumption of US military assistance by the George W Bush administration and a place outside the glare of the spotlight domestically.

Now TNI lurks deep in the background. The armed forces remain in businesses, legally and otherwise, and often beyond the reach of the law. The 2004 murder of anti-military activist Munir Said Thalib - poisoned aboard a national flagship carrier Garuda flight - carries the obvious fingerprints of the military's National Intelligence Bureau, but its former deputy chairman, Muchdi Purwoprindjono, was acquitted on charges of ordering the murder last month.

While the actual trial represents progress from the Suharto era, the acquittal, like the murder on the eve of SBY's election, signals that the military remains untouchable. Usman Hamid, Munir's successor at KONTRAS, the non-governmental organization that investigates extra-judicial killings and other abuses, called the acquittal "a serious step backward in democracy and rule of law in Indonesia".

The military's opposite on the Indonesian political spectrum are the Islamists. After decades of strictly controlled Islam under Suharto, Muslim extremists are now conducting the loudest assault on the center. Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, approximately 86% of its 230 million people, but its founders consciously created a secular state. In elections, Islamic parties win about one-third of the vote. But extremists want to convert Indonesia into an Islamic state, and they have made some progress under SBY.

Terrorism vs Islamism

The Islamist advance has been masked by genuine progress in fighting terrorism. Islamic militants bombed nightclubs in Bali in 2002, killing 202 people, the Jakarta Marriott hotel in 2003, the Australian Embassy in 2004, and a pair of popular restaurants in Bali in 2005. The second Bali attacks provided clear evidence of suicide bombings.

In his finest hour, Yudhoyono convinced previously lukewarm Muslim clerics to join him in denouncing suicide bombings, decisively leading public opinion in a new direction. Late last year, the administration executed the first Bali bombers without widespread backlash, and Jemaah Islamiyah, the group believed to be behind most bombings, has been substantially weakened, according to experts. But stopping Muslim terrorists is not the same as stopping Islamists from threatening secular society. Indonesia's non-Muslim minority groups number more than 30 million, roughly equal to the population of Iraq, and SBY arguably hasn't stood up firmly enough for them.

Religion and the fight against corruption, meanwhile, combined last year to have a sobering impact on the nation and its US$6.4 billion tourism industry. Alcohol imports, along with other so-called luxury goods, have long been subject to import limits - aimed at preserving foreign currency reserves – that were routinely flouted, providing a steady stream of bribes for customs officials. Since strict enforcement began, starting with imports to the resort island of Bali, spirits have been low. What began as strictly a corruption issue has taken on religious overtones. Muslim hardliners despise drinking, as well as Western visitors, and don't mind seeing tourism discouraged, especially in predominantly Hindu Bali.

Taking the law into local hands

More seriously, local governments throughout the archipelago have instituted their own versions of Islamic law, in some cases enforced by local vigilantes that call themselves religious police.

In Tangerang, site of Jakarta's international airport, women out after dark without a male relative have been subject to arrest. This trend went national with an anti-pornography bill that had remained shelved for two years passed in October last year amid widespread objections and deafening presidential silence. The bill ignores local traditions to enshrine Muslim extremist values as the national norm, leaves vast scope for interpretation, and authorizes civilian enforcement. Hardliners can declare anything they dislike pornographic and take matters into their own hands.

Islamic hardliners have a history of such thuggery, grown out of Suharto's use of paramilitary youth groups for his political dirty work. Ahmadiyah, an offshoot of Islam that believes in a prophet after Mohammad, has been subject to violent attacks after hardliners declared its followers heretics. Last year, the government, which still meddles in religion, agreed with the hardliners, sending Ahmadiyah believers into hiding.

Last June 1 on Pancasilia Day, which celebrates Indonesia's national philosophy embracing tolerance of the archipelago's diversity, the National Alliance for Freedom of Faith and Religion, which includes Indonesia's largest grassroots Muslim organization, staged a rally supporting Pancasilia's commitment to pluralism, including Ahmadiyah. A peace parade from Jakarta's National Monument was about to proceed when members of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) attacked, wielding sharpened bamboo clubs. At least 70 people were injured, including women and children, while 1,200 police looked on, conditioned not to interfere in religious matters.

Two FPI leaders were later sentenced to 18 months in jail after a trial in which the defendants and their followers openly intimidated witnesses inside and outside the courthouse. "It seems like people are finding it hard to accept diversity and the state does not even provide us enough protection," assault victim and activist Muhammad Guntur Romli said during the trial. "Our sense of security is now fading away."

Few Indonesians dare challenge Muslim religious leaders or those who wrap themselves in Islamic robes, no matter how extreme. Because most Indonesians tend to be easygoing and shy from politics - paving the way for decades of Suharto's authoritarianism - or the fine points of religion, it leaves extremists to set the agenda.

Meanwhile, SBY and his party have no agenda, other than holding the center. At this stage he remains the best choice for keeping the presidential seat of power warm for someone with a more ambitious agenda. But as SBY lets the center shrink, the risk is that Indonesia's next leader and their agenda may be more extremist and intolerant.

Longtime editor of investor rights advocate, Gary LaMoshi has written for Slate and, and works a counselor for Writing Camp ( He first visited Indonesia in 1994 and has been going back ever since.