Ambassador says Mulyani’s exit a blow to reform in Indonesia

Australian Ambassador Bill Farmer, who is due to leave his post in Jakarta this year, has described the resignation of reformist Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati as a tactical victory for reactionaries who would like to keep the country mired in good old fashioned nepotism, cronyism and graft.

He didn’t exactly put it in so many words, but it should be pretty clear from the following transcript of an interview he did Monday with Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Interpreter:

… Sri Mulyani has been an extraordinarily effective finance minister and a very determined reformer. She has set out to introduce very substantial reforms in major areas like the administration of tax and customs, and really there’s quite a lot of discussion in the Jakarta commetariat about whether a new minister, albeit a technically competent minister, will have the same zest for reform.

It’s quite obvious that Sri Mulyani has been at loggerheads with considerable elements of the society here and I think that the new person or persons who are working in this area … will be forming their own views about how smart it is, how desirable it is, for them to be tackling these very hard issues of reform. I think that’s a very big challenge for this country … there’s no doubt in my mind that a continuing reform effort is necessary. There’s just a question mark now about just how much impetus there will be for reform in the future.

This is a highly-charged political environment that we’ve seen for the past six months here in Indonesia, with huge political disagreements … about the directions that reform should be taking. This (Mulyani’s resignation) is a by-blow in that bigger debate.

The ambassador is too cautious, of course, to name the “considerable elements” who effectively forced the no-nonsense, corruption-fighting minister out of the government. But others are happy to point the finger at Aburizal Bakrie, the wealthy business tycoon and Golkar party chief. Golkar was Suharto’s ruling vehicle, which should tell you everything you need to know about its enthusiasm for clean government and transparency. Let’s just say it has struggled to change its internal culture since the dawn of the democratic era in 1998.

Despite sinking to its lowest ever vote in last year’s election, Golkar forced its way into President Yudhoyono’s rainbow coalition. You might wonder why, given its record since joining the government. Under Bakrie’s leadership it has done nothing to advance Yudhoyono’s reformist agenda, choosing instead to block and harass ministers like Mulyani at every opportunity.

You might recall that one of Bakrie’s family gas exploration companies is blamed for triggering a mud volcano in East Java that has swallowed whole villages and continues to spew foul toxic slime across the fertile landscape at a depressing rate. Bakrie has blamed an earthquake but British geologists who have studied the catastrophe say sloppy work by the Bakrie-affiliated Lapindo gas company was almost certainly to blame. The mudflow is so huge it can now be seen from space.

Peter Drysdale at the East Asia Forum has also written a pean to the diminutive Mulyani, one which lays the blame as much on the president as “powerful interests” like Bakrie:

Mulyani goes with a stellar record and credentials. She leaves behind the deep worry: that SBY (Yudhoyono) has failed to stand behind her, succumbed to the powerful interests lined up against reform and mortally compromised the promise of his pro-reformist party and commitments. The omens do not look good. Maybe the President can re-position after Mulyani’s departure and restore the momentum. But he will have to act quickly and decisively to do that, not only by his choice of Mulyani’s replacement but also by throwing his own weight unequivocally behind the reform effort.

SBY act “quickly and decisively? Not likely. He’s so indecisive and, some say, spineless that he has failed on almost every front to honour the promises he made to the electorate in 2004 and 2009. His own people compare him to a buffalo – fat and slow. As for throwing his considerable weight behind reform… the president is good at setting up fact-finding committees and making promises to eradicate the “judicial mafia” and the “logging mafia” etc but very little actually gets done.

In another analysis on Mulyani’s departure, Donald K. Emmerson, of Stanford University, ponders whether asking a corrupt government to stop corruption is “the equivalent of trying to make snow in hell”. He also suggests she was kicked out by Yudhoyono as part of a peace pact with Bakrie, a possible future president:

… her long record of nonpartisan tenacity in the struggle against corruption makes it hard to believe that she simply lost her will to fight. For the time being it is impossible to rule out that she was sacrificed for the sake of a restoration of political comity between SBY and his opponents.

So all in all it’s not a very rosy picture, one that turns positively horrendous if you consider the possibility of Bakrie becoming president after SBY’s second and final term ends in 2014.

(Photos courtesy of Australian and Indonesian governments)

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