US should speak clearly on Indonesia graft

If Washington really wants to boost its standing in the Islamic world and particularly in Indonesia, its strategic ally and would-be bulwark against China in Southeast Asia, it needs to clearly and openly condemn the corruption that pervades every level of the government.

Which side is the United States on in the battle for social justice in Indonesia, the world’s so-called third-biggest democracy? Is it siding with the corrupt old elites or the people who want the rule of law and their civil liberties to be respected?

The US diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks and published exclusively today in Australia’s The Age newspaper (the story doesn’t appear to be online yet but you can see the utterly predictable reaction here) answer at least one important part of that question. The United States is aware of alleged serious abuse of power by President Yudhoyono, including interference in the courts and misuse of security forces for his own political gain. It can no longer pretend it isn’t.

So the next question is what is Washington going to do about it? Not much, if the statement issued on the embassy website is anything to go by. Apparently Yudhoyno is not just a great guy, it is “extremely irresponsible” to reveal allegations of corruption against US allies:

This type of publication is extremely irresponsible and we express our deepest regrets to President Yudhoyono and the Indonesian people. 

As President Obama has noted, the United States is fortunate to have a very strong partner in President Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s first directly elected president, and a leader who has guided Indonesia through its journey into democracy. 

President Yudhoyono’s leadership has been vital to promoting prosperity, expanding partnerships between our people, and deepening political and security cooperation.

The message is unmistakable: the United States doesn’t care about corruption in Indonesia as long as Jakarta continues to adhere to US interests. Whether the United States agrees with that message or not, that’s what millions of Indonesians are going to read in the embassy’s banal statement.

Indonesia has recently been held up as some kind of model for Egypt and other Arab countries emerging from dictatorship, but actually they are the examples which Indonesia needs to heed. The agents of change in the Middle East have not been the religious radicals or the coup-mongering generals, as many an analyst expected. They have been ordinary people, many from the supposedly apathetic middle classes, armed with nothing but mobile phones and the internet, and utterly fed up with corruption, unaccountability and injustice.

Are you listening, SBY? Do you get it?

No one is saying Indonesia is an autocracy like Mubarak’s Egypt, but it doesn’t have to be for the analogy to fit. How long will ordinary Indonesians tolerate their aspirations for justice and accountable government, the things they overthrew Suharto to achieve, to be ignored and trampled on by the cosy old networks that pull the strings of power in the country? How long before they decide elections alone are not enough and they stand up for real, genuine democratic reform? And how long before they decide – as some clerics and others have already decided – President Yudhoyono’s repeated promises of such reform, particularly his pledges on corruption, were lies?

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