Category Archives: Politics

On this day remember: Zhao Ziyang

Addressing the students - AFP

Zhao Ziyang was a senior member of the Chinese politburo and Communist Party chief, a reformist who campaigned hard against corruption and a supporter of dialogue with students leaders during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. He famously told the students: “You are not like us, we are already old, it doesn’t matter to us any more”. As the Party declared martial law and sent in the tanks to crush the pro-democracy uprising, Zhao was placed under house arrest. He remained incarcerated and shunned by the Party until his death aged 85 from pneumonia on January 17, 2005.

Brazilian atheists have a message for Indonesia

"If god exists, everything is permitted"

This powerful advertisement commissioned by a Brazilian atheist group sums up, in one slogan, what is happening with religious bigotry, persecution and violence against the Ahmadiyah community in Indonesia at the moment.

Last month a court gave sentences of 3-6 months’ jail to 12 Sunni Muslim thugs who led a lynch mob of around 1,500 armed extremists against about 20 members of the Ahmadiyah sect, who are Muslims in every sense of the word except they don’t believe Mohammed was the final prophet. In the eyes of the Indonesian courts, this means you can kill them in front of police and receive less punishment than you would for stealing someone’s buffalo or making a naughty video of yourself with your girlfriend.

Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa put his Cambridge masters degree in philosophy to good use on Friday, cynically inverting logic and ethics in justification of the sentences. He said the judiciary’s independence could not be questioned (ignoring that laws such as prohibitions against murder are created by parliament to be enforced) and noted that Indonesia was not the only country to experience “heinous” acts as a result of religious intolerance (ignoring the fact that heinous acts which go unpunished are likely to be repeated).

Old guard vs new in Indonesia’s Wikileaks washup

The Wikileaks cables revealing the United States is privy to serious allegations of abuse of power and potential corruption by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have, as expected, stirred up a storm of reactions, counter-allegations, conspiracy theories and recriminations.

As the feathers continue to fly, the roosters seem to fall into two breeds: those who claim the allegations are nothing important and seek to malign the messenger (in this case Wikileaks and the Australian papers which published the leaked cables); and those who say the allegations need to be investigated.

Just to recap, according to The Sydney Morning Helald (part of the Fairfax media group which gained exclusive access to the cables from Wikileaks), the allegations are that Yudhoyono “blocked a corruption investigation into a political powerbroker, Taufik Kiemas, used the intelligence services to spy on rivals and received funding from the controversial businessman Tomy Winata via a middleman”.

They also claim that first lady Kristiani Herawati sought to “profit personally by acting as a broker or facilitator for business ventures”. Yudhoyno’s former vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, a rich businessman and powerbroker, is also accused of buying influence with thick wads of cash. The allegations come from Indonesian political sources, including one who is close to Yudhoyono.

The government has issued a blanket denial and dragged the US ambassador, Scot Marciel, before the media to apologise. He dutifully did so, in what can only be described as a public humiliation. In doing so he threw out any claims he has to care about corruption in Indonesia and the freedom of the press.

That’s all entirely – if sadly – predictable. President SBY, after all, has a notoriously thin hide and an equally feeble grasp of the benefit of press freedom and free speech.

But some of the other sources of indignation and denial have been less predictable, though possibly not surprising.

Veteran Jakarta-based correspondent John McBeth, writing in The Straits Times, says the cables “only report  rumours” about the “untainted” president, and offer “little in the way of evidence”. McBeth is close to many a “senior government official”, and quotes one saying that what looks like corruption from the outside isn’t corruption at all to an Indonesian. It’s all about the “culture,” you see.

“In our culture there is often a wide grey area and sometimes decisions are based on political realities,” the official explains.

McBeth then attacks the messengers, both Wikileaks in the form of Julian Assange, and Fairfax papers The Age and The SMH which he says “never cut Jakarta much slack”. He puts this down to a kind of vendetta stemming from resentment over the killing of five Australian-based journalists by Indonesian troops in the former East Timor in 1975. His evidence to back this conspiracy theory is sparse to say the least. (Indonesia denies this crime as well, of course.)

Joining him in the same conspiratorial camp is a gentleman by the name of Habiburokhman, a lawyer, who told The Jakarta Post that the allegations are pay-back by Australia for Indonesia’s plans to limit live beef imports from the country.

His clients are in the shoot-the-messenger camp. Officials from Indonesia’s Federation of National Enterprise United Workers Union have filed a suit in a Jakarta court claiming $1 billion in damages from the newspapers for allegedly “ruining the pride of a nation.” Given the gangster-style legal system in Indonesia, they might actually win.

The Jakarta Globe, which campaigns against corrupt junior officials with an invigorating zeal, seems to have lost its enthusiasm for the vice and virtue angle of the Wikileaks allegations against Yudhoyono. An editorial published in the aftermath of the explosive cables read more like a PR firm’s advice to the president on how to limit the damage than an indignant newspaper’s demand for transparency and justice.

So, there are plenty of people in the shoot-the-messenger and conspiracy-theory camps, but who is in the indignant anti-corruption camp? I can’t find too many.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) – the country’s main corruption-fighting organ – has quickly hosed down any suggestion it is going to touch the allegations. It response seems to be – not with a 10-foot pole!

So we turn again to the little guys, the anti-corruption activists, to take up the banner.  Independent watchdog Petisi 28 has lodged a request for a formal investigation into the allegations. “It is time for the president to clarify the reports by submitting himself to the legal process. If the president is not guilty, he should be brave enough to allow the KPK to investigate him,” said the group’s leader.

And there’s the Fairfax papers themselves. They’re sticking to their guns, apparently unswayed by McBeth’s scorn and threats of billion-dollar lawsuits.  Here’s how The Age responded to its critics in an editorial today:

It is important to note that this is not a case of a single document containing accusations from a rogue source; rather, our reporting is based on numerous cables over several years that detail information gathered by senior US diplomats from a range of well-placed contacts.

The Age does not presume to stand in judgment of Dr Yudhoyono on the matters raised in the previously secret cables, but nor do we apologise for exposing them and him to the harsh light of public scrutiny. Whatever else the cables show, they suggest that the so-called new Indonesia – free of the corrupt culture that poisoned the country’s political, military and judicial institutions through and beyond the Suharto era – remains elusive.

I know which argument makes more sense to me. How about you?

(Photo courtesy of Corvair via flickr)

US credibility takes a nosedive in Indonesia

US ambassador to Indonesia, Scot Marciel (pictured left shaking hands with the Indonesian president), needs to get out a bit more and listen to ordinary Indonesians. If he did he would know that his performance at a press conference on Friday was an insult to those who aspire to live in a democracy that respects the rule of law.

As reported in the Australian media, the ambassador apparently walked out of the press conference which was called to respond to leaked US diplomatic cables making explosive allegations of abuse of power against President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other political leaders.

The conference was not called, it seems, to answer journalists’ legitimate questions, but merely to give a show of openness to what amounts to naked propaganda. That propaganda seems intended to give the impression, ridiculous as it is to anyone who follows Indonesian affairs, that there are no serious issues about corruption or abuse of power in the world’s “third biggest democracy”.

Here’s how the The Age’s Tom Allard described proceedings:

At an extraordinary and, at times, awkward press conference after the meeting, Mr Marciel declined to confirm or deny the veracity of the cables or comment on the specific allegations they contained.

But he said, generally speaking, such cables contained “candid and often raw information” that was “often incomplete and unsubstantiated”.

“We express our deepest regrets to President Yudhoyono and to the Indonesian people,” he said, adding that the publication of the cables was “extremely irresponsible”.

Mr Marciel abruptly left the press conference shortly afterwards, leaving Mr Natalegawa to answer questions alone.

Natalegawa reportedly dismissed the apparently naive suggestion that the allegations might be investigated, saying categorically they would not.

Showing how much he respected the Indonesian people, Marciel dutifully repeated the “attack-the-messenger” approach of the State Department that it is “irresponsible” to report allegations of serious abuses of power about a US ally.

The ambassador commented only in order to discredit his own embassy’s cables and to attack those who chose to inform the Indonesian people about the allegations contained therein. It reminds me of his predecessor, Cameron Hume, who reportedly told journalists in his final days in Jakarta that human rights issues in Papua were of absolutely no concern to the United States as it mulled re-opening military ties with the Kopassus special forces blamed for committing atrocities in the region.

President Barack Obama pretends he has some affinity with ordinary Indonesians. After all, he knows the words “satay” and “nasi goreng”. He also claims to support their aspirations for genuine democracy and justice. But apparently Obama doesn’t think they deserve to know what he knows about alleged abuse of power by their elected leaders and their lackeys.

What was left of US credibility took another blow today with the publication in the The Age of more US cables, provided by Wikileaks, showing the US embassy in Jakarta had defended an alleged Indonesian war criminal and sought to hide what the US knew about his involvement in the 1991 Dili massacre and other atrocities in East Timor.

According to the report, the Jakarta embassy argued that army general Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, recently appointed by Yudhoyono as deputy defence minister, should be allowed to enter the United States (to attend a G20 meeting, no less) despite his alleged involvement in war crimes and state-sponsored terrorism by Indonesian forces in East Timor.

It took objections from the US embassy in Dili and a frank assessment of the implausibility of the general’s denials to convince Washington to overrule Jakarta and deny him a visa.

But even then, Washington kept its decision hush-hush, so as not to upset its partners in the Indonesian political elite, the same people who featured in other secret diplomatic cables about alleged abuse of power and corruption.

It’s not just about the rule of law, justice, alleged corruption and abuse of power. It’s about the impunity of the Indonesian military for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in places like East Timor, Papua, the Molukus and Jakarta during anti-communist purges, anti-Chinese massacres, anti-separatist wars and anti-democracy crackdowns under the Suharto dictatorship. Hundreds of thousands of people died in these murderous rampages but the generals responsible are rarely, if ever, held to account.

Instead they rise through the ranks, gain political influence and the wealth that goes with power, and are coddled by the United States. One of the Jakarta embassy cables described  Sjamsoeddin as crucial to military ties that are the “cornerstone of our efforts to ensure regional stability”.

So the US relationship with Indonesia, nay, the region as a whole, hinges on military ties, not justice or the rule of law.

How did that strategy go in Egypt?

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?

Egypt and Indonesia: what comparison?

Firstly, forgive me for not updating this site more often lately. I’ve been busy and lazy  in equal measure, on holidays, on work missions and diverting my rave energies through other channels.

So much has happened in Indonesia over the past few months that I don’t know where to start. Of course I was sickened by the slaughter of Ahmadiyah followers by crazed Islamist brutes, and by the government’s pathetic response. I didn’t mean to watch the unedited video, I kind of saw it by accident. I couldn’t sleep that night. It was one of the most disgusting and disturbing things I’ve seen. I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you really want to know what’s happening in Indonesia in terms of religious thuggery there can be no better illustration. The Ahmadiyah man who filmed it is a hero.

In the past couple of weeks there have been a lot of attempts by Western journalists and analysts to compare the Egyptian uprising with the fall of Suharto in Indonesia. Most seem to be written by people who may, perhaps, feel a little bit of attention deficit disorder because they are not actually in the Middle East. In my opinion they are trying a little too hard to get in on the Egypt story by making flimsy analogies.

The argument follows a now-familiar pattern: the White House is using the Indonesia example as a model to game possible outcomes in Egypt and calibrate its response; the similarities between the two countries are “striking”;  Indonesia is a moderate Muslim-majority country where secular democracy has taken root; like Egypt, Indonesia has Islamist political parties; these parties have tried to advance their agendas at the ballot box but have failed; this comparison is illuminating.

I disagree. Sure, there are superficial similarities but the comparison is flawed. Even to the degree that it can be justified it is not particularly illuminating and doesn’t really say much about current events in Egypt or how that country may look in 10 years time.

Firstly, the Indonesian party everyone compares to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – the PKS – is fundamentally different in many ways. The PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) may share some genetic material with the Brotherhood but it is not the same critter. For a start it is not openly Islamist. It has existed for only around 10 years, not 80-odd like the brotherhood. It didn’t exist at all as a mass opposition movement against Suharto. And it has never had any significant popular support. The Brotherhood it ain’t.

In other words, there’s very little point talking about the PKS as a model for what a post-Mubarak Brotherhood might do. And anyway, no one in the Arab world looks to Indonesia for insight into political Islam, so even if there was a superficial comparison to be made it would not be one that would have any bearing on Egyptian affairs.

Revealingly, few of these analyses give much in the way of direct quotes from US officials about what precise parallels they see and why they are focusing on Indonesia, and not, say, Turkey. In one of the pieces linked to above,  the only direct quote from a US official says the Philppines and Chile are better case studies.

The other thing most of these comparisons have in common is that at some point they admit that their argument is thin and acknowledge that in fact the two countries are very different.

A better way to compare the two situations, in my very humble and uninformed opinion, is through the lens of justice. Despite all the fear-mongering about political Islam and Islamism, the uprising in Egypt does not seem to me to be about religion. People are united in their yearning for justice, for an end to rampant corruption, for an end to the unaccountability of the ruling elites, for an end to the brutality of the security forces.

Indonesians (and everyone else who has overthrown a dictator) know this yearning only too well. They gave vent to it in 1998 when they ousted Suharto in a secular, nationalist uprising sparked by a savage economic crisis. The fact that these were mainly Muslims on the streets wasn’t much noted in those pre-9/11 days. Now, when Westerners see Muslims on the streets, citing “jihad” and claiming the blessing of Allah, they tend to get fixated on the religious aspect and forget more important things like the universal desire for justice.

Robert Fisk says it well in today’s Independent. After explaining that Egypt’s uprising was pluralist and non-religious and therefore a defeat for radical Islam, he adds:

There’s a catch, of course. Almost all the millions of Arab demonstrators who wish to shrug off the cloak of autocracy which – with our Western help – has smothered their lives in humiliation and fear are indeed Muslims. And Muslims – unlike the “Christian” West – have not lost their faith. Under the stones and coshes of Mubarak’s police killers, they counter-attacked, shouting “Allah akbar” for this was indeed for them a “jihad” – not a religious war but a struggle for justice. “God is Great” and a demand for justice are entirely consistent. For the struggle against injustice is the very spirit of the Koran.

Fisk isn’t saying religion is central to the Egyptian uprsing, only that it’s the vocabulary of Islam that most Egyptians use to express their yearning for justice. The same can be said of many Indonesians. He concludes:

Better perhaps to ignore all the analysts and the “think tanks” whose silly “experts” dominate the satellite channels. If Czechs could have their freedom, why not the Egyptians? If dictators can be overthrown in Europe – first the fascists, then the Communists – why not in the great Arab Muslim world? And – just for a moment – keep religion out of this.

(Photo courtesy of siarragoddess via flickr)

Obamas ‘do’ Indonesia! Hyperbole over human rights

They came, they saw, they said a lot of blather about tolerance and democracy and meatball noodle soup, then they left. That pretty much sums up the 20-hour visit by the US first couple to Indonesia this week.

If I was Indian I’d be pretty annoyed (but I’ll get to that later). If I was Indonesian I’d probably be like the people I saw silently staring at Obama’s gleaming, wailing motorcade as it streamed through the deserted streets of central Jakarta this morning: mute, a little resentful and thoroughly unimpressed.  

Excuse me if I’m too cynical – you can always read something else, something dripping with meaningless hyperbole and rank cliché, something like Obama’s speech to students at the national university.

Human rights activists and victims of ongoing abuses by the Indonesian military had begged and pleaded with this White House — that’s the one that recently re-commenced military contacts with Indonesia’s notorious Kopassus special forces unit — to use the visit to pressure Jakarta to stop the killings and torture and, according to some, the genocide that is taking place in the eastern region of Papua.

Did Obama listen to these appeals? Nope. Unless he said something to President Yudhoyono behind closed doors, he ignored them altogether. He only mentioned Papua once, in passing as a prop for one of his rhetorical flourishes. 

Instead of clearly standing up for the speechless and powerless, he effectively praised the torturers for the great model of tolerance and pluralism they are showing to the world. Stiff cheese to Indonesians who care about human rights and justice – this White House is not on their side.

I’d be annoyed if I was Indian because only a couple of days earlier, Obama had been in Delhi lecturing the Indian government about its failure to speak out against the military’s abuses in Myanmar. The double standards are appalling, even more so when they are dressed up with such pomp and fanfare.

The best part of Obama’s speech today, in my humble opinion, was his challenge to those who believe development comes before democracy. This is an argument President Yudhoyono has made publicly in the past – ie sometimes emerging democracies have to sacrifice democratic principles and the rule of law in order to tackle poverty. Once living standards have risen, democracy can become the priority.

Obama almost achieved the inspirational heights that he constantly aspires to when he argued that this was a false dichotomy:

Today, we sometimes hear that democracy stands in the way of economic progress. This is not a new argument. Particularly in times of change and economic uncertainty, some will say that it is easier to take a shortcut to development by trading away the rights of human beings for the power of the state. But that is not what I saw on my trip to India, and that is not what I see in Indonesia. Your achievements demonstrate that democracy and development reinforce one another…

Of course, democracy is messy. Not everyone likes the results of every election. You go through ups and downs. But the journey is worthwhile, and it goes beyond casting a ballot. It takes strong institutions to check the concentration of power. It takes open markets that allow individuals to thrive. It takes a free press and an independent justice system to root out abuse and excess, and to insist upon accountability. It takes open society and active citizens to reject inequality and injustice.

These are the forces that will propel Indonesia forward. And it will require a refusal to tolerate the corruption that stands in the way of opportunity; a commitment to transparency that gives every Indonesian a stake in their government; and a belief that the freedom that Indonesians have fought for is what holds this great nation together.

Otherwise, Obama was as predictably patronising as Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard the week before. Most of the time he wandered on the margins of the ridiculous, as when he claimed Indonesia – one of the most corrupt countries in the world – was going to lead the G20 in transparency and accountability. I can only assume he misspoke. Very disappointing.