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)