Indonesia: To hell and back
By Dean Yates
(The author lived in Indonesia from 1992-1995 and 2000-2005, with various assignments in between)
It was not that long ago that Indonesia was lurching from crisis to crisis, even drawing some (misplaced) predictions it could go the way of the former Yugoslavia and break apart. These days it rarely makes the front page. It has a steady president in Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, probably the freest press in Southeast Asia and political violence appears to be a thing of the past. The last major bomb attack blamed on Islamic militants was in 2005.
It’s worth recalling how bad things were in Indonesia as this country of 226 million people prepares to vote in parliamentary elections on Thursday, which will set the stage for the more important presidential poll in July. The parliamentary election will be the third time voters in the world’s most populous Muslim nation have elected their representatives at a national level since the downfall of former autocrat Suharto in 1998. As the Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial on April 8, Indonesia
shows that democracy and Islam aren’t mutually exclusive.
All this progress seemed so unlikely early in 1998 when the country’s economy was in freefall. It’s hard to imagine a currency losing 85 percent of its value, but that’s what happened to the rupiah when the Asian financial crisis savaged Indonesia. I remember stunned Indonesian colleagues in the Reuters Jakarta bureau, their hands on their head, as the rupiah crashed to a low of 17,000 to the U.S. dollar. Months before, one U.S. dollar bought 2,500 rupiah. Food prices soared and the “wong cilik”, or little people, rebelled. Food riots hit markets. Protests escalated. Students demanded democratic change. Then Suharto — under pressure from the International Monetary Fund — hiked fuel prices on May 4, 1998. A week later, violence exploded, killing 1,200 people in Jakarta. Suharto was forced out a few days later.
After three decades of authoritarian rule that combined rapid economic growth with political repression and breathtaking corruption, Suharto’s “New Order” government had collapsed. It was replaced by a vacuum. Communal animosity that had simmered for years in the eastern Moluccas, an idyllic group of islands evenly split between Muslims and Christians, erupted. Thousands
were killed. President Abdurrahman Wahid, an affable moderate Muslim cleric with a penchant for cracking jokes, was toppled in 2001 in an impeachment vote, effectively for incompetence.
International perceptions of Indonesia, already pretty grim, got worse in 2002 when Islamic militants bombed two nightclubs in Bali, killing 202 people, mostly foreign tourists. As I stepped over debris the following morning, bits of flesh still under twisted metal, all I could think of was why?Why Bali? Why this beautiful island? The answer was obvious of course — kill holidaymakers enjoying themselves on one of the world’s most famous islands and you will get the world’s attention.
And then came the Asian tsunami. A massive undersea earthquake of 9.15 magnitude unleashed giant waves that smashed into the Indonesian province of Aceh in December 2004, killing around 170,000 people. The toll was unbelievable. Bodies lay rotting for weeks. I still remember Adnan Ibrahim, who had spent days searching refugee camps in the local capital Banda Aceh for his son, Syawaluddin, 17. “The boy is very smart. He is good with computers,” said Ibrahim, before breaking into sobs. I am sure he never found him.
Beside elections of that year — which brought Yudhoyono to power — the tsunami was a turning point for Indonesia. In the early days after the disaster, Yudhoyono decided to allow foreign militaries and aid workers to descend on Aceh to help with rescue and recovery efforts. He had opened the door to a province that until then was virtually sealed off to foreigners, scene of a vicious conflict between the Indonesian military and separatist rebels that had killed 15,000 people over the past 30 years. The tsunami was a catalyst for a peace deal between the government and the rebels in 2005. It confounded sceptics who predicted it would never last. Former rebels will even run for local office in the elections on Thursday.
Few thought Indonesia would make such strides and be where it is today. Democracy is well entrenched — “taken root and flourished” — in the words of the Economist in its April 2 edition. Sure there are problems. It’s a huge, unwieldy place to govern. Corruption is still a major problem and the country’s infrastructure needs an overhaul. And it is still poor. But compared to a little over 10 years ago, Indonesia has done pretty well. It has a huge civil society. Think of any issue and there will be an NGO in there fighting for justice and accountability. Indonesians are a people of great warmth, humour and openness. They deserve the international praise that now comes their way.