Indonesia: To hell and back

April 8, 2009

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.


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Mr. Yates failed mentioned the fact that most of the victims were Tionghoa (Indonesian Chinese). It seems that Mr. Yates has a selective memory when writing this piece of article.

Posted by Handoko | Report as abusive

A very good article. There are some great people in that country, and although I have not traveled there, I have visited a number of times and find it rewarding.

Posted by Jerry Boughton | Report as abusive

The writer is obviously a glass half-full kind of character.He neglects to mention that the vast majority of Indonesians who were adults in 1998 now yearn for a return to the Suharto days because “democracy” has delivered nothing but a vacuum of authority which has allowed corruption to spread unchecked (at least Suharto and friends kept a lid on it!) and real economic growth to stall.

Posted by Watcher | Report as abusive

yes it is a “half-full” kind of article and why is that so bad? indonesia has been hammered over and over for it’s shortcomings, and rightly so in many instances, but there is also a lot of positive elements that are too often overlooked or ignored. yes, many yearn for the days of pak harto, but many of those who do are the ones who may remember the dutch colonialists, the japanese occupation, war, starvation, the tumultuous times of sukarno, the suharto coup and PKI communist purge. suharto brought stability at a price many accepted then (including the CIA/US gov’t). for crying out loud, people in the US reminisce about nixon and reagan, that sounds crazy to me!! let’s not forget indonesia is a young country (1945 independence). yes, of course, there are problems, but right now i’d rather be in a diverse transforming maturing country like indonesia than in the US, a state decaying, deceitful and corrupt (can you say, “katrina, waterboarding and dirty banksters”). But maybe there’s hope for the US; Obama first declared his desire to be president when he was living and going to school in….yep, you guess it, indonesia. Indonesia’s moto: Unity in Diversity (a work in progress).

Posted by olip | Report as abusive

As Indonesian, I am proud with my country. I know this country still learn about democracy and that process not instantly. I understand with Mr Handoko mean regarding Indonesian chinnesse victim, but we have to look the past clerly. Under soeharto regime,not only Indonesia chinnese but many people become the victim of soeharto policy. At present time, many Indonesia chinese hold the government position as minister or mayor that hardly could not been seen when soeharto hold the power. I belive Indonesia will still stand and become greater than before.

Posted by Robert Juwono | Report as abusive

Thank you Mr. Yates for your glass half-full article. I think, we Indonesian deserve it after all the hardship that we have gone through and the hard work we have done. It is still not perfect and there many hard issues that must be addressed and resolved, such as who master minded the 1998 riot and how to acknowledge the tionghoa(chinese)descendant victims in 1998 riot, to prevent it from happening again and make Indonesia a fair and just civil society, but it is a process and ongoing and with what we have learned so far and with the guidance of our motto Unity In Diversity I believe we will be there. My hopes are such kind of positive encouragement will come also from other international bodies that have directly or indirectly contributed to our condition in 1998, such as IMF. They clearly owe us an open and formal apology, and for those who disagree with me I would like to ask them where was IMF before the global crisis happened, what were they doing? Thanks.

Posted by Eka Satya Putra | Report as abusive

A very good article but it comes short of giving Indonesia the merit it deserves. I am not an Indonesian but I have been living in this country for more than 12 years.A more beautiful country than the 50 I had visited before,nice friendly people and great smile.Yes it has problems,who doesnt?Yes it has corruption,but they are fighting it ? They are trying and will succeed.The natural and political difficulties they had faced were big,the challenges they are meeting are even bigger,but they are trying hard and they are still standing.The future is for them.Mr.Susilo is a very clean person and his heart is with his people and he will succeed.Give them a chance and you will see that the country that has proved Islam and democracy can go together,will prove also that there is a country is booking her prominent place under the sun and deserves the admiration of the entire globe.

Posted by an egyptian lover | Report as abusive

Everything in life has it’s positive and negative, as does this article, but let’s look at the positive side.I’m a foreigner who live here. My experience of Indonesia and Indonesians are, and will be memorable as long as I live. Arguably the most courteous, polite people I’ve met. I love Indonesia, the diverse cultures and the people. Of course there are problems, but the country is moving ahead. Show me a country with no problem! They all vary. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made immense progress in his ruling time, and hopefully he can continue his work. My respects unto SBY, Finance Minister and others. This country has taught me the meaning of care and love without being materialistic, whether one is muslim, christian, buddist or hindu. My wish be able to serve this wonderful nation for the years to come, God bless Indonesia

Posted by Ram | Report as abusive