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Indonesia’s dark forces confront its president

Yudhoyono was initially elected in 2004 promising reform. He was relatively successful, launching a major anti-corruption campaign, pushing the TNI to divest its business interests, trying to clean up the judiciary and getting the economy back on track.

Yudhoyono was perhaps most successful with the economy, returning it to solid growth, if still struggling to get ahead of the combined effects of population growth and (reducing) inflation. Indonesia’s long-standing program to remove the military from politics took tentative steps, even if senior officers continued to act in ways unwanted in more conventional democracies.

The real problem with the TNI, however, was that it has been very reluctant to divest itself of its business interests. The TNI also refuses to acknowledge the well-documented existence of its illegal business activities, including extortion and protection rackets, smuggling, gambling, prostitution and drug running, which remain at least twice as profitable as its more conventional business activities such as mining, construction, property, transport, logging and fishing.

The issue with these TNI ‘businesses’ is twofold. They corrupt a still important and deeply influential state institution which, just coincidentally, is heavily armed. And, by having an independent source of income, the TNI can ensure that it is only ever, at best, partially accountable to the elected government to which it is nominally loyal.

With the TNI at the heart of Indonesia’s corruption, the subservient police and judiciary remain deeply susceptible to corruption themselves. A judicial outcome is usually more a product of bribery than rule of law.

The influence of the TNI was also seen in the recent, if largely unsuccessful, banning of the movie ‘Balibo’. This movie portrayed the TNI in an accurate if unflattering light. However, the ban backfired, and the publicity given the film has only increased its underground circulation in DVD format.

The influence of the TNI is also still seen in West Papua, where raising the Morning Star flag means jail, or worse. West Papua remains the TNI’s last bastion of power and easy money, and it has no intention of voluntarily giving up its lucrative protection rackets, extortion, illegal mining and logging, and gambling and prostitution which characterise this region.

More recently, following an investigation by the state Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the Attorney-general’s office into judicial and police corruption, the police attempted to frame and then charge senior KPK officers and threaten the Attorney-General’s office. Yudhoyono has not intervened in this mess – essentially to control an out-of-control police – because he is already embroiled in allegations that he, too, is corrupt.

The major allegation against Yudhoyono is that he has protected his vice-president and former central bank governor Boediono, who is alleged to have provided loans to a failed bank and which subsequently went missing. The claim is that the missing money was used to fund Yudhoyono’s 2009 election campaign, even though no evidence has been provided to support this allegation.

Given the lack of substance behind the allegation, it is unlikely to result in the presidential impeachment that some legislators have called for. However, dealing with this matter, and the dispute between the police and the KPK, has done two things.

The first is that Yudhoyono’s ambitious program for further reform in the first 100 days of his second term of office was completely derailed. In short, he has achieved nothing of substance. It was no doubt the intention of the groups behind these issues to slow down or stop the reform process for their own gain.
The second is that by creating these issues, in effect, out of nothing, it shows that malignant forces within Indonesia still have the capacity to dictate the course of political, economic and judicial events in ways that bear no resemblance to democratic process, much less good government.

There is a view among some ‘democratic fatalists’ that democracy is universally aspired to and, once achieved, is self-sustaining. Both assumptions are wrong.

Accountable, transparent representative government runs contrary to many entrenched interests, not least those that have much to financially lose from such a system, and much to gain from undermining it. In Indonesia, such entrenched interests include business figures able to buy political, judicial and military influence, corrupt politicians and, not least, the self-serving and self-enriching interests of the TNI.

President Yudhoyono started his tenure as a reformer in Indonesia’s corrupt, post-authoritarian environment in almost text-book style. He came from a military background, courted powerful figures and introduced graduated, sometimes almost imperceptible but stable reform. The Indonesian public loved it, and last year voted Yudhoyono back in a landslide.

However, in his second and hence final term in office, Yudhoyono wants to leave a more substantial reformist mark on Indonesian politics. He is to be applauded for wanting to do so.

The question will be, however, whether he will be able to, or if Indonesia’s dark forces again take control of the fate of the often hapless people of that vast archipelago.
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When Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected for a second term last July, little would he have realised then that the forces of corrupt authoritarianism that he had successfully begun to curb would come back to destabilise his presidency. As Yudhoyono enters 2010, his immediate concern is calls for his impeachment by significant elements of a restive legislature, backed by the ever-malignant Indonesian military (TNI).

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