by Our Own Correspondent (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 10, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1427)
That US President George W. Bush is disliked, both at home and abroad, is no secret; what is less well known is the depth of the antipathy to him. Indonesia, for instance, is presented as a moderate (read pro-US) Muslim state where people do not indulge in serious political activity and Bush is disliked less than he is in the Middle East. Yet Indonesians on most parts of the political spectrum were angered by Bush visiting their country after his participation in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hanoi last month.
Bush arrived in Jakarta on November 20 to be greeted with massive protests in several cities throughout the country, and two large rallies organised in the capital a day earlier, denouncing Bush as a war criminal who should be put on trial rather than welcomed. Police and army units were out in strength along the route the protesters marched, but there were no violent incidents, as Crescent correspondents who witnessed both rallies confirmed. Fearful of people’s reactions, Bush was flown from Jakarta to Bogor, 60 miles away. A protest rally greeted him there as well, but demonstrators were kept well away from the venue where Bush met Indonesian President Susilo Yudhoyono.
Despite Indonesian moderation, local politics kept the two rallies from joining hands on November 19. One was organised jointly by a number of political parties, including the United Development Party (PPP), National Mandate Party, Muhammadiyya, Forum Ummah Islam, Front for Islamic Defence and Hizbut Tahir, and student groups who assembled at the Indonesia Plaza in front of the American Hyatt Hotel with the American coffee-chain Starbucks in the background. Marchers then moved to the heavily guarded presidential palace, which was ringed by barbed wire and protected by heavy contingents of army and police: one wonders why, because the marchers included many mothers with young children. They denounced Yudhoyono for inviting Bush to the country, especially when the two had just met in Hanoi. The second rally, equally large and noisy, was organised by the Prosperous Justice Party in the grounds of al-Azhar university and mosque. Because the Justice Party has three ministers in the cabinet, it refused to join protesters at the presidential palace, gingerly avoiding any embarrassment to the president.
Political considerations of the rallies aside, Indonesia today is a far cry from what it was under Suharto’s oppressive rule. Since he was removed in 1998, there has been considerable political and press freedom. In fact, there is a cacophony of noises competing for attention. A measure of the freedom now available to Indonesians is the fact that there were many Hizbullah and Hamas flags in the rally, carried by protesters without fear or concern. There appears to be considerable political awakening even if the country is still far from assuming its rightful place in the Muslim world, despite its size; it is the most populous Muslim country in the world.
While ostensibly still governed by Pancasila, the five ‘principles’ outlined by Suharto that had eliminated Islam from politics, people interpret these differently to suit their own political considerations. The Achehnese consider Pancasila to be a pagan ideology but Hasyim (Hashim) Muzadi, chief of Nahdatul Ulama (NU), arguably the largest religion-based party in Indonesia with some 40 million members, insists that the first article of Pancasila (stating belief in God) means One God, i.e. tawheed. This is also the position taken by Amien Rais, leader of the National Mandate Party and former speaker of the Indonesian Parliament. If so, how does this square with the remaining ten percent non-Muslim population in the country? There is an aggressive Christian campaign underway that was sponsored by Suharto’s devout Catholic wife Tien, although when Mr and Mrs Suharto decided to go for Hajj in the early 1990s, the Saudis facilitated it by declaring Mrs Suharto an ‘honorary Muslim’!
Unlike under Suharto’s oppressive rule, Islam is no longer proscribed in Indonesia, and a number of Islam-based organizations have entered the political arena. Abdurrahman Wahid, former head of the Nahdatul Ulama, served as president of Indonesia for two years; the current head of NU was a vice-presidential candidate with Megawati Sukarnoputri in the last election. Perhaps the greatest change has come about in Aceh, where an insurgency was underway for decades; only the tsunami of December 2004 radically altered the political equation. Leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) entered into an agreement whereby in return for abandoning claims to total independence the regime agreed to withdraw its armed forces and allow a large measure of autonomy to the province. Elections for governor and vice governor of Aceh are scheduled for December 11, with candidates from a number of parties competing for the two posts. Regardless of who wins, most observers believe that the political situation in Aceh has changed permanently and that there is little chance of the insurgency resuming. The situation in Aceh will depend to a large extent on how the reconstruction effort goes. So far, only one third of the houses destroyed by the tsunami have been rebuilt; most people still live in tents in desperate conditions. Unless this situation is redressed quickly, it will lead to discontent and alienation among the Acehnese.
Indonesia is potentially a very rich country. It has vast natural resources, but because the regime lacks self-confidence and the military has its fingers in virtually every pie, these resources are not being utilized for the benefit of the people. Foreign multinational corporations, both Dutch and American, have a gridlock on most mining ventures. They have co-opted top generals and, by giving them huge commissions, are busy plundering the country’s resources. The gold and silver mining sector in Papua is a good example. American corporations have been given virtually limitless rights to exploit on a 50-year lease that will run out in 2041. Indonesia’s share of the take is a mere 9 percent; the US multinational takes the rest. This grand larceny of resources was facilitated by Suharto and his cronies, and because of the manner in which contracts were written they cannot be renegotiated.
Unemployment in Indonesia is 35 percent while the poverty rate is about 40 percent. This is disgraceful because Indonesia is not poor, only poorly managed, like most Muslim countries beholden to the West. The country has an external debt of US$130 billion, on which it pays $9 billion in interest annually, which is 10 percent of the gross domestic product. In 1990, the Suharto regime took an incredible step: it agreed to assume the entire private sector debt of some $40 billion. Both the debtors and external lenders were ecstatic; they could not believe their good fortune. Many businessmen regretted the fact that they had not taken out larger loans.
While the military’s role in politics has been somewhat reduced since the six-point agreement of 1998, it would be wrong to assume that the men in uniform have given up their ambitions or lost interest in wealth. What has changed is that the military no longer automatically gets 20 percent of the seats in parliament. Its dual function has been eliminated and the president has been confined to two terms in office, though the current president is a retired army chief (although, to his credit, he won the election through the normal process).
Indonesia is going through an era of transitions, but unless it is able to break the stranglehold of foreign multinationals and reduce the military’s influence in politics even more, it will not be able to play its proper role in the Muslim world’s affairs. It must also downgrade its relations with the US. Nobody has ever benefited from too close an alliance with Uncle Sam; in fact, it only spells trouble for everyone. Indonesia is no exception.