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Indonesia – The Worst Example For Revolutions In Arab World
Tuesday, 01 March 2011 09:35
by Andre Vltchek

As several revolts shook recently big part of Arab world, as Hosni Mubarak stepped down and the leaders of Bahrain and Libya could not think about anything better than to order bloody crack down against their own people, the world (read Western governments, media and academia) were watching with increasing doze of discomfort.

Protests seem to be engulfing almost all countries in the region from Morocco and Tunis to Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.   

Staunch ally of the West – Saudis – feel suddenly 'vulnerable', even 'encircled'. No wonder – millions of the poor from all over the region are now marching and fighting for social justice or for justice in general. And there is hardly a place in the world with more striking inequalities than in this kingdom based on Wahabi conservative Islam, historically close ally of British imperialism. As is well known, Saudi Arabia is bathing in oil – that dark liquid which is both blessing and curse - enriching elites while helping to maintain apartheid between the natives and exploited migrant workers.

For decades, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt (or more precisely their rulers and 'elites') – all of them served Western interests with zeal and efficiency. Now they are expecting helping hand, support in this complex and 'dangerous times'.

While the White House was sending conflicting reports to its allies, well-disciplined mass media and academia rose immediately to the challenge and invented 'the best role model for the Arab world' – Indonesia.

After all, Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any other nation on earth. It is rich in natural resources and after 1998 it holds multi-party elections. Its economy is growing at more than 6% a year and there seem to be no popular uprisings or calls for revolution. Both President Obama and Foreign Secretary Clinton sang praises to Indonesian model during their visits to Jakarta.

Indonesia is a staunch ally of the West: 'a bumper zone against rising China', good god-fearing country where the Communist Party and atheism are banned and business and the Almighty appear to be working in unison for the benefit of the few. It performed extremely effective surgery on behalf of the West in 1965/66 – murdering millions of Communists, progressive leaders, teachers, intellectuals and members of Chinese minority. It can be, therefore, trusted.

Writing for CNN, Ann Marie Murphy - an associate professor at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University, and an associate fellow at the Asia Society - argued:

 "Since Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned in the face of widespread demonstrations, attention has shifted to what comes next. Fears have been raised that Egypt's transition may follow the Iranian path, where the Shah's overthrow led to a repressive Islamic regime that turned away from the West and became a source of regional instability. Indonesia provides a better analogy for Egypt than Iran. Over the past decade Indonesia, home of the world's largest community of Muslims, has made a successful transition to democracy that clearly refutes the proposition that Islam and democracy are incompatible…"


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Did it really? Did it made a successful transition to democracy and did it 'clearly' refute the proposition? For approximately 2 decades I traveled this enormous archipelago from Aceh to Ambon and from West Timor to Batam. Anyone who speaks the language and is ready to listen to people would know that one of the main complains of Indonesians is that they are 'unrepresented'. There is no political force in the country that would call for social justice. All major political parties are pursuing their own political and economic interests.

People are confused, especially those living in the villages (great majority of the population). I heard many times that they don't decide whom to vote for: village chiefs often sell votes of entire villages to the highest bidders. Women vote for the candidates selected by their husbands. On the village – kampung – level, Indonesian democracy doesn't seem so glorious. At the closer examination – it actually does not seem to exist at all.

About democracy and Islam – let's first ask 'which Islam'? Former President Abdurrahman Wahid was a Socialist at heart (I have many of his testimonies on the record – some will appear in my upcoming book on Indonesia) as well as one of the greatest and the most moderate Muslim leaders of 20th century. But he was humiliated and removed from power in 2001 by quiet coup that took form of nontransparent impeachment. Military and political/economic elites from Suharto days were behind the act. The West sighed relief – the last thing it wanted was socially conscious and truly patriotic President of Indonesia.

That was the end for 'progressive Islam'. What remained and solidified since is political Islam that is of conservative nature. It would be wrong to say that all Indonesians are welcoming more aggressive and dictatorial form of religion, but what is clear is that they are not willing to do anything to stop it from taking control of their country.

It is also obvious that present administration of President Yudhoyono (popularly known as SBY) is unwilling to intervene on behalf of Indonesian secular constitution.

Sharia law is being unconstitutionally implemented in several locations, including parts of West Java. Annually, dozens of churches go up in flames. Controversial 'anti-pornography law' is now being put into practice (there are wide implementations that are not limited to 'indecent exposure' or pornographic web sites). Non-Muslim schools are being attacked periodically while 3 members of marginal Islamic sect had been recently murdered by a mob. Members of radical Islamic Defender's Front are allowed to rampage bars and places of warship right in front of the police that refuses to take action. Mosques are broadcasting sermons – in fact all that is happening inside - at the highest imaginable volume for 5-7 hours a day – unthinkable almost anywhere else in the Muslim world.

In our recent discussion, foremost Indonesian expert on Islamic extremism - Huda Ismail - declared: "Instead of listening to empty praise from abroad, it would be much better for the Indonesian government to accept that we have serious problems here and finally deal with it!"

Truly good advice for the Indonesian government and for those abroad who are trying to suggest that Indonesia should be used as an example for the rest of Muslim world!

Ms. Ann Marie Murphy continues with her CNN coverage: In Indonesia today a reformist former general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, serves as president after twice winning direct presidential elections.


It is hardly a secret that President Yudhoyono actually stalled that little that could be called reforms. The greatest challenge Indonesia is presently facing is 'corruption'. But apart of embezzling funds and 'stealing millions from the poor', Indonesian corruption is actually much more complex and sinister: it is a complex monster – a net of interdependency, favors and mutual aid that keeps old boys from Suharto era in the driving seats. Being part of that club himself, Mr. Yudhoyono - as well as those who are around him - is actually doing everything not to dismantle the system.

It is also worth analyzing why President Yudhoyono is so unpopular in Indonesia and so popular in the West.

Closer examination of his record (which hardly appears in Western mainstream media) would offer some chilling facts: General Yudhoyono was trained twice at Fort Benning in the US – a school that produced some of the most vicious members of death squads operating in right-wing/pro-Western dictatorships in Central and South America. After his first 'schooling' he was sent as platoon commander to occupied East Timor – the country, which lost around 30% of its entire population under Indonesian occupation. Mr. Yudhoyono arrived only one year after invasion – arguably during the time when most of the killings took place. Mr. Yudhoyono's wife is a daughter of one of the generals responsible for some of the most terrible atrocities of 1965/66 US-backed coup that brought Suharto to power: several years ago he was proudly declaring that he and his companion killed 3 million people after 1965.

What are other reasons that make Indonesia so popular in the West? Corruption – past and present – is giving almost unlimited access to logging, mining and other extortion of natural wealth of the country. Close to nothing goes to the pockets of common Indonesian people: foreign companies, Indonesian 'elites' and the military share profits. The military is often protecting foreign companies against Indonesian people themselves - there are many documented cases in Aceh that I recently visited, but also in Papua and elsewhere.

In the meantime, if international standards apply, more than half of Indonesians live in dire poverty. Infrastructure of the country is collapsing and so is its environment. Natural disasters, often results of unbridled deforestation and mining activities take thousands of human lives, annually. Quality of education and medical care are well below standards of most of the Asia-Pacific nations.

New catch phrase or journalist cliché is that 'Indonesia is the biggest Southeast Asian economy'. Of course it is – how could it not? It has officially 237 million people (although several top world statisticians now believe that it is actually inhabited by 300 million and the government does not want to admit demographic disaster which it did nothing to stop) – other large countries in the region - Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Burma - have populations well below 100 million each. On per capita bases Indonesia remains one of the poorest countries in the Pacific Asia, with some of the most unequal distribution of wealth.

Then what about economic growth?

Indonesia is the forth most populous country on earth. But have you ever seen anything with the label 'Made In Indonesia' abroad, except few T-shirts and sneakers? You probably did not as the country produces very little for its size. The growth comes from uncontrollable (and often illegal) plunder of natural resources, and from unusually high commodity prices on the world markets. Wealth is distributed among very limited group of people, in fact scenario that is not unlike that of the countries like Sudan. Both Khartoum and Jakarta count with fives star hotels and luxury shopping centers and with misery that can only be found in sub-Saharan Africa.

Is this really an example, an inspiration for new aspiring democracies in Arab world? Shouldn't they rather looking at Chile (if they are looking for capitalism with human face) or Bolivia (if socialism is the aim)?

When massive protests shook Jakarta in 1998, I moved from my comfortable hotel room to the 'headquarters' of the uprising at Trisakti University. For days I discussed the situation with the student leaders. At that time I lived in South America and I was definitely not impressed with what I hard from rebellious students in Jakarta.

The goal was to 'depose Suharto'. "We love and respect our parents and our teachers", explained one of the students during those days. "All we want is that Suharto steps down. Once we achieve our goal, we will return to our class rooms, to our previous lives."

Eventually Suharto decided to go. Elites and military regrouped. Truly reform-minded President Wahid was deposed. Religion increased its grip on the society. Army continued to moonlight as private guard for the multi-nationals. New political parties were formed – to solidify position of the old elites, not to protect the poor. Elections were held regularly – to allow mainstream media and academia in the West to repeat the same phrase about successful reforms. Indonesia continued to be one of the most capitalist countries on earth, and one of the most compassionless, too.

Rebellious leaders in Arab world should not listen to anybody from outside and do what they believe is right. But if there were one advice I would like to offer, it would be this: "please do study Indonesian example. Think about what happened in this country and make sure that you don't repeat the same mistakes. Here, the great chance for changes was kidnapped, destroyed, perverted, missed. Try to do better than this. Indonesia's experience is offering great wisdom: to get rid of one leader is not going to save the country.

What has to go is the system itself. Those responsible for atrocities, even for treason (for siding with foreign political and business interests), should be brought to justice as it happened in Argentina, Chile, South Africa and elsewhere (mainly in Latin America).

In Indonesia, nobody was tried for plunder of natural resources and the land, for 2-3 million people that were massacred in 1965/66, for genocide in East Timor and for ongoing massacre in Papua. How could they be, these people are still busy governing the country while receiving praises from abroad.

Don't make the same mistake!

Andre Vltchek ( http://andrevltchek.weebly.com/ ) – novelist, filmmaker, investigative journalist, author of numerous books and documentary films. His latest non-fiction book – Oceania – deals with western neo-colonialism in Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia (http://www.amazon.com/Oceania-André-Vltchek/dp/1409298035). His latest novel about war correspondents and Latin American revolution is available in French: http://www.amazon.fr/Point-non-retour-André-Vltchek/dp/2916209816/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1297758349&sr=8-2  
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Comments (3)add comment

Nana said:

Indonesia might not be better but it certainly is not the worst example
I find this article is non-biased, however I cannot agree that Indonesia is the worst example.
Indonesia is considered to be one example to the Middle East and African countries because it shares circumstances in simmilarity. Started back then in the period of the existence of the Non-Alignment Movement, further back that Indonesia once was ruled by kingdoms.

I would agree that it is not the best example, but Indonesia is surely not the worst.
If you would say America is the worst example, I would give you two thumps up.
March 02, 2011
Votes: -2

Duncan Graham said:

About time for a more realistic appraisal of the situation in Indonesia. There’s been an excess of superficial reporting and commentary, ignoring the evils being maintained in the Republic because the GDP looks good (although Indonesian statistics are always suspect), the President appears benign and speaks English, and the myth of ‘moderate Islam’ gets handed down without scrutiny. Despite a massive mandate from the people SBY has disappointed in his timid approach to the nation’s social ills, allowing corruption, radical Islam, thuggish behaviour and poor planning to continue. This lacklustre performance includes a refusal to reform the Dutch colonial laws that still operate. On the plus side SBY has been the best of a bad lot. The other candidates would have returned the Republic to total Soeharto-era politics, rather than partially. Expectations that elections would be bloodbaths have not eventuated. The media is the most free in Asia, and the people remain largely tolerant and friendly. The worry is that democracy under SBY hasn’t produced the benefits enjoyed by the West so could be discarded in favour of shariah law. This is the real and present danger.
March 03, 2011
Votes: +1

Yohanes Sulaiman said:

Mr. Vltchek's article is interesting and pretty enlightening. It is really a good survey about what currently goes wrong in Indonesia, from the rampant corruption, to the rise of religious intolerance. Unfortunately though, in focusing only on these weaknesses, Mr. Vltchek missed one major point, that Indonesia is still moving forward, wobbling, but still going forward toward a society with a strong democratic value.

The root of the problems that Mr. Vitchek described in his article is the structural weaknesses of the Indonesian state itself, which should be a precaution to every single democratic movements everywhere else.

Considering the fact that Indonesia experienced 32 years of authoritarian rules of Suharto, coupled with the destruction of the legal structure (supreme court) and party system during the Sukarno era, and the impact of 350 years of Dutch colonialism, which caused the Indonesian elites to have the aura of invincibility regardless how horrid they treat their subjects (since any rebellion would be swiftly crushed by the Dutch, which also fostered the idea that "might is right"), I think the developments in the past 13 years are actually encouraging.

The past history cannot be used to whitewash errors, but the past history also showed that until 13 years ago, the authoritarian rules had managed to destroy and corrupt the structure of the state.

The political and religious elites of today may still operate under these assumptions - old habits are hard to break. The new generation, however, has different mentality.

The fact that Indonesia currently has a robust and critical press (that managed to rouse presidential ire), people are actually demanding investigations on elite's corruptions, huge public uproar toward anarchic actions of radical Islamists (compared to Pakistan, where people actually praising a killer of a governor) and not to mention popular outrage to members of parliaments that behaved stupidly; all of these show that the culture of freedom and democracy is growing. People no longer take as granted the idea that the political and religious elites and government can do no wrong.

Mr. Huda Ismail can denounce the government without getting arrested. If you watch MetroTV, every evening they are bashing the government's incompetence and ridiculing politicians' idiotic behaviors. In Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, you will be arrested and your license will be revoked. In Indonesia, it's just a normal day. That's what I will call one step forward.

I am teaching a group of colonels at a local university. In my classes, I always struck with the earnestness, their desire to actually create a professional and strong army without the excesses from the past. They deplored corruption, grafts, and mismanagements in Indonesia. They are willing to open their minds, airing dissents, and actually trying to understand what democracy is all about. They learn to think critically. I would call that progress.

Change always takes time. 13 years are simply not enough to dismantle entire rotten structure and remake everything. Mr. Vitchek may think Indonesians can only wave a magic wand and poof everything is fine and dandy. Sadly not.

Many people are frustrated over the slow pace of reform. I personally am frustrated with the lethargy of the current government, that the President seems unwilling to pursue a decisive policies that may improve people's lives or at least taking the fight against corruption seriously, not only just lip service.

Unfortunately, we are living in real world, influenced by the sins that we inherited from the past. In real world, changing everything too fast can cause riots, civil wars, and more deaths, and people will demand the authoritarian regime to return.

Gus Dur tried to do that, and the backlash was not only limited in the Parliament building. It also sparked ethnic-religious warfare thanks to dumb rabblerousers, provocateurs, and people willing to destroy national unity as their interests got threatened by Gus Dur's actions.

Mr. Vitchek may want to think about that.

March 03, 2011
Votes: +0

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