Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Two Faces of Indonesia


The Asian Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, 30 November 2004

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA-The British novelist Graham Greene once lamented: "I often find myself torn between two beliefs: the belief that the world should be better than it is and the belief that when the world appears to be better, it is actually worse." Although he never wrote a novel about Indonesia, he might as well have been talking about the state of the country today.

Since the fall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia has steadily evolved into Asia's rising democracy - the world's third largest one, to be exact. In 1999, Indonesia democratically held its first parliamentary elections following three decades of dictatorship. This year, for the first time in history, Indonesians directly elected their president.

As can be expected, the tree of democracy has given fruit to greater freedom. The Indonesian media that Mr. Suharto kept silent for so long were, all of a sudden, able to report the truth. Publications that Mr. Suharto had shut down were able to resume their activities. Likewise, International and Indonesian non-governmental organizations and humanrights groups were able to exist and work in Indonesia. The most famous example was the International Crisis Group (ICG). The Brussels-based crisis analysis group started an Indonesia program looking at everything from decentralization to Islamic terrorist networks. Journalists have been able to investigate government and business entities and uncover major scandals--something inconceivable under Mr. Suharto.

So, yes, the advance of liberty in Indonesia has been remarkable. The introduction of democracy in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation is a daily rebuttal to those who are skeptical that democracy can co-exist with Islam.

Alas, progress has been unsteady. The most infamous backward step, and most damaging to Indonesia's reputation abroad, was the deportation of Sidney Jones, the director of ICG's Indonesia program, in June. At first, the Indonesian immigration authorities cited visa violations as the grounds on which to expel her. Later, after pressure from Ms. Jones's colleagues, the media, other NGOs and many others in civil society, immigration officials authorized her expulsion on the grounds that her reports had criticized the government of Indonesia for taking lightly the threat posed by the terrorist Islamist network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

The al Qaeda-linked JI is responsible for several terrorist attacks, including the the 2002 Ball bortbing that killed 202 people; the bombing of the J.W. Marriott Jakarta Hotel in May 2003; and the bombing of the Australian Embassy ahead of both Indonesia's and Australia's election.

Next came the indictment of Bambang Harymurti, the chief editor of the weekly news magazine Tempo, in September. Regarded as one of Indonesia's finest journalists, Mr. Bambang was found guilty of libeling one of Indonesia's most powerful businessmen.

And this month, the Nederlands Forensisch Instituut said its autopsy of Indonesian human rights activist Munir, who died on Sept. 7 enroute to the Netherlands, revealed he was poisoned with arsenic. Munir, who was well known for his courageous works on corruption, violence, and human-rights violations in Indonesia, was on his way to the Netherlands to complete his legal studies. He was 38 years old, and a heroto many. His family and his admirers in Indonesia and abroad are demanding an investigation, which Indonesia's new president has promised.

Together, Ms. Jones's expulsion, Mr. Harymurti's imprisonment, and Munir's murder reflect also the reality of today's Indonesia -as much as the free elections and the freer press does. It is to be hoped that democracy will solve these problems in time.

Mr. Nguyen is a Jakarta-based columnist. His new book is "The Indonesian Dream: Unity, Diversity, and Democracy in Times of Distrust" (Marshall Cavendish Academic).

1 Comments:

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