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April 2007

I had the pleasure last Monday of launching Katharine McGregor's book, History in Uniform: Military Ideology and the Construction of Indonesian History (NUS Press, part of the ASAA Southeast Asian Publications Series). This book is probably the best account I've seen of the way that the New Order version of history was constructed. It is very well written, and one of its strengths is that it hones in on the architect of the military version of history, Nugroho Notosusanto, and shows the complexities of his various positions, as he moved from member of the Student Army in the Revolution, to 1950s short-story writer, to pro-military academic and eventually Rektor of UI and Minister of Education and Culture.

Kate's book leaves lots of room for debate, but she deals very deftly with both key issues in the construction of Indonesian historiography, and aspects of the politics of the New Order.


The continuing stream of revelations about the Garuda crash show how little Indonesian political processes have changed since the Suharto era. I know it is a natural instinct of politicians everywhere to protect their backsides, but Indonesia's political leadership has taken denial of responsibility to new heights. It seems that in Indonesian politics if you deny there is a problem then it will go away. A number of us have commented on how the New Order promoted a bureaucratic culture of 'asal Bapak senang', or 'as long as the boss is happy', by which bad news was never reported up the system, statistics were fudged and mistakes covered up to maintain the appearance of order.

The first denial of responsibility in the case of the Garuda crash is the refusal by the legislature or the executive to do anything to regulate the aircraft industry. The information about the excessive age of Indonesia's aeroplanes has been publicly available for at least eighteen months, but it was only after the Adam Air crash that any noises were made about ensuring that old planes would not be allowed to fly. Even then they were not immediately stopped, and even Adam Air was allowed to continue operating — no connection to the fact that it is owned by the Speaker of the House? Only a second disaster stopped Adam Air. Government and regulatory sources were quoted as saying that age was not as important as maintenance, which may be true, but given the low standards of maintenance and lack of policing by regulatory bodies, this response was what we Australians call a 'furphy' ('redherring' would be the closest translation).

Cheap airlines continue to operate, I'm told you can get an intercity flight for as little as $9. I think Wings Airways has the best motto, painted in big letters on their planes, 'Fly is Cheap'.

Garuda's response of painting over their logo on the tail of the 'plane speaks for itself. The company has remained silent, and sources in the travel business say that Garuda is maintaining that all blame should go with the pilot, ie that there was no mechanical error. Recent revelations have been disturbing, that the pilot did not want to pull out of the landing because that is seen as bad for one's image, and that the pilot did not want to go around because he was saving fuel. These indicate systemic problems. One thing that has not been discussed in the media is the fact that Garuda and airforce pilots often moonlight for the smaller airlines. If pilot fatigue was a factor in the crash, this is extremely disturbing.

Then there is the question of who is responsible for Yogyakarta Airport. The Airport building was recently upgraded, I'm told partly by funding from the sale of adjoining land, and perhaps the control tower, although I've yet to find out what the story is behind the last element. One of those who appeared in print as calling for accountability in the crash is the Sultan of Yogyakarta, and it is good that he has been so active in calling for something to be done. The Sultan is also the Governor, and his pushing on the issue may be a way of putting pressure on the Air Force, who owns the actual airport. The issues of land ownership (and deals) and local government responsibility for the airport have been avoided in public discussions.

It is not just in the crash that we see such denials of responsibility. The Bakrie ownership of the company that is responsible for the poison mud flow that has killed a number of people, left 13,000 families homeless and ruined large parts of East Java is well known. But minister Bakrie denies any responsibility, saying that the mud flow is an act of nature, not neglect by his company. He remains a minister.

If the consequences of these and similar events were not so tragic, they would be seen as farcical examples of alternative theories of causality. In Indonesian political rhetoric the terminology of 'responsibility' translates very differently from notions found in other political systems. 'Responsibility', or tanggung jawab (literally something like 'carrying an answer'), seems to mean pronouncing a denial, rather than recognising that one has made a mistake. The failure of the various Truth and Reconciliation Commisions (over the 1965 killings, East Timor etc) also points to an unwillingness in the political process to identify and rectify mistakes and bad decisions or actions.

If any of these international programs to address governance in Indonesia are to bear fruit, perhaps they should begin with this problem of 'who is responsible?'


The recent proposal by the Australian Government to invest in protecting Indonesia's forests is a very positive step, despite the fact, as the Greens have pointed out, that there is an element of hypocrisy in the move, given that the Howard Government's electoral success in Tasmania has come because of its pro-logging policies.

Nevertheless, the major issue is how to stop the large-scale logging going on in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Irian Jaya/West Papua in particular? Some of the logging is illegal, but who will police this, given that in the past (and probably still), the military have been behind logging in national parks and other protected areas.

Other clearing is taking place to make way for palm oil plantations. Burning of forest areas for palm oil plantations is one of the chief sources of the massive smoke palls that blanket Indonesia and its neighbours each year. These plantations are currently seen as lucrative investments both by those already reaping fortunes from them, and by those who are getting into regional governments, and looking for new sources of investment. Ed Aspinall has found that this is the case, for example in Aceh. The world's consumption of junk food fried in palm oil doesn't look like abating any time soon, and governments all around the world, including the Howard Government, are looking to bio-fuels to solve the looming oil shortage — palm oil being seen as a prime source of bio-fuels. Many of those who reap major profits from palm oil are people who set up their businesses during the Suharto era, often with no real outlay by the so-called 'businessmen', but rather by diverting state funds into private incomes.

So solving the problem of forest clearing is not just a matter of slowing demand for forest products, it would also rely on curbing demand for palm oil, and finding alternative livelihoods for those employed in the industry. Given that many of the Suharto cronies remain in power in Jakarta, there will be a lot of blocks to attempts to stop the palm oil industry acquiring more land, let alone convert their current land back to forests.

Another factor in the rapid extinction of forests and all that live in them, is legal logging. With Regional Autonomy, it is now no longer necessary to bribe key figures associated with Suharto, now the bribery and corruption takes place on the regional or Kabupaten level. So again the problem is how to counter that bribery? Should international aid funding be used to pay Indonesian politicians higher incomes so they will be less liable to take bribes?

Despite the ideas of Bono and those like him that we can solve all the world's problems by throwing money at them, the complexities of the situation on the ground in Indonesia mean that any solution to these problems are a long way off, and rely as much on political will as funding.