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?'