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Indonesian politics

The bomb attacks in Jakarta yesterday were directed at the Indonesian state. Just at the point where Indonesia was showing the world that it was getting along ok, economically as well as politically, its enemies within have chosen a new target, the business community, and especially foreign investment. Tragically, this attack has killed and maimed Indonesians, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and others alike. The stories of the victims and their families are extremely upsetting, and show that the psychopaths who launched these attacks have lost any sense of humanity.

As with the earlier attacks, trying to unravel 'what happened' remains a problem, and the lack of satisfactory action against those responsible for earlier terrorist activities shows that the door remains open for further attacks. The big question is 'who?' The immediate actors are most likely to be suicide bombers probably motivated by a desire to destabilise the Indonesian state and replace it with a transnational Caliphate. They are also probably associate with Noordin Md. Top, the Malaysian bomber responsible for earlier attacks, although he seems now to be operating a small independent terror cell, rather than being a member of the larger body JI. But why is it that Top has remained free for so long, and that the bombers were able to get past heavy security in two hotels to stage a large attack? Could it be that BIN, the Indonesian security body, is either incompetent, or involved?

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A recent item posted on Facebook relates how a national test of the language standard of Indonesian teachers of English reveals that, as we suspected, the standard is very low:
"Republic of Indonesia: Berdasarkan Test of English for International Communication (ToEIC), dari sekitar 600 guru sekolah rintisan sekolah berstandar internasional (RSBI) SMP, SMA, dan SMK di seluruh Indonesia, terungkap bahwa penguasaan bahasa Inggris guru dan kepala sekolahnya rendah."

The low standard of English remains one of the biggest barriers against Indonesia being internationally competitive. For example in academia, few lecturers, let alone students, can communicate effectively in English, meaning that writing of books and journal articles for international audiences is almost impossible. Many of my colleagues have raised questions about levels of English comprehension amongst students, for example those reading difficult theoretical texts.

Such language problems also mean that it is very hard to find good translators. I have been very lucky with a forthcoming book, my publisher, Larasan Sejarah, has employed Arif Prasetyo, a gifted poet, whose renderings of my English have been almost faultless (I think he got caught out by one Australian idiom only). Sadly for many other books being translated, this is not the usual, and given that Indonesian publishers do not usually pay copy editors and proof readers, the quality of many publications remains dubious.

Sadly, I have seem seem recent examples of translations from Indonesian into English, in which no native speakers have been involved (for example in a new Art magazine, ARTi). Defenders of communicative language would say that the resulting Englonesian (problems with plural, word order, conjugation, possessive etc) is acceptable as long as the results are intelligible, but unfortunately this is not the case. The big disappointment here is that such new art journals that have important messages to convey will not reach international audiences.

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I'm a big fan of Slumdog Millionaire, but Indonesia has shown that it can produce films of high calibre on similar topics. There has been a lot of cynicism expressed by Indonesians about the recent elections (or more specifically about political candidates), but I recently saw a powerful reminder that there are still idealists out there. The film Laskar Pelangi, based on a book of the same name, is one of the biggest hits in Indonesian cinema, and the book has been hugely popular.

Laksar Pelangi is a story about how the education system denies access to the poorest, because even the so-called state system relies on having a certain degree of wealth for access. The story is about a struggling Muhammadiyah School on Belitung, and the idealism that keeps that school going: the conviction that the poorest in society need access to education. The film is a great analysis of how class works in Indonesia, but without being heavy-handedly political, and is really inspiring.

A warning though to make sure you've got a box of tissues with you, it's very moving without being overly sentimental. The local accents are great too!


It will be interesting to see whether Indonesia can weather the current economic storm. Early predications, and my own view, are that it might because it has already been through the events of 1997-8. However the Straits Times yesterday reported that one of the Bakrie families big coal mining investments will most likely be the first casualty of the credit squeeze. This may be a problem for SBY, since he needs Bakrie and some of the other rich to bankroll his election campaign, but if other conglomerates are also hit, then Indonesian politicians may just have to campaign on policy and vision rather than payola. That would be a novel development in any country, and is similiar to the problem that Obama and McCain face in the world's second largest plutocracy, oops, democracy.


It's always good to find substantiation of one's theories. A few years ago I produced an attempt to historicise the New Order, my 'keeping up appearances' article (in the book Indonesia Today: The Challenge of History). There I argued that the Suharto regime was not concerned with running Indonesia properly, merely giving the appearance of doing so (by maintaining the appearance of law, the appearance of economic growth, and the appearance of order, rather than actually doing anything substantial).

Now we have the situation where Suharto is all but dead, his vital organs seem to have packed up, but his doctors have announced triumphantly that the life-support machines have maintained the appearance of life. I don't particularly like Suharto, but I feel sorry for him and think that he should be allowed to die with dignity, without the horrible press crushes around his comatose body.

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My trip to Indonesia wasn't just to escape the state-of-war-and-siege that had been declared in the centre of Sydney for APEC, but also to work on a couple of my other research projects. Nevertheless, I had time to do a bit of disaster tourism, visiting the poisonous mud volcano that was created in Sidoarjo, just south of Surabaya airport.


I was running late for the Panji festival because my plane from Jakarta to Surabaya had been cancelled, as had all the planes to Surabaya that morning. I feared another airport disaster, but it turned out that they just decided to close down Surabaya airport, the busiest hub to Eastern Indonesia, because the President was visiting! And they wonder why Indonesia has problems with national productivity (while I was in Jakarta Kompas had a great expose on this kind of self-important overkill that preoccupies Indonesian public officials. One of their journalists got hold of the—illegal—price-lists that local police stations produce for those who want to hold motorcades. You too can stuff up the traffic, for a price).

Anyway, despite being 4 hours late, I couldn't resist stopping off on the road to Malang to see the Lapindo disaster. For those not familiar with this, just over a year ago employees of the company Lapindo were doing exploratory drilling when they set off a huge eruption of poisonous mud. There are various accounts of how this occurred. Mr Bakrie, one of the owners of Lapindo, but also a government minister, claims it is entirely natural, and he continues in his post. Others more expert claim that it is because the drillers did not follow procedures—basically they cut corners to save time and money by not using proper casings on the drills. Whatever the cause, the mud continues to flood out. It has destroyed a major highway, ruined factories and other forms of livelihood, and most importantly wiped out the houses of between 12,000 and 13,000 people. The mud is still hot, and the sulphurous smell is horrendous. A number of people have already died in attempts to stop the flow (including the dropping of large concrete balls down the main source).


The victims of the disaster show sightseers around. For Rp20,000 you can get a bike ride up to the central lake, and other enterprising people have made DVDs of the event, including the related explosion of a Pertamina gasline in November 2006. The people in the area claim to have received small amounts of payment from Lapindo for six months, but so far have not received any real compensation, and are reliant on government handouts. Predictions are that the eruption is creating a huge vacuum under the mud lake, and that the whole area could collapse.


The recent arrests in Indonesia of leaders of JI have caused the usual excitement amongst the Security-wallahs (the people who make a living out of telling governments how Islamic terrorists are making the sky fall). It is interesting to see the various internal and external discussions going on here.

On the one hand the arrests are very good, they show that the violent terrorist organisation usually known as JI is a lot weaker (relatively obscure people are having to fill some of the gaps in leadership), and the net is closing. On the other hand M Top is still at large and no doubt trying to get hold of bomb-making material, and there are still nutcases who want to sign up to support him in such activities.

Leaving aside the objective issues of closing down terrorist groups, the reporting on the story has elicited some fascinating responses. Some of those who want to run scare campaigns in the West, including Australian politicians, are still running the line that 'we cannot relax our vigilance'. The DFAT website still advises Australians not to go to Indonesia: 'We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Indonesia, including Bali, at this time due to the very high threat of terrorist attack. We receive regular
targets, including places frequented by foreigners. If you are in Indonesia, including Bali, and are concerned for your safety you should consider departing. If you do decide to travel to Indonesia, including Bali, you should exercise extreme caution.' As I've commented before, when the US has shooting sprees, and the US and the UK issue major statements about terrorist activities in those countries, there are no similar warnings telling Australians not to visit New York or London. And the law-and-order campaigns continue, with for example the revelations in today's Sydney Morning Herald about NSW police attempting to get student leaders to spy on demonstrators. The absurdly-named 'War Against Terror' is a key part of the creation of such Stasi-like practices; some in the security world must feel disappointed every time a leading terrorist is captured. Did the US deliberately let Osama bin Laden get away in the earlier stages of the war in Afghanistan?

On the other hand, some of the Indonesian responses to the capture have been pretty depressing as well...

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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?'