Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Indonesia's President Yudhoyono Sees Coups Round Every Corner

JAKARTA - Something strange has happened to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono since his sweeping victory in July's presidential elections, showing a side of him that appears thin-skinned, self-centered and, more recently, even paranoid.

It is not a flattering picture, underscored by his angry claims that he has been the victim of lies and character assassination and one recent incident when he stopped in mid-speech to castigate a member of the audience for resting his head in his hands.

"His moods are very bad now," says one palace insider, noting the way the president has adopted a more regal bearing, particularly in the way he conducts cabinet meetings. "He takes everything so personally."

Much of Yudhoyono's mood swings can be explained by the pressure he has been under over the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) and Bank Century scandals that have given his new administration its worst possible start. But a lot of it has been self-inflicted and raises troubling questions about the quality of advice he has been getting. It has even led some critics to wonder if the retired general is only a democrat when it suits him to be.

Certainly, he has been slow to realize how much civil society groups have grown in the past decade and how effective they have become in galvanizing public opinion on an issue as widely detested as corruption. In the period leading up to recent Anti-Corruption Day demonstrations, the president veered wildly into fantasy land with astonishing claims that they were being used to bring him down. Not even chief security minister, Djoko Suyanto, seemed to believe that. Yet on the eve of the street rallies, the Detachment 88 counter-terrorism unit was placed on high alert to guard against terrorists infiltrating the protestors.

It was only in a televised speech in the evening that the president seemed to realize he had gone too far and sought to change direction by declaring a "jihad" against corruption and pledging to form a special unit to reform the judicial system. In the end, the threatened people's power uprising, or whatever he thought it would be, was an anti-climax, thanks to the rain, fears of traffic gridlock - and perhaps even the president's speech itself.

Yudhoyono's change in character can be traced to a puzzling outdoor speech he made on the day Islamic militants bombed the Ritz Carlton and JW Marriott hotels in Jakarta, just a week after July's presidential elections. Suddenly, the twin attacks were all about him. Standing in the palace grounds, he dramatically produced a bullet-scarred picture of himself, which had been used during target practice at a militant training camp - four years before as it turned out.

Then he appeared to accuse his political opponents of perpetrating the blasts before police investigators had even determined definitively that they were the work of suicide bombers.

His anger may have been understandable, coming as it did when he was on an emotional high after his resounding election victory. But it left an unpleasant after-taste with many Indonesians.

Corruption Troubles

The source of his other troubles goes back to late June, a week before the election, when the jailing of his father-in-law, central banker Aulia Pohan, for corruption, led him to openly question the powers of the KPK. The outburst presaged a plot hatched by police and prosecutors to go after KPK commissioners Bibit Rianto and Chandra Hamzah on clearly trumped-up charges of bribery and abuse of power.

Yudhoyono proceeded to sit on his hands and shelter behind what he claimed were legal restraints when it was obvious from the start that justice, more important than anything in a democratic society, was being perverted. The plot finally unraveled after the public airing of wire-tapped tapes before the Constitutional Court revealed the full extent of the conspiracy and collusion between police, prosecutors and corrupt businessmen.

But even then, the president seemed more alarmed about the fact that his name was mentioned on several of the tapes, even if it was not all incriminating. In other words, it was all about him again. While the KPK controversy seems to have been laid to rest with Rianto's and Hamzah's return to their positions, Yudhoyono can only let the Bank Century bailout case run its course now that it is being investigated by a special parliamentary committee, whose members and their motives are already embroiled in controversy.

Even here, a president who demands absolute loyalty from his ministers has shown little inclination to give some back, leaving embattled Vice President Boediono and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati to the mercy of the politicians It would have taken little for him to declare his confidence in the two members of his cabinet, whose integrity and character are considered by many to be beyond reproach.

As it was, when the president flew off on a four-nation tour of Europe on December 13, it was without his finance minister - the one person who should have been with him on a trip of such importance. While Yudhoyono may ultimately be able to use his ruling coalition's majority in parliament to control the outcome of the inquiry, he has no way of managing what is actually said during the hearings, which are expected to last at least three months.

Despite all the strides made under his first administration in putting a dent in endemic bureaucratic corruption, the president has seemed strangely reluctant to break a few eggs. In doing so, he has raised questions about the KPK's powers to wire-tap. "The important thing in eradicating corruption is to prevent, not to entrap," he told a national summit in October called to map out a government agenda for the next five years. Deterrence and the fear of punishment is the most potent weapon available to anti-corruption fighters - and wire-taps, as long as they are properly regulated internally, are the most crucial element of that.

Yet picking up on the president's reservations, Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring is now suggesting that the commission must obtain a court order before it targets a suspect. That may be all very well in Western countries with robust legal
systems, but in Indonesia it will almost certainly be turned into another way of making money for corrupt elements in the judiciary and the brokers who feed off them.

The only reason corruption prospered in Indonesia in the first place was because few if any transgressors went to jail. In the four years since they have, with the KPK leading the charge, Indonesia's place on Transparency International's corruption perceptions index has dropped from 137th to 111th.

But even today, the stream of public officials to be imprisoned on graft charges seldom look ashamed at what they have done. Invariably, they are either smiling in embarrassment at their misfortune - or are enraged that they have been caught out. By John McBeth Jakarta-based columnist for the Straits Times of Singapore.

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