Friday, May 21, 2010

12 Years On, How Sick is Indonesia's Reformasi?

A dozen years after the dawning of Indonesia’s Reformasi movement, there are fears the country is on a slippery slope backwards.

No one disputes how far Indonesia has come: the economy is booming and last year’s elections brought political stability by returning Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to the presidency. The huge street protests, bloody anti-Chinese riots and economic ruin that marked the last days of the dictator Suharto’s “New Order” regime are gone.

But on the 12th anniversary on Friday of Suharto’s resignation, all is not well with Reformasi, the movement for democratic change that energized reform across the nation for more than a decade.

Some analysts fear the tide may be turning back in favor of Suharto-style cronyism and a political and business elite that has never, they say, relinquished power.

“There is not much difference between Suharto’s time and now. Suharto’s cronies have just been replaced by new cronies,” economist Martin Panggabean said.

Analysts see persistent, widespread corruption, a lack of government transparency, a culture of impunity for rights abuses and the growing use of draconian libel laws to muzzle critics. Such fears came to a head this month with the resignation of Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who often clashed with reactionary forces in the ruling coalition.

She has won international praise for keeping Southeast Asia’s biggest economy growing and battling to clean up the graft-riddled tax and customs offices. But Yudhoyono gave her lonely campaign little more than rhetorical support, and her new role as a managing director at the World Bank has extricated her from a position that had become untenable in the face of constant attack by Golkar, Suharto’s largely unreformed political vehicle.

Talking to business leaders on Wednesday, she compared the situation now to the crony dictatorship of Suharto, who died in 2008.

“We have learned from the 30-year regime of President Suharto, where relationships between personal and public interests were so mixed-up,” she said. “We all knew what occurred during the New Order era was like a disease. But at that time it was done behind closed doors. Now it’s more sophisticated and the skills of power enable the decision-making process to be co-opted.”

In what some observers saw as a parting shot at the ruling elite, she said the current system was like a cartel. “You can see for yourselves, government officials with business backgrounds, even though they say they have put aside all their businesses, everyone knows that their siblings, their children, who knows who else from their families, are still running the firms,” she said.

The comments were reported as a stab at Golkar chief Aburizal Bakrie, seen as the architect of the campaign to remove Sri Mulyani after she tried to bring his vast business empire under the rule of law. Days after her resignation, and after secret talks with Yudhoyono, Bakrie was tasked to lead a new secretariat tasked with overseeing the ruling coalition.

Yudhoyono is seen by some to have ceded control of the government to his political coalition and sacrificed Sri Mulyani.

Analysts said a key test for Reformasi will be whether Sri Mulyani’s probe into $210 million in allegedly unpaid taxes by Bakrie-linked mining firms is brought to trial or swept under the carpet.

Analysis by Stephen Coates for Agence France-Presse

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