Friday, October 22, 2010

Indonesian Demonstrators Miss the Point

THE images beamed across the globe from Jakarta on October 20th—of anti-government protesters being tear-gassed and hosed down by riot police—were enough to make one wonder whether Indonesia really deserves its new acclaim as a model emerging democracy.

If you turn off-camera, however, it’s a completely different story. While the protesters managed to look the part, by burning tyres, smashing through barricades of barbed wire and throwing stones to mark the first anniversary of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY’s) second five-year term, their bark is far worse than their bite.

Despite the scary scenes appearing on television and in newspapers, there were only about 2,000 demonstrators in total, in this sprawling capital of a country of 240m. That’s more like a grain of sand on one of Bali’s famous beaches than a popular mass movement. The international and local media ought to ask themselves whether they let a few incidents of violence overshadow the fact that the protests overall were insignificant.

As is a common in the capital’s anti-government demonstrations these days, many of the protesters were paid pocket money and given a box lunch in exchange for taking to the streets to embarrass SBY. The footage running in loops through the international television coverage showed unemployed teenagers, housewives, and bemused pedicab drivers among the (in some cases, genuinely) angry demonstrators—hardly an intelligentsia around which the rest of Indonesia might be inspired to rally.

Any why would they? Indonesia is on a roll, enjoying increased international attention from investors, one of the world’s best rates of GDP growth, a red-hot stockmarket, low inflation, decreasing poverty and unemployment figures, and a vibrant free press. That’s hardly the stuff from which revolutions grow.

On the other hand, Indonesia is clearly experiencing teething pains as it attempts to consolidate its democracy. SBY, who won re-election in a landslide in July 2009, has disappointed erstwhile admirers, often seeming unwilling to take on vested political and economic interests. It’s too easy to see the same entrenched players making corrupt deals and enjoying immunity from prosecution.

SBY’s anti-corruption campaign, which won him two elections, has stalled, and his government has remained silent against a steady drumbeat of allegations of torture by the army and police. Poverty remains endemic—more than 100m Indonesians live on less than $2 a day—and some of the country’s development indicators are on par with sub-Saharan Africa.

The daily newspapers are filled with stories about ordinary citizens tossed into jail for picking bananas off the wrong tree, or for complaining about a hospital. On the other side of the coin, corrupt businessmen with political connections dodge billions of dollars in tax assessments and royalties, only to pose as moral guardians by helping to pass censorious laws against indecency in the popular media.

There are legitimate grounds for anger. But these days they tend not to bring protesters to the streets. For that you’d do better to offer pocket money and the chance to appear on television.
The Economist

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