I hear Jakarta's lovely...
Western leaders are falling over each other to shake hands with Indonesia's most progressive president for years, writes John Aglionby
The Guardian, UK
Wednesday April 5, 2006
If the number of prominent statespeople beating a path to his door is anything to go by, Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, can arguably claim to be the pin-up of the developing world: the person global leaders want to be seen with.
First there was the American president, George W. Bush, who asked to sit next to Mr Yudhoyono (or SBY as he is usually referred to) at a United Nations lunch in New York last year. More recently there have been Jakarta visits by - in addition to Indonesia's neighbours - the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, the American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and last week, Tony Blair (the first by a British leader since 1985). Arriving this Friday is Jan Peter Balkenende, the prime minister of the Netherlands, Indonesia's former colonial power. Other western leaders are thought to be strongly considering trips to Indonesia in the next month or two.
The reasons for this surge in popularity are cliched but nonetheless inescapable. Mr Yudhoyono is the first directly elected president of the world's third largest democracy and most populous Muslim nation. Moreover, he is perceived as someone the world can do business with; a moderate Muslim with a PhD in agricultural economics and a retired general who, in comparison with some of his former colleagues, is relatively untarred by the myriad human rights abuses of the nation's authoritarian past.
Unlike his predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Mr Yudhoyono is completely dedicated to his job, while neither he nor his wife are involved in anything other than being the first couple. And to relax, the current president takes the odd hour off to sing or play sport, rather than days to go shopping.
It is one of the most open secrets in Jakarta's diplomatic circles that everyone was glad Mr Yudhoyono was in power, not Ms Megawati, when the 2004 tsunami struck. Not only has Indonesia, by and large, handled reconstruction well, but the government has also used the tragedy to broker a peace deal to end the 29-year separatist insurgency in the worst-affected province, Aceh.
Indonesia's war on terror is also bearing fruit, with a slew of senior leaders having been arrested or killed in gun battles with the security forces. An attraction of Jakarta's approach is that it is not using repressive legislation, as Singapore and Malaysia are, that allows detention without trial but relying on conventional prosecutions, albeit under new anti-terror legislation.
Indonesia's economy is also starting to look a little brighter after eight years in the doldrums. The currency and stock market are strengthening, exports are rising and desperately needed foreign investors are starting to pay more attention to the nation, particularly in the natural resources sector.
This does not mean everything is hunky-dory by a long stretch of the imagination. Foreign leaders are visiting Jakarta to support Mr Yudhoyono as much as "reward" him or burnish their own credentials. The president is dependent on others, particularly his deputy, Jusuf Kalla, to maintain peace in the often-rambunctious parliament; by engaging with Mr Yudhoyono, foreign leaders hope he will stay in power.
Undermining all this bonhomie and back-slapping are two major issues. The first is that the western visitors have virtually the same schedules: talks with Mr Yudhoyono and his ministers, a visit to a moderate Islamic boarding school and perhaps something linked to Aceh and/or business thrown in as well. It's as if Indonesia and Mr Yudhoyono are a one-trick pony, leaving one wondering if the country is suddenly off the visiting leaders' radar screens once they've visited.
The second is that the visitors are also conspicuously turning a blind eye to many issues which remain uncomfortable to discuss. These include escalating tensions in the easternmost Papua province, rampant illegal logging and environmental destruction, the oppression of religious minorities, a half-hearted approach to bird (more deadly for humans in the last four months in Indonesia than anywhere else in the world), the slow pace of military reform, the paucity of resources allocated to healthcare and education, and endemic corruption.
Mr Blair, for example, dismissed questions about Papua even though Australia has recently granted temporary political asylum to 42 Papuans who claimed their lives would be in danger if they returned home. He did not even mention illegal logging, even though Britain has poured massive resources into helping Indonesia try to tackle the issue. And he decided to "normalise" defence ties with Jakarta, without explaining what that means, despite Indonesia's senior military commanders remaining largely above the law and the armed forces still not fully under civilian control.
Until visiting leaders address these thornier issues, their visits, while welcome in Jakarta, will continue to suffer in the credibility stakes.