Subject: AFR/Jakarta Observed: Political Chameleon with a Mixed Record

Australian Financial Review Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Jakarta Observed

Political Chameleon with a Mixed Record

By Andrew Burrell

John Howard gushes that he is an "impressive man" of "immense grace and character" who represents Indonesia's "future, not its past". If only Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president who ended his two-day visit to Australia yesterday and pledged a "new era" in bilateral relations, were that easy to categorise.

The former general is feted by the West as the best thing in years to have happened to Indonesia's democratic transition, its economic development and ability to combat terrorism.

While this may all turn out to be true, it also seems an odd reading of a man who once staunchly defended Soeharto's dictatorship, dithers endlessly over key decisions and refuses to even acknowledge that Jemaah Islamiyah exists in Indonesia for fear of offending his fellow Muslims.

The real story so far is that after almost six months in office, Yudhoyono is still a mass of contradictions, many reflecting tensions in Indonesian society.

His record in power is mixed: full of rhetoric and good intentions, but lacking many practical achievements.

Howard may see his new friend as a reliable partner for Australia and a staunch defender of democracy, but a closer look at Yudhoyono's career over the past decade reveals a man who will sway with the political breeze.

He rose to power last year by skilfully promoting himself as a reformist and an outsider who would tackle vested interests, but he is no genuine cleanskin.

In fact, he is almost unique in Jakarta for having happily operated at the apex of power in both an autocracy and a democracy.

Back in 1999, he served as the Indonesian military's powerful chief-of-staff of territorial affairs during one of the most shameful periods in the institution's history: the army-backed slaughter in East Timor.

Yudhoyono's nationalistic streak reared its head when he protested about world opinion turning against Indonesia over East Timor and played down the atrocities being committed there. "I am worried of opinion being formed in the international community that what happened in East Timor is a great human tragedy, ethnic cleansing or a large-scale crime, when in reality it is not," he said.

A search back through the 1997 archives also reveals - somewhat uncomfortably for a man who went on to become Indonesia's first directly elected president - that he spent much of that year publicly defending Soeharto's brutal regime against complaints by pro-democracy activists. In late 1997, he repeatedly denied the need for any political reform in Indonesia and spoke of the need to counter various "threats to stability" against the regime.

Even recently, Yudhoyono's real views on democracy and human rights have appeared contradictory.

While he makes all the right noises when speaking to journalists or addressing well-heeled foreign audiences, at times he sounds like the Soeharto-era general he once was.

"Democracy, human rights, concern for the environment and other concepts being promoted by Western countries are all good, but they cannot become absolute goals because pursuing them as such will not be good for the country," he told Islamic scholars last year, before his election victory.

Yudhoyono came to power last October promising firmer leadership and a more aggressive stance on tackling problems such as rising unemployment, corruption and terrorism.

He started poorly by stacking his cabinet with compromise candidates and non-achievers, and has since failed to deliver on campaign pledges to quickly repair the investment climate or to arrest "big-fish" graft suspects. In fact, he has made only one truly bold political move so far: his decision to cut costly fuel subsidies and raise petrol prices, although even then his senior ministers had to practically force him into it.

Yudhoyono also told a Western reporter soon after being elected that he would conduct a "review" of whether JI existed in Indonesia and would then decide whether the organisation should be officially banned. It should come as no surprise that nothing has since happened on that front.

When he served as security minister he refused to formally outlaw JI or to close the small number of Islamic boarding schools that serve as its training ground, for fear of inflaming Muslim sensibilities.

More recently, he has pandered to the hardline Islamic elements in his own cabinet by publicly complaining about women who show their bare navels on television.

Thankfully, his comments met with ridicule in the mainstream press, who urged the president to focus on more urgent matters.

Yudhoyono is a skilful, honest politician who possesses a remarkable intellect and will doubtless develop into a better president than all or most of his predecessors. But countries such as Australia should follow the lead of the Indonesian people themselves, and lower their expectations of what he is capable of achieving.

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