Steps forward, steps back
SBY hobbled by Suharto’s legacy
Jun 17th 2010 | JAKARTA
SHOULD Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono feel scorned? It would be easy to think so after Barack Obama this month postponed—once again—a state visit to Indonesia, in whose capital, Jakarta, he famously spent a part of his childhood. The ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico provided his latest reason for delay. In March he was detained by a vote to reform America’s health-care system.
Though Mr Yudhoyono has been perfectly obliging about these inconveniences, he must be conscious of their cost to his profile. There are few better ways to boost it than to hobnob with Mr Obama. Relations between America and Indonesia have never been better. When Mr Obama does arrive—possibly in November—the presidents will sign a statement of partnership covering security issues, climate change, trade and more. As an aperitif, on June 10th they announced a defence agreement covering training, procurement and maritime piracy.
But even this consolation comes with a caveat. The agreement keeps in place America’s 12-year-old ban on joint training with the Indonesian army’s infamous special forces, Kopassus. Their poor human-rights record includes torturing and killing separatists and civilians in East Timor (now Timor-Leste) and Aceh.
Still the ban chafes. Indonesia can claim to have transformed itself since the 32-year reign of Suharto ended; it belongs to the G20, stands as a regional model of democracy and has ushered its army out of politics. There is a personal sting for Mr Yudhoyono: he is a retired army general and his brother-in-law until recently commanded Kopassus. Some of its veterans, now senior officials in the defence ministry, were denied visas to travel to America with the president last year. The ban shows that the Suharto regime, which collapsed in 1998 amid popular protests, still casts a dark shadow abroad. Indeed, recent events suggest that it still darkens Jakarta.
In May Sri Mulyani Indrawati, a respected finance minister, resigned to take a job at the World Bank. Golkar, Suharto’s own party, had been haranguing Ms Mulyani for months, accusing her of malfeasance in bailing out a private bank in 2008. According to Ms Mulyani, Golkar’s true animus was her anti-corruption campaign; its leaders’ business interests were imperilled. If so, they can now breathe easier.
Two days before she left for Washington Ms Mulyani identified the billionaire Aburizal Bakrie, Golkar’s chairman, as one of the people seeking to subvert Indonesia’s hard-won reforms for personal gain. Her ministry had three of his family’s coalmining companies under investigation for the evasion of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes.
Golkar however, is the second-largest party in parliament, and Mr Yudhoyono appears to be throwing in his lot with them. After Ms Mulyani resigned, Mr Bakrie took an ominous role in Mr Yudhoyono’s government. His partisans have introduced piles of pork that smack of the Suharto era. When they threatened to quit his coalition Mr Yudhoyono was forced to praise one of their ruinous proposals for rural development, worth $1.6m to each member of parliament.
Ms Mulyani’s disciples in the finance ministry are still charging ahead with their investigations. And Mr Yudhoyono may yet pacify his new allies in Golkar, perhaps by striking a deal to resolve Mr Bakrie’s tax cases. But so far the president’s Javanese tendency to try to please everyone has only encouraged his so-called partners to demand more. When Mr Obama does eventually come to visit the new Indonesia, some aspects will recall the old one he thought he had left behind.