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Indonesia's Yudhoyono: More of the Same
by Ben Terrall
October 20, 2004

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Shortly after being declared victor over Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesian President-elect Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters, “Our big theme will be reconciliation and working together within democracy for the country's future.” He didn’t clarify which social groupings he was referring to.

As Yudhoyono begins selecting his cabinet ministers, Western elites eagerly anticipate a regime that will prioritize business interests and encourage investment along the lines of “Washington Consensus” IMF/World Bank economic dictates. The Wall Street Journal editorialized about the importance of “reformist-minded economic ministers, capable of overhauling labor laws and other restrictive regulations that have done so much to discourage foreign investment.” Time Asia elaborated, “According to a study by the World Bank, the cost of firing a worker in Indonesia averages 157 weeks of pay, higher than in any other East Asian country except communist Laos.” This alleged problem will likely be treated with a sympathetic eye on the bottom line by new Finance Ministry head Sri Mulyani, who spent a year in the International Monetary Fund in charge of Southeast Asian affairs.

Though U.S. mainstream news sources have been recycling tired clichés about blossoming democracy, Jakarta-based Tempo Magazine observed, “There will not be many visible changes at the policy level. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Jusuf Kalla are both former coordinating ministers in President Megawati's cabinet who were never heard to disagree with her over policy. The battle in the second round of the presidential election was over differing perceptions of who between the two would be able to implement the same policies-better.”

The campaign echoed the U.S. presidential contest in one obvious sense: Yudhoyono’s closest advisor admitted, “This election is not about policy. This is a popularity contest, so we sell (him) like a brand image.” His official campaign website reads: “With straight and dignified posture, polite and well mannered with sharp eye sight, that is the profile of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY).”

As business forecasters Stratfor Global Intelligence noted, “Yudhoyono will attempt to retain the appearance if not the reality of full democracy in Indonesia, but his relationship with the military and intelligence communities -- along with the international interest in stability and aggressive counterterrorism actions -- will push Indonesia on a path toward more centralized control and an integrated security apparatus.”

Though often described as a military reformer, Yudhoyono, who received training at Fort Benning, GA and the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has retained command responsibility during some of the Indonesian military’s most brutal operations of the past three decades. He took part in the invasion of East Timor and was a battalion commander there, and during the September 1999 Indonesian military destruction of the soon to be independent territory, he told reporters, “"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.”

Yudhoyono became Megawati’s Coordinating Minister for Politics and Security Affairs in August 2000. In that role he advanced her repressive policies in West Papua. In Aceh, despite an official cease-fire, he oversaw the deployment of tens of thousands of troops. As martial law was declared in Aceh in May 2003, Indonesia launched its largest military occupation since the invasion of East Timor in 1975. More than 2000 have been killed since then, most of them civilians.

John Roosa, Assistant Professor of History at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and co-editor of The Year that Never Ended: Understanding the Experiences of the Victims of 1965: Oral History Essays (Jakarta: Elsam, 2004), told me, “I don't think the election means much at all. SBY isn't going to do something substantially different than Megawati. That's the problem. Indonesia is a country going up in flames, literally. It's an extreme situation all around: poverty, ecological devastation, warfare. And the campaign promises from both were empty.”

Al Jazeera describes Yudhoyono as “staunchly pro-U.S.”; the new Indonesian leader was quoted last year as saying “I love the United States, with all its faults. I consider it my second country.”

It’s unclear whether Yudhoyono considers what citizen access is still allowed in Washington one of those “faults”. But, despite the Indonesian government having procured the lobbying talents of former Viagra pitchman Bob Dole, activists in the U.S. were able to exert sufficient pressure on Congress to achieve the September 23 renewal of existing bans on International Military Education and Training (IMET) and foreign military financing (FMF) for Jakarta.

In a report accompanying the bill which preserves those bans, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee expressed “dismay and disappointment with the acquittal of Indonesian military officers in connection with the 1999 atrocities in East Timor and the performance and record of the ad hoc tribunal.” It also called on “the State Department to use its influence with the Government of Indonesia to ensure that international relief, media and human rights organizations have unimpeded access” to Aceh, and expressed concern about widespread illegal logging condoned and encouraged by the Indonesian military.

As the U.S. approaches its own Presidential election, it’s worth noting some other recent words of censure from Washington. And in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, the opening of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor 2002-2003 report, while certainly true enough, also applies a bit closer to home: “The promotion of democracy and human rights in East Asia and the Pacific has been complicated by the efforts of several Asian nations to legitimize human rights abuses under the rubric of fighting terrorism.”

Ben Terrall is a writer and activist living in San Francisco, CA. He can be reached at For more articles on Indonesia, visit the indispensable Indonesia Alert!

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* John Kerry and Veterans for Peace
* Banana Republicans and the Marketing of War