Indonesia under Abdurrahman Wahid
Dr. Stanley Kalpage
Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur as he is widely known, was one of the most popular figures in Indonesia when he was elected by the 700-member Peoples Consultative Assembly (MPR) as the fourth President of Indonesia seven months ago. At age 60, Wahid is in poor health. He has had two debilitating strokes and suffers from diabetes. His vision is so defective that he can hardly read or even sign papers without guidance.
Until he took office in October 1999 Gus Dur was the head of the 30 million strong Muslim organisation known as the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). The Banser (Barisan Ansor Serbaguna or Multipurpose Front) is the NUs most vocal subgroup, around 400,000 strong, consisting mostly of youth from Wahids home-town of Jombong, 80 km south of Surabaya. They are loyal, even fanatical, supporters of the President.
During the past seven months Abdurrahman Wahids popularity has plummeted. Since his inauguration as president seven months ago, he has visited nearly 34 countries abroad and his critics say that this is one of the reasons why Wahid has failed to have a grip on either the escalating religious and ethnic strife or the tottering economy. Indonesia is passing through a period of turbulence after the ouster of the dictator Suharto in May 1998.
Religious and ethnic strife
Even as he fights back for survival, the president is faced with a surge of violent unrest around the country. There is a religious war in the far eastern Maluku islands, where more than 2,500 Christians and Muslims have been killed in the last 18 months. There has been communal fighting on the islands of Sulawesi, Bali and Lombok. Bomb blasts at mosques and churches have rocked the cities. And there are insurgencies in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya that appear to be receiving outside aid.
East Timor broke away from Indonesia several months ago and is now under UN protection until independence is achieved late next year.
In the bloodied spice island of Ambon, which lies at the heart of the Moluccan Spice Islands, the government was forced to replace most of its troops after declaring a state of civil emergency following a week of renewed sectarian violence. Indonesian soldiers had taken sides in the fighting between the Muslims and the Christians, which began in early 1999. The Spice Islands have a fairly even balance between Christians and Muslims and were previously held as a model of religious harmony.
After 37 years of repressive rule, a landmark congress of West Papua activists defied a warning from Indonesias government and publicly declared independence on Sunday 4 June. The 501 members of the congress unanimously called on the world to recognise West Papuas rights as a sovereign state and claimed that the half island territory on the western side of New Guinea Island was never legally integrated into Indonesia.
Indonesia annexed West Papua, also known as Irian Jaya, a process formalised by the United Nations in 1969 following a vote by community leaders. Independence activists now say that this process of self-determination was a sham and should be overturned by the world body.
Wahids government has entered into a cease-fire with rebels in the northwestern province of Aceh, which also wants to break away. Wahid has offered Aceh and other provinces greater powers of autonomy. But the president has repeatedly stressed that he will not allow the break-up of Indonesia.
The unseen hands behind all these ethnic and religious conflicts may well include military plotters, local power blocs, ambitious politicians and people from the former government.
President Wahid has pursued investigations against leading personalities of the Suharto regime more vigorously than his predecessor H. B. Habibie. Suharto was placed under house arrest at the end of May. The fitful interrogation to which the ailing former leader has been subjected to are part of the broad campaign by Abdurrahman Wahid to dig into the abuses of the past. Suharto not only used the national treasury as his personal bank account, but he also ravaged his country and then hid the evidence. The abuses are said to have ranged from shady business deals to dirty political tricks and military massacres.
The Indonesian people have a strong desire for accounting about human rights abuses, judicial misconduct and corruption. A number of different investigations are underway ranging from the mass killing of over 500000 persons and the imprisonment of thousands more in an anti-communist purge in 1965 when Suharto came into power to the incidents of May 1998 when the student uprising deposed Suharto.
The investigations are proceeding slowly and there is some opposition from supporters of the former president and from those who may have been involved in the violent repression.
Indonesias financial crisis has been deepened by the recent abrupt move to detain Indonesias central bank governor Sjahril Sabirin after he had refused President Wahids demand to step down. Sabirin was placed in custody after he had protested his innocence following the presidents call for his resignation.
The Governor has been named as a suspect in the so-called Bali gate scandal involving the alleged transfer of $80 million from the insolvent Bali Bank to a company controlled by a senior official from the then ruling Golkar Party.
Wahids corruption investigations are tainted by hypocrisy as scandals close to the president are being revealed. The presidents youngest brother and his personal masseuse are said to be involved. These have evoked fears of a return of the corruption and nepotism of the Suharto years and there are allegations that Wahids selective probes are nothing more than a move to persecute political opponents.
Economy in the doldrums
Public restiveness in Indonesia grows most dangerously out of a sharp economic downturn that has seen the currency, the rupiah, lose up to 18 percent of its value this year and the stock market plunge by 27 percent. Although the overall economy is growing and could exceed last years increase by as much as 3 percent, the slump has caused a panic in a country which remembers that it was an economic crash that led to the forced resignation of General Suharto.
Wahid is not a president who takes a great interest in the economy, and the economic team he has assembled skewed by his political deal-making is widely viewed as weak. While drifting economically, however, Wahid has embarked on an ambitious program of political development.
A sense of humour
Abdurrahman Wahid was a compromise president the product of back room deals to replace Suhartos successor, the ineffectual P. J. Habibie. He is personally popular but lacks a broad political base. Even his cabinet, the product of his deal-making, does not fully support him. So he rules through the force of his personality, through his moral authority, through the weakness of his rivals and through a sort of light-hearted bullying in which he pummels potential challengers with jokes, insults and impulsive personnel changes.
When Abdurrahman Wahid issues direct orders he can never be sure that they will be carried out either because his subordinates are recalcitrant, or incompetent or simply lack the bureaucratic machinery to act effectively. Indonesias political institutions had been devastated and there is corruption everywhere.
Abdurrahman Wahid, who can neither read nor write because of poor eyesight has necessarily had to rely on advisers who may not whisper in his ears what is actually taking place in Indonesia. In fact the president himself has quipped: Indonesia is being governed by an ideal team the president cant see and the vice-president cant talk".
Whereas Suharto kept his opponents at bay by force of arms Wahid must operate by the force of his personality. It is said that the enigmatic Suharto hid behind silence while the affable Gus Dur hides behind humour. He talks untiringly and his gaffes often get him into trouble.
The Assembly in August
All debates and rivalries and even outbreaks of violence are focused now on August, when the national assembly will meet to debate, to pass laws and to hear a state-of-the-nation report from the president. No one is sure if a storm is coming and, if so, how successfully he will weather it.
Commissions are preparing constitutional amendments for the August congress hopefully to put in place a democratic system with striking similarities to that of the United States. With the support of Wahid himself, these changes are likely to include direct election of the president, a bicameral legislature, a system of judicial review, decentralization of some power to the provinces and even perhaps an American-style bill of rights.
South East Asias giant
It is not easy to govern Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world. A vast sprawling archipelago of some 13000 islands stretching over a distance of 3000 miles from east to west. Indonesias 200 million people are undergoing turbulence not evident in other ASEAN countries. The removal of dictatorial repression after 30 years of Suhartos rule has caused a rash of religious and ethnic conflicts to break out. Nepotism and corruption have destroyed the political institutions needed for an economic revival.
Although Gus Dur tries to use humour and straight talk to sort out the tangled web of problems, he does not seem to be making much progress in either containing ethnic and religious violence or in improving the economy and eradicating corruption. Perhaps the August Assembly will prove decisive in finding a way out of the precarious state the country is in, but given its past record, the prospects for this are extremely slim.
Media censorship - the saga continues
One thing is clear: The Government is determined to impose media censorship. However they are constantly changing their minds about how to do it.
After a period of freedom, media censorship was re-imposed in June 1998 by a virtually unworkable Emergency Regulation which was never strictly enforced On November 6, 1999, it was repealed and the following Regulation gazetted in its place:
"No editor or publisher of a newspaper or any person authorized...to establish and operate a broadcasting station or a television station shall, except with the permission of the Competent Authority, print, publish, distribute or transmit, whether by means of electronic devices or otherwise, or cause to be printed [etc.] any material (inclusive of documents, pictorial representations, photographs or cinematograph films) containing any matter pertaining to military operations in the Northern end Eastern Province including any operation carried out or being carried out or proposed to be carried out by the Armed Forces or by the Police Force (including the Special Task Force), the deployment of troops or personnel, or the deployment or use of equipment including aircraft or naval vessels by any such forces, or any statement pertaining to the official conduct, moral [sic] or the performance of the Head or of any member of the Armed Forces or the Police Force or of any person authorized by the Commander-in-Chief for the purpose of rendering assistance in the preservation of national security."
This Regulation marked the start of the current period of enforced censorship. However, two salient features of this regulation were that it applied only to military operations in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and it did not seek to censor information relating to military procurements or criticism of the political authorities in charge of the war effort. The validity of this regulation was upheld by the Supreme Court in the case of Abeysekera v Rubesinghe.
In the light of recent developments, one should add that by a separate Order the President had appointed Major-General J. Nammuni as the Competent Authority for the purposes of the above Regulation.
These successive Regulations were imposod following an escalating series of military reversals. The Governments censorship has tended to be imposed NOT BEFORE a major military operation BUT AFTER a setback, thus giving rise to a belief that its purpose is to hide from the Sri Lankan public facts that are already known to the enemies of the State.
The draconian quality of the censorship increases in direct proportion to the magnitude of the reversal suffered. After the fall of Elephant Pass, last Novembers Regulation was replaced by the following clause which formed part of a wide-ranging set of Emergency Regulations imposed in the course of putting the country on a "war footing":
"14(1): A competent authority may take such measures and give such directions as he may consider necessary for preventing or restricting the publication in Sri Lanka or any specified area in Sri Lanka, or the transmission from Sri Lanka to places outside Sri Lanka, of matters which should or might be prejudicial to the interests of national security or the preservation of public order or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community or of matters inciting or encouraging persons to mutiny, riot or civil commotion, or to commit a breach of any law for the time being in force, which in the opinion of the competent authority may be prejudicial to the preservation of public order or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community, and any directions issued under this paragraph may contain such incidental and supplementary provisions as may appear to the competent authority to be necessary or expedient, including provision for securing that documents, pictorial representations, photographs, cinematograph films, teleprinter, telegraph, television, transmission of matters relating to the operations of security forces including news reports, editorials, articles, letters to the editor, cartoons and comments, shall before publication be submitted or exhibited to the competent authority."
A ban imposed on two national newspapers for allegedly violating this clause was challenged in the Supreme Court and this led to the finding that no Competent Authority had been validly appointed to enforce this Regulation despite the Governments Director of Information, Ariya Rubesinghe, ostensibly functioning in that role. As a result the operation of this Regulation virtually came to a halt.
The petitioners further contention that the censorship was being exercised in a manner so as to stifle legitimate political criticism of the Government was therefore not tested, although strong documentary evidence to this effect is already in the public domain.
In the meantime the Editors Guild and certain other persons were given leave to proceed with a fundamental rights case challenging the validity of the Regulation itself, and the Government announced that it was reviewing the Regulation.
A few days after judgment in the Leader Publications case, the Government gazetted a new Regulation to replace the earlier Clause 14. It expressly provides for the appointment of a Competent Authority (Mr. Rubesinghe being appointed) and the material part of it reads as follows:
"14(2) The Editor or publisher of a newspaper or any person authorized....to operate a broadcasting station or a television station shall not, whether in or outside Sri Lanka, print, publish, distribute, transmit or broadcast ........
(a) any material containing any matter which pertains to any operations carried out or proposed to be carried out by the Armed Forces or the Police Force (including the Special Task Force), the procurement or proposed procurement of arms or supplies by any such forces, the deployment of troops or personnel, or the deployment or use of equipment including aircraft or naval vessels, by such forces, or any statement pertaining to the official conduct or the performance of the Head or any member of the Armed Forces or the Police Force which affects the morale of the members of such forces; or
(b) any material which would or might in the opinion of the Competent Authority be prejudicial to the interests of national security or the preservation of public order or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community or inciting or encouraging persons to mutiny, riot or civil commotion, or to commit a breach of the law for the time being in force."
Anyone who thought the Government was about to loosen its grip on the flow of information will have to think again. This Regulation is an amalgam of everything that has gone before, with the addition of a prohibition on material relating to arms procurement.
In this connection it should be noted that following the loss of Elephant Pass (in the aftermath of which the Army Commander admitted that the enemy had enjoyed superior fire power) the Government has been only too eager to announce details of material it has procured since then, ranging from multi-barrel rocket launchers to aircraft. However during the one weekend when censorship was not in operation following the Leader Publications judgment, privately-owned newspapers came out with damning allegations of the manner in which corruption still pervades the arms procurement business.
Clause (a) above is going to become either draconian or unworkable. Nothing is left to the discretion of the Competent Authority under that clause. There is a blanket prohibition on the publication or broadcast of any material pertaining to the matters listed therein. Read literally, this would even preclude the carrying of official news releases on the war by the "special media information centre".
Clause (b) operates as an additional provision allowing the Competent Authority to ban ANY other Material which he considers "prejudicial to the interests of national security or the preservation of public order or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community or inciting or encouraging persons to mutiny, riot or civil commotion, or to commit a breach of the law...."
Any person who contravenes this or any of the Emergency Regulations already in force by virtue of the main Gazette of May 3, 2000, will be guilty of an offence. Prosecution shall be in the Magistrates Court with the sanction of the Attorney-General (Regulation 58). Under the new Regulation 14 itself, if any person contravenes either of the two subsections quoted above, the Competent Authority is given power to impose either or both of the penalties specially provided in this Regulation, namely a ban on the person concerned from carrying out his/her media activities and/or by the sealing the press or broadcasting station for a specified period.
This would seem to leave a media person open to double jeopardy and may be the areas that would form the subject of any challenge to the new Regulation.
With the gazetting of this new Clause 14 by Order dated July 1, 2000, the earlier court actions filed by the Eiditors Guild and other parties challenging the original Clause 14 have ceased to be of relevance (at least in so far as that particular regulation is concerned) and any parties interested in challenging the new provision will have to file fresh applications. The Government has thus bought itself more time in its now constant battle with the private media.
Let us hope it is able to buy itself enough time in that other conflict that is somewhat greater importance to the fate of this nation.
[ [ HOME | NEWS | POLITICS | EDITORIAL | DEFENCE | FEATURES | LEISURE | BUSINESS | ADS ]