Cleanup In Indonesia

By Washington Times | by Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, ACD Director
Friday, November 10th, 2000 @ 9:47PM

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It is impossible to overestimate the sheer magnitude and complexity of Indonesia’s economic and political problems. These include the rise of radical Islam, nationalism, and the old habits of cronyism that hinder serious steps towards democracy. As radical Islamists, nationalists, and friends of the former dictator Soeharto work to further undermine stability in Indonesia, they have drawn attention away from themselves by accusing the United States or more specifically, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Robert S. Gelbard, of inciting the growing unrest in the world’s largest Moslem nation. Unfortunately, it appears that some US media, as well as parts of the Administration, are falling into this trap.

Targeted by noisy, threatening daily demonstrations by students and Muslim groups accusing the US of siding with Israel against the Palestinians, the US Embassy in Jakarta was forced to close for two weeks. The State Department cited “credible information” about a threat to the compound as the reason for the closure and issued strong warning to Americans to avoid non-essential travel to Indonesia. While it has re-opened, the Embassy issued a statement saying it still believed “a specific threat” may be directed at its facilities. The Ambassador who left Jakarta last week following threats on his life, is still in the US, officially, to fulfill a longstanding family commitment.

Unable or unwilling to control the mobs outside the Embassy, some Indonesian government officials, and the local media launched a virulent attack against US support of Israel, charging that the American Ambassador’s meddling in Indonesia’s domestic affairs is the cause for the disturbance. Though the State Department issued a statement that there is “a rise in anti- American rhetoric by some national political leaders and extremist groups,” and that there had also been a number of “acts of intimidation and violence” directed at US companies and diplomatic facilities, the statement failed to condemn the attacks on its envoy. It also failed to identify the radical Muslim organizations that lead the unrest.

It is not surprising that Gelbard’s public demands that Indonesia control the militias and the military, stop human rights violations and bring the violators to justice, introduce the rule of law, fight corruption and honor its contractual commitments do not sit well with many Indonesians. However, the reaction from old Indonesia hands, American businesses, the media and the Administration is a sobering and disturbing phenomenon.

Gelbard is one of the few practitioners of public diplomacy, airing contentious issues that governments would prefer to discuss behind closed doors. In many cases, his style, which has been a departure from that of his predecessors in the countries he has served enabled him to achieve results that others could not.

Though he has helped the Indonesian government achieve whatever progress has been achieved thus far, Gelbard’s efforts to mobilize the Indonesian government, the lending agencies and the business community to reform Indonesia’s corrupt political and economic system, to end human right abuses and control the military, has encountered objection at every turn.

Considering Indonesia’s enormous significance to the stability of the region, it is difficult to explain why the international community has been so slow in demanding reform.

On October 18, the Consultative Group on Indonesia (CGI) conference approved the US$4.8 billion in loans Indonesia had requested to plug part of its $7.1 billion budget deficit in the next fiscal year. Interestingly, the fact that $22 billion –that is 45.6% — of Indonesia’s National Budget went missing over the fiscal year 99/2000 according to the Supreme Audit Agency (BPK) report last July, was not addressed by the CGI or, for that matter, by anybody else. According to Indonesia’s Finance Minster last month the Govt. debt this year is 99% of the GDP. Before the financial crisis forced Indonesia to turn to the International Monetary Fund in 1997, its debt-to-GDP ratio averaged 23%, according to a World Bank report. By contrast, countries joining the European Union single currency in 1999 were required to cut their public debt ratio to below 60%. According to these figures, it seems that the Soeharto regime was good for Indonesian’s economy, corruption and all. Perhaps this explains the obstacles for reform in Indonesia, despite the fact that Soeharto’s corruption led to his demise.

Political stability and political will are the prerequisites for reform. Indonesia’s new leadership must project an image to the people that it is clean and that corruption is no longer tolerated if it is to be successful in establishing a new sort of regime, based on the rule of law. Americas’ support of an open and democratic “clean” regime should have bipartisan support. Regardless of the Administration in power, it is the responsibility of the US government to uphold the values at risk in Indonesia that Ambassador Gelbard fights to protect.

Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld is the Director of the NY-based Center for the Study for Corruption & the Rule of Law (ACD).


Categories: Anti-Corruption, U.S. Policy