February 19, 2003


Indonesia is slowly regaining control (Jusuf Wanandi, February 17 2003, Financial Times)
In spite of a weak leadership, conflict in its regions and economic, political and social crises, Indonesia has, since the October 12 Bali bombing, moved firmly against both regional and local terrorists. With international support, its police force has caught almost all of the Jemaah Islamiah members responsible for terrorist acts carried out over the past three years. In doing so it has gained self-respect and public confidence, and is now going after Indonesia's other terrorist groups, forcing them on to the defensive.

Debilitating local conflicts have been overcome in central Kalimantan, south Sulawesi (Poso) and the Moluccas. In Aceh, which has endured a separatist insurgency for the past 20 years, a road map for peace has been agreed between the government and the rebels with the assistance of the Henri Dunant Centre in Geneva. This outlines a process for ending hostilities and allowing the rebels to participate in the political process. And at last Jakarta is granting greater autonomy to Papua, after long years of neglect.

On the economic front, too, the indicators have improved: inflation - 10 per cent in 2002 - is under control; growth is 3.5 per cent (although still not adequate to absorb 2m people entering the workforce each year); the currency has stabilised; and the fiscal deficit is manageable.

However, there are still serious weaknesses. The judicial system is unreliable and corruption remains rampant; decentralisation and the devolution of autonomy to the regions are are not proceeding smoothly, discouraging new investors; and labour unions are apt to be irresponsible. Political reform remains a touch and go process because of corruption within parliament and the political parties, while reforms of the security services are slow and uneven.

Only civil society, academia and the media can be depended on to support the reform process. To this end, it is good that Indonesia is seeing the emergence of moderate Muslim leadership and groups. In spite of the presence of small radical Muslim groups and terrorists, the moderates are now defining the debate about what Islam is, and especially about its role in a pluralistic society such as Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. This development could have a real influence on Islam in other regions, including the Middle East.

The most critical issue in Indonesia is the weakness of the national leadership - not only the president but also parliament, the political parties and the highest courts. This must be overcome in the 2004 parliamentary and presidential election. For that, more credible candidates are needed - but so far the picture is not encouraging.

While Indonesia has moved in the right direction, too many weaknesses remain. Only a credible national leadership can ensure that reform is sustained. That means next year's general elections are crucial - not just for Indonesia but for the region.

It's hard to see how, realistically, one central government can ever "control" such a diversity of peoples, spread across so many islands. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 19, 2003 12:14 AM

Absent the iron will of a Suharto, it seems unlikely, doesn't it? And Megawati is not Suharto.

Posted by: Kevin Whited at February 19, 2003 12:54 AM

There'll probably be more devolution of power whether the central government likes it or not.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at February 19, 2003 4:56 AM