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Indonesia at a crossroads


I recently spent two weeks travelling in Indonesia during the run-up to yesterday’s presidential election. Never has one in Indonesia been so polarising, or so high-stakes, with an outcome that was almost too close to call. Joko Widodo (known as “Jokowi”), the populist grassroots politician, is the presumed winner by almost five percentage points, although his rival Prabowo Subianto has fought back with his own declaration of victory.

I was wary of Prabowo from the very start, given his background as a military strongman and the fervent nationalist rhetoric in his campaign. Posters around the country proclaimed INDONESIA BANGKIT! (“Rise up, Indonesia!”), and added that voting for him would be the “patriotic” choice. Others suggested that Prabowo’s leadership would pave the way for Indonesia to become a new Asian Tiger.

But Prabowo has a chequered past that he has never accounted for in public. Throughout his military career, he has served in Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces, responsible for an untold number of human rights abuses in occupied East Timor. In 1978, as a 26-year-old lieutenant, Prabowo led the mission to capture the fledgling nation’s first president, Nicolau dos Reis Lobato. The statesman was found, ambushed and killed, his body taken to Dili and photographed by the media. In the 1990s Prabowo played a vital role in attempts to stamp out East Timor’s independence movement, using Kopassus-trained militia to terrorise and hunt out supporters under cover of darkness.

The US has slapped a travel ban on Prabowo for his role in the kidnapping and torture of nine student pro-democracy activists in 1998, a move that led to his dismissal from military service. The Lieutenant-General was due to be court-martialed, but he fled to Jordan and returned in 2002. Tellingly, no prosecution has since taken place; it certainly helps that Prabowo is the former son-in-law of the dictator Suharto, and comes from a well-known family among Indonesia’s political elite.

And yet, many have voted for him in spite of such a tarnished past. For someone from Hong Kong, a jurisdiction where we are fighting for the right to elect our own leader, I was alarmed by what I saw among Prabowo supporters: the ones Bama and I met were casting their ballots based on appearances and superficial reasons alone. A former marine who had spent a few years in Europe told us, “I will vote Prabowo because he is stern”, while a Javanese housewife said, “I will vote Prabowo because Hatta [his running mate] is well-mannered and attended [Indonesia’s top university] ITB.”

A guide in the growing port town of Labuan Bajo said he would vote Prabowo “because he has been good to East Nusa Tenggara”, without substantiating how a military man who had never been in elected office had helped the province.

Perhaps most shocking of all was the stark comment from a young, educated employee at an industrial conglomerate in central Jakarta. Alluding to Acting Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who took the position after Jokowi announced his running for the presidency, she told Bama, “I will vote Prabowo because I do not want Jakarta’s governor to be a Chinese Christian.”

It wasn’t so long ago that being Chinese in Indonesia would make you a victim of persecution. In May 1998 riots swept across the country, with armed mobs targeting its ethnic Chinese minority. Homes and businesses were burned; ethnic Chinese women were gang-raped; and over a thousand people were killed. One of my own childhood friends, whose mother was Chinese-Indonesian from Bandung, had recently moved to Jakarta with his family; they soon emigrated to California.

There is evidence of Prabowo’s hand in fomenting anti-Chinese sentiment just months before the deadly riots, as the value of the rupiah plummeted and Indonesia reeled in the Asian Financial Crisis. In late January that year, Prabowo gave a speech at Kopassus headquarters – delivered to an audience of roughly 5,000 Muslim intellectuals and clerics – detailing foreign threats to the country as his staff handed out data pointing to the economic dominance of the ethnic Chinese community.

While the Lieutenant-General spoke, elaborating that the financial crisis was caused by a Chinese-Indonesian conspiracy to sabotage the nation, a sympathetic crowd was mobilising elsewhere in Jakarta. Under Prabowo’s orders, hundreds of demonstrators were sent to intimidate CSIS (Centre for Strategic and International Studies), a think-tank founded by two prominent Chinese-Indonesian businessmen. Today CSIS is one of several reliable pollsters forecasting Jokowi’s narrow victory after a quick count, which has been an accurate bellwether in the past two elections.

Prabowo swayed many voters on the promise that the rise of a “strong” Indonesia would garner respect on the international stage. But true and lasting respect will not come without real improvements in education, a culture of critical thinking, and the fair treatment of religious and ethnic minorities. 

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Prabowo declared victory based on the quick count results by obscure agencies which have never had reliable track records with their surveys. So these two weeks Indonesians wait in confusion of who will become the nation’s next president. It is just unfathomable to imagine how the country would become under a president with a tainted human rights record, deeply xenophobic rhetorics, and backed by religious hardliners whose agenda is anything but eroding Indonesia’s multiculturalism. The margin is slim, but 52% Indonesians have voted to move forward, instead of getting trapped in the past.

    July 10, 2014
    • Yes, I don’t know how any well-informed, right-minded person would vote for him – just a quick background check was enough to unnerve me. Plus his campaign rallies and the way he goes about presenting himself is just pompous. With the grand spectacle of horses, helicopters and the like, he seems primed to become another dictator.

      July 10, 2014
      • And now we can all breathe with ease as Jokowi has been declared the president-elect by the KPU. A new chapter for Indonesia as this is the first time we have a president with neither military background nor tie to the country’s political elite which have been dominating the country since its independence. Plus, Jakarta will have its first ever Christian Chinese Indonesian governor. Democracy just prevailed!

        July 23, 2014
      • What’s even more heartening is the fact that Jokowi won with an even greater margin than was forecast by the quick count. I can’t believe what Prabowo is up to now – it is such ridiculous behaviour, and I have no doubt that the Constitutional Court will uphold the KPU’s final result. The vote-counting process was the most closely watched and transparent that Indonesia has ever had.

        July 23, 2014
  2. Thanks for sharing. The reasons (or the lack of them) that people give for voting for a certain person can be really sad sometimes. I’ve heard similar ones both in the US and during my travels. It is sad when people prop up politicians that foment hatred of other groups.

    July 10, 2014
    • You’re welcome, Leah. I felt I had to write something about the election yesterday and what I observed in Indonesia during my latest trip there. Thankfully a larger proportion of voters have chosen the more worthy and forward-thinking candidate.

      July 10, 2014
  3. Beautifully written thoughtful article James. I think your last sentence says it all, and I’m not holding my breath.
    Unfortunately too often, around the world, people are uninformed, or misinformed, and vote for specious reasons. I cringe thinking the Australian people were so blind as to vote in Abbott, or the system is so skewed in Canada that Harper has had long term tenure, though at least neither has a past of genocide and torture as they both relentlessly dismantle many of the traditions and institutions and social supports that make their countries so blessed and stable.

    July 10, 2014
    • Thank you, Alison. Journalists and human rights activists in Indonesia have long warned that Prabowo has the goods to dismantle its hard-won democratic system. I was very relieved that Jokowi won yesterday, although we will have to wait until the 22nd for the official results. And I couldn’t agree more about Abbott or Harper – their environmental policies alone are a huge embarrassment for both those countries.

      July 10, 2014
  4. On a lighter note about the title of your post:

    But, yes, I agree with you — this was a pivotal election and the next few days will be too until we have the final, official count.

    July 12, 2014
    • Oh yes, I shared this on Facebook and a friend posted that same video in response!

      Bama tells me the gap would be wider had Megawati named Jokowi as the presidential candidate much earlier… the fact that it was so last-minute convinced many voters that he was just her puppet. We can only hope that under all this scrutiny, no fraud from Prabowo’s camp will take place in the vote counting.

      July 12, 2014
  5. Well written James but be careful with openly expressing this kind of thing in regards to Indonesia – especially if it involves the elite.

    July 12, 2014
    • Thanks Sam. I appreciate the concern and am well aware of the risks – defamation is still a criminal offence in Indonesia and I know the elite use the vague terms within the law to their advantage.

      July 13, 2014
      • Yes it’s hard to draw the line when talking about Indonesia because there is a lot to say – but we can’t always say it. I would just be wary of talking too much about the TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia). The military is particularly sensitive to anything that lessens its reputation. Plenty of Professors who have written brilliant books on Indonesia are now blacklisted from entering the country simply for being critical of the TNI. I’m sure you’ll be totally fine but it pays to be wary!

        July 13, 2014
  6. Scary developments. And yes, people will vote for others based on 1-2 criteria they think is important to them.

    July 15, 2014
    • I do hope the final election result in Indonesia is what we all expect – there are so many reasons why the losing candidate should not be elected to office.

      July 15, 2014
  7. Bama sent me a link to a fascinating article outlining the similarities that India and Indonesia share. From your post it seems like the parallels between our political leaders are even more uncanny!! We did not really have any other choice. Sometimes people do have to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. Going into it with ones eyes open is all that we expect of people. Nationalistic fervour is always worrying though. With these two countries being big players in the region, I wonder what is in store for the entire subcontinent and for South East Asia.

    July 15, 2014
    • Oh yes, he sent me the same article just the other week – I was floored by the deep cultural and political similarities between the two nations. When you visit Indonesia, I have no doubt that you would pick up on the same nuances the writer found!

      I shudder to think of the possibilities that may have unfolded had Prabowo won – greater presidential powers, a muzzling of the media (he did call several news outlets “evil”), increased religious intolerance and a gradual return to the days of the Suharto dictatorship. The difference in this election is that with Jokowi, Indonesia has a golden opportunity to make a clean (and much-needed) break from the past.

      July 15, 2014

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  1. Indonesia at a crossroads — Plus Ultra – „Ingerii sunt spirite inaripate, prietene cu spiritul tau inaripat.“

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