Thu, 13 Mar 2003

Megawati criticizes local officials' plush lifestyles

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

President Megawati Soekarnoputri has lambasted local regional officials and councillors for their frequent overseas trips, saying their 'comparative studies' look more like picnics than working visits.

She even said the local officials and councillors had brought nothing to their constituencies.

"What they (local officials) call comparative studies, I do not see that it gives anything necessary back to the regions, when they stay in very plush hotels," the President said on Wednesday, during the opening ceremony of the Sangihe-Talaud regents development seminar at the State Palace.

She further said the officials failed to use the opportunity to learn anything from other countries.

Megawati criticized of the plush lifestyles of many officials such as governors, regents, councillors and mayors during an impromptu attack.

However, the President was echoing criticism of her frequent foreign visits, which have drawn heavy criticism from numerous sides at home.

Like her predecessor Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, Megawati has visited a number of countries.

Megawati was criticized for traveling with a large entourage to South Africa, Egypt and Eastern European countries last September while "illegal" Indonesian workers were being arrested and beaten by Malaysia authorities as hundreds of thousands of others fled the country.

Since taking the presidential post in July 2001, Megawati has visited 27 countries, with large entourages consisting of her family and friends.

Questions have also been raised about the President's stopovers in Singapore for personal reasons. Some suspect she is on shopping trips.

On most trips, Megawati sets aside at least one day to visit tourist attractions or other venues, which have nothing to do with the purpose of the trip.

The House of Representatives has repeatedly warned her to reduce numbers in her entourage and limit her overseas journeys as domestic matters needs more of her attention.

Despite the criticism, the President is slated to make another six-day visit to Russia, Romania and Poland on April 21.

Many have warned the president to cancel the trip, which are expected to spark strong criticism.

As if realizing that her comment will backfire, Megawati blamed presidential protocol for limiting her activities during her trips.

"The presidential protocol during my visits prevents me from taking more time to learn about things in the foreign countries, I used to do that when I made those visits before becoming president," she contended.

In her speech, the President also called on the regions to improve their public services, saying the main purpose of implementing regional autonomy was to ensure people's welfare.

"Regional officials must remember that increased authority means increased obligations, not just increased rights," Megawati said, adding that regions should thoroughly address improving health, education and other social services for their people.