Fri, 30 Jun 2000

People have yet to adjust after a regime change

The following is the first part of an interview with Greg Barton Ph.D, senior lecturer at Deakin University, Australia, who is also the authorized biographer of Indonesian President Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid.

An expert on liberal Islam in Indonesia, Barton started writing the biography a long time before Gus Dur became President last October. He expects to finish the book toward the end of this year. Barton, who is a regular visitor to Indonesia, talked to The Jakarta Post's Harry Bhaskara on Monday.

Question: What is your reading of the performance of Gus Dur's administration in recent months?

Answer: Following the news from Australia and based on my impressions meeting Gus Dur again here these last few days, I remember that he has predicted earlier in the year that April and May would indeed very difficult times.

Has he?

He has been saying for a long time that April and May may be particularly a hard time.


Well, it is hard to say with Gus Dur because facts have merged together. There are some people who gave spiritual advice that those months would be a difficult time but Gus Dur is also a very rational person. He could predict that at a certain point there will be a crisis of confident and he would face a backlash of criticism.

Both because of a natural response and because party political elements linked with the former regime who would deliberately want to campaign against him. So there are two things flowing to each other.

But the point is he was expecting that April, May would be difficult. And what is interesting and important for us to understand is he had the conviction that if he comes through May okay, he will be okay in the longer term. And indeed he has come through okay.

What do you perceive as his difficulties during April and May?

Obviously you could argue that most of his difficulties is his own making. For example, his sacking of Laksamana Sukardi (former State Minister of Investment and State Enterprises Development) was extremely unpopular and the involvement of Hasyim (Gus Dur's brother Hasyim Wahid) in IBRA (Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency) did give a bad impression.

And there is a lot of unkind and unfounded accusation made against people very close to him. But these things are just fabrications but as they say if you throw mud around, some tend to stick.

One of the facts operating here is that he was facing pressure from elements aligned to the former regime who were concerned that he was going to push too hard on chasing out to Soeharto and his family.

Some of these elements may also deal with Wiranto (a general, former Minister of Defense) and disaffected members of the military and they wanted to let him know if he kept on pushing hard they would be merciless in their response and they have a lot of power to act against him.

If you think about it, their financial liquidity is far greater than the government. If Bulogate proved one thing, it showed us how difficult it is for Gus Dur to operate, how much his hands are tied.

He wants to send money to Aceh, he knows that solving Aceh is a very important problem, but Bulogate illustrates how difficult it is even if he has a small amount of money to channel through the rein of priority concerns.

Whereas the forces against him really has unlimited funds and making use of these funds for filling envelops to give to journalists which is an established cultural practice.

It is one of those things which at one level is entirely understandable because the way Soeharto quite deliberately structure the society was that it is a low wage society.

There are cases where newspapers which might ordinarily be put to be objective were influenced in their reporting by bribing journalists through envelops but there are other ways like intimidating or cajoling.

Obviously we need to be very cautious about buying into this sort of conspiracy theory because it is unhelpful to get consumed into conspiracy theory. It is a very dangerous tendency.

But on the other hand it seems reasonable to accept the anecdotal evidence and also the hard evidence we have of what is happening in Maluku for example is very unusual.

Certainly there are organic reasons as to why the violence continues and certainly in many ways it is like Northern Island that there is a cycle of violence. Once started it is hard to close. On the other hand people have used military firearms and in some cases people acted with impunity.

You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to speculate that there is a great collusion with some elements of the military and some elements of the government and it is more than likely that in some cases at least this is linked to the former regime.

So, in a sum what has happened to Gus Dur?

If you think about it there is a kind of pincer movement against Gus Dur: attacking him through the media, The attacks are not necessarily entirely without bases in the sense that Gus Dur makes mistakes because you can pick on the mistakes. But the way the mistakes are blown up is often out of proportion.

There are also things that are simply not true. There are things said about people who were close to him. In the past about Ratih (Ratih Hardjono, former presidential secretary) now about his daughters which are without foundations but which is said anyway because it is easy with envelop, good money to buy press coverage and shape opinion.

So that was one arm of the pincer attack. The other arm is the attack against this government to force such a level of instability so that the people will say that the government lacks the capacity to bring about change.

This was obviously calculated to unsettle Gus Dur and those close to him. I am not saying that the whole of the problem in Maluku was engineered but there were certainly elements who seized on the opportunity to make things worse, clearly to intimidate Gus Dur.

I think that was largely behind what happened in April and May, the intense pressure on these two fronts.

And now you seem the think that the difficult times is partly over?

The psychological factor that Gus Dur expected this to happen and expected that if he came through it he would be alright for the longer term, is a very important factor. It is in his confident and confident is critical. All of these have to be understood in the context of regime change. In this context you need to do two things.

One, you need to be willing to make compromises. Isolation doesn't appear reasonable but in the context of regime change you have no realistic alternative. And for Gus Dur it means that there are limits just to how hard he can push corruption and particularly cases against the former first family.

But secondly you have to have the courage of your conviction to press ahead. So for example, Marzuki Darusman (Attorney General), could not keep on doing his job if he does not have the courage of conviction. Gus Dur could not keep on doing his job unless he believes on what he is doing.

And the psychological factor is very important. So the fact that Gus Dur now has gone through a very difficult period and believes that things will get better is really critical to the success of his government.

You seem to believe that things are getting better?

I think objectively there are reasons for believing that things are now getting better. Not only as personally he is now more relaxed and in good spirit but the talks a few days ago about impeaching him have now evaporated.

And certain ill-informed or immature responses to him such as Amien's comment that he should have an independent medical examinations have collapsed on their own accord.

Afterall Gus Dur has the best medical doctors in the country looking at him and suggestion that these people lack professional integrity of course is insulting.

He has also recently been at the John Hopkins hospital and you can be quite sure they are not going to create a false report of good health just for some local political purposes.

So that was a foolish blunder on Amien's part and it collapsed so we can reasonably expect there will be no move to impeach him in August MPR (People's Consultative Assembly) session and he will come through it strengthened.

Do you think he will reshuffle the cabinet?

Certainly, he is now in a position where he has the green light to go ahead and restructure his cabinet. Obviously it is up to him to some extent. He still faces limitations in terms of human resources but the limitations are much less than they were in last October, November when he was in a very difficult situation in terms of the constitution of the cabinet.

Do you think he will create a real solid cabinet in term of professionalism unlike the compromised one before?

Politics is the art of the possible and everything in politics is compromised. He can not afford to completely disregard party political concerns. There has to be a factor.

Another factor is that the most professional and experienced people often have been involved in the former regime. People who don't have links with the former regime are often inexperienced. They are often sincere but not necessarily mature in terms of knowing how politics works.

So that in itself is a basis of a compromise. He doesn't have an unlimited pool of talent from which to choose. By the way that is true in Germany, Great Britain or France, America or Australia. Any democracy , what you get is not the absolute best but the best under the circumstances.

Gus Dur's cabinet will be a compromised one but it will be much less compromised than that he had up until now and it will also undoubtedly affect his own judgment of what is the best for him.

It may not sit well with the judgment of other people. The cabinet that works best for Gus Dur is not necessarily the most professional cabinet in every objective sense because they need a level of cohesion, it needs to be a team that work together.

In retrospect what has been Gus Dur's priority in his nine- month old government?

It is clear that Gus Dur has two top priorities. First is connected to the current process of control of the military. If that fails, everything fails. So the reform of the military and the consolidation of that reformists is the first priority.

Secondly, there is a question of economic recovery. An economic recovery requires starting with you are having the best of it and it also requires some sense of confident from the investors. So it is important to get some sense of surety and stability.

I think these things probably mean that the pursuit of justice will have to wait a little longer, particularly the pursuit of corrupters and so on.

It is already clear that the Attorney General office is doing his best but it is probably trying to do too much at once. Marzuki (Attorney General) is in charge of a large staff but only a tiny fraction of that staff are really useful to him. And they are stretched to their limit.

Apart from these two things, obviously a third really important area is trying to maintain social harmony. Presumably in the case of Maluku there is underlying social economic divisions and factors that were unresolved during the Soeharto period.

Also there is a cycle of violence that will take some time to break because once people have experienced the bitter tragedy of loved ones being killed they feel a natural desire to fight back.

But another factor that has been sustaining that violence is outside (the region) interference. And while we can only speculate, presumably all of these have links to the former regime.

So if Gus Dur can negotiate the situation, those elements will pull back their forces. It would be much better in the short and medium term. In the long term, of course, it needs to be pursued with justice.

Do you think this list of priorities would stay after August?

I think this list of priorities is for the whole five-year term of Gus Dur government. There are priorities which is set there for the longer term because that is an actual regime change and there are also priority that happens to sit well with Gus Dur's strength and weaknesses.

He is good at negotiating with disparate groups. He proved that in 1999 when he was able to negotiate with a disparate collection of forces. He was able to bring about some reproach between Muhammadiyah and NU (Nahdlatul Ulama), between modernist and traditional Muslims and even between himself and Amien (Amien Rais, former leader of Muhammadiyah, now MPR Speaker) and made that work. More recently he has shown part of his long standing pattern with Gus Dur.

But it certainly became clear in recent months how he can negotiate with the military because it is a nature of a regime change, it is a nature of the military reform.

But it is not enough just to be brave, it is not enough to have integrity. You need to find some way of winning over, a sort of floating mass of people who are not quite sure which way to go.

It is one thing to oppose those who were clearly bent on subverting democracy and preventing reform. But the majority of people in the military are not like that. Nor are they automatically prescribed to democracy. They need somebody who can negotiate with them in the sense of persuading them that it is worth going this road. That the possible gains outweigh the short term pain of it. And Gus Dur has been brilliant at doing this.

I think for the same reason he is one of the few individuals who can negotiate with elements linked to the former regime with a degree of authority, and a degree of real dexterity and ability.

Do you think a comparison with other countries which have undergone a regime change help?

I think the situation in Indonesia will be very much clearer for us if we made a comparative studies with other countries which have experienced a regime change.

I am not an expert in this field but it just seems to me this is an obvious thing we have to look at. The approach taken by Gus Dur while was imperfect is appropriate.

In other words, not too high expectation, preparedness to compromise, a sense of priority of what is important and what is less important.

For that reason I think the context of regime change is not going to change at the macro level over the next four years. It will be a feature of Gus Dur's government or his whole term of government.

In that sense you couldn't say that Gus Dur is running a transitional government. It is not that it is not legitimate in the democratically elected government although the circumstances of that formation is probably unique and probably won't be repeated.

But its whole task and its whole orientation and its modus operandi is that of transitional government. This is not peace time, this is war time. So even one sense Gus Dur is like Winston Churchill, a strange eccentric maverick leader, there may be that was what we need at the time as it were war time rather than peace time.

Later on, when hopefully we get to the other side and hopefully there is a degree of stability and a degree of consolidation and successfulness of regime change process we can have a more conventional government, a more conventional president.

What kind of things commonly happen in a country undergoing a regime change?

Before answering this question, it is interesting to reflect upon the nature of nation building in Indonesia. I think despite all the problems, nation building project in some ways has been quite successful.

The mythical or the guiding vision of the nation has been the revolution of 1945 to 1949. It is the nature of a revolution that you have a clear purpose, you fight, you struggle for what you deserve, for your rights, in the end justice is done and you have your independence. That is what people experienced of a regime change. The other experience of regime change was 1965-1966 which was just awful.

So, Indonesians do have some experience of regime change but if not it does not prepare them for this current regime change because on the one hand revolution is overly romantic.

The hallmarks of countries undergoing regime change, we can expect the outbreak of inter-communal violence that often has sectarian or ethno-nationalist element, often involving religion. Not necessarily religion is the cause but because it is invoked.

This is a common pattern of countries that have released themselves from military-backed authoritarianism. The most frightening example was Yugoslavia. For years there was peace between ethnic and religious groups. When the authoritarian regime was toppled, a nightmare unfolded.

I don't feel Yugoslavia would be repeated here and I certainly do not subscribe to the theory of balkanization of Indonesia. But that reminds us that what happened in Yugoslavia is common to what happen in many countries that experienced a sudden lost by authoritarian military-backed government.