Fri, 15 Sep 2000

Retreating to 'New Order speak'

By Damien Kingsbury

MELBOURNE (JP): When Indonesia was still under the rule of president Soeharto, one of its most notable characteristics was the government's use, or misuse, of language.

In simple terms, what was said by political leaders about sensitive situations rarely reflected what was actually happening, creating a sense of unreality in public discourse.

Under Soeharto, information became misinformation or, more accurately, propaganda.

Since then, one of the most heartening signs of Indonesia's move towards democratization has been the lifting of official restrictions on its media, and the related upsurge in public discussion and debate.

Yet at what is probably the most critical time for Indonesia's fledgling democracy, when anti-democratic forces within the country are attempting to subvert legitimate processes, representatives of the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) appear to be retreating towards "New Order-speak".

Gus Dur's main hope of restoring order to political chaos, Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, appears to betray the reform process with his comments on the United Nations Security Council's decision to send a mission to Jakarta to discuss the killing of UNHCR workers in Atambua.

In rejecting the UN mission, Susilo said: "... we believe that we should be given trust, sovereignty and a chance to do what we have to do"'

There is no doubt that Susilo's intentions are honorable, but "trust" in the Indonesian government by the international community is, understandably, at a very low ebb.

Simply, despite its intentions, the government has repeatedly shown that it is incapable of resolving the deep-seated problem of an army largely outside its control. Part of this is manifested in support for the Timor militias by a significant section of the army.

In the life of Gus Dur's government there have been five promises to resolve the militia issue. That is plenty of chance "to do what we have to do". So far those chances have come to nothing. Susilo should not expect trust for further promises that cannot be fulfilled.

Indonesian sovereignty is not in question, and a visit by a UN delegation does not impinge on that. But Indonesia must offer reciprocal respect for the sovereignty of its neighbors, especially through its key institutions such as the army.

It must also respect the legitimate affairs of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in West Timor, and acknowledge that support for cross-border activities into East Timor betrays its own call for sovereign respect.

But Susilo is not the main culprit. The comment by the new Defense Minister, Mahfud M.D., saying that Cabinet members will not meet the UN mission "because we already have our own programs" would be laughable if it was not so bereft of meaning.

Clearly the government's program has failed, and will continue to fail while large sections of the army -- not least of whom are the oknum ("involved", as in "our thing" or cosa nostra) -- remain outside its control.

And that National Police information chief, Sr. Supt. Saleh Saaf, claiming that "There is no such thing as militia, they are all just refugees" begs comprehension.

What is a "refugee" who, backed by army forces, carries a gun, obeys orders and acts in a group in a premeditated manner for political ends? What is a militia, if not this? Does Saleh believe that by simply saying that militia do not exist they will disappear?

In one sense, it does not matter what name they are given, because we all know what these people and their army backers are, and what they are doing. By all means give them another name, and then agree that this new name fits the known facts, that political crimes are being committed.

Whether it is "militia", "political criminals", preman (gangster), oknum ("unscrupulous member") or whatever, the meaning remains the same.

At least Attorney General Marzuki Darusman is more frank, if understated, noting that these "problems have been a bit neglected".

There is no doubt that Gus Dur's government is facing a most difficult task in asserting its authority over all sections of the army and that the outcome of this effort is not yet certain. Indonesia's continued democratization rests on this outcome.

It is also clear that certain sections of the army receive tacit and sometimes overt support from senior political figures. One wonders, for instance, whether Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri would have the courage or, more accurately, interest, in pushing the "democratic" element of the name of her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

Or, should we ask ourselves, is this use of "democracy" also a reflection of New Order thinking, being no more than empty propaganda, an abuse of the meaning of language and a betrayal of the ideas that words represent?

Dr Damien Kingsbury is Executive Officer of the Monash Asia Institute, Monash University, Melbourne.