Mon, 17 Jan 2000

RI: Erratic country in transition

By Mochtar Buchori

JAKARTA (JP): What has been happening in Indonesia recently, and what is going to happen next?

This was the question put to me by my hosts at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Why did they ask this question?

Because Simon Fraser University has been involved in the development of universities in Eastern Indonesia for 10 years, and would like to continue this work.

For this purpose it is vital that they know what has really been happening in the country. They have to defend their position vis-a-vis Indonesia as a whole against criticism from groups both within the university and groups within the public in general.

And they have problems in comprehending the chain of events that have been occurring in the country. In their view, all the events that have happened in Indonesia since the beginning of the political reformation era in May 1998 (reformasi), look erratic and full of contradictions.

On the one hand they think they have witnessed signs of a democratization process, but on the other hand they also have the impression that the new government and the political institutions in the country are still behaving in a nondemocratic way. In addition, they do not see any signs that the country has the capability of solving its fundamental problems.

They have been especially bothered by the apparent inability of the government to stop the violence that has been going on in Aceh and Ambon, and also by the powerlessness of the new government in tackling corruption, collusion and cronyism.

Still another reason for their skeptical attitude toward Indonesia is what they see as the inability of the civilian government in reigning in the military.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that it would be difficult to find a framework for my presentation that could reduce their pessimistic view and restore their confidence in our country.

Painting a rosy picture of Indonesia was out of the question; it would amount to a flat lie. As I saw it at the time, my "mission" was to convince my audience that there was still hope for the country; that there was still a future for Indonesia, both as country and as a nation.

How to tell this Canadian audience that we are determined to defend our territorial and political integrity without resorting to violence? How to convey the truth without damaging still further the reputation of my country?

My problem was aggravated by the fact that most of my audience had updated knowledge about the country's various problems. They knew almost everything about what was going on in the country.

In addition, I was facing an audience that was quite heterogeneous: professors, graduate students, businesspeople, journalists and ordinary Canadians who know practically nothing about Indonesia, except that it was ruled by a despot named Soeharto for a very long time.

There were Indonesians who had been living in Canada for more than 30 years, and had become either Canadian citizens or permanent residents of the country. They showed genuine concern for the future of their old country. But there were also Canadian and foreign students belonging to the East Timor Alert group, who showed a very skeptical and cynical attitude regarding anything Indonesian.

After initial consultations with my host, I decided to deliver my presentation at the level of political culture, by stressing the cultural currents that underlie the main political events.

I started by saying that basically the country has made an irreversible jump toward democracy. This could be testified by six political events that took place between May 21, 1998 and Oct. 26, 1999.

These were; (1) the resignation of president Soeharto and the appointment of B.J. Habibie as the third president of the country; (2) the formation of the National Election Commission; (3) the implementation of the general election on June 7, 1999; (4) the formation of the new House of Representatives and the People's Consultative Assembly; (5) the election of a new president and vice president; and (6) the formation of a new Cabinet.

Each one of these six events is a testimony that democracy has begun to take root in the country. But I also added that each of these six political events were flawed by some fundamental shortcomings.

The resignation of president Soeharto and the appointment of Habibie as his successor were legally defective. The People's Consultative Assembly at the time was completely sidestepped in the process. This was a violation of the 1945 Constitution. While the election of the new president and vice president was marred by political manipulations and money politics.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, it cannot be denied that the country is now definitely much more democratic than it was from July 1959 to May 1998.

I hastily added that these shortcomings constituted the sources of antidemocratic tendencies occurring now in the country. The lack of sufficient understanding concerning the basic principles of democracy, for instance, made it possible for certain members of the political elite to form a temporary alliance among political forces that were basically incompatible, and create a political block to obstruct another political block considered their common adversary.

It is these unprincipled political maneuverings that prevented the same political elite from creating a government that can function effectively.

So, what will happen next?

In the long run, I said, what would happen depends upon four conditionalities. They are 1) whether or not we succeed in our democracy building effort; 2) whether or not we succeed in our effort to develop a culture of pluralism; 3) whether or not we succeed in transforming our educational system; and 4) whether or not we succeed in our search for a model of modernity that is acceptable to all categories within Indonesian society.

If we succeed in these four endeavors, there is no doubt that we will have a genuinely democratic country. But if we fail in any of them, we will decline and become a chaotic country. To know what will eventually happen in Indonesia, one must look at signs of developments in these four aspects.

During the question and answer sessions, I faced a number of tough questions that I felt I could not answer satisfactorily.

One professor, who had visited Indonesia several times, asked why the Indonesian government does not improve the salaries of government officials to curb corruption among high-ranking officials.

He went further and said that corruption can be found everywhere in this world, including Canada and the United States. But in no other country in the world is corruption allowed to blossom to such an extent that at the end it becomes impossible to control. "What are you going to do about it? Would you just accept the world's opinion that corruption has always been an inherent part of your culture?"

This was really a painful question that caught me off balance. Initially I did not know how to respond, but I realized that I could not possibly leave the question unanswered. After some mumbling, I said that in my view social ills like this could be cured only by strengthening democracy. The building of democracy will make it possible for us to redefine our collective value system, and when this new value system is enforced within a democratic social framework it will then be possible to prescribe a code of ethical behavior for the bureaucracy.

There were still other tough questions regarding the present situation in Indonesia. The important lesson I drew from the questions raised during this session was that we are facing a gigantic task of restoring our reputation as a nation. I became aware that, in the view of Canadians, we must have looked very erratic and very puzzling.

I asked myself, "Are we really that erratic and unprincipled as a nation that even Canadians sympathetic to our cause fail to understand that we are still in a transitional situation?"

How must I explain to foreign audience that as a pluralistic nation living in a transitional period we are bound to make mistakes?

But of course this cannot be used as an excuse for our present shortcomings. The problem is, I think, that many of us, particularly our political elite, do not have the slightest idea where we are going out of this transitional journey.

It really is a pity and a lamentable fact that many among our political elite do not think any farther than the next general election.

Must we wait until political leaders from the next generation take over the reins of control and guide the political behavior of the nation? I hope not.

The writer is a social and cultural observer based in Jakarta.