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High-Level Indonesian Delegation Holds Discussions with UC Faculty
Ali Alatas (left) at meeting with UCLA faculty.

High-Level Indonesian Delegation Holds Discussions with UC Faculty

Former Foreign Minister Ali Alatas heads distinguished group in meeting with university's Indonesia specialists.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

Leading Indonesian diplomat Ali Alatas led a high-level delegation in a free-wheeling discussion of his country's political situation with a group of UC faculty and graduate students on September 30, 2004. The delegation’s visit was part of an effort by the Jakarta government to reassure U.S. officials, academics, and potential investors that, despite a succession of terrorist bombings, and insurgencies in Aceh and West Papua, the country is stable and democratic.

The UCLA meeting, held over a luncheon in Royce Hall, was sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. In addition to Ali Alatas, the delegation included Indonesia-based banker Eugene Keith Galbraith, Islamic scholar Fu'ad Jabali, and retired Rear Admiral Yoost Mengko.

Mr. Alatas began the meeting by noting that descriptions of Indonesia in the years since the overthrow of President Suharto have often been negative. "They speak of repression, corruption, terrorist bombs, and regional insurgencies. The economy is described as floundering along, unable to get out of the 1997-98 crisis."

But that is not the whole story, he said. "Okay, the problems are there. But look beyond them at a more balanced picture of what we have been able to accomplish in the last six years: it has been a transition period with some remarkable achievements." He pointed in particular to the adoption of a new constitution, the creation of a new banking system, and to success in the process of democratization.

"A more democratic system of government has been put into place," Alatas affirmed. "We have decided to repudiate authoritarian rule and have established full democracy. We are developing a civil society. The press has been unmuzzled and is one of the freest in our part of the world. We have a new electoral law; we have embraced in our constitution the direct election of the president and vice president instead of indirect elections."

An American Banker's View

Following his introductory remarks, Ali Alatas turned the floor over to Eugene Keith Galbraith, president of BCA (Bank Central Asia), one of Indonesia's largest banks. The fact that an American could head a major Indonesian bank, Galbraith said, was itself a measure of the dramatic changes since the days of Suharto. He compared the openness of today with his first visit to Indonesia a few decades ago: "It took me three years to get my first visa. Now I am a U.S. citizen on a delegation funded by the government of Indonesia -- but the government did not meet with me beforehand, gave me no brief and no talking points. Putting an American on such a delegation tells me that the government has confidence in itself."

Galbraith stressed that there has been a fundamental and generally unrecognized transformation of Indonesia's financial system in recent years. "The eight largest banks are now owned by non-Indonesian entities. Singapore owns four banks. The government can no longer instruct banks to support this or that project." The economy, he added, is in transition from being fueled by exports to being founded on domestic consumption.

Turning to the September 20, 2004, presidential elections, Galbraith said he thought the incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri had been defeated "because she didn't deliver." This, he said, meant the repudiation of the established elite. The major issue for new President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in his opinion, "is the balance set between appealing to the masses and attracting foreign capital. The president is not free to make rapid changes. He must solidify his popular base. The civil service is a highly corrupt institution, but the president must rely on it."

Islam and Democracy

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, and there are signs of a deepening religiosity at least among some part of the population. How does that trend square with the recent expansion in formal democracy?

Delegation member Fu'ad Jabali, a lecturer at the State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta, said that he saw no conflict. "Islamicization is in line with democratization," he affirmed, but added that Muslims must refrain from establishing a state based on Sharia law, which would not be compatible with democratic institutions. Jabali said he believed that Indonesia's Muslim majority is willing to make that compromise. "Islam came to Indonesia through cosmopolitan traders, not military conquest." The traders were more tolerant of different opinions and religions than the adherents of Islam in the eastern Mediterranean. Despite overwhelming commitment to Islam in the general Indonesian population, Jabali pointed out, "Islamic parties only got 18% of the vote in the last election."

The Military in Politics

An equally pressing question is whether Indonesia's fledgling democracy can coexist with a politically powerful military. Rear Admiral (retired) Yoost Mengko, a former Assistant for Intelligence to the Armed Forces Commander, acknowledged that for years the Indonesian military had been instrumental in shoring up Suharto's authoritarian rule. He insisted, however, that times have changed and that the military leadership is now committed to reform, and to full civilian political control.

Mengko made clear, however, that he and many other officers favored the retention of the army's controversial "territorial command" structure, under which troops are posted throughout the country down to the village level. While critics charge that the territorial system serves to guarantee military political dominance, and facilitates human rights abuse, Mengko defended it on the grounds that it is an integral part of Indonesian military doctrine. "The territorial command structure cannot be abandoned just like that," he said, "because it is based on our defense doctrine of Peoples War." Mengko also advocated the strengthening of military ties between the United States and Indonesia.

Will Perpetrators of Past Crimes Be Punished?

In the discussion period, historian Geoffrey Robinson, who is director of UCLA's Center for Southeast Asian Studies, asked whether the new government was likely to "punish those who have committed grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity." In particular he asked the delegation's opinion of the mechanisms that have been proposed to remedy the crimes committed in East Timor up to 1999, such as a Commission of Experts, and an International Criminal Tribunal.

Ali Alatas responded, "We are aware that this is a problem that requires our full attention, and we agree that there must be justice. However, we have a problem with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's idea of a Commission of Experts. In our view, it is too open-ended and may yet end with an international tribunal that could have more negative than positive consequences. The best solution, in our view, would be a domestic truth and reconciliation commission along the lines of what they did in South Africa. . . . This approach is shared by the present government in East Timor; like us they prefer not to reopen old wounds."

The Indonesian delegation was in the United States for 10 days at the end of September. It visited Washington, DC, New York, Houston, and Los Angeles, meeting along the way with members of Congress, think tanks, and editorial boards of major media outlets. The visit was organized by APCO Worldwide, a public relations firm that specializes in work for developing country governments. APCO has also aided the Indonesian government in creating a website at www.indonesiafocus.org. The guests from Indonesia were escorted on the campus by the UCLA International Institute's International Visitors Bureau.

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