Indonesia: President SBY - Applauded Abroad, Doubted at Home


David Reeve

The Australian press were delighted with the visit of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) 3-6 April 2005. The visit was slightly overshadowed by the death of the pope, and the deaths of nine Australian troops bringing aid to Nias island, but most commentators followed SBY and John Howard in proclaiming a new era, a landmark deal, a comprehensive partnership, a remarkable growth in relations, a lasting bridge, a truly historic visit.

SBY's words on 'looking south' were taken to mean a symbolic realignment of Indonesia's foreign policy. This sense of a breakthrough, the warmest reporting on Indonesia in a decade, was part of a striking and startling recent enthusiasm for 'Asia' in the Australian media. No longer the arc of instability and crescent of crisis; one major newspaper chain has a series on 'Asia Rising'.

The Australian press also admired SBY himself, in terms that used to be used in Indonesia. When SBY spoke of the sometimes trivialised and caricatured picture of Indonesia in the Australian media, the Sydney Morning Herald said: 'If any individual can change the perception, this looks like the man to do it & It was not hard to share his optimism. This is a very impressive, serious man.' The Australian spoke of SBY as ' a class act & obvious warmth and charm & the most competent individual to hold that post & A gifted politician, a moderate reformer, a competent technocrat.'

A thoroughly successful media coverage indeed, and one hopes to see some substance from it. But few at home in Indonesia can raise such enthusiasm for SBY. Disillusion has been setting in. It was always a mistake for SBY to focus on the first 100 days of power, although the awful after-effects of the tsunami somewhat diverted attention from that milestone in January. There have been some steps on corruption and economic policy, but far below expectations.

The view of SBY as indecisive has been gaining ground in Indonesia. One major point is his activist vice-president, businessman politician Yusuf Kalla. Indonesia has never before had such a powerful, active vice-president, especially since he took over as Golkar chairman late last year. It's not clear who is really calling the shots. The president's nickname SBY is now being reinterpreted as Susilo Bawahannya Yusuf-Kalla (Susilo Underling of Yusuf Kalla). Sometimes it's much nicer being overseas.

WATCHPOINT: Who will make the major decisions in the next few months, SBY or Yusuf Kalla?


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