Indonesia: Trying Times


Associate Professor David Reeve

There’s a new toughness in President Megawati’s words and deeds. She has spoken recently of her frustration with the Indonesian bureaucracy which she described as a ‘rubbish bin’. Last week she made a major speech on corruption, and on the laxness of the law towards the powerful, saying ‘I am determined to end all this’.

Trickling into Indonesia’s overcrowded jails are an increasing number of Suharto-era notables. Tommy Suharto awaits trial for the murder of a judge. The Governor of Bank Indonesia was sentenced to three years last week. Bob Hasan, timber tycoon and Suharto crony, is serving time.

But what has galvanised Indonesian politics is the detention of Akbar Tandjung, Speaker of Parliament, Former Minister, and leader of the Golkar party. Golkar is the second biggest party in the Parliament and it played a major role in Megawati’s rise to the Presidency. Akbar faces charges of diverting huge sums of welfare funds for Golkar’s 1999 election campaign. Refusing to step down, he plans to run Parliament and his party from his cell.

This has been a dramatic political soap opera, with massive media coverage, news flashes, intense speculation about motives and manoeuvres, biting political cartoons, and bizarre new twists. Akbar apparently tried to make a run for it from the Attorney-General’s offices but security officials blocked his way. Then one of his co-defendants suddenly paid back the money, claiming to have ‘found it’ sitting unused in an overlooked bank account. This has not helped, contradicting Akbar’s claims that the money was used properly. It looks more like trying to buy his way out.

Golkar has been thrashing around for a coherent response, with enraged threats to destabilise the government, to go into opposition, to disrupt Parliament and pull out Golkar’s three ministers, and to stage nationwide demonstrations. This all makes Golkar look worse. More seasoned leaders are trying to cool the party down.

Akbar is a shrewd politician, often likened to an eel. But he has many enemies, and Golkar is widely disliked for its key role in Suharto’s political format. There are renewed calls for Golkar to be dissolved. There is much enjoyment of the predicament that Akbar and Golkar find themselves in. Fading hopes for the reform agenda have received a boost. And Megawati has shown again that it is unwise to underestimate her.

WATCHPOINT: Akbar’s trial began on 25 March. Can Golkar wriggle out of this one?


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