Impact of the Tsunamis: New Political and Social Landscapes?

Dr. Sjahrir
The Society of a New Indonesia Party

“The military role will be less forceful than before.  They can’t evade closer scrutiny.  The tsunami has made the political landscape change.  All this talk around the planet about Aceh, this outpouring of sympathy,” will create such international attention to Aceh, and to all of Indonesia, that will force greater transparency on many issues.   “Now that Aceh is open there is no turning back.”

Sjahrir, noted economist, intellectual, reformer and political leader, visited USINDO on January 3 to offer his early assessment of the long-term effects of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Aceh on December 26.  Although one of Indonesia’s leading rationalists, Dr. Sjahrir reflected a common tendency of his countrymen in seeing an omen, something supernatural, in the magnitude of the disaster.  He pointed out that Indonesia had also recently experienced an earthquake in Papua, which, together with Aceh, are the two most unsettled and resource-rich provinces.  Indonesians feel deeply about the impact and magnitude of this disaster, a factor that should not be underestimated in his view.

Unlike the reading of omens in Indonesia’s past, however – earthquakes and volcanic eruptions preceded the downfall of Presidents Sukarno and Suharto – Sjahrir did not impute any imminent threat to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s new administration.  He was cautiously optimistic that President SBY might rise to the challenge of this catastrophe to make some needed changes in the way things have been done in the past.  The top echelon of the SBY government, he observed, rates high marks for leadership, but somewhat below the “A-plus” he gives to Premier Thaksin in Thailand.  In any case, he suggested some fundamental effects, especially in the strife-torn province of Aceh, that would be irreversible.

  • The bureaucracy in Aceh was effectively wiped out, along with their families.  Think of police, teachers, educators.  Trained personnel will be in short supply.  “The pool of people who can do their jobs is smaller than we think,” he said.  He noted that the casualty figures, then estimated at 94,000, do not include returns from several areas.  Moreover, he said, the data come from the Ministry of Health, which has the weakest record for accurate statistics.  Eventual toll of more than 100,000 deaths will have a “huge effect” on manpower, he said.
  • Civil society in Indonesia has reacted well to the tragedy, in terms of their efforts to respond.  There has been no sectarian or religious squabbling, at least so far.
  • The potential for corruption will be a danger as relief aid pours in.  “We have not changed our corrupt mentality.  We simply cannot make a distinction between ‘corrupt’ and ‘noncorrupt’” he said.  “The concept of conflict of interest does not exist.”  He recommended that donors require an “established international audit organization” to monitor how funds are spent.  Anti-corruption conditionality must be donor-imposed, he said.
  • The effect on local politics may be profound.  Indonesia’s decentralization has meant devolving political power to the lowest political units: the bupatis (“county” executive equivalents) and mayors.  These officials, formerly appointed by the central government, will be directly elected for the first time beginning this year.
  • The effect on the armed struggle between the GAM insurgents and the Indonesian military is too early to tell.  Unlike Sri Lanka, where the insurgent Tamil Tigers have taken a lead in relief aid, the GAM has not been much heard from.  At the time of the disaster Aceh was in a state of “civil emergency” rather than “military emergency,” ostensibly a lesser status than the one which heralded the military offensive in 2003 that marked the end of a two-year effort at reconciliation.  Any change in the emergency status would require a further presidential proclamation.  “It’s too early to tell what the military has in mind,” Sjahrir said.  He added, in answer to a question, that the TNI must acknowledge the aspirations of the Acehnese people.  “Why can’t there be GAM candidates in elections?” he asked.
  • The effect on Indonesia’s overall economy is so far not significant, but in the long run Indonesia’s basic economic condition places constraints on recovery.  The national budget is burdened by debt and interest payments to donor countries and also domestic commercial debt.  Kwik Kian Gie, the former head of the economic planning agency Bappenas, has proposed a debt forgiveness scheme for Indonesia, Sjahrir said, and he asked why Indonesia deserves it.  Rather, he suggested, it might be a good time for creditors to press Indonesia for more transparency.  There is an economic transformation going on, he said, but it is not complete.  Under Suharto there was a “KKN monopoly” of relatives and cronies, but since then there is an increasingly free market system.  Still, the owners of assets today are the same people as during the Suharto period, but now they are not investing more.  They are aware of discrimination because they are Chinese, Sjahrir said.  He implied that if there is sufficient need for their capital that may be an impetus for legal and transparency reform.  “Kwik Kian Gie is wrong to ask for debt forgiveness,” he said.

Q: Do you think all the international attention will contribute to a change in the American image of Indonesia?

A:  The lack of knowledge about Indonesia is not Americans’ fault; it’s the fault of Indonesians.  We need better public relations.  It’s up to us to make some changes that will result in a better international image.  It’s dumb of us if we don’t.

Q: Do you have any information about the relief efforts of Indonesian Muslim organizations, or from international Islamic donors?

A: The PKS (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, an Islamist political party) has been most active, but they have faced the same problem as other relief efforts, and that is the problem of distribution to needy areas.  As for Islamic countries, it has been quite a disappointment, but maybe they will join the effort yet.  Indonesia should do its own publicity effort.

Q: Have you considered the downside of ‘conditionality,’ i.e. that too many strings on donations may create a backlash of resentment?

A: It’s best to give directly to the people; a second option is to give to NGOs, and there are many reliable Indonesian NGOs.  The third and last option would be to give to the government.