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Bank Century Scandal Tests Indonesia’s Tolerance for Free Speech
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
Bank Century scandal tests Indonesia’s tolerance for free speech.

Members of the Golkar Party and Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle flashing the letter ‘C,’ their choice in a raucous final vote on the findings of the special committee on the Bank Century bailout.

Indonesia has deservedly enjoyed international accolades for its remarkable turn from authoritarian regime to democratic state. As democracy takes root in the country, political observers have the rare opportunity to watch this transformation unfold in very rapid progress.

For example, Indonesia’s newly-found press freedoms have allowed for the live television broadcast of parliament inquiries that are currently investigating some of Indonesia’s highest elected officials as concerns the Bank Century scandal. Indo-watch has become real-time political theater, as entertaining as it has been relatively transparent.

Indonesia’s democratic experiment is weighted down by a bloated field of nationally active political parties, numbering near 40. About a dozen have garnered enough support to field seats in the parliament, or DPR, which amounts to some 537 members in the unicameral legislative body. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s own Democrat party captured only 20 percent of that total in 2009’s general election, and he can only press forward his agenda through coalition building.

The televised Bank Century hearings expose just how fragile President SBY’s coalition is currently as the foment roiling across the nation’s airwaves unmercifully tears away at its integrity. Several prominent parties in the DPR have vociferously called for the ouster of the two high officials responsible for the deal, Vice President Boediono and finance minister Sri Mulyani. Amongst the opposition are parties member to the coalition itself.

Boediono and Sri Mulyani represent the latest incarnation of highly touted Indonesian finance technocrats who style their policies after prevailing international practices as per government-to-banking regulation. The Indonesian power elite are split about the pair and their so-called reformist credentials as applied to banking and government finance. During the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, Boediono, then the governor of state run Bank Indonesia, and Sri Mulyani, followed the policy lead of the United States and Britain in their joint policy decision as concerned with the failure of Bank Century.

Even though the failure appeared to be in part the result of “irregularities” coming out of the offices of the private bank’s owners, the pair agreed that in terms of Indonesia’s economic well-being, no option existed other than to underwrite the failing bank from the public coffers even though there was ample cause to believe the owners had jeopardized the bank’s liquidity through illegal acts. As with the U.S.’s Federal Reserve Bank’s controversial 1 trillion dollar bailout of U.S. banks in the wake of that country’s mortgage collapse, survivability of the economic system was cited as reason enough, as the health and credibility of the credit system as a whole was at stake.

For SBY’s critics, this flew in the face of the Indonesian president’s most touted policy of anti-corruption which he has fought with measureable success since first being elected in 2004. Opposition to the bank bail out saw corruption written all over it.

This alleged hypocrisy is leveled at the president’s administration most remarkably by two parties who actually belong to SBY’s coalition government, and some say their disaffection may be irreconcilable.

One is the most powerful coalition member, the Golkar Party, as led by one of the country’s biggest tycoons, Aburizal Bakrie. An aggressive businessman-cum-politician, Bakrie nurtures his own presidential ambitions. His wealth and political ties have so far allowed him to sidestep allegations of tax evasion and control the liability damage associated with the mud volcano his family’s gas company allegedly caused while drilling exploratory gas wells just outside of East Java’s Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city. As the mud flow mounts, thousands have lost their agricultural lands, homes, and source of livelihood. Compensation promised has only been forthcoming in dribs and drabs. None of this hampered Bakrie’s ability to be elected Golkar’s chairman.

Golkar is the party seen to best represent the vested interests of old time economic and bureaucratic elites preexisting from the Suharto era, as the party was created by Suharto himself. Though the establishment of Golkar was not really a necessity per se, Suharto found some cheaply-bought political professionalism and public legitimacy through the creation of his own political party. Golkar’s party apparatus also served to better organize higher ranking regime members while better consolidating Suharto’s power base as vested in the sprawling bureaucracy that to this day best defines Indonesia’s governmental face.

Indonesia has made only partial headway in reforming General Suharto’s idiosyncratic governmental scheme. The National Police and TNI (combined armed forces) have seen some reform, having been cleaved into two separate organizations and pushed out of civilian politics to a surprising degree. With the advent of reformasi in 2001-2002, a civil rights amendment with some twenty-eight articles was passed by the parliament as well. But Indonesia’s rule of constitutional law is consistently threatened by a corrupt and inept judiciary, and the lumbering central bureaucracy has yet to see major reform. The plethora of government agencies protect their own turf, still cling to Suharto-style governance, and are often able to insulate themselves from pressures to clean up corrupt practices and to reform in general.

Golkar is said to still serve the anti-reform factions as hunkered down in the hide bound government bureaucracy who self-enables vis-à-vis its cozy relations with the economic power elite. Golkar’s still existing ties to the Suharto legacy and family make suspect the attacks it has launched against the president’s administration. So do the allegations of hypocrisy as ascribed to Golkar’s teflon chairman, Aburizal Bakrie, a man many believe routinely places his family’s business interests above that of the country. As alleged, Suharto-style cronyism is alive and well as embodied in Golkar.

The Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS, is helping Golkar lead the opposition against the Bank Century bailout. The most prominent of Indonesia’s several pro-Islamic parties, President SBY was careful to court Islamic support by offering PKS coalition membership. Perks include plumb cabinet posts, as for example SBY’s appointment of former PKS leader, Tifatul Sembiring, to the powerful post of Communication and Information Technology Minister.

The PKS’s Islamic agenda cuts both ways as relates to coalition support, as it is firmly anti-corruption but favors their own civil liberty formulations as follows more the common law of Muslim sharia as opposed to, let’s say, the U.S. Bill of Rights with its emphasis on personal freedoms. Party detractors claim the PKS frowns on traditional democratic values as relates to pluralism and the ethics of inclusivity that recognize and protect the civil and human rights of all national groups, including those religious and ethnic minorities.

Sembiring’s ministry has participated in creating the recent wave of censorship proposals that have slapped Indonesia’s civil liberties hard in the face. Some proposals have become law. Sembiring’s own internet censorship proposal has created such a fire storm of public protest that he has had to pull it off the table. Apparently SBY, too, finds the proposal draconian, and chided his minister for going too far.

The breaking down of president SBY’s fragile coalition as triggered by the Bank Century scandal has as a result served to give political daylight to two amassing forces in Indonesian politics- the resurgence of Suharto’s old boy elitism as added to the pro-Islamic agenda which is primarily concerned with hot button moral issues as based on religious dogma. The analogy as found in U.S. politics would be the combined politics as leveraged by corporate lobbyists in league with the anti-abortion religious right.

And SBY’s need to keep the coalition in place seems overpowering. To be fair, he is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. He could choose to dismiss his opposition from the cabinet, but given his propensity for caution, it is a highly unlikely prospect. He seems to fall on the side of keeping a coalition which in part consists of his political enemies than go it alone and risk his ability to get anything done at all.

Indonesia is accustomed to both political and religious turmoil, and the Bank Century scandal is but the latest superheated cauldron boiling over from the halls of parliament and out onto the streets of Jakarta where party-paid protestors amass in noisy demonstration, both pro and con.

What is new as observed live on Indonesian television is the heightened level of verbal aggression that characterizes the public debate as voiced by not only street protestors, but also by government officials who are in opposition to the administration’s Bank bail out policy.

The political dialogue has often transgressed the proprietary bounds of debate that usually bind dissenters to making voice according to Indonesia’s customary sense of courtesy. This protocol usually insures the abiding social contract that in profound ways characterizes that very covenant which guides social interaction between Indonesians.

Questioning authority is a very recent phenomenon in Indonesian society, which on the whole is very sensitive to offensive speech. This is rooted both in Indonesia’s ancient feudal past as manifested in both its Buddhist and Hindu-influenced empires, European colonial domination, and the domineering position by which Islamic culture holds sway today. Particular to Islamic influence, though, the traditional adherence to proscriptions against “fitnah”- or public denouncements of individuals or institutions- is just now beginning to show cracks in its once solid edifice. Democracy is beginning to make its mark in the very heart of how Indonesians speak to each other.

Most likely a pre-Islamic value as found in Middle Eastern tribal value systems, fitnah originally meant chaos resulting from social order. Sedition was an even more potent synonym of definition. A primary cause for social disorder often grew out of the undermining of authority through verbal accusations and allegations. In short, the overthrow of authority could be accomplished by means of personal defamation and character assassination.

Islam is a practical religion and hence its traditional preoccupation with law. No religion can thrive in social disorder, and the growth of Islam is paralleled closely with its ability to institute social order through the teaching, applications, and institutionalization of common law, or sharia.

Aspersions towards authority are particularly feared by Muslims as such attacks historically resulted in large groups of oppositional antagonists shedding each other’s blood. Given the heated history of conflict amongst Islamic groups since its very inception, freedom of speech has always been considered a dangerous liberty, and fitnah or defamation as such is considered potentially more dangerous than acts of murder.

So the vulgar caricatures as seen in the publically displayed effigies of the president, vice president, and finance minister were quick to be denounced as expressions of fitnah.

The president himself used the term to describe the personal attacks. In late December 2009 when parliamentary hearings concerning Bank Century were being organized, the president expressed the apprehension and concern that unfounded and biased accusations were tantamount to fitnah. Fitnah is a word whose meaning everyone in Indonesia well understands, and strikes a deep, resonant chord with the average citizen.

The fine democratic line being walked by those who accuse the administration of wrong doing in the Bank Century case has to do with the following: How does one go about promoting an accusation in order to make just cause for official investigation while being careful not to give cause to the belief that fitnah is being committed given the fact that definite proof for said accusations have yet to come to light?

An equally active ingredient present in this case is the exploitation of populist rage, as many Indonesians are extraordinarily exercised over the Bank Century spectacle. There is great impetus for elected parliament members to pursue Bank Century as it is truly a populist cause.

Populism aside, there is counterbalance which gives the administration potential cover. Fitnah does not apply to accusing the guilty- only the non-guilty. But when guilt is yet determined, the accused can always cry “fitnah,” hoping the cultures aversion to it will rally the populist ranks.

Given the political expediencies of the Bank Century case, issues of populism and even fitnah are moot points. The case’s outcome is still pending. Criminal investigation of Boediono and Sri Mulyani has been officially supported by the very recent parliament vote, but SBY need not heed the call or can he be legally forced to dismiss his vice president and finance minister. It appears to be a political stalemate at this juncture.

But Bank Century is more interesting for its side issues. Those new laws on the books which provide the legal means for pursuing defamation law suits are powerful tools the Indonesian power elite can fall back on as buttressed by the more time-honored value of fitnah in order to protect themselves from legal investigation- whether they commit illegal acts or not. In Indonesia, freedom of speech often finds its dead limits when defamation is involved. This factor is one reason why Indonesia’s World Press Freedom Index ranking is 110 out of 175.

The supposed social bias towards fitnah will continue to rub raw against the democratic pressures seeking the fairness of transparency and full disclosure.

Democracy is by its nature loud, boisterous, and counter-accusatory. The heightened amplitude of vocal modulations howling in the winds that swirl violently around the Bank Century debate will test Indonesia’s fabled ability to harmoniously syncretize every new cultural layer that comes along. Bank Century’s heated exchanges truly present a new layer the society must consider as part and parcel to the democratic process, a process the country by and large dearly cherishes. Cultural syncretism has been active for over a period of some three thousand years in Indonesia and has come to create the ever-accruing reality that makes for the evolution of the Indonesian social contract in general and guidelines to public discourse in specific. The question is- does Indonesian syncretism have its distinct limits? Will the hot air that lifts democracy’s voice and gives it flight be something Indonesian culture can assimilate?

What sort of bedfellows discrete, honorable speech will make with full blown freedom of speech has yet to be played out. Bank Century is just the opening round. The very character of Indonesian democracy, yet fully developed, and the civil liberties it confers on its people, seem to lie at the heart of the matter.

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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