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Indonesia’s New Wayang Epic: A Parable of Endangered Reform
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
Java Island’s Wayang puppetry is one of the world’s oldest story telling traditions. The beautifully painted flat leather puppets knows as Wayang Kulit are manipulated and given voice by the all powerful and skillful Dalang (puppet master) from behind a white screen as backlit by rear projection while the audience takes in the actions of puppets-in-shadow from the other side. The dramas as acted out by character puppets traditionally took all night to perform, and the epic tales depicted had intermezzi set pieces featuring the bantering of jokers and clowns. This gave the audience a breather from the life and death narrative of the traditional epic dramas.

Shadow play of the fifty or so archetypical characters that populate the ancient Javanese-Hindu epics such as the Ramayana are mirror reflections of Javanese society and the principalities of the good, bad, and ugly that make for Javanese life. The sublime and ridiculous factor in handily as well. The puppet characters include kings and queens; despots and villains; demons and angels; heroic knights and hilarious buffoons.

Along with gamelan music, Wayang is Java’s greatest artistic contribution to the world.

Home to Yogyakarta, Java’s center of traditional culture, resides one of Java’s most complete Wayang collections as on display at Museum Kekayon, and is a must visit for Wayang enthusiasts.

What’s immediately striking when visiting the museum is that one discovers Wayang is not a dead art form but a living, breathing tradition. Though the original Wayang puppet shows are a thousand years old, the museum’s inventory includes much more recent Wayang sets as relates to figures important to modern Indonesian history. For instance, there is a set of revolutionary puppets which include founders of independent Indonesia such as the country’s first president and vice-president, Ahmed Sukarno and Mohammed Hatta. Wayang artists update and create their own modern interpretations of the never ending struggle that is life in Java.

Jakarta is now embroiled in a present day epic struggle pitting reformists against the vested interests of the old guard. This new cast of characters enmeshed in an ancient storyline no doubt deserves their own place in the Wayang tradition. A decade from now, I’ll be looking for them at Kekayon.

The difficulty for Indonesia in establishing a true democracy since the fall of authoritarianism twelve years ago has been both misrepresented and underestimated by the world press. Acclaiming the rise of Indonesian democracy to be a great victory, international observers have prematurely celebrated the view that the institution of democracy is now a fait de complet. Others, giddy with delight, cry, “Hurrah! Hurrah! It’s a glorious miracle!” The cold light of day now dawns on this coterie of observers who are now discovering how little they really understand Indonesia. There has been progress, but like Padang-style cuisine, a lot is tantalizing window dressing set out on display for public consumption. But in absolute terms, it’s all been too good to be true.

Stepping back for a moment, many can agree on the following: All democracies are chaotic and god-awful clumsy. Law making is as ugly as the making of sausages. Constant conflicts between the oversized stakeholders- big business, labor, the political parties, the governmental bureaucracy, and the military just for starters- are assumed. That the common people whom they represent are all too often overlooked is also taken for granted. Winston Churchill wryly noted that democracy is the worse form of government save all the rest.

But Indonesia’s democracy forever resembles a free-for-all and is at heart unstable. As of this writing, nearly forty political parties crowd Indonesia’s political arena. The first three presidents who succeeded strong man Suharto all lived in his shadow, and just as befell the autocrat, fell on their kerises within a span of six years starting in May of 1998. Finally in 2004 President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known to everyone as SBY) rose to power as the first freely elected president as chosen by the voting public-at-large, and his first term looked very promising. SBYinitiated what appeared to be a true stab at reform; reform of one of the world’s most corrupt governments and a commitment to globalization and free market practices. Indonesia had its first president who both acknowledged the government’s system of corrupt patronage and promised to end it.

But with his reelection in 2009, SBY’s indecisive and over-hesitant governing style as coupled with the fragility of his coalition government has conspired to throw reform to the wolves as coalition cronies from Suharto’s own creation, his Golkar party, have attacked the very heart of SBY’s original reform agenda.

For those who want to hear about the silver lining, there is one to speak of. The transparent news coverage of all this vicious political head butting proves that the Indonesian press has been unmuzzled since the days of Suharto. But this is about the limit to any news one might call rosy. The net effect has had the sizzle of tabloid journalism, especially as broadcast on television.

In fact, the grand political chaos shredding away at Jakarta’s body politik since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s reelection in July 2009 has become the staple, full time melodrama as broadcast on many of Indonesia’s television stations. The anti-revolution is being televised. The transparency has not been complete, of course, because the puppet and puppet masters always do a fair amount of rutting in the shadows. Still, a torrent of related skirmishes, many of them life and death in political terms, are being televised for all to see. For the country’s television industry, the free programming has been a wind fall. The ratings have been high and production costs low.

In the last year celebrity stock has been taken out on some unsavory yet highly entertaining Jakartan politicos, and they are lavished with as much media attention as usually reserved for movie actors, street demonstrations, or serial murderers.

Well, maybe a few actual murders have been committed in the passing as well. But the chances are skeletons won’t be sitting around long in anyone’s closet without somebody noticing the malodor and contacting the local Jakartan press corps. The press- most of them young and hungry- have been having an absolute field day as the government hasn’t kept them from swarming over all manner of embarrassing parliamentary and judicial hearings whose investigations include a love triangle homicide involving the top commissioner of the anti-corruption commission, a bank bailout where some 700 million USD disappeared (sounds vaguely familiar….), international flight of political fugitives, bribery of high state officials, and the long overdue public unveiling of corrupt tax department practices that enables tax evasion on a massive scale.

Amidst Jakarta’s inchoate bickering, recrimination, grandstanding, false piety, and coalition cloak room back stabbing, a reasonably simple Wayang epic has emerged. Let’s introduce the first of two main political actors key to this narrative of faltering democracy, police General Susno Duadjo:

The Indonesian press is currently obsessed with every move of three stars General Susno Duadjo, who until a few months ago served as the head detective of Indonesia’s National Police Force. The big question about Susno remains: is he “palawak atau palawan” (joker or hero)? He might deserve not one, but actually two Wayang puppets in the Dalang’s chest. Either way, the General’s hands seem to be every bit as dirty as those he has accused of all manner of criminality since initial allegations were made against him back in December of 2009.

Some liken Susno to a reformer, but that’s difficult to swallow. A mischievous avenger with a cute, koala bear-like body and Lothario’s smile comes closer. In fact, Susno is so damned lovable as to have knocked the pants off the entire Jakartan press establishment. Here are the facts:

First, in the fall of 2009 Susno ordered the arrest of two corruption eradication commissioners (members of the KPK) who had wiretap evidence that Susno had been advising corrupt official at the Bank Century and helping them escape to Singapore. Susno then accused the two KPK commissioners of taking bribes. (I must add in passing that the Indonesian word for bribe is suap, and I really think English should adopt its usage) After tumultuous hearings the pair was given a clean bill of health and President SBY reinstated them to their posts.

Susno was not so fortunate. The KPK accusations resulted in his work suspension, but at that point in time he wasn’t indicted. During the course of the KPK commissioners’ hearings, Susno famously coined the National Police force’s battle with the KPK as a case of “cicak lawan buaya” (the gecko versus the crocodile), implying the anti-grafters didn’t stand a chance. Even so, Susno was embraced by the public after he started snitching on the much hated big time corruption players in Jakarta’s Byzantine bureaucratic culture.

Susno was free to roam as well. He accepted every television interview request that came his way and proved persuasively charming as an on-air personality. Leveraging Indonesia’s relatively free access to the media turned out to be second nature to the resourceful General. He started making good his promises to sing, implying there was a vast web of high officials throughout the judiciary guilty of corruption.

Later in March 2010, and now calling himself the Singing General, Susno struck back, but not at the KPK. He accused three high level police officials- his own colleagues- of taking bribes from a mid-ranking tax official named Gayus Tambunan who requested they bury a criminal probe after he was discovered to have over three million dollars in his bank account. Tambunan is now the poster boy for helping Indonesia’s prominent business and home owners evade paying taxes. In a third world country struggling to upgrade its sagging infrastructure, the government turns a blind eye to tax collections. Some eighty-five percent of all annual taxes due are never paid.

The Gayus case is especially revealing of Indonesia’s Legal Mafia modus operandi. First you have a tax official unlucky enough to be caught tampering with tax assessments, and police officials then bribed to “mediate” his case with the courts. These mediators are so common as to have official job title- case brokers. The collusion between the National Police and the courts as under the auspice of the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) is negotiated by the case brokers, and everyone is paid off by the original accused.

The term “Legal Mafia” might be cause for defamation law suit in some countries. But in Indonesia, it’s simply the short and sweet way of referring to the commonly acknowledged criminal arrangement as practiced by the entire judicial system. Even the most conservative of media outlets such as Suharto’s original television station TVRI (Televisi Republic Indonesia) uses the term frequently and without blanching.

Polls show that the Indonesian public considers the National Police force, the Attorney General’s Office, and the House of Representatives (or parliament) to be the most corrupt governmental institutions. In a country like Indonesia, that is low praise indeed. That Susno was ratting out a few and promised much more to come of them gained him not only unprecedented media attention but a lot of public sympathy. He threw the public the red meat they eagerly wanted to devour.

Sympathy also grew from the fact that when Susno was first summoned to parliamentary hearing, he was grilled by members of an institution considered equal in suspect corruption to Susno’s own employer, the National Police.

At this point in the Wayang epic, we’d all be apoplectic with rage if it weren’t so ridiculous. But there’s more to the story complete with a tragic turn.

As mentioned, General Susno- who is now finally in custody by the way- originally came to attention for allegedly framing two KPK members as relates to the infamous Bank Central scandal. In 2008 Indonesia’s finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Bank of Indonesia president Boediono authorized a government bailout of Bank Century.

This Indonesian owned bank was small even by Indonesian standards, and the original bailout sum was to be only 6.7 billion rupiah (less than a million USD). The rationale followed the U.S. governments TARP bailouts during that country’s huge fiscal crisis, and in Indonesia’s case it was hoped that bailing out one small bank would prevent others from going bankrupt like dominoes. But the original bailout projection suddenly escalated one hundred fold in cost, and the government provided funds were embezzled by bank officials who then fled from the country. Bank officials not only bankrupt the bank through alleged embezzlement, but pocketed the bailout money as well! It was a real two-fer. Tracing the stolen money and the thieves has been a nightmare for Indonesian authorities. Funds have been reported to have been deposited in such likely places as banks in Hong Kong and Switzerland.

Everyone was furious and especially so the Indonesian people. Several parties in the House of Representatives as led by Golkar members ignited in procedural wrath and so started the Bank Century inquiry. The investigations are several months old and beleaguered President SBY is practically on his knees begging for closure.

The political cost to SBY’s presidency, and especially his anti-graft reform agenda, has been egregious. Vice President Boediono, who was the President of Bank Indonesia during the Bank Century bailout, and the cabinet member finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati have both been under constant attack.

This opens the curtains on our second protagonist, Minister Sri Mulayani. She ended up being the sacrificial lamb of the Bank Century scandal and on May 5th, “resigned” her post, though she will remain in office until June. In a predominantly Muslim land one might consider “goat” apropos as opposed to “lamb,” but president SBY and his Partai Democrat are looking more to be real goats after Mulyani’s very recent resignation. But as minister of finance under whose auspices and authority the Bank Century funds were released, Sri Mulyani has had to take the brunt of the heat, though no allegations against her outside of questionable judgment have been proved. But so, too, has President SBY, as his presidential campaign was accused of siphoning off some of the bailout funds.

Sri Mulyani Indrawati’s five year technocratic reign as Indonesia’s reform-minded minister of finance has been auspicious. She has risen to the status of superstar, not only within Indonesian circles, but international ones as well. Voted the world’s best finance minister in 2006 by an influential money market publication, many international observers have commented she could run the finances of any country.

Whereas Susno is this epic’s anti-hero, Sri Mulyani is presented by the media almost universally as squeaky clean and a force for only good. Or at least that’s what almost everyone believes save those bent on bringing down SBY’s Partai Democrat and the president’s reform and free market agendas.

Indonesia has historically celebrated and bowed lowest to sultans and generals, but Sri Mulyani deserves a presidential like-monument erected in her name for her bravery in facing down Indonesian graft and campaigning relentlessly for reform. She carried more water for SBY’s anti-corruption agenda than any other single individual.

Her portfolio as finance minister included the Tax, Customs and Immigration departments- all of which are as notoriously corrupt as the legislature, police, and judiciary. She closed down Indonesia’s terminally corrupt customs agency which acted as a blood-sucker on the country’s trade. She also raised bureaucrats’ salaries to make them less tempted by bribes and eased the regulatory burden on private enterprise, all of which helped the country weather the global recession.

Indrawati had some success in rooting out graft in the tax office, too. As highlighted by the Gayus case, tax evasion is a serious problem as there are only 16 million registered tax payers in a country with a population of 240 million. She was just starting to expand the country’s revenue base by getting her claws into the taxation department when she resigned.

There is good reason to believe that it was Indrawati’s determination to get some high-profile tax avoiders among the country’s corporate and political elite to contribute their fair share to government revenues that was the fount of her downfall.

She fired corrupt officials within her department in the hundreds, reprimanded some two thousand, and introduced more transparent work practices, including computerized records. (Imagine no computerized accounts in the ministry of finance!) She also sent investigators from the anti-corruption commission on surprise raids. Just prior to her resignation she ordered the installation of CCTV cameras in tax office rooms and a shake-up of the tax tribunal.

Indrawati had considerable power in managing the state budget, and channeled funds away from ministries and toward direct social spending such as community programs, health insurance, and school funding. The government has fueled the temptation for corruption by funding ministries more generally and actual social programs by name less specifically. The results in remote places like the islands of Nusa Tenggara Timur and West Papua have been catastrophic loss of distributed funds as sent out by the central government in Jakarta to these provincial governments. The funds for proposed programs simply never reach their promised terminus.

Sri Mulayani’s reform goals stagger the imagination. One was to keep the state budget management free from vested interests. Her audacity in attempting to reform the civil service has resulted in no less than a constant street brawl. The civil service is a stronghold of support for the Golkar Party, a coalition member of SBY’s government. Golkar was established by Suharto and is still considered a party whose interests side with the business elite, including cronies of Suharto’s former reign. But Suharto was careful to create a mammoth bureaucracy and civil service whose allegiance he could rely on to keep him politically viable by providing ample opportunities for them to feed from the public trough. Indrawati’s raids into that stronghold were unprecedented.

It is with Golkar party chief Aburizal Bakrie that Sri Mulyani created an enemy she couldn’t shake off. Bakrie represents our new and larger than life Wayang devil once depicted in a Jakarta newspaper as caricatured with a “666” stamped across his forehead. (By the way, Bakrie threatened to sue for defamation, but that never came to pass)

Bakrie is the public face of his family’s business empire, the PT Bumi conglomerate. Bakrie-controlled companies have their fingers in every significant piece of Indonesia’s economic pie, including oil and gas, mining, palm oil, property, finance and telecommunications. As the titular head of Indonesia’s most economically powerful family, Bakrie serves the family’s conglomerate interests as its political gun.

He has been called the teflon tycoon. Controversy has swirled around parent company PT Bumi, especially in its denial of culpability in the Lumpur Lapindo mud flow disaster in East Java, and further denials concerning tax evasion.

The serious allegations and close scrutiny have not been the Bakrie family’s only problems. PT Bumi nearly collapsed in 2008 when a plunge in the shares of six Bakrie-linked firms had Bakrie using his influence to close the Indonesia Stock Exchange for three days. Indrawati was firmly against the anti-free market closure, and this rankled Bakrie. Their relationship became charged and adversarial. It is rumored that Indrawati offered her resignation at the time over the dispute, but SBY defused the situation enough for her to stay on.

Soon after Bakrie’s business rose from the ashes. As the Economist states: “In November 2009 it led a consortium which outmaneuvered state-owned firms and a local rival to secure a stake in one of the world’s biggest copper and gold mines on the island of Sumbawa. The month before China Investment Corporation, a Chinese sovereign-wealth fund, had lent Bumi Resources, a bog coal-mining firm in which the family owns a stake, 1.9 billion USD.”

One of the last remaining tycoons as rooted in the Suharto era of state cronyism, Bakrie’s business fortune and take-no-prisoners politics mark him as one of Indonesia’s most powerful individuals, both inside and outside the political arena.

During the 2009 presidential campaign, Bakrie rose to political prominence by being elected Golkar party’s chief. Golkar is President SBY’s most powerful party adversary, and is in open competition for Indonesian political dominance with the president’s own Partai Democrat (PD). But Golkar is also the coalition government’s most powerful member, and has openly worked against SBY’s policies. With these kinds of friends, enemies need not apply.

During SBY’s first term, the president raised concerns about conflicts of interest when he appointed Bakrie as minister with overall responsibility for the economy in 2004. But a cabinet reshuffle in 2005 put Bakrie in charge of social welfare and public services, and the controversy heightened in 2006 when the devastating mudflow mentioned erupted in East Java during a gas exploration drilling engineered by Bakrie-controlled Lapindo Brantas. Several villages and factories have been inundated by the toxic, grey sludge, and 16,000 people have been displaced. SBY twice ordered Lapindo to make compensatory reparations, but they stalled, saying that it was a legal matter to be decided in the courts. After three years of foot dragging, the police investigation into the matter was dropped. Subsequently a special parliamentary investigative committee of the House of Representatives, led by a member of Golkar declared that the mudflow was an act of God- triggered by an earthquake three days previously. This finding exonerated Lapindo Brantas from liability.

Bakrie has been especially aggressive in leading the charge in the House of Representatives to investigate the Bank Century scandal, calling for the suspension of Vice President Boediono and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani over their role in the bailout. Golkar claims the bailout was done without legal authority and that corruption was involved. The pair was vigorously interrogated in public hearings.

Accusations did not stop there and by implication extended themselves to the doorstep of President SBY himself. Golkar also alleged that bailout funds for Bank Century were diverted to the president’s campaign war chest. Bakrie was aiming to attack the very credibility of SBY’s administration, including the president himself.

Bakrie maintains that his attacks on the administration are not politically motivated, and that he is looking out for the greater public good. His critics scoff that he is living proof that Indonesia remains a country held hostage by the principal “might is right.”

One observer wrote, “Indonesia is still a ‘might is right’ country where the likes of Bakrie can destroy tens of thousands of people’ lives with a mudflow caused by his company’s carelessness and then avoid the court system by buying it off. He presided over the mini- fiscal crisis of 2005 (finally being demoted), only to hound the very technocrats, Boediono and Sri Mulyani, who rescued the economy from his carelessness. He has almost been bankrupt three times, using his political connections to rewrite the rules for the stock exchange. He is everything that is wrong with Indonesia and the reason why this country is not yet out of the woods; its sham, corrupt pretense of a democracy notwithstanding.”

Bakrie denies being motivated by personal differences, but he is a confrontational politician who takes the battle to those who would oppose him. Sri Mulyani has vigorously pursued the tax evasion case against his family’s coal business, and many believe this is a crucial reason why Bakrie has held out the long knives for her removal.

President SBY, too, has had his differences with Bakrie, and where the political wars stand now, the latest battles have been won by Bakrie and his Golkar party. Not only has Sri Mulyani been removed from office, but the president has appointed Bakrie to a somewhat nebulous but seemingly omnipotent position in the government.

Some say Bakrie is now no more than the “Parliamentary whip” within the greater structure of the coalition secretariat. Responsibilities include managing the coalition members in order to coral necessary votes in the House and create smooth government.

Others say he is the “managing chairman” of a new government joint secretariat with power to determine government policy. Some members of SBY’s own Partai Democrat fear Bakrie will now have the power to influence how the country is run.

A political analyst for the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Ikrar Nusa Bhakti sees Bakrie’s new position in clear terms. “President Yudhoyono may be safe for now, but he no longer has full political authority over the government,” Bhakti says.

Koran Tempo, an influential Jakarta newspaper editorialized about the appointment thus: “We should have learned from the bitter lesson six years ago. At the time the president had put Aburizal Bakrie as Coordinating Minister of Economic Affairs to accommodate the Golkar Party's political interest. The economy staggered to a crawl. Inflation rates soared. The rupiah plummeted. All thanks to poor coordination among the economic team under Bakrie's command.”

Bakrie was then replaced with Sri Mulyani as finance minister, and Indonesia’s economy recovered not only quickly, but began to grow at rates only matched by China, India, and Brazil. It was just one more humiliation for Bakrie that fueled his feud with Indonesia’s “Iron Lady.”

It’s hard to say who will get the last laugh at this point. Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who has already worked for the IMF, is supposedly saving face by segueing smartly into the number two position at the World Bank. She’ll be flying off to occupy one of the world’s high profile economic positions earning 500,000 USD tax free and living in Washington DC. Some say that Indonesia’s loss will eventually become Indonesia’s gain, hoping the Iron Lady will pass on favors from within one the world’s biggest lender to her native country. Someone should tell them that with the portfolio of seventy-five under developed countries she must manage, Indonesia will only count for one. Indrawati has already conclusively proved that favoritism isn’t her style, period.

By conceding control of the day-to-day running of the coalition partners to Golkar Chairman Aburizal Bakrie, it appears SBY has lost both face and power. The fact Bakrie forced SBY’s hand in letting go his star minister adds huge injury to insult.

What political calculations might the president be making in the midst of what appears to be political devastation?

One persuasive perspective is as follows: SBY is at present in survival mode. The treachery of his coalition partners who charged his vaunted anti-corruption commission with their own corruption and wrong doings on the part of his finance minister and vice president have discredited his party and his presidency, especially in the eyes of the House of Representatives. The House not only has the power to impeach the president, but has already done it twice in the past twelve years. They seem trigger happy when it comes to confronting the office and person of the presidency.

But SBY has been able to always take all the credit for the good things that do happen in his administration, and by appeasing Bakrie and using his power as Golkar chief to gather House support, SBY seems in a position to grease the wheels and make some headway on some aspects of his agenda. If stability and progress is the result of political power sharing, from his presidential position SBY can once again claim credit for the improvements he himself made possible through his political negotiating. This will strengthen his own party and prepare it to take on Bakrie who is well known to have presidential ambitions for 2014.

Due to term limits, SBY must step down at the end of this five year term. His own Democrat party, which made significant gains in the 2009 election, will no doubt become his political focus in the last years of his presidency. Power sharing with coalition partners will reap successes. And if SBY can claim credit for those successes, then the Partai Democrat can hopefully ride on those coattails into a presidential victory in 2014.

But such political machinations are simply tales of realpolitik, devoid of any true life that speaks to the real mission government is mandated to serve. Disembowelment and decapitation are the words that come to mind when considering the successful assault on reformists by the old guard. There seems little in it for the cause of democratic institution building in the still young republic of Indonesia much less improving on the welfare of the Indonesian people.

As for the fall of Sri Mulyani Indrawati, she does remind me of Princess Sinta of the Ramayana.

In the Wayang interpretation of the Hindu religion’s Ramayana epic featuring protagonists Prince Rama and Princess Sinta, the narrative can be pared down to this sound bite: boy seeks girl; boy gets girl; boy looses girl; boy gets girl back; boy marries girl; boy gets jealous; boys throws girl out; boy regrets it. I’m not sure if the current attack on democratic reform in Indonesia somehow can be adapted for this shadow play’s particular storyline, but right now Indonesia has thrown away its princess, and there is a lot to regret for it.

General Susno remains the court jester-cum-miscreant forever upping the ante and pointing fingers to distract his detractors in a dance the Artful Dodger would envy. The Singing General should start a college program on teaching post-New Order brinksmanship. Indonesians find diversion in such ribald entertainment and love to laugh at this neo-Wayang buffoon. But the losses Indonesian reform has suffered in the past year forces the people to seek high jinx laughter to keep from crying.

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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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