Indonesian president's six years of failure

Thousands of mainly student protesters took to the streets in cities across Indonesia - including Jakarta, Palu, Makassar, Medan, Ternate, Samarinda, Bandung, Surabaya, Yogyakarta and Madura - on October 20 to protest the first year of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s second term as president.

While the protests encompassed a diverse array of issues, including women’s rights, workers’ rights and human rights, all the protests agreed on the utter failure of the government of Yudhoyono (known as SBY) to improve the lives of the vast majority of Indonesians or to dismantle the main institutions of Indonesian politics: the networks of cronyism and corruption that built up during the 30-year Suharto dictatorship and the militarism that dominates Indonesian politics and society.

SBY was first elected in 2004 on a platform of creating jobs and fighting corruption and terrorism. His landslide victory with 60% of votes in Indonesia’s first direct leadership ballot represented hopes that he was a genuine reformer. These hopes still survived at the time of his second inauguration in 2009, when he again promised to “improve people’s prosperity, strengthen democracy and uphold justice”, the Indonesian Survey Institute giving him an approval rating of 85%.

Creating prosperity?

While people’s expectations of SBY have fallen - his approval rating is down to 48% - internationally SBY is being lauded for leading Indonesia through the economic crisis “unscathed” and for maintaining “positive growth rates”: in 2009 Indonesia posted 4.5% economic growth. Increasingly commentators include Indonesia in the “fast-growing emerging markets” along with Brazil, Russia, India and China.

A BBC report in February talked of Indonesia’s “new middle class”, whose consumption of locally manufactured products is supposedly driving economic growth and creating millions of jobs, transforming the lives of workers “who have reaped the rewards of this economic growth” and creating a “confident” nation. The report gave the example of Miriam, a 37-year-old factory worker whose “new-found prosperity” has allowed her to educate her children and buy a TV and motorbike for the first time.

Behind this rosy report lies a completely different reality: 140 million Indonesians living on less than $2 a day and struggling to meet basic needs. According to the BBC, it’s these Indonesians’ responsibility to emulate workers like Miriam; they will have to “climb up and out of poverty” if Indonesia is to “become the next India or China”. By placing the responsibility for Indonesia’s economic growth on the individual, the BBC avoids mentioning the negative consequences of the government’s policies, which are destroying the livelihoods of the majority of Indonesians. Ultimately SBY is concerned only about continuing to attract foreign investment rather than developing an economy that can fulfil the needs of the people.

SBY has consistently obeyed the dictates of international capital. Earlier this year he followed the example of Western governments by bailing out of one of Indonesia’s biggest and most corrupt banks, Bank Century, to the tune of $700 million - four times the original request. Protesters at the time accused the government of making a deal to use some of the money to fund Yudhoyono’s re-election campaign.

Two senior ministers, finance minister Sri Mulyani and Vice-President Boediono escaped prosecution in the scandal when SBY stepped in to defend their roles. While SBY was  still defending the old networks and cronyism that Suharto built up during his 30-year dictatorship, the chairperson of Bank Central Asia, Eugene Galbraith, said that the “entire banking community” supported SBY’s actions because there “was considerable nervousness about banks globally at the time”.

In other words,  as long as Indonesia has “positive growth rates” and a bare minimum of political stability, foreign investment will continue to flow in. Foreign capital controls 85% of oil and gas exploration, 75% of all direct investment activities, almost 50% of banking assets and millions of hectares of land for the exploitation of oil, coal, minerals, plantations and forestry. SBY is also continuing privatisation of state-owned companies;  by 2015 only 25 industries will be government-owned, 110 having been sold off.

Worsening conditions

While SBY was bailing out Century, he was busy removing subsidies on basic commodities. On July 1 he announced another increase in electricity prices. These increases significantly affect the lives of Indonesians. Indonesia has no universal social security system, so the only relief has been one-off payments that are not only inadequate and temporary but have also been undermined by corruption and bureaucracy.

Conditions for workers are worsening. One of the biggest problems is an increase in outsourcing and casualisation of the workforce.  Furthermore in 2008 alone, 3 million workers were dismissed, and the situation is set to deteriorate further when the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) comes into effect. The ACFTA will allow Chinese imports to flood the local market, further undermining the weak Indonesian industrial sector. It is estimated that 2-7 million workers will lose their jobs; especially affected will be the textile sector. These workers will be forced into “informal” employment, which already numbers 60 million out of Indonesia’s 97 million-strong workforce. These workers have no legal protection, and their incomes are often significantly lower than the minimum wages set by the government, which are already inadequate to cover basic needs, especially in the context of constantly increasing prices.

The minimum wage is set differently depending on the city. At its lowest, it is around 600,000 rupiah (A$68) per month. At 1.1 million rupiah in the bigger cities such as Jakarta and Surabaya, it is still far below the basic cost of living. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 150 million people in Indonesia are going hungry. SBY’s policies of removing subsidies on rice and fertiliser are going to exacerbate this situation.

Furthermore, the government is failing to give people any of the tools they need to improve their situation. As of February 2009, as many as 55.43 million people in the workforce had only a primary school education. During SBY’s rule, tertiary education is becoming more elitist and less accessible for the poor. During the 1980s and ’90s, the proportion of the poorest students enrolling in university was above 10%, while by 2008 it had dropped to 4.19%; students from the wealthiest section of the population were 32.4%. In 2000 state universities opened special entry lanes that privileged wealthy students and caused a sharp decline in the numbers of poor students. At the same time, the corporatisation of universities is increasing thanks to the Legal Education Entity Law, which also allows foreign capital to control as much as 40 percent of the higher education sector.

Repression in place of justice

A video made public on October 20 showing the torture of two Papuan men - most likely suspected members of the Free Papua Movement - highlights one of the other major failures of the SBY government: the refusal to enforce the civil and political rights of the people. Throughout the country this lack of concern for human rights is manifested in different ways:  widespread land and home evictions without adequate compensation; the lack of action in investigating the murder of human rights activist Munir; the impunity given to fundamentalist groups like Front Pembela Islam (FPI - Islamic Defence Front) that have routinely attacked more moderate Islamic communities such as Ahmaddiya as well as events related to the LGBTI community (most recently they threatened to attack the Q! Film Festival in Jakarta, resulting in the cancellation of some scheduled events).

The government has then used the violence of FPI to justify new repressive regulations. A new national police regulation in early October allows police to use live bullets to control demonstrations in “anarchic” situations. While the justification is the FPI’s violence, the regulation is clearly aimed at curtailing movements for social change, indicated by the police use of live ammunition at the October 20 protests, while FPI continues to implement its regressive agenda unhindered. According to the human rights monitoring organisation Imparsial, there have been 135 cases of police using “excessive force” since 2005. In October police shot and killed three people in Papua and in September police killed one person and injured 23 people by firing into a protest in Central Sulawesi.