Twelve years after the dawning of the “Reformasi” movement with the resignation of military strongman Suharto, there are fears the country of 240 million people is on a slippery slope backwards.
No one disputes how far Indonesia has come: the economy is booming and last year’s peaceful elections brought political stability by returning Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to the presidency for a second five-year term.
The massive street protests, bloody anti-Chinese riots and economic ruin that marked the last days of Suharto’s “New Order” regime are in the past, and Indonesia is demanding a greater say in world affairs.
But on the 12th anniversary of Suharto’s resignation Friday, all is not well with “Reformasi,” the sweeping popular movement for democratic change that energised reform across the vast archipelago for more than a decade.
Some analysts fear the tide may be turning back in favour of Suharto-style cronyism and a political and business elite that has never, they say, relinquished power.
“There is not much difference between Suharto’s time and now. It’s just that Suharto’s cronies have been replaced by new cronies,” economist Martin Panggabean said.
Analysts express concern about persistent, widespread corruption, a lack of government transparency, a culture of impunity for human rights abuses and the increasing use of draconian libel laws to muzzle critics.
Such fears came to a head earlier this month with the shock resignation of finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, an independent economist who frequently clashed with reactionary forces within the ruling coalition.
Indrawati won international accolades for keeping Southeast Asia’s biggest economy growing throughout the global downturn while battling to clean up the graft-riddled tax and customs offices.
But her lonely campaign received little more than rhetorical support from Yudhoyono, and eventually her position became untenable in the face of constant attacks from the Golkar party, Suharto’s largely unreformed political vehicle.
Speaking to business leaders earlier this week, the outgoing minister compared the current situation to the crony-dictatorship of Suharto, who died in hospital in January, 2008.
“We have learned from the 30-year regime of president Suharto, where relationships between personal and public interests were so mixed-up,” she said.
“We all knew – what occurred during the New Order era was like a disease. But at that time it was done behind closed doors. Now it’s more sophisticated and the skills of power enable the decision-making process to be co-opted.”
In what some observers interpreted as a parting shot at the ruling elite before she starts her new job as a World Bank director next month, she said the current system worked like a “cartel” or a “same-sex marriage.”
“You can see for yourselves, government officials with business backgrounds, even though they say they have put aside all their businesses, everyone knows that their siblings, their children, who knows who else from their families, are still running the firms,” she said.
The comments were reported as a stab at Golkar party chief Aburizal Bakrie, seen as the architect of the campaign to remove Indrawati after she tried to bring his vast business empire under the rule of law.
Within days of her resignation, and after secret talks with Yudhoyono, Bakrie had been appointed to lead a new “secretariat” tasked with overseeing the ruling coalition.
Analysts said a key test for Reformasi will be whether an investigation launched by Indrawati into US$210 million in allegedly unpaid taxes by Bakrie-linked mining companies is brought to trial or swept under the carpet.