Country Profile: Indonesia

Only 15 years ago, Indonesia was ruled by Soeharto, whose 32-year regime began with the orchestrated massacre of up to a million actual and suspected members of the Communist Party and ended following massive street demonstrations amid economic collapse. The Soeharto regime did reduce the poverty rate and roll out near-universal primary education. But there was tight censorship, suppression of dissent and a rigid, top-down system of administration.

Since then, Indonesia’s path has been not so much ‘two steps forward, one step back’, but rather resembles a drunk staggering irresolutely home. The current president, Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono, widely known as SBY, was a serving military officer in occupied East Timor under Soeharto, but he has been a strong advocate of the army staying out of politics.

A seller in a traditional market on the island of Sumba prepares oil lamps at her stall as night falls. On the outer islands, electrical power is often unreliable or non-existent.

Josh Estey

He was initially perceived as a competent manager of the economy committed to reforms, including extending access to health and education and strengthening local government and community institutions. He has strongly supported PNPM, the national poverty-reduction and community-empowerment programme, which offers microcredit to poor people and block grants to local communities for developing village infrastructure.

Flooding after a dyke in central Jakarta burst.

Josh Estey

Despite these successes, his government has become increasingly unpopular, being widely perceived as weak, indecisive and lacking the will to implement the full range of promised reforms. This is partly a product of its devolution of power, which has involved unfortunate compromises and has undermined attempts to implement meaningful reform in, for example, environmental management, minority rights and eradicating corruption.

No-one ever thought the last of these would be easy: in 2012, 170 of Indonesia’s 550 district heads were facing criminal investigations into corruption involving sums of more than $100,000 in each case. The President’s Democratic Party has itself been racked by numerous corruption and bribery scandals, with SBY often seeming to drag his feet in cases involving party members and senior military figures.

An aerial shot of one of the few crowded kampungs left in central Jakarta; poor residents are increasingly being pushed to shanty towns on the perimeter.

Josh Estey

This perceived weakness has left the electorate increasingly disillusioned with political and economic reforms, and disturbingly nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ of the Soeharto regime. With presidential elections scheduled for 2014, one of the most popular emerging candidates is General Prabowo Subianto, Soeharto’s stridently anti-Chinese former son-in-law, who has been trying, with some success, to sweep under the carpet memories of his involvement in the kidnapping, imprisonment and torture of democracy activists.

Indonesia remains a troubled country. Almost half the country’s population still lives on less than two dollars per day. In rural areas, particularly in the eastern provinces, there are high rates of malnutrition and child and maternal mortality. By contrast, the major cities have seen rampant, barely controlled private-sector development, with building glittering shopping malls and ritzy apartment blocks taking precedence over flood controls, roads, and public parks. Jakarta’s clogged canals and dysfunctional dykes mean that, in the rainy season, the city experiences serious floods and electricity blackouts that bring it to a virtual standstill for days at a time. Despite such conditions, rural migrants continue to pour into the city in search of work and better living conditions, with many living in illegal settlements on the fringes or by the canals.

A goat on the wall of the main cemetery in central Jakarta

Josh Estey

Indonesia’s economic fundamentals remain strong. It has a smart, engaged middle class and its poorer citizens are becoming increasingly empowered to demand basic services. The big question is: will its progress be undermined by vested interests? The story is still being written, with the country passing through yet another ‘decade of living dangerously’.

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