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Indonesians Complain About ‘Noise’ of Democracy

Inter Press Service, Kafil Yamin Posted: Mar 06, 2010

JAKARTA, Indonesia-- Is there such a thing as too much freedom in a democracy? More than a decade after the late strongman Suharto stepped down from power, many Indonesians are asking this question as legislators trade insults and activists resort to name-calling in anti-government protests, not to mention likening them to animals or vampires in these rallies.

And unfortunately, say observers, they are answering their own query with ‘yes’, and looking longingly at the past regime that curtailed human rights.

A recent survey by the Indonesia Survey Institution, known by its Indonesian acronym LSI, revealed that Indonesians thought ‘reformasi’ or the movement to bring this South-east Asian country of 243 million people from dictatorship to a democracy had failed.

Moreover, most of the respondents indicated that they missed Suharto, who had ruled Indonesia with an iron hand for some 30 years before he was forced to resign in 1998.

"While the people were aware of Suharto’s mistakes, they see him as a man who have given a lot of good things to the people," commented LSI Director Denny Januar Aly.

Social worker Sen Tjiaw Gustafsson echoed other Indonesians in saying that democracy itself seems to be under siege, with "decent people" who are "sensible and intelligent" fast getting disgusted with the state of the country’s politics.

For sure, much of that sentiment can be traced to the country’s "noisy democracy", which many Indonesians say has also turned far too nasty for their taste.

This is despite the fact that in regional circles, Indonesia’s transition to democracy is often cited as showing success -- more than neighbours like the Philippines, which is headed for national elections in two months or Thailand, whose government is plagued by questions of legitimacy.

This week alone, Indonesians watched aghast while a heated debate in the House that was being televised live degenerated into chaos as lawmakers yelled at each other. One legislator even called his political opponent ‘bangsat’ (bastard) while the presiding chairman was drowned by colleagues all talking at the same time.

This was after authorities banned animals from public demonstrations, ostensibly because of concerns over the beasts’ welfare. But then the order came on the heels of a widely publicised appearance of a water buffalo in a demonstration more than month ago, with "SiBuYa" spraypainted on its side.

No one missed the connection between the spraypainted name and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is more popularly called by his initials, ‘SBY’, and who was re-elected to a second term in July 2009. Indeed, the president himself expressed dismay, saying that the protesters were implying that he was "big, lazy, and stupid", which he said were the characteristics of the buffalo.

That could invite arguments from neighbouring countries, where the water buffalo is revered as a hardworking beast and the farmer’s faithful friend. But Indonesian authorities may not be in the mood to pay them any heed.

When ‘SiBuYa’ tried to make a reappearance at a protest last month, authorities made sure it did not make it to its destination. The truck transporting the animal, who had been renamed ‘SiLebay’ or someone who overreacts and had the president’s picture adorning its rump, was stopped dead in its tracks and made to turn around.

"If it were criticism, I can take it," Ani Yudhoyono, the president’s wife, has told a local TV station. "But is there any wife who could stand seeing her husband so humiliated, slandered, and treated like a demon?" "One early morning I woke up and found my eyes shed tears, just to remember those humiliation and see my husband working so hard," she added. "I tell you, that is not criticism. That is foul." Freedom-of-speech advocates have since been in a fit over the authorities’ move and the Yudhoyonos’ reaction, but activists are surprisingly finding lukewarm support from the public.

Worker Astri Wenas, for instance, is among those who say they are sick of protests. Said Astri: "I don’t trust demonstrators. I know, everybody knows, they get paid, all of them. No one goes for demonstrations without being paid." Some observers also say that a few anti-government protests may be contributing to the Indonesians’ growing disillusionment with democracy.

After all, they say, favourite protest target Yudhoyono was once considered a reformist in the Suharto military and still commands respect from many Indonesians.

Vice President Boediono and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indraswati, whose faces wound up on masks worn by two goats at yet another demonstration, are also known for being champions of a liberal economy and are credited – along with Yudhoyono – for helping Indonesia weather the present financial crisis.

Boediono and Sri Mulyani, along with the president, were recently dragged into a bank bailout scandal that is now being scrutinised at the House of Representatives.

Cries labelling Boediono and Sri Mulyani in particular as "thieves" peppered the air Tuesday during a rally outside the legislature. Mulyani also suffered the embarrassment of having one of his pictures blown up, captioned "Bloodsucker", and paraded around by rallyists.

Observers say that having such political figures demeaned by protesters does not exactly boost public confidence in politicians and the country’s political system.

Rightly or wrongly, they say, ordinary citizens may not like being reminded that the Yudhoyono government – on which they have latched their hopes for a better Indonesia -- has not been free of scandals, and has been dogged by several corruption cases of late.

As it is, many Indonesians already perceive politicians as incapable of doing anything about corruption cases.

Said online media MauBaca.Com journalist Mada Gandi, after witnessing yet another verbal House brawl: "They are unintelligent people. And to cover up their ignorance, they behave like superiors."

University of Indonesia graduate student Yonita Saras grumbled that while she could not imagine such things taking place during the Suharto era, "this is not what we want to see as well".

Political communications professor Asep Saeful Muhtadi of the Bandung State Islamic University, for his part, remarked that Indonesia’s current politicians are damaging democracy – or at least the people’s perception of it – with their behaviour.

"Now, democracy in their (public’s) mind is merely an opportunity for all to grab power," he said. "So anybody, groups – big and small – are jockeying for power. Power for what? For making fortune. That’s what’s (being) thought of now as real politics."

Even the Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW) would rather see legislators let corruption cases be, and has called for the suspension of the House special commission on the bank bailout scandal. "We see for ourselves that the people are sick of watching the legislators’ bad behaviour, so the people will not believe any decision the commission made," said ICW investigator Febri Diansyah. "Let the law handle it."

"The people know that is not a genuine effort to find the truth," he also said, referring to the House debates on the bank case, "but a manoeuvre for covering their own ignominy."

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