Return to Indonesia

A reporter chronicles the revival of the world’s most populous Muslim nation a decade after its disintegration

Despite ongoing problems, Indonesia boasts one of Asia's strongest economies. (Ed Wray)
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Meanwhile, between 1998 and 2004 three unlikely chief executives shuttled in rapid succession through the presidency—a millionaire engineer educated in East Germany, a nearly blind Muslim cleric, who often dozed off in meetings and was eventually impeached, and Sukarno’s daughter, whose most notable credential was her father’s genes.

Enter, in 2004, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, then a 55-year-old retired general who had been educated in the United States and who, as a youth, had sung and played guitar in a band named Gaya Teruna (Youth Style). He had a clean, graft-free reputation, a dedication to democracy and a belief that Indonesia’s traditionally tolerant, moderate form of Islam—Smiling Islam, Indonesians call it—was the true expression of the faith. The local news media referred to him as “the thinking general” and seemed delighted when, at a campaign stop in Bali, he sang John Lennon’s song “Imagine” in English. No one seemed to mind that it offered a distinctly atheistic outlook:

Imagine there’s no Heaven...
No hell below us...
And no religion too.
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

On September 20, 2004, some 117 million Indonesians voted in the largest single-day free election the world had ever seen to make Yudhoyono, who had promised to continue to reform the nation and the military and to rein in terrorism, the country’s sixth president. Five years later, he was re-elected in a landslide, collecting more direct votes (74 million) than any candidate had ever won worldwide. (The previous record had been Barack Obama’s 69 million votes in 2008.) In a nod to austerity, Yudhoyono’s second inauguration in October 2009 cost a mere $30,000.

Last year, Time magazine named Yudhoyono one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Not only has he continued with reforms to curb the military’s role in society, but he also struck a peace deal with anti-government rebels in Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra, ending a nearly 30-year war that had claimed 15,000 lives. Arrests, executions and raids had seriously weakened Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a homegrown Al Qaeda look-alike considered Southeast Asia’s deadliest terrorist group. (The name means “Islamic Community.”) Freedoms have continued for the Chinese minority, numbering about five million people or roughly 2 percent of the population, who had become free to use Chinese characters on its storefronts, celebrate Chinese New Year and openly teach the Chinese language. “Things are more secure, much better. We’ll see,” said Ayung Dim, 57, a merchant who had survived the 1998 riots by hiding with his family in his metal shop before fleeing to Malaysia.

The Indonesian government also patched up relations with the United States. It laid the groundwork for the return of the Peace Corps, expelled four decades earlier by the anti-Western Sukarno, who taunted the American ambassador, Marshall Green: “Go to hell with your aid!” Yudhoyono threw his support behind an anti-corruption commission, which caught some big fish, including his own daughter-in-law’s father. Indonesia’s democratic transformation and political reform have brought about a resumption of military cooperation with the United States, which had been suspended because of the Indonesian Army’s abysmal human-rights record.

The day before Yudhoyono’s second swearing-in, I took a taxi to the English-language Jakarta Post to see how the media had fared under him and what had changed since Suharto, when insulting the president or vice president was a crime and newspapers could be closed after printing three objectionable articles.

The privately owned Post, one of 16 national newspapers, had recently moved into a sparkling new building. I was surprised to find an empty newsroom. I asked the editor, Endy Bayuni, where everyone was. “They’re out doing what reporters are meant to do—reporting,” he said. “There are no government restrictions any more, no issues we can’t report on. With all the corruption here, Indonesia is a gold mine for investigative reporters, but our reporters don’t have the skills yet to do that kind of reporting well because we weren’t allowed to do it for so long. We’re retraining them.”

“In the old days,” he went on, “we became famous as the paper you had to read between the lines to understand. We’d push the invisible line as far as we could. It was the only way to keep your sanity as a reporter. Every segment of society has a voice now, even if it’s an unwanted voice” like that of Islamic extremists.

One branch of Islam has resurfaced here in its hard-core, anti-Western jihadist form. The terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah first captured the world’s attention in 2002 when a young suicide bomber with a backpack and a car loaded with explosives leveled two tourist bars, Paddy’s Pub and the Sari Club, on the Indonesian island of Bali. Over 200 people from 23 countries died. A marble memorial now marks the spot where Paddy’s stood, and a new bar has opened nearby with the name Paddy’s: Reloaded. In the next seven years terrorists launched several additional, deadly attacks—on restaurants in Bali and Jakarta, two at the JW Marriott and one each at the Ritz-Carlton and the Australian Embassy.


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