Sunday 13 September 2009

The Other Island Nation

I read with considerable interest the detailed report on Indonesia in the latest edition of The Economist (September 12). We hear so little about this vast and divergent island nation in England, little beyond occasional stories about local terrorism. So, the report or, rather, series of reports, covering topics like politics, religion and economics, offered a welcome chance to deepen my understanding.

I suppose it tells one something about Indonesia that it does not feature all that often in international news, because news is generally about bad things, like the Bali bombing of 2002. But good things have been happening in Indonesia, a country in some ways just as much of an economic powerhouse as China, but a lot more tolerant and a lot less oppressive. It’s worth stressing that Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy, one with a Muslim population higher than any other in the world. Islam here has little of the backward-looking and reactionary face occasionally displayed elsewhere in the world.

There is also a mood for change and reform, focused, most particularly, on the person of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the country’s incumbent president, widely known simply as SBY. It is largely thanks to his guidance that Indonesia has sailed through the worst of the economic storms that have beset the rest of world over the past year. Even the separatist conflicts in Aceh, Ambon and Sulawesi, which have long beset the country, have abated to a significant extent, in large measure thanks to the President’s efforts, allowing for degrees of local autonomy. Before the Jakarta attacks in July, terrorist incidents were also rare. SBY himself was a senior officer in the army during the Suharto days, but emerged unstained by the allegations of atrocity and torture that clung to others in the military.

I suppose the one area of major concern, the thing that certainly concerns me, is the fate of Indonesia’s rainforests, under continuing commercial pressures. Logging continues to be a major problem, destroying an asset that can never be replaced. In Riau province on the island of Sumatra the decline in the area covered by virgin rainforest in recent years has been truly alarming. Yes, I can see the need for economic expansion, for ensuring that people have a livelihood, but the forests and their wildlife are in themselves a valuable ‘commodity’ that would continue to offer benefits to the country far into the future, far after the last paper mill is closed.

I visited Singapore and Malaysia a few years ago. I’m really sorry now that I did not cross over to Sumatra.


  1. Hi Ana,
    A very nice post. I never thought that you know quite deep about Indonesia. Awesome, WOW!
    Yes environment, especially preserving forest, is one of our main problems.
    Thank you very much.

  2. The forests are in bad shape and getting worse. The policy of 'transmigrasi' is still in operation and at the moment is offering land and set-up money and other grants to young couples from Java (maybe elsewhere as well but I only know for certain here) to go to Kalimantan and clear areas and start to farm or add to plantation growth for palm oil and so forth.

    The official intent is not that established rainforest should be used but the whole ecosystem is interelated and you cannot farm right up to the forests and not destroy much of their means of sustaining themselves.

    Rivers become polluted. Birds and animals die. And without doubt, steady and illegal maybe but allowed in practice, trees are taken for their hardwood properties that are so beloved for furniture and building.

    Much of this is still connected to the corrupt remains of the previous regime as some of the largest land and plantation holdings in Kalimantan are owned by Suharto family members and extensions of their clan, and cronies. Breaking these ties is going to take more than even SBY's available nerve I fear but I am willing to be surprised and delighted and refuse to be negative. There is a good positive feel to the country which you have picked up on and it is impossible not to be affected by it.

  3. Harry, it's based largely on my reading of The Economist's very illuminating report. That particular issue breaks my heart, Duckham.