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From Our Correspondent: Hopeful Signs
Things ain't that bad in Indonesia

By ALLEN T. CHENG

August 25, 2000
Web posted at 5:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 5:00 a.m. EDT

Going by the headlines and TV images, it's easy to conclude that Indonesia is a hopeless mess. Riots, bombings, assassinations, ethnic violence, a country torn apart by chaos and evil. So when I told friends last month that my wife and I were going to Indonesia for a one-week vacation, most said something along the lines of, "Are you crazy, don't they kill ethnic Chinese there?"

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My reply: "I think life is getting back to normal. Plus, I want to go see Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world." We did have some second thoughts, but then we had already bought tickets and made hotel bookings. So when we got to Indonesia four weeks ago my second visit, and my wife's first visit we were half expecting scenes of conflict. But to our surprise, we found the place to be a breath of fresh air, with friendly people and relatively developed infrastructure.

Of course, many Indonesians we met were pessimistic about the future, especially members of the older generation who helped build the country back in the 1950s and 1960s. Retired restaurateur Sri Ayati Soeparsono, 81, only shakes her head when asked about Indonesia's predicament. She and her husband, a retired doctor and Army general, had both been active in the struggle for independence, first against the Japanese and later against the Dutch. "The country, everything we fought for, is falling apart. There is no hope," she says.

We would say that too if we were to focus only the ongoing violence in Aceh and Maluku, and on President Abdurrahman Wahid's political bumbling. But my wife and I left Indonesia with a different impression.

In Sri Ayati's hometown of Magelang, near Borobudur in Central Java, for instance, children play safely on the streets, often smiling and waving at passing visitors. Farmers till fertile fields. In Jakarta, once strife-torn streets have returned to bustling commerce. Young people hang out nightly in Semanggi, the city's hippest restaurant and bar district. Even in rural Sumatra, life goes on.

Though Indonesians are not rich by World Bank standards, most can afford to eat. The soil is fertile and produces plenty of food to go around. Unlike some Asian countries, where peasants have abandoned the land to seek work in the cities, farmers here continue to till the land. The Asian Development Bank once feared that the Crisis would bring starvation, or at least widespread malnutrition in Indonesia. But, despite the ethnic violence in parts of the country and a sluggish recovery, most people are getting by. Though I don't have statistics to prove this, I suspect there are more beggars on the streets of Manila, where the ADB is based, than there are in Jakarta. Last year, I visited the Philippines five times on business and Indonesia once. Even at the height of the Crisis, I found the streets of Jakarta to be safer at night than those of Manila's financial district, Makati.

It is only when one makes these comparisons that Indonesians realize that life isn't as bad as some say it is. "I didn't know there were beggar children on the streets of Manila," says Sri Ayati. "You give me some perspective." Descended from a noble clan in Jogjakarta, she is a respected figure not only in Magelang, a nearby military town, but in all central Java. University educated and well traveled, she knows both Indonesia and the outside world. She once lived in the U.S., and for more than 20 years operated a restaurant near Borobudur, where she entertained Indonesia's top politicians as well as other VIPs. Among her guests were the Sultan of Jogjakarta, Suharto and Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

"Once, when I was living in Washington, D.C., in 1962, I asked a lady whether she liked President John Kennedy. She said 'I liked him more when he was elected two years ago'," Sri Ayati recalls. "In the same way, I look upon President Wahid. I liked him more when he was elected last year. I'm not sure he knows what he is doing."

Wahid is indeed stumbling. Elected late last year by a slim margin by the People's Consultative Assembly, he was seen as the great conciliator, someone who could cross party lines and forge a national consensus. A respected cleric and leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim group, he formed a coalition with Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno. But relations between the two are now visibly chilly. Wahid is also at odds with the assembly and barely survived a motion to force him out of office.

Elites like Sri Ayati share many doubts about the president. Does he have an economic policy? What is he doing about separatist and religious violence? Why is he juggling his cabinet so frequently? Many people have high expectations. After more than 30 years of dictatorship under Suharto, they are impatient for change. But this takes time. The fact that Suharto is no longer in power and is in the process of being prosecuted is a sign that Indonesia is heading in the right direction.

Take a look at Malaysia, where its former deputy premier, Anwar Ibrahim, was recently sentenced to nine years in prison for sexual misconduct a non-crime in most countries. Or at the Philippines, where Imelda Marcos, the former dictator's wife, still throws lavish parties and boasts of owning the "entire country." Indonesia then takes on a different perspective. There is hope for the country. You need only look into the faces of Indonesian children playing happily on the steps of Borobudur to realize that.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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