Tough challenges ahead for new government

Down to Earth No. 43, November 1999

Indonesia's new democratic government led by President Abdurrahman Wahid has inherited many serious problems from its predecessors, not least the crisis in natural resources and the plight of millions of rural and indigenous peoples who depend upon them.

When Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) chose the respected Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid as the next President of the Republic, the country heaved a collective sigh of relief. First, Suharto's immediate successor and protégé B.J.Habibie had not been re-elected and second, the selection process had not led to massive conflict resulting in a military take-over and yet more bloodshed. Supporters of Megawati Soekarnoputri were disappointed, of course, as her PDI-P party had won most votes in June's general elections, but some consolation came in her selection as vice-president. The main environmental organisation WALHI, like many others, greeted the new President with cautious optimism, regarding him as the best choice given the unsatisfactory selection process. WALHI said a new vote should be called after two years to allow the Indonesian people to vote directly for the President of their choice. INFID, the Indonesian and international NGO grouping which campaigns on development issues, welcomed President Wahid, calling him a "founding father" of their movement.

What indications are there of the new regime's attitude on human rights and the environment? As we were preparing this issue of Down to Earth, President Wahid (also popularly known as Gus Dur) had just announced his cabinet, which included new state ministerial posts for human rights and regional autonomy. Many of the men and (the few) women chosen are well-known: Erna Witoelar, former director of WALHI and the Consumers' Association, gets the new post of Minister for Settlement and Regional Development, and Juwono Sudarsono, environment minister under Suharto for a short period in 1998 (see DTE 37), becomes the first ever civilian defence minister. Kwik Kian Gie, the respected economist and Megawati supporter gets the key job of Co-ordinating Minister for Economics, Finance and Industry, while another former environment minister and Suharto critic, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja is Minister of Marine Exploration - another new cabinet post. Others in the new cabinet are relatively unknown: the new Forestry and Plantations Minister, Nur Mahmudi Isma'il (a food technology specialist and current president of the Justice Party), the new Agriculture Minister, M. Prakosa, and the new Environment Minister, Sonny Keraf, for example, are not well-known names. Unfortunately, this may be an indication that key areas affecting natural resources are not being given top priority. Keraf's appointment has been criticised by WALHI and others, as he has no experience in environmental politics. Ominously too, the new Mines and Energy Minister, Lt. Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is one of the five military appointees in the new cabinet. This would seem to indicate that the new President regards the mining, oil and gas sector as a strategic industry which needs a strong hand.

Generally, the so-called Cabinet of National Unity, appears to be a compromise cabinet intended to accommodate the seven political parties that won most votes in June. It also strives at regional as well as political balance, with ministerial posts awarded for the first time to a West Papuan and an Acehnese - a move intended to undermine the independence movements there.

There are, however, signs of positive change concerning human rights, the rule of law and (the new Mining Minister notwithstanding) the need to ease the military out of politics. The new five-year State Policy Guidelines, which were set during the same October MPR session that selected the President, set directives for the new government to eliminate the uncontested seats of the military in the legislature. The Guidelines also require the government to confer special autonomy status on Aceh and West Papua.

But the dominant issue remains economic policy. The Guidelines say that foreign loans must be decreased gradually in a bid to develop a sound state budget with a low deficit. They also require the government to renegotiate and restructure foreign debts in co-operation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Wahid has stated that "foreign investment" remain the two most important words for the economy, while his economics minister, a well-known critic of the IMF when in opposition, has taken a more conciliatory approach since his appointment. Yusuf Faishal, head of the president's National Economic Council, has been given the task of formulating new terms for the IMF programme. In what could be a positive move, he has specifically mentioned the need to alter some of the IMF reforms relating to rice imports, forestry and environmental issues.

The new cabinet posts of Ministers for Settlement and Regional Development and Marine Exploration are as yet unknown quantities. They are both potentially very important for local communities and resource rights. The Marine Exploration post may indicate a new focus on Indonesia as a maritime country, but some NGOs are concerned that this could mean more unsustainable exploitation of marine resources rather than attention to the needs of fisherfolk and coastal communities.

Overall, the need to focus on natural resources and the plight of rural communities has not been given the attention it so sorely needs, despite intensive lobbying. Environmental organisations are pressing the new government to set up a new Natural Resources Board, to ensure that environmental concerns are given due consideration in all relevant areas, but there are no signs yet that these demands will be met.

Again, this seems to indicate a lack of commitment to putting the need for social justice and environmental protection at the heart of government. While a new focus on human rights is to be welcomed, it is hard to see how it can be implemented without a corresponding level of commitment to reform in resource management. In most rural areas at least, the two concerns are inseparable. Human rights need to be at the centre of natural resource management policy just as wise use of resources is required to guarantee human rights. Without both, exploitation of the environment (destruction of forests, pollution of farmland, river and seas etc,) and the abuse of human rights (forced eviction from land, denial of access to resources etc.) will continue as before in the name of economic development.

The coming months will reveal how far President Wahid and his new team can implement the fundamental reforms Indonesia needs, deal with the demands for independence from West Papua, Aceh and other areas, as well as renegotiate with Indonesia's creditors a better approach to economic recovery which is underpinned by the principles of sustainable development.

(Sources: New York Times 27/10/99; Media Indonesia, Kompas, Dow Jones Newswire, IPS 29/10/99; INFID Circular Letter No.18, October 99; Financial Times, 27/10/99)