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December 14, 2015

A Dangerous Game of Military Politics in Indonesia

by Stanley A. Weiss

This past spring, a former cabinet minister had an extraordinary meeting with the inexperienced first-term President of Indonesia, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Upon his arrival at the President’s office, the visitor quickly dispensed with any niceties and delivered a candid message bordering on insubordination to the head of state.

“There is no nice way to say this,” he told Jokowi. “You are not presidential material, and your political influence is very low. Not only are you not the most powerful person in Indonesian politics – you might not even be the fifth most powerful person in Indonesian politics.” He then added, “The only way you will be more effective is if you build support with the military, and make certain that the military leadership supports you.”

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September 8, 2014

Indonesia, America and China’s Nine-Dash Line

by Stanley A. Weiss

JAKARTA — When the history of the early part of the 21st century is written, one of the great heroes of the People’s Republic of China might turn out to be an anonymous map-maker from the late 1940s whose work is helping to drive increasingly dangerous confrontations today between China and its neighbors across the South China Sea.

The question at issue is: who owns what across this 1.3 million square-mile stretch of water, through which passes more than half of the world’s nautical trade? Numerous studies reveal that maps of the region, including some carved in stone that date back to the 10th Century, show China consistently laying claim to just one island in the Sea: Hainan Island, just off the mainland, which defined China’s southern border for centuries. But as journalist Andrew Browne recently illuminated, in 1947, somewhere deep in the cartography division of the Kuomintang regime, a map-maker added 11 heavy dashes to the familiar atlas encircling 90 percent of the South China Sea and connecting it back to China. No explanation accompanied this change. No Chinese territorial conquest drove it. No treaty enabled it. No other nation acknowledged it. No global body even knew about it.

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August 8, 2014

What Jokowi Can Learn From Obama

by Stanley A. Weiss

JAKARTA — At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 23, the President of the United States placed a congratulatory phone call to the President-elect of Indonesia. “Apa kabar?” — “how are you?” — President Barack Obama asked Joko Widodo before conveying his congratulations. It was a remarkable moment. For one thing, the President of the United States had greeted his Indonesian counterpart in passable Bahasa Indonesian, which Obama learned growing up in Jakarta, roughly 350 miles west of Joko’s Central Javan hometown of Surakarta, also known as Solo. For another, a decade ago few could have predicted that either man would be occupying their respective offices at all.

The phone call came ten years to the week that America first heard the name Barack Obama, as he delivered the captivating keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that began his meteoric rise from the Illinois State Senate to the White House. At the time, half a world away, Jokowi (as he is affectionately known) was an unknown carpenter and furniture exporter. A year later, as Obama began his first year in the U.S. Senate, Jokowi had risen to become the mayor of Solo, where his promise of “Beauty Without Corruption” and hands-on leadership style brought him national and international attention. By October 2012, with Obama well on his way to a second term as President, Jokowi was being sworn in as Governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling 10-million person capital. Last month, after 135 million Indonesians voted in only the third direct election for president in their country’s history, Jokowi capped his rapid ascent by besting the former General Prabowo Subianto by eight million votes–though Prabowo, alleging widespread electoral fraud, has refused to concede.

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July 28, 2014

The Betrayal at the Heart of Prabowo’s Challenge

by Stanley A. Weiss

JAKARTA–The first time I heard the name Prabowo Subianto, it was spoken with admiration by a few highly decorated United States military officers who regarded Prabowo as one of the best soldiers and foreign military leaders that they had ever known. When I first had the opportunity some years later to spend time with Prabowo and his well-connected brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, the former general came across exactly as advertised: tough, decisive, insightful, and highly idealistic about Indonesia and its future. But there was one quality, both in the stories he told about himself and the ones he told about others, that came across more than any other: loyalty. He was a man, as the saying goes, whose word was his bond — a quality he worked hard to bring to all of his business and personal relationships, and one he expected in other people, too.

As Prabowo and his team announced last week that they would challenge the results of the Indonesian Presidential election — a few days after the General Elections Commission announced that populist upstart Joko Widodo, the first-term governor of Jakarta, had defeated Prabowo in the July 9 election by more than 8 million votes — I thought back to the way he talked about loyalty.

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October 7, 2013

Jokowi’s Obama Problem

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON–In 1949, a young press attaché was dispatched from Jakarta to New York, with the difficult task of convincing the American public to support young Indonesians in their fight against Dutch forces, which had ruled Indonesia for more than a century. Realizing that Indonesia, like America before it, was seeking to create a sovereign nation by breaking the colonial ties that bound it to a single European power, he produced an eloquent paper that harkened back to the year America declared independence from Great Britain. Its provocative title? ” It’s 1776 in Indonesia .”

It would be half a century– through five decades of dictatorship –before the Indonesian people would experience true independence. But as this Muslim-majority democracy of 250 million approaches the third consecutive direct election of its president by its people in 2014, the apt analogy to America isn’t 1776, but 2008. That was the year that a 47 year-old former community organizer, state senator and first-term United States Senator with a thin public record and a golden speaking voice was elected President of the United States.

But now, some Indonesians believe they have a Barack Obama of their own in the form of a 52 year-old former furniture dealer, small-town mayor and first-term governor with a thin public record and a golden speaking voice who is hailed as a hero during his frequent visits to Jakarta’s streets. Just as Obama was lauded for being a “fresh and exciting voice in American politics,” Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo is praised as an “open and approachable” public official who “represents a clear break” from “the traditional power centers of Indonesian politics.” While he is not yet a declared candidate, many Indonesians hope that Jokowi can do for Indonesia what Obama is perceived to have done for America.

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September 16, 2013

Prabowo Could Be Indonesia’s Lee Kuan Yew

by Stanley A. Weiss

BALI, Indonesia–If public graft were a symphony, Djoko Susilo might be its Mozart. On a salary of $1,000 a month, the former head of Indonesia’s police academy managed to amass a fortune of $18 million. Earlier this month, Djoko was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Jakarta Corruption Court for accepting a $2.9 million bribe for a contract that eventually lost the state $10 million.

On the same day Djoko was found guilty, a former Health Ministry official was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling $1 million. Last month, the country’s top oil and gas regulator–revered as a “clean man in a corrupt industry”–was charged with taking $700,000 in bribes from an oil-trading company. All told, more than 360 Indonesian officials have been jailed on corruption charges since 2002, including cabinet officers, governors, Members of Parliament, and judges.

At a time when every Islamic nation in the Middle East seems to be on fire, Indonesia–which has more Muslims than Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt combined–appears to be a relative oasis of diversity and democracy. On track to become one of the world’s ten largest economies, this southeast Asian nation is also set to witness the third consecutive direct election of its president next year after five decades of dictatorship. But in a country where more than half of the population lives on less than $2 a day, Indonesia’s deepening corruption at the highest levels isn’t just a threat to economic growth–it’s a ticking time bomb whose detonation could send shock waves across Asia, destabilize America’s China strategy and make the violence in Egypt and Syria pale by comparison.

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August 5, 2013

Can Egypt Move Beyond the Politics of Retribution?

by Stanley A. Weiss

BALI, Indonesia— Former United States President Bill Clinton likes to tell the story about the time Nelson Mandela first took him to see his old prison cell on Robben Island, where the South African icon was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the collapse of apartheid. In a small room with barely enough space for a man his size, Mandela slept on the floor, without a bed, for more than 6,500 days. Clinton asked, “Weren’t you bitter and angry when you finally walked out of here?” Mandela replied, “Yes, I was. But then I said to myself, ‘Mandela, they had you for 27 years. If you are still angry with them when you pass through the gate, they will still have you.’ But I wanted to be free, so I let it go.”

Clinton often adds that “nearly all of the conflicts in the world could be resolved if one side would just stand up and let things go. But there aren’t many men like Mandela in the world, because the instinct to hold on to old hatreds and fears is greater than the instinct to let go.”

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February 23, 2012

The First Thing the U.S. Should Do In Myanmar

YANGON, Myanmar— During the years he lived as a child in Indonesia, President Barack Obama learned the culture of Jakarta, spoke the language, survived chicken pox, and recalls frequently feeling “the sting of [his] teachers’ bamboo switches.” As a young military officer training in the United States, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known as SBY, parachuted out of planes with Fort Benning’s storied 82nd Airborne Division and attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. It is an interesting parallel between presidents that each spent formative years in the other’s country.

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October 6, 2011

Indonesia’s Uncertain Dance

JAKARTA—One of the mesmerizing dances performed here is Jaipongan, a style that mixes Indonesian martial arts with village ritual music. It features graceful arm movements and slow, lunging steps that create the appearance of forward momentum. While the dancer floats across the floor, you never really notice that she’s moving in a circle until the dance ends and she is standing back where she started.

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March 17, 2011

Counterpoint on Myanmar’s Transition

YANGON—As demonstrators from Tunis to Cairo to Tripoli wonder if their revolutions will succeed, Myanmar remains an unfortunate poster child for what happens when revolutions go wrong. With a population equal in size to the United Kingdom, and a per capita income of less than two US dollars per day, Myanmar has suffered under military rule since 1962.

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