The Indonesian government is scrambling to defend President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s fairly tidy reputation against newly leaked US diplomatic cables that accuse the leader of bribery, intimidation, and influence peddling.
The incident was overshadowed today by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan, giving Mr. Yudhoyono at least an initial reprieve from the accusations. The quake triggered tsunami warnings from Indonesia to Hawaii, and hundreds have already been killed in Japan, leaving the government here struggling to locate some 31,000 nationals living there.
But the accusations could have deep political implications for the president’s image as a reformer and even lead to a shake-up within the country’s already fragile governing coalition.
Some political analysts say Yudhoyono’s squeaky clean image has been overdue for a reality check.
“Like other professional soldiers-turned-reformist-politicians Yudhoyono, has represented a cluster of business and political interests under the guise of broadly conceived reform,” says John Sidel, a professor at the London School of Economics and the author of several books on Indonesia’s political history.
Yudhoyono’s image as an honest broker and committed reformer – albeit a former general with deep ties to past president Suharto’s strong-arm political establishment – has been highly exaggerated, adds Mr. Sidel.
Spying on opponents, paying off judges
The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and provided early to Australian newspaper The Age for an article published today, accuse Mr. Yudhoyono of spying on his political opponents and paying off judges to protect allegedly corrupt political allies. They also blame the first lady for trying to profit financially from the family’s political position.
The cables are not yet provided online at WikiLeaks.ch, the current home base for Australian founder Julian Assange's gradual leak of more than 251,000 secret US diplomatic cables. Since late November, only 5,440 of the cables have been revealed on WikiLeaks.ch.
In response to the firestorm, the US State Department issued a statement calling the release of the cables “extremely irresponsible. Scot Marciel, the US deputy assistant secretary of the East Asia and Pacific Bureau, expressed regret to Mr. Yudhoyono that the documents had become public.
Cables won't hit where it hurts most
Yudhoyono took over from former president Megawati Sukarnoputri in 2004 on a platform aimed at transforming Indonesia’s weighty bureaucracy and curbing corruption in a country ranked near the bottom of transparency indexes.
He was reelected by a landslide in 2009, but in recent months his popularity has waned among a populace that accuses him of not doing enough to tackle corruption or clamp down on religious intolerance.
Social inequality, infrastructure improvements, and judicial accountability have made little progress in this nation of roughly 238 million people despite economic and security advances.
In recent weeks US diplomats have also issued statements of concern against Yudhoyono’s lack of action in response to ongoing sectarian violence, echoing sentiment from civil society groups, bureaucrats, and Indonesian observers that the president is unwilling to alienate powerful political players.
Aside from serving as ammunition for the opposition to attack the president, political economists say the financial impact of the leaked cables will be minor for a country that drew huge amounts of foreign investment last year.