Indonesia’s cyber-politics

By Kari Huus
March 13 — Each day, Jakarta computer distributor Rudy Rusdiah logs onto the Web at least three times to check the rupiah’s exchange rate, which he then records in the pages of an enormous ledger. If the exchange rate is favorable, he shoots off an e-mail to Singapore or the United States to import more PCs. At a time when the currency is wobbling, it’s critical that he be up to date. “Without Internet our business could not survive,” he says.

ALMOST OVERNIGHT, the Internet has become a fixture in Indonesia. From the time the first commercial Internet service provider was set up three years ago, the number of registered Indonesians on line climbed to 80,000 last year. And the economic crisis may be driving more traffic to the Web — both for the latest economic information and for political content that local papers don’t dare print. “The Internet is the only way to get accurate and up-to-date news or articles,” says a 23-year old Indonesian engineering student from Jakarta. “Many Indonesians know they can’t believe Indonesia’s news media, and the Internet presents itself… as a way out.”

Indo-Chaos "INDO-CHAOS", One of numerous Indonesia Web sites that provide information on the country's political and economic information that may not be available from traditional media within the country.

As the economic crisis has worsened, so has the political paralysis on this vast archipelago. President Suharto, already in power for 32 years, has just received a parliamentary rubber stamp for another five-year term. Though he presided over three decades of economic growth, he seems increasingly incapable of managing the current crisis.

In January, he signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $43 billion bailout, conditioned on the breakup of monopolies controlled by family and friends, the end to most subsidies and other reforms. But Suharto has since balked, and investor confidence has not returned. As prices rise and riots erupt in provincial towns, Suharto has stepped up security and started blaming foreign domination for the country’s economic woes. “They’re drifting,” says a Jakarta based diplomat. “They’re just not fixing it.”

Even though Internet users are still a small portion of the country’s 200 million people — the world’s fourth largest population — the online set is influential, coming mostly from the educated upper and upper-middle classes. And they are networking with thousands of Indonesians abroad, generating a lively debate on the future of the country. “CNN used to be the revelation,” says Arian Ardie, an Jakarta businessman who also heads the U.S. Committee of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce. “But I believe that the Internet has become the primary means of information gathering among the middle class, the educated elite.”

The raw material for political Web sites originates in Indonesia, but the sites are often based overseas. Among the most fiercely critical of the government show up in the news group Apakabar — which means, “What’s Up.” Maintained in the United States by former diplomat, John MacDougall, the site has had about 65,000 postings, and now it’s getting some 130,000 readers a day. Some offer economic solutions, theory or data. Most take the position that the government is bungling the crisis and lambaste the Suharto family for using its position to amass a fortune.

“Suharto (is) not able to execute or even want to execute (the reforms),” said one posting this week. “Sure. If I am 6th richest person on Earth, any kind of ‘Blah-Plus’ might fool the ignorant people, but most of the world community didn’t buy (the so-called) IMF-Plus.”

The anti-Jakarta fare is rich on the Web. A quick search on Indonesia turns up dozens of Web sites representing groups championing the rights of Indonesian workers, dissidents and the people of East Timor, the site of the country’s worst rioting this decade . There are plenty of ad-hoc Web sites, like this one entitled Indo-Chaos which a young Indonesian man who calls himself Ir. Soekarno said was just “to show the world how bad the situation is in Indonesia.”

The benchmark for Web site politics was set in 1996. That summer, the government effectively took over the would-be opposition party, ousting its leader Megawati Sukarnoputri — the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. Megawati and her followers maintained their own Web site — posting political commentary, articles and reports on political arrests -- even after their failed attempt to introduce political reforms.

On a much smaller scale are e-mail campaigns and fax campaigns attempting to organize for political action. A prominent Jakarta professor runs a daily mailing list, sending five to 10 articles a day to a select mailing list.

More ambitious was a recent letter sent from a source inside the country to Indonesian students around the world that urged them to protest at local Indonesian embassies against attacks on ethnic Chinese, who tend to be the country's wealthiest citizens. Some human rights groups fear that the government may be sanctioning, or at least allowing the attacks to divert blame from the government to the Chinese.

“This scapegoating pattern is both repulsive and inhumane,” said the e-mail message, and urged readers to petition the Indonesian government to stop the mob violence, and “to use due process on those accountable for the rupiah plunge.”

This fledgling “samizdat” activity is still miniscule in comparison to the overwhelming power of President Suharto, a traditional Javanese god-king who uses the military to keep order.

Indeed, despite the potential political implications, the Indonesian government has enthusiastically embraced the Internet. President Suharto has been known to surf — at least, he did so once in public to kick off a new site for Muslim intellectuals. He has also championed the ambitious Nusantara project, to link the main islands on the Indonesian archipelago with a high-speed Internet backbone, though the lack of funds is now likely to delay the project. And at least one top minister is said to give out his e-mail address to the public — and personally answer queries within a few days.

The Jakarta government’s view is amply represented in cyberspace, with at least two dozen sites representing different ministries and embassies. Indonesia’s iron-fisted armed forces maintain a presence on the Web. At least one site — which plays a jaunty tune — is dedicated to singing the praises of Jusuf Habibie, the controversial minister of research and technology who Suharto has chosen to be his vice president.

Interestingly, the government has vowed not to regulate or interfere with the Internet — unlike it’s neighbors, Singapore and Malaysia. And there is little hard evidence that it has.

However, newly beefed up emergency powers allow the government to do whatever it deems necessary to maintain stability. In one controversial case, the government raided the computer of a left-wing group and is using e-mail references to government critic Sofian Wanandi to brand the economist a subversive.

Like the newspaper reporters and editors, Indonesians online seem to censor themselves, unsure of Internet's security. The anxiety came through when an Indonesian student studying in Western Europe responded by e-mail to a reporter's query. "It's not that I don't trust you," the student wrote, admitting that he thought the query could be a trick by Indonesian authorities that he believes monitor e-mails, “It’s only for my safety, coz I’m still Indonesian and my life is still depend on the embassy here.”