HAMISH MCDONALD June 02, 2012
Illustration: Simon Letch
Rupiah, baht, dollars … the currency of south-east Asian politics is changed. Where it used to be green shirts, meaning army battalions, or green banners, meaning masses of the faithful, now it's greenbacks or other folding stuff.
We got a reminder of this in Australia over the past two weeks with tours by two scions of the region's plutocracies.
One was Yingluck Shinawatra, the Thai Prime Minister, who came out of the political nowhereland as proxy for her exiled brother, the telecom billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who combined money, power and welfare economics into an unbeatable electoral formula.
The other was Aburizal Bakrie, rated the 30th richest man in Indonesia with a network of $US890 million ($920 million) by Forbes magazine and chairman of one of his country's two most powerful parties, Golkar. He hopes this will be a winning combination in Indonesia's next presidential election, in mid-2014.
Yingluck is already in power. Her visit was to drum up trade and investment with Australia, on the 60th anniversary of our diplomatic relations with Bangkok. Her fortunes will depend on the interplay of Thaksin populism with the elite politics centred on Thailand's aged and ailing monarch.
But with Bakrie's visit, Australia was turf for his presidential campaign. Several of the businessmen, bankers and officials he met in Perth and Canberra said it looked like a test run, designed to show off his statesmanlike qualities.
"The focus was very much on Bakrie as a man of the world," said Greg Fealy, an Indonesian politics specialist who joined a roundtable with Bakrie at the Australian National University.
It could also have been a rain test for foreign flak, one businessman thought, Australia being the Western country with the biggest concentration of journalists, academics and activists familiar with awkward issues.
Bakrie didn't meet many Australian journalists, and fended off with politician's platitudes the queries by the ANU economist Hal Hill about the worrying turn towards nationalist economic policies, from which domestic entrepreneurs like Bakrie stand to gain, and the possibility of democratic "regression" raised by the ANU political scientist Ed Aspinall. He came across quite impressively, mastering his brief for meetings.
His main negative baggage is the mud "volcano" opened up in East Java in 2006 by a gas drilling firm belonging to his group, displacing thousands of villagers and ruining their farmland, which was conveniently declared a "natural disaster" by Indonesian authorities, thereby limiting responsibility.
He was also instrumental in getting the President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to dump the reformist finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, after a stoush over tax arrears. His business group has also shown a Houdini-like ability to emerge unscathed from default on large international borrowings.
But most of this is perhaps for the economic policy wonks than the average voter. For the mass of them, on the island of Java, the main negative is that he is not of Javanese ethnicity, but originally from a region of Sumatra. He is also likely to be up against strong candidates who are Javanese and a bit more charismatic.
Chief among these is Prabowo Subianto. This is a name to send shivers among well-wishers of Indonesia worldwide. Prabowo was an officer in the notorious Kopassus special forces who took praetorian militarism to new levels under the late president Suharto.
He was the young officer who captured and killed the East Timor resistance leader Nicolau Lobato in 1978, then married one of Suharto's daughters. He later set up "ninja" assassin teams in Timor. In the final uprising against Suharto in the late 1990s, he imported these thugs to the streets of Jakarta to use against demonstrators. His troops kidnapped and tortured nine student activists. Then when Suharto stepped down, he fielded troops in what seemed to many like a coup attempt against the transition president, B.J. Habibie.
It is one of the disappointing things about Indonesia's current political culture that Prabowo can be entertained as a leading presidential contender, as polls show him to be. Bakrie is said to regard him as the biggest threat. Jakarta press reports suggest that Yudhoyono, unable to find a strong successor when he finishes his final permitted term in 2014, is thinking of drafting Prabowo into his Democrat Party.
Some suggest Prabowo could be grafted onto the shoulders of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri's nationalist party. He was her running mate in 2009, and it is said there was an agreement she would put him first in 2014 if her 2009 bid was unsuccessful, as it was.
Ken Ward, a former Indonesia watcher at the Office of National Assessments, thinks that improbable. Prabowo is son of the late Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, a leading figure in the 1958 rebellion against her father, independence leader Sukarno, and later chief economic "technocrat" in the Suharto regime that toppled him. "Appointing the son of one of her father's worst enemies as her personal candidate would be quite a betrayal," Ward said.
Even on his own, Prabowo has financial firepower to counter Bakrie. His brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, is an oil tycoon only slightly behind Bakrie on the Forbes list in the No.32 slot with a net worth of $US790 million. In the past he has admitted to helping Prabowo pay his troops, and no doubt will stump up now.
Some of the most ethnic Chinese tycoons on the Indonesian rich list are also said to be uneasy at the prospect of an indigenous business figure such as Bakrie getting political power. It is suggested they would be willing to bankroll his rivals to head off such a prospect.
The election is still two years off, time enough for other candidates to push to the fore. A win by Prabowo, who is still effectively persona non grata in the US and many other Western countries for human rights abuses, would be disastrous for Indonesia. Bakrie has a secret weapon, too: Prabowo's bitterly estranged former wife, Siti Hediati Suharto, who sits on the Golkar board and came to Australia in Bakrie's group, is ready to go public with her account of his misdeeds.
Indonesian politics will be interesting, especially as our politicians and strategists are suddenly rediscovering the country as an ally, not a threat. More and more it seems to be about names: the Sukarnos, the Suhartos, the Djojohadikusumos, the Bakries.
As Prabowo's young nephew Aryo Djojohadikusumo told TheJakarta Post last year: "Family names are like franchises. There is comfort in supporting those with familiar names."
And money, of course.