Carter: "I Don’t See Anything Wrong with Generals Running the Country"

On July 5, Indonesians went to the polls to vote in the country’s first direct presidential election. Jimmy Carter, observing the process in his role as saviour of enlightened capitalism, enthused, “Of the 50 elections the Carter Center has monitored, I would place this one at a very high level.” Carter told reporters at a Jakarta polling station, “This is a wonderful transition from authoritarian rule to purely democratic rule in just six years.”

As counting of votes continues, retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is clearly in the lead but will not get the 50% of the vote necessary to avoid a September 20 runoff election, likely against sitting president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who almost definitely will squeeze veteran general and indicted war criminal Wiranto out of the running.

Though Carter discounted “a few minor problems” that internationals observed, local groups — the Center for Electoral Reform (Cetro), the People’s Network for Voter Education (JPPR) and the People’s Network for Elections Monitoring (JAMPPI) — argued the electoral process was far from free and fair.

Those independent organizations, which deployed 130,000 observers to monitor the elections throughout the archipelago, found that 32 percent of voters in over 1,400 polling stations were unregistered but still allowed to vote. They further reported that 10 percent of voters at over 1,200 polling stations were “intimidated” by other voters, campaign teams and poll committees.

Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic who has written several books about Indonesian politics, told CounterPunch, “I think the Carter Center has been particularly naive. Of course, it could have been worse, and encouragement is always useful. But their assessment is not accurate.”

The most serious logistical snafu involved inconsistent approaches to dealing with ballots unintentionally punched twice (due to being folded when voters poked a nail through them to indicate preference).

The Indonesian election commission ordered the double-punched ballots to be counted as valid as long as the voter’s intention was clear, but that directive arrived late at many of Indonesia’s 585,000 polling stations. Hence millions of ballots are being recounted; the final result will be announced no later than July 26.

Regardless of which candidate ultimately assumes the presidency, the Indonesian military (TNI) will be a winner and retain its traditional position of dominance. Megawati Sukarnoputri has been thoroughly subservient to the military. As Jakarta-based writer Samuel Moore told CounterPunch, “Megawati has already proved herself worthless, incompetent, spineless. She hasn’t even had the guts to rehabilitate the name of her father [Sukarno, Indonesia’s first President] after all the vilification of him by the New Order. She has turned over the military to the worst elements, the most idiotic and conservative officers, like army chief of staff Ryacudu.”

Though pegged by Washington and the Western press as a “reformer”, Yudhoyono, popularly known as “SBY” in Indonesia, is also no challenge to the status quo. John M. Miller, spokesperson for the East Timor Action Network, which has campaigned against U.S. support for the Indonesian military since 1991, told CounterPunch, “SBY’s main virtue is that he has not been indicted. As Megawati’s security minister, he was involved in implementing extremely repressive policies in Aceh and West Papua. He was Wiranto’s top deputy in 1999, when Indonesian troops levelled East Timor. He attended the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and is extremely unlikely to challenge military prerogatives.”

In a January 2004 speech, Yudhoyono reassured military hardliners by saying, “Democracy, human rights, concern for the environment and other concepts being promoted by Western countries are all good, but they cannot become absolute goals because pursuing them as such will not be good for the country.”

When army chief Ryacudu called Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party to ask why their website featured a campaign commitment to military reform, he was quickly reassured it was the work of a hacker, not party policy-makers.

Yudhoyono knows what the Bush Administration wants to hear from world leaders. “Indonesia is trying hard to fight terrorism,” he has pledged. “I will improve law enforcement and skills of the police to fight terrorism…if I am elected.” He has said, “Our task is to create a better climate for investors,” and told the Financial Times, “It is very important that we make the international community comfortable.” Rizal Prasetijo, a vice president and stock-market strategist with J.P. Morgan Securities in Indonesia, told the Wall Street Journal, “The financial markets want to see Yudhoyono win.”

Carter is predictably sanguine about the hazards of a general leading the new, improved Indonesia. “I don’t see anything wrong with having military leaders become president of the country,” he explained. “Obviously if any powerful military figure who’s still active or who’s just recently retired showed an inclination to restore authoritarian rule, or strongman rule, my confidence is that the people of Indonesia will reject
this person, overwhelmingly.”

In an e-mail interview, Ed McWilliams, political counselor for the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999, responded that “Carter’s comment flows from an acceptable generic democratic analysis but ignores the specific Indonesian experience, which includes a three decade-long military dictatorship. It also overlooks the undemocratic military dominance of political life in Indonesia where the military maintains a parallel bureaucratic structure to that of the civilian government, extending down to village level. It might have also dawned on Carter that a brutal, unaccountable military with a horrible human rights record is not likely to produce an Eisenhower as a Presidential candidate.”

Human rights activist Munir, a well-respected veteran of the dark days of the Suharto dictatorship, told the Australian paper The Age that, if elected, Yudhoyono would be likely to quash efforts to bring military offenders to justice for past atrocities. Munir noted that in Indonesia, the president is in a “very strong position to decide whether atrocities from the past should be heard in a human rights court or not.” Munir also recalled Yudhoyono saying in 1997 that there was nothing wrong with Suharto’s New Order regime.

In the midst of the TNI’s September 1999 destruction of East Timor, Yudhoyono told a press conference, “I am worried of opinion being formed in the international community that what happened in East Timor is a great human tragedy, ethnic cleansing or a large-scale crime, when in reality, it is not.

“I have been stationed in Bosnia,” he continued. “Please do not picture that what happened in East Timor is as bad as the human tragedies in Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo.”

But in a scathing piece in the Washington Post, reporter Keith Richburg responded: “I have not been to the Balkans, unlike the general, who was part of a peacekeeping mission there. But based on my years covering Rwanda and Somalia, I can attest to one thing: The tragedy of East Timor is indeed as bad as anything I witnessed in Africa. When it comes to slaughter, the Rwandans and the Somalis have a new competitor on the block.

“The razing of Dili has certainly been as bad–one might say as thorough–as the destruction of MogadishuThe only difference is that in Somalia the destruction was mostly random in Dili, it was more systematic. The East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence, so the Indonesian soldiers, and their militia proteges, were determined to leave them a capital not worth having.”

As one of the many international observers driven from East Timor during the September 1999 terror, this writer can also attest to the unified military, police and militia presence in the scorched-earth campaign. Thanks in part to inadequate forensics teams which followed international peacekeepers into the territory before the rainy season, the number of bodies dumped by the military and its militia pawns can only be guessed at.

Like Yudhoyono, Jimmy Carter — though famous for his alleged commitment to human rights — was hardly a harsh critic of the New Order. In late 1977, the Indonesian military was running out of weaponry to use against the people of East Timor, which Jakarta had invaded with the blessings of Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger in 1975. Carter’s “human rights” administration responded by authorizing $112 million in commercial arms sales for fiscal year 1978 to Jakarta, up from $5.8 million the previous year. Vice President Mondale even flew to Jakarta to help broker shipments of fighter planes to the Suharto regime. An Australian parliamentary commission described the following few years of occupation as characterized by “indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history.”

Not surprisingly, the Carter Center website’s skimpy historical overview of Indonesian history sticks to the passive voice construction favored by the New York Times: “After 40 years of military-backed governments, Indonesia began a democratic transition in 1998.” Thus, the Center disingenuously conflates the governments of left-leaning nationalist Sukarno, one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement, and Suharto, who seized power from Sukarno in 1964 and subsequently launched a U.S.-backed anti-communist bloodbath that Amnesty International estimates killed “many more than one million” Indonesians.

The Center’s July 7 statement ends with the milquetoast qualification, “We are disappointed that the government of Indonesia prevented The Carter Center from observing the election in Ambon and limited our activities in other regions. We urge the responsible authorities to provide domestic and international observers full access to all aspect [sic] of the election process throughout the country.” Like Papua and Aceh, Ambon is one of the areas where, as Damien Kingsbury writes, the military “has trained armed vigilante groups to deflect from the military responsibility for atrocities.” In its future reports on the Indonesian electoral process, the Carter Center could improve upon its entirely predictable analysis by considering Professor Kingsbury’s observation that “Reports from North Aceh on election day said soldiers had been rounding up villagers who were reluctant to vote, forcing them to the polling booths and telling them to vote for Yudhoyono.” Aceh is virtually sealed off to outsiders and is under an intensely repressive state of “civil emergency”; it’s difficult to see how free and fair elections could be possible there, even if any of the candidates actually represented the aspirations of local inhabitants.

But Carter’s job, as James Petras laid out in an excellent recent piece about the former president’s missions in the Western Hemisphere, is not to elucidate realities on the ground in contested zones. It is to help facilitate the U.S. agenda for the rest of the world, including “Washington consensus” economics, which leaves little room for accurate assessment of military abuses of power.

BEN TERRALL is a San Francisco-based writer and activist who co-edits the journal Indonesia Alert!; he can be reached at

Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: