Indonesia: "How We Did It"

You can learn a lot about a person by looking at their bookshelf, The New York Timeswould have us believe. Jane Perlez‘ report on Indonesia’s just-elected new president, General Yudhoyono — said to be a great reader — closes with a glimpse of the general’s library: a little bit of Tom Clancy, Harry Summers on strategy and Vietnam, and a volume titled Napolean: How He Did It. Is the Times trying to tell us something?

If so, it’s a quiet message. Perlez’ account is laced with hints of the new president’s potential authoritarianism, but overall she adopts a tone of cautious optimism. Perhaps General Yudhoyono will emerge as a democratic and fairminded reformer for Indonesia, kind of like General Musharraf of Pakistan has become, after siezing power in a coup — oh, wait, he’s still a dictator.

But standards are different in those parts of the world, right? Those people, they’re not really ready for democracy.

That’s putting it more bluntly than the Times would. But the implicit message of its coverage is that human rights are relative, that leaders of developing nations (or, at least, those allied with the U.S.) can’t really be held to the same standard. What other conclusion are we to draw when the paper reports that Indonesia’s new leader was a longtime stalwart of the Suharto regime without mentioning that Suharto’s regime killed as many as a million Indonesian “communists” and launched a genocidal war against East Timor? Or when it notes that this general is favored by the Bush administration because he took some training at the army’s School of the Americas, but fails to acknowledge the School’s reputation (it’s known by leftists, with some historical justification, as the “School of the Assassins“)?

The Times commits such sins of omission not, as some leftist critics claim, because it sees itself as aligned with U.S. power, but because its worldview is institutional. It sees events in terms of institutions, and favors as more reliable the bigger institutions, particularly governments. The official story is always news; counter-narratives, however, are at best context, and not deemed relevant to a straight news story.

Indeed, Perlez’ Napoleonic innuendos suggest an attempt to add nuance to her coverage. But the fairer approach to all parties would have been to forthrightly acknowledge the concerns of human rights activists, along with the hopes of those who see General Yudhoyono as emerging from an ugly system with the strength to reform it. Instead, the general gets a free pass, a development which should alarm observers across the political spectrum.

Revealer readers may asking: Ok, sounds like the Times chose to go shallow, but what does this have to do with religion? Everything. First, because Indonesia is embroiled in a low-intensity, religious civil war. Whoever is elected there will have the “question of Islam” — as in what to do about those who want more — at the top of their agenda. Secondly, because the late General Suharto cemented his friendship with the U.S. in part through a series of prayer meetings with U.S. legislators, at which a mutual focus on “God” as all-powerful allowed all involved to avoid discussing the U.S.-backed worldly power of Suharto’s regime, one of the bloodiest of the last century.

The title of the Times‘ piece is “Indonesia’s Next Leader: Very Capable but Questions Remain.” Indeed. One of the biggest we have after finishing this story is how this guy got elected, a question the Times leaves unaddressed — a matter of legitimate concern given the paper’s past backing for dirty tricks in Venezuela. But elected General Yudhoyono did get, so onto the next question, and the one after that. Here’s hoping the Times will ask them more forcefully.

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