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<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

A Muslim protester yells at Christians from the Yasmin church.

Disunity In Diversity

As Indonesia’s wealth grows, so too does criticism of the nation’s ubiquitous corruption—and an “auto-pilot” president whose popularity ratings are even lower than those of the deposed Suharto.


The weekly confrontations outside the Yasmin Indonesian Christian Church, in the town of Bogor, about 60km south of Jakarta, have all the ritual regularity of a Sunday service.

Every week, dozens of local congregants arrive and try to enter the semi-built church, which has been sealed shut on the orders of the town's Islamist mayor, Diani Budiarto. And every week they are faced with crowds of enraged Muslims, who scream and surge at them until the Christians, many shaking with anger, are forced to return home.

“Under Suharto, [the Islamists] would be somewhere out in the Java Sea.”

The spectacle - a staple of national media here - has become a symbol for many that something is very wrong with Indonesia's democracy. The Christians say their church is legal, and they have rulings by the Supreme Court and the national Ombudsman last year to back them up in the dispute, which has been running since 2006. The mayor, and influential Islamist vigilante groups that back him, have simply brushed off the rulings. Police form a cordon hundreds strong between both sides, stopping direct confrontation but also keeping the Christians from their church.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has avoided taking a solid stance on either side - a common criticism of his leadership approach on almost every major controversy here.

<p>Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images</p>

Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

Sitting in the home of one Christian congregant, where an impromptu service was held after one weekly confrontation, Bona Sigalingging, a spokesman for the church, rues what he calls official reluctance to tackle Indonesia's vocal Islamist fringe. Radical mobs also have been involved in an increasing number of attacks against Shia and the Ahmadiyah, a minority Muslim sect.

"Under Suharto," he laments, referring to the dictator ousted in 1998, the Islamists "would be somewhere out in the Java Sea."

Yudhoyono, either because he's too weak or too timid, can't take action, Sigalingging says. "Unfortunately, in this case, we even feel that Diani Budiarto is the real man in power because he can lock that church even until now. And that man who claims to be president is saying nothing and doing nothing."

“That man who claims to be president is saying nothing and doing nothing.”

Indonesia today has two startlingly different images. Abroad, the country is basking in newfound respectability as the world's largest Muslim-majority country, a model of moderate Islam, and a democratic success story. With a healthy growth rate of 6.5 per cent in 2011, it is seen by international business as a spot of economic stability and increasing business opportunity.

But at home, the mood is decidedly sour. For Indonesians, there is a growing feeling that the country's reformasi push has ground to a halt, and that the country is slipping into stagnation under a venal political elite and a dysfunctional state rigged to help special interests.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Muslim protesters outside the Yasmin church.

In the eyes of an increasing number of the Indonesian public, the country's democracy, far from flourishing, is rotting from the inside. Some analysts argue that with this disillusionment come the seeds of future crisis.

There's plenty of evidence of darkening public opinion. A poll by the Indonesian Survey Institute in January found growing frustration with Indonesia's national bugbear, corruption, with only 44 per cent of the population expressing satisfaction with Yudhoyono's progress on the issue. Overall, it found a steady decline in the public's perception of the effectiveness of the rule of law. One survey last year found Suharto, who was deposed in 1998 after a furious mass uprising, to be far ahead of Yudhoyono in a rating of Indonesia's most liked presidents.

“Democracy … depends on the quality of politicians, and the quality is terrible.”

Yudhoyono has seen his support steadily decline since he was re-elected by a landslide in 2009 on a platform of anti-corruption and stable government. While his support is by no means rock bottom, Yudhoyono is the only member of the political elite who is even remortely popular with the public at large. The elite themselves is largely a bunch of interchangeable faces who came into the orbit of power under Suharto. With presidential elections looming in 2014, and Yudhoyono barred by a two-term limit from running again, there is no obvious way forward.

Indonesia's democracy is "on low battery," argues Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer in political science at Indonesia's National Defence University.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Yasmin church spokesman Bona Sigalingging, far right, with other congregants behind a police cordon near the church.

"Democracy itself depends on the quality of politicians, and the quality is terrible, it's just horrid," Yohanes says. Members of the political elite appear single-mindedly focused on accumulating and dividing up wealth for themselves and close business associates; they show little interest in debating either policy or ideology. "If you look at all the people there in the parliament, they're creating an oligarchy."

While Yudhoyono can chalk up successes to his first term, between 2004 and 2009, his government has been paralysed since then, Yohanes says. In his first term, Yudhoyono was able to oversee an anti-corruption drive, ensure stable government, and bed down economic reforms that saw Indonesia avoid suffering during the global financial crisis. But since re-election, he has failed to get much of substance through, instead deferring to a fractious coalition of parliamentary political parties, none of them with particularly clear platforms or ideologies. Legislators - viewed by the public as one of the most corrupt parts of the government - have passed little in the way of legislation, instead spending much of their time trying to muzzle anti-corruption efforts, embarrass each other in corruption scandals, or take down the president.

“It’s collaboration between thugs, police, politicians and even some corporations.”

Perhaps the only bright spot, Yohanes says, is that Indonesia's political culture has become so rowdy, and its media so hyped, that the country is in a constant process of airing its dirty laundry.

"People are willing to actually risk saying, you know, the elite sucks, the candidates suck," he says. "That was impossible in Suharto's era."

And there's no shortage of public criticism and speculation. In January, a series of accidents in the presidential palace - a tree planted by the president uprooted in a storm, a marble table collapsing and shattering into nine pieces during a signing ceremony - led to a minor flurry of speculation that these were mystical signs of Yudhoyono's coming fall. Across parts of Jakarta, mysterious banners appeared, without attribution, obliquely referring to an "Autopilot Nation," presumably a dig at the president's hands-off leadership style.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

A local Muslim women yells angrily at Christians in Bogor.

Newspapers and television have channelled continued public outrage over ongoing high-level corruption scandals, juxtaposing them with cases of poor people ground under by Indonesia's corrupt justice system. In one of many such cases, the recent arrest and beating of a boy accused of stealing a pair of sandals prompted disgusted citizens to drop old shoes off at police stations around the country.

Public trust in the police, prosecutors and courts is at rock bottom; it's widely known that justice - and the muscle of the state - is often for sale to the highest bidder. Police have been in damage control over a series of recent killings of villagers in land disputes over mining and plantations. A presidential investigation into a series of clashes in Sumatra found police had received payments from plantation companies for "security" - prompting police to immediately defend the practice.

Budiman Sudjatmiko, an opposition member of parliament and former 1998 activist says police killings in land disputes are widespread. He says such violence shares a common link to the growing tendency of law enforcers to ignore a rising tide of harassment of religious minorities, as in the case of the Yasmin.

“People are willing to actually risk saying ... the elite sucks, the candidates suck.”

"Law enforcement is in danger because some law enforcers are subject to the pressure of the mob, subject to the pressure of the fundamentalist groups that want to apply Sharia law, for example," Budiman says. "Or they have collaborated with some politicians in strengthening or supporting their political domination in certain areas. So it's collaboration between thugs, police, politicians and even some corporations."

None of this is particularly new - Indonesia has long been a corrupt country - but as each year passes since Suharto's fall, hope for meaningful change fades. Budiman foresees the possibility of "anarchy or disobedience" in Indonesia's near future. Yohanes, of the National Defence University, believes there is a risk of backsliding to authoritarianism in coming years, with Indonesia's noisy media acting as the only effective bulwark.

Yudhoyono's administration, for its part, insists reform is still on track. "We're still consolidating our democracy. It's not an ideal form," says Teuku Faizasyah, a presidential spokesman. The fractious party system means Yudhoyono has to seek consensus from many parties, Faizasyah says, while the constant drumbeat of corruption cases in the media is merely confirmation that the president's anti-corruption efforts are going ahead.

Talk in the media of mystical signs that the president has lost is mandate is "ridiculous," he says. "We're living in the modern era. Why do they have to look at this thing as a sign?"

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Congregants hold a service in a home near their closed church.

Yudhoyono's administration has trumpeted the bumping up of Indonesia to investment grade last month by the rating's agency Moody's, arguing that the move is a vote of confidence by international investors in Indonesia's economic and political stability.

But it is possible to be a successful economy and a failed democracy. The Yasmin church itself sits in a comfortable and clean pocket of suburbia, part of a growing belt of commuter communities for Indonesia's hugely expanding middle class.

Here, Christians express exasperation with a government that appears unable to enforce the law. Meanwhile, members of the Ansor Youth Movement, the pseudo-paramilitary outfit of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, the largely moderate Nahdlatul Ulama, have begun appearing on Sunday mornings to support Christians, raising the spectre of Muslim-on-Muslim violence.

It's not just the Christians who see the dispute as a failure of the state. "This isn't a problem of minorities and majorities. This is purely a problem of the law," says Achmad Iman, the leader of the anti-church protest group Forkami. Achmad argues the Christians falsified signatures needed to build the church and have been using bribery to gain the support of elements of the state and Islamic groups such as Ansor. It's the Christians, he says, who "want blood" in order to garner international sympathy.

On both sides, there's little faith an outside force will step in and resolve the dispute. All have resigned themselves to a long fight.

"I've been coming down here every week since 2011, for a year now," says Syaiful Bahri, one of the Muslim protesters. "In the path of God, we don't know the word 'tired'. Not until the last drop of blood."

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