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Presidential candidate Prabowo, a former officer in Indonesia’s chronically under-funded military, is worth $160 million. The mud volcano haunts front-runner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Tensions with Malaysia rise over oil rights, and marital abuse between a Malaysian prince and an Indonesian model. Papuan separatists take over the Jayapura airport. The economy outperforms, and interest rates drop. A sect leader is imprisoned for blasphemy, an Amadiyah mosque is torched, and Amnesty criticizes the country’s rights record.
Top News: With a month left in the presidential campaign season, incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his running mate, the independent economist Boediono, remain well in the lead, according to an endless flow of opinion polls. The press continues obsessing over the various fortunes of the three pairs of candidates, noting in particular that Prabowo, a career military officer, is far and away the wealthiest. Yudhoyono, comes in last with a fortune of less than $800,000.
Despite his lead, several old issues continue to haunt Yudhoyono. Victims of an underground mud volcano that has displaced tens of thousands and killed at least 17 people protested outside the presidential palace on May 28, three years after the oil-drilling company, Lapindo, accidentally caused the mud to burst forth.
The company is indirectly controlled by the president’s minister for people’s welfare, Aburizal Bakrie – an irony not lost on the public. Despite claiming innocence, the company has agreed to pay compensation to the victims, though it has been slow in coming. Adding insult to injury, the notoriously corrupt Supreme Court ruled that neither the government nor Lapindo were at fault, despite a report by an international group of scientists claiming otherwise.
Indonesia and Malaysia’s age-old spat over territory was rekindled during the first few days of June when Indonesian warships chased Malaysian boats out of the oil-rich region of Ambalat. It is the ninth time this year that Malaysia has made such incursions. The spat was further complicated by news that an Indonesian model had been beaten and sexually abused by her husband, a Malaysian prince. The model fled Malaysia in a daring midnight escape and her story has been front page news ever since.
Indonesia and Malaysia enjoy only lukewarm relations at best. Indonesians refer to their neighbor has “Maling-sia.” "Maling" means "thief" in Indonesian.
Meanwhile, Yudhoyono continues to struggle finding solutions to ongoing violence in the resource-rich province of Papua. In the latest skirmish, Indonesia security forces are facing off against about 150 Papuan separatists who have taken over an airport in Jayapura. Rising tensions in Papua have coincided with the election season. A peace deal was high on Yudhoyono’s agenda when he ran for president the first time in 2004.
Money: The president’s running mate, Boediono, is a highly respected economist who brought stability to the once-corrupt central bank. As vice president, he said, he would lead the way in improving the Indonesian economy. Foremost on his mind is the improvement of the country’s crumbling infrastructure, calling it “the launch pad for economic development and welfare for the people.”
Various interest groups continue to face off over the country’s enormous palm oil industry. Indonesia is the second-largest producer of palm oil after Malaysia and views the industry as an important part of its economy. Environmentalists, however, disagree. Badly needed forests continue to be felled to make way for palm oil plantations. A new report suggests that if Indonesia took advantage of carbon markets, a system in which Indonesia would be paid by developed countries to preserve its forests, it would make more money than it currently does from palm oil.
The country’s economy is still outperforming its neighbors, and most of the world. The Rupiah dipped below 10,000 to the dollar in June, bolstered by the country’s economic growth, the strongest in Southeast Asia. The Rupiah is at its best since October and is expected to continue improving. Meanwhile, the central bank has cut its rates for the seventh time in a row, bolstering the country’s strong economic performance.
Elsewhere: Parliament passed a law requiring disabled pedestrians to wear signs so that motorists can take extra caution when necessary. The law was obviously rejected by the disabled and caused a momentary outrage. Disabled Jakartans suggested that instead Parliament should pass laws requiring ramps and other such infrastructure to help the disabled.
Lia Eden, the leader of an Indonesian religious sect, has been sentenced to more than two years for blasphemy – a law that has been enforced several times in recent years. The Indonesian constitution espouses freedom of religion but an obscure, and somewhat vague, law dating back to the 1960s allows law enforcement to jail religious leaders who they think endanger the public’s safety. It remains unclear how the Lia Eden sect endangers anyone.
Also in lack of religious tolerance news, the Islamic sect known as Ahmadiyah, which was partially banned by a presidential decree last year, continues to be attacked by Islamic conservatives. A mosque where Ahmadiyah members were praying in secret was torched earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International issued a damning report on the country’s human rights progress, citing among other things its insistence on limiting the freedom of smaller, unrecognized religious groups. Indonesia only officially recognizes five religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism and Hinduism.