My meeting at the US Embassy was very interesting indeed. The embassy is no more secure than the one in Kuala Lumpur, although it is a LOT bigger. The USAID compound within the embassy along is probably the size of the entire embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Anyway, when you arrive you have to turn off your phone and leave it at the front desk, along with any sort of electronic devices like an Ipod or a laptop. That’s annoying. I accidentally left my notebook in my laptop bag at the front counter, and they had to send a special runner to the security checkpoint to get it. What a pain. Most of the people who work in the embassy are actually Indonesians with security clearance. Everyone was extremely nice, even the five dozen guards with submachine guns and an APC (really) parked on the street in front of the embassy. The head guard was the first Indonesian I ever met who was clearly Portuguese…his name was Raoul Endarnho, and his last name seems to be a Portuguese version of what looks to be a Timorese root (endar). Most people with Portuguese last names in Indonesia are Timorese, but most of them live in East Timor, the country that broke off from Indonesia in 1999 after 25 years of Indonesian colonial rule.
So what I discussed with USAID officials yesterday was the progress of economic reforms in Indonesia since the fall of Soeharto in 1998. My dissertation focuses on events leading up to Soeharto’s resignation, but I’m also interested in post-Soeharto economic reforms for another project. The USAID folks claim that there were hardly any real reforms at all in areas like corporate governance, macroeconomic management, and political corruption before the election of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004. But now, they say that the changes are real, and they heartily support his efforts to raise gasoline and electricity prices, to implement sensible macro policies, and to reform Indonesia’s rampantly corrupt business/politics nexus. They see signs of success.
Which is funny because a number of other people that I’ve met are far less sanguine about reforms. Many people talk about reforms in name that have not been matched by reforms on the ground. Lots of corrupt officials get hauled before the courts, but very few are convicted, and the ones who are happen to be the most outrageously corrupt ones with strong Soeharto connections. I wonder how much it is the US government’s policy to be positive or optimistic at all times. I guess I’ll have to see what other folks think about these reforms.