Date: Sat, 17 May 1997 12:52:31 -0700
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: D Shniad <shniad@SFU.CA>
Subject: Fwd(2): From the Chicage Tribune (fwd)

Indonesia's Information Highway is too fast for Suharto: Strongman seeks net roadblocks

From the Chicago Tribune, 17 May, 1997

President Suharto has controlled this sprawling island archipelago for 30 years with a military fist tucked into the silky glove of progress.

Suharto's formula has been simple and effective: Give the people more goods, visions of a gilded future and information that promotes nationalism and glorifies the regime.

It worked--until satellite dishes arrived, mobile telephone towers went up in drowsy rice-growing towns such as Karawang, and computer shops brought access to the Internet.

Now Suharto, 75, faces a dilemma as he considers ways to stem the flood of outside information his advisers believe is partly responsible for the wave of recent riots in central Java, the industrial hub of Indonesia.

How can his New Order regime, whose ideology is based on economic growth with rigid social stability, control the airwaves without closing access to vital commercial data and other necessary communications?

A similar dilemma haunts other autocratic regimes in Southeast Asia, from Rangoon to Hanoi and Beijing.

Leaders there also see their authority eroded by access to a global highway where the available information often contradicts official propaganda.

In an ominous speech last month, Suharto warned: "The free flow of global information brought people in all countries closer. But this enables people to receive foreign values that can erode their sense of nationalism. So extreme is the impact of foreign influences, some people no longer care about maintaining their nation's unity."

The question in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, is how far Suharto will go if he feels his grip is threatened by the new technology.

Monitoring devices already are attached to local computer networks to weed out inflammatory material.

"He can't stop it technically unless he pulls the plug on everyone," said a computer expert in Jakarta. "It's too late. There are too many of us out there, and there are too many ways we can travel."

Ironically, one of the first to promote the Internet was Minister for Religion Tarmizi Taher.

He believed the Net would give the outside world "a rare occasion to learn about the rich cultural treasure of Indonesian Islam."

The minister may regret his enthusiasm now.

Muslimnet, a home page launched by students of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in Bandung last year, began to look inward rather than outward.

The desired transfer of ideas through e-mail turned into a slugging match with Isnet, founded by overseas Indonesian students in 1989. Their e-mail from around the world was far more militant than the scholarly exchange of ideas Muslimnet had envisaged. Sunnis and Shiites trade insults over the interpretation of the Koran and the role of women.

In the end a monitoring device was added to Muslimnet to erase "inflammatory remarks." Moderate Muslim leaders like Mohammad Ridlo appealed for finding common ground, keeping the e-mail clean and concentrating on debates about education, poverty and economic welfare rather than dogma.

But while Muslimnet provides demure guidelines on food and beverages permitted under Muslim law--a list that infuriated Coca-Cola when the soft drink was left out--Isnet is soliciting funds to build new mosques and provide more scholarships for Indonesian students to go abroad.

Officially, 50,000 Indonesians cruise cyberspace out of a population of 200 million.

But tens of thousands more are piggy-backing on their access in a country where a new middle class can easily afford computers and Muslim institutes offer classes on how to use them.

Piggybacking also is popular among many TV viewers, who decorate rooftops with satellite dishes and capture dozens of international channels from Australia, Europe and the U.S.

Such global reception allows people in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony invaded by Indonesia, to watch Portuguese TV, which is highly sympathetic to the region's independence-seeking rebels.

In its own way the small town of Karawang, 30 miles east of Jakarta, is symptomatic of the information revolution.

The satellite dishes can pick up overseas news not mentioned in domestic news broadcasts.

That was how local residents learned about bloody ethnic riots in West Kalimantan (Borneo) and the burning and looting of Chinese shops throughout Java.

The vivid images of burned villages had an effect that would not have displeased the president: The town festooned itself with the yellow flags of Golkar, the government party. Homeowners dabbed "Muslim" on their fences and outside walls.

It had a different effect in Rengasdengklok, a little town a few miles up the road inhabited by people marginalized in the rush to make money, a town of unemployed and illiterate folks who seek solace in the mosques and follow the teaching of their local spiritual leader.

In an all-night rampage last month, a Muslim mob there trashed Chinese homes, torched a Protestant church and a Chinese temple and left the town bewildered and searching for an explanation.

"We never had any problem in this town before," said Ety Wisuda, an ethnic Chinese whose home was ransacked and stoned. "But a new telephone tower allows people now to talk on cellular phones to relatives in other towns, and some can now watch television.

"It was after they saw the riots in other Java towns on TV that the mob came out. I'm sure it was what they saw on TV that made them do it," she said.

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