From The Jakarta Post

Indonesia faces serious global image problem

Rizal Sukma, Jakarta

Indonesia will soon acquire an additional image. On May 4, The Jakarta Post reported that the country would enter the Guinness Book of World Records. We will be branded as the country that manages to destroy its forest at a pace unbeatable by any other nation. In its 2008 issue, Guinness will describe Indonesia as the "country which pursues the highest rate of deforestation -- with 1.8 million hectares of forest destroyed each year between 2000-2005".

On the same day, the Post also carried news about the annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (CRF). While noting that the situation has improved, the CRF expressed concern over "sectarian violence and the Indonesian government's inability or unwillingness to hold those responsible to account".

The condition of religious freedom in Indonesia has also been described as worrisome, especially due to "the forcible closures of places of worship" and "violence against moderate Muslim leaders and members of the religious community."

With this kind of news, Indonesia clearly faces a serious problem with its image. Indonesia has grown more notorious as a place where bad things happen and consistently appears in many surveys as one of the most corrupt countries on earth. Indonesia is also seen as a place where the culture of impunity and the problem of transgression of authority are hard to crack.

As the country faces repeated natural and man-made disasters, the foreign media has dubbed Indonesia the "Encyclopedia of Disasters." As the frequency of piracy in and around Indonesia's territorial waters is still one of the highest in the world, we have also been called the Republic of Pirates.

Thus, Indonesia has been branded a corrupt nation, the largest exporter of haze, a haven for pirates, a violator of human rights and a place of disaster. Of course, not all these charges are fully correct or accurate. But this is not about reality. This is about perception. And image is based on such perceptions. Unfortunately, in responding to this kind of portrayal of Indonesia, state officials seem to find it difficult to go beyond three common responses.

First, many government officials continue to live in a state of denial. Such reports are often dismissed as the latest version of baseless accusations by Western institutions and media. We still remember, for example, how high-ranking officials and political leaders simply denied the existence of terrorist groups in Indonesia, even after the Bali bombing in October 2002.

Regarding the report on deforestation in Indonesia, an official at the Foreign Ministry slammed the plan to include Indonesia in the Guinness Book of Records as unfair. An official at the Forestry Ministry said the figure was inaccurate.

The figure provided by the Forestry Ministry for 2000-2005 states that 1.18 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year. During 1997-2000, the official stated, we lost 2.8 million ha annually. The fact is, Indonesia is still the country with a highest rate of deforestation.

Second, when the problem is presented with the facts, government officials often respond by offering the familiar line, "We are doing our best to resolve the problem." Or, simply, "We have a law on that."

This attitude was clearly evident during a seminar on the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze organized by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies last week in Jakarta. When asked why forest fires continue, an official present at the seminar simply responded by saying, "We have a law that bans the use of fire in land clearing." The more fundamental question addressing why the law has not deterred the use of fire was left unanswered.

Third, government officials often ignore reports and go on with their business as usual. Compared to the first two responses, the third is the most devastating. Problems will continue unattended and will only worsen before they become too large to correct without heavy social, economic and political costs. The proliferation of communal violence during 1998-2003 and the growing incidents of violence in society over the last few years has been partly caused by this attitude of indifference among state officials.

We should treat the negative reports about Indonesia as an early warning system. Denial, normative responses and indifference are not effective strategies. On the contrary, the problem could get worse if we respond in this manner. Whenever we feel that the negative depiction of Indonesia is out of proportion, we should respond with better facts rather than with anger.

We need a better strategy to polish our image abroad. And the best strategy is to resolve the problem. As the prominent diplomat Ambassador Wiryono Sastrohandoyo often says, "If you want to change the perception, you should change the reality first." It would be wise for government officials to follow his advise.
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