'Disasters a wake-up call for nation to repent'

The magnitude 5.9 earthquake which killed more than 5,000 people in Yogyakarta and parts of Central Java was the latest in a series of natural disasters to hit the country in the past few years. In an interview with The Jakarta Post's Tiarma Siboro, Ahmad Syafii Maarif, the former chairman of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second largest Muslim organization, called the calamities a wake-up call to the nation to change its behavior. The following are excerpts of the interview.

Question: What can we learn from the series of natural disasters that have struck the country over the past few years?

It is like a curse that we have experienced a series of natural disasters. It is like the anger of the universe, because we let ourselves live in conflict. We have betrayed our founding contract while forming this state: Pancasila. We use this philosophy merely to secure power, instead of making it a social contract that should bring us together in building the nation.

We ignore the sense of crisis and the sense of urgency. We let our inner-heart die inside. We let our conscience fade away.

The country has never learned. I thought we would have learned something from the tsunami that devastated Aceh (in 2004), but I was wrong. I have seen no significant changes in our behavior. We have even lost our dignity in the international community, as evident when our neighbor Malaysia defeated us in a legal battle over Sipadan-Ligitan islands. It seems that Indonesia has become a failed state.

What made you come to such a view?

I thought the fall of Soeharto would have encouraged us to seriously deal with corruption, collusion and nepotism. We should have taken legal action against any kind of wrongdoing. That was our expectation. We hate to say it, but as the years went by it became clear this hope was just an illusion. We have the largest Muslim population, but we are prone to moral decadence. People go to mosques, churches and temples every day, but such religious activities have no impact on our behavior.

What should we do for national repentance?

We once made a call for national repentance ... but our behavior has remained the same. The government officials and lawmakers who collaborate to pass bills into law are talking about money, regardless of the fact that many people are in hunger. Elite groups seem to have forgotten the huge foreign debts this country has to bear. Rampant illegal logging, which causes Rp 50 trillion (US$5.4 billion) in state losses each year, has continued.

Indonesia is so fragile, and yet we have no national leaders with a clear vision about the future of Indonesia and who are ready to sacrifice for the good of the nation. I once hoped that regional autonomy would empower locals. Instead, regional autonomy is transferring "Jakarta disease" to the regions. Small kings are everywhere, with their eyes set on power.

Do you mean the real disaster facing this country is the loss of any sense of morality?

Let us look at the Acehnese, for instance. People living in areas that were not devastated by the tsunami lack empathy for their neighbors. They don't care about each other. Sad to say that this has happened in an area where sharia prevails.

What can we do to deal with the apparent moral decay?

Don't give up. In our respective roles, let us keep calling on the nation to learn. Who knows, maybe Heaven will open wide as He hears us crying for help. But, of course, all things can happen if we insist on bringing Indonesia to a brighter future. I guess President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla should not worry too much about losing their support because the pair won national legitimacy in the 2004 election. Nearly 60 percent of eligible voters trusted them.

What we need now is a "crazy" captain, who is capable of sailing this ill-fated ship to reach the shore. Indonesia is a very young country. We are different from India and China. This so-called multiethnic nation only declared its commitment to unite in one nation on Feb. 19, 1922, with the establishment of the Indonesian Alliance. As a nation, we have to treat everybody as human. But look at what we have done in Aceh, Papua or Maluku. Do we really treat them as human? Why should we suspect any moves against Jakarta's policies as separatism? Why can't we ask them to sit down and talk? Perhaps they no longer dream about being independent, as they are beginning to ask for a redesign of the form of the state. We shouldn't turn a deaf ear to their aspirations.

How do you see our country these days?

The sun looks as if it is setting in the West, and do we still have the inner-heart to realize this? Do we really want it to be dying inside? Should we fail to change our attitude, we will only see this country break into pieces. I am beginning to ask myself, will I see Indonesia in 2010? We have great people, a brave-heart society, but we don't see such great and brave-heart figures at the elite level. Instead, they (the elite) are part of he problems facing this nation.

What should our national leadership do to prevent the country from breaking apart?

Susilo and Kalla should not hesitate to move forward, even if it is not popular with certain groups. The same for other state officials. For instance, the government should not compromise with corruption cases implicating certain figures. We should be like China, which brings state officials involved in corruption to court and hands down life sentences.

Our elite should make up their minds. Nearly 60 percent of the people are unemployed and they experience hunger every day. Can we stop them from resorting to anarchy with such economic hardships? Indonesia is a pile of straw that can easily catch fire.

* Published by The Jakarta Post