Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (born 1949) won election as president of the Republic of Indonesia in October of 2004, thus becoming his country's first directly elected president.
An officer in the Indonesian army, but one regarded as a moderate with few links to the military's history of violent excesses, Yudhoyono found himself at the center of some of the world's biggest news stories of the mid-2000s. He faced the challenge of responding to an unprecedented series of natural disasters, including the devastating tsunami of 2004. As Indonesia, the world's most populous predominantly Islamic country, suffered the effects of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, it was Yudhoyono who had to bring the perpetrators to justice without alienating the country's Islamic clergy. Educated partly in the United States, Yudhoyono was one of that country's few defenders in the Islamic world in the years after the launch of the Iraq war. And he encountered problems common to leaders of developing countries: reducing institutional corruption, improving infrastructure, and attracting foreign investment. A deliberate man sometimes dubbed "the thinking general," Yudhoyono maintained strong popularity among ordinary Indonesians who used a different nickname: his initials, SBY.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was born in the small town of Pacitan, in eastern Java (Indonesia's largest and most populous island), on September 9, 1949. He would later speak out in favor of the preservation of the local language, Javanese, in the face of the increasing influence of Indonesian, the national lingua franca. Yudhoyono's father was a retired lieutenant in the Indonesian army, and Yudhoyono, out of high school and newly married, entered the country's national military academy. He and his wife, Ani, raised two sons.
Yudhoyono graduated in 1973 at the top of his class. He served several tours of duty in the volatile East Timor region, where a separatist movement battled the Indonesian government for two decades until finally winning independence in 1999. In between deployments, Yudhoyono came to the United States for further study. He earned a master's degree in management from Webster University in St. Louis in 1981 and also completed military training programs at Fort Benning, Georgia (1976 and 1982), and the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas (in 1991). Yudhoyono is a fluent English speaker, and, in an interview quoted by the Al Jazeera television network, he said, "I love the United States, with all its faults. I consider it my second country."
As he completed these programs, Yudhoyono was promoted through the ranks of the Indonesian army. By 1995 he had a reputation for integrity and respect for human rights that led to his appointment as chief military observer with the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bosnia, and as head of a contingent of Indonesian soldiers there. Back in Indonesia he became an army territorial commander for a region covering Java and the southern part of the island of Sumatra.
Yudhoyono's increasing responsibilities coincided with a period of instability in Indonesia. In the late 1990s the reign of the country's longtime strongman Suharto (many Indonesians use only one name) was coming to an end under popular pressure. Mobs with connections to the
Yudhoyono's defenders pointed out that he was never part of the Indonesian military's inner circles of power. Nominally a four-star general, he received that rank only as an honorary title after joining the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid in 2000, at which time he retired from active military service. His first position was that of minister of mines, but he was soon installed as minister of security and political affairs. In 2001 he was fired by Wahid, who was facing impeachment proceedings and wanted Yudhoyono to declare a state of emergency. Yudhoyono refused, laying the foundation for his later national reputation as a figure not beholden to the country's power structure.
Yudhoyono was rehired the following year by the country's new president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and was given the grim task of investigating the terrorist hotel bombings that rocked the resort areas of the island of Bali in 2002 and 2003. Yudhoyono won plaudits for the quick arrest and prosecution of a large group of conspirators, although the identity of the ultimate ringleaders of the plots remained a matter of international debate. He approved a military crackdown on separatist rebels fighting in the Aceh region. In 2004 he resigned his post once again after a disagreement with Sukarnoputri, said to be over access to consultation with her.
The disagreement could have been a manufactured one, for Sukarnoputri's popularity was dropping as Indonesia remained mired in economic problems, and leaving her government was a smart political move for Yudhoyono. "Even though SBY was a senior member of a deeply unpopular government, he has come to be seen as a victim of that government rather than part of it," Indonesian political analyst Denny Ja told Rachel Harvey of the British Broadcasting Corporation. With the approach of Indonesia's first direct presidential elections in 2004, Yudhoyono entered the race.
Yudhoyono had no prior political experience, but on the stump he displayed what Simon Elegant of Time International called "a Bill Clinton-like ability to communicate with ordinary Indonesians." Facing Sukarnoputri and Wiranto, another retired general, in the election's first round, Yudhoyono presented himself as a strong leader who nevertheless respected human rights and Indonesia's fledgling democratic traditions. Negative campaigning designed to link him with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency failed to stick. He placed first in the opening round and then, in a runoff held on September 20, 2004, he defeated Sukarnoputri with nearly 61 percent of the vote. In the midst of the campaign he managed to complete a Ph.D. degree in agricultural economics at Bogor Agricultural University, with one of his dissertation defenses coming just two days before the election. Yudhoyono, whose personal library contains some 13,000 books, told reporters that televised political debates had been good practice for defending his doctoral dissertation.
Before he had the chance to implement any of the plans he had discussed during his campaign, Yudhoyono had to deal with the effects of a natural disaster of unprecedented magnitude—the Indian ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004, which killed more than 200,000 people, 100,000 of them in Sumatra alone. He earned high marks from international observers for his performance during the crisis. "The tsunami was Yudhoyono's first big test," Ray Jovanovich of Hong Kong's Credit Agricole Asset Management told Assif Shameen of Business Week . "He has shown leadership, poise, and grace under extreme pressure." Before long, Yudhoyono's ambitious program was back on track. He took steps long demanded by international investors, such as increasing the independence of Indonesia's judiciary and cracking down on corruption in the country's local government structures, making headway even though his Democratic party controlled only 10 percent of the seats in the country's parliament.
Yudhoyono's open communication style continued to win him the affection of Indonesians accustomed to top- down decision making. During one appearance he broadcast what he said was his personal cell phone number, inviting listeners to send text messages describing problems they were having with Indonesian bureaucracy. The system set up to receive the messages was soon overwhelmed but still logged over 5,000 of them. Yudhoyono added to Indonesia's prestige by attempting to play a role on the world stage, offering his services as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the growing showdown between the United States (with other Western countries) and Iran over the latter's nuclear program. His efforts met with little success, but Indonesia's sometimes fractious relationship with the United States improved. Yudhoyono played host to U.S. president George W. Bush in 2006. His diplomatic skills yielded another major accomplishment:
In courting favor in the United States, Yudhoyono was treading a fine line, for large majorities in Indonesian opinion polls expressed disapproval of American policies. Yudhoyono also had to make other difficult decisions during his first two years in office. The most politically dangerous was the slashing of an $11 billion government subsidy that kept fuel prices artificially low in Indonesia but amounted, all by itself, to 5 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Previous attempts to cut the subsidy had contributed to the downfall of the Sukarno government and had damaged Sukarnoputri's popularity. The first phases of a 90 percent price rise touched off protests but generally went smoothly after Yudhoyono introduced a compensation scheme for poorer households and promised to invest part of the savings in government health and education programs.
Likewise controversial was a proposal to let the giant American oil company ExxonMobil implement a plan to tap major oil reserves believed to lie off the East Javanese coast. In promoting the plan, Yudhoyono sidestepped the state oil monopoly, Pertamina, and risked a backlash of nationalist feeling. Yet the offshore oil platforms held enormous potential; Indonesia, despite its proven oil reserves, had become a net importer of oil by the mid-2000s, and in general the country and its 250 million people, lagging behind those of the other rapidly growing economies of Asia, were viewed as something of a sleeping giant economically. Yudhoyono's programs in general—cutting budget deficits, improving transportation facilities and other infrastructure, and strengthening legal protections—were aimed at stabilizing the country and attracting international investment. He succeeded in cutting the average time for approval of new business enterprises from 150 to 60 days, telling Newsweek International that he would "do my best to bring it down to one month." Difficult reforms were carried out early in his term so that by 2009, when Yudhoyono would likely face election again, growth would accelerate.
Perhaps the most difficult issue of all early in Yudhoyono's term was that of radical Islamic terrorism. The island of Bali was hit with another wave of suicide bombings, killing 22 people, on October 1, 2005, and Yudhoyono, visiting the site, grimly told Joe Cochrane of Newsweek International that "It is obvious that we need to take more effective action to anticipate suicide bombings. His government, however, was slow to officially acknowledge the existence of the Jemaah Islamiah organization, a southeast Asian Islamic group with ties to the international terrorist network al-Qaida, that was thought to have orchestrated both Bali attacks. The effects of a 2006 earthquake that killed 6,200 people on Java were, like those of the 2004 tsunami, swiftly addressed by Yudhoyono's government, but he seemed to be in a race against time to bring material benefits to his disaster-weary people.
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