Indonesia, resplendent at Swiss forum, indignant over U.S. critics

By Anne Swardson
Saturday, February 1, 1997; 12:00 AM

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND, FEB. 1 -- Even by the standards of this august annual meeting of the world's elite, the reception that Indonesia hosted Friday night was sumptuous.

In the lobby stood a chocolate statue of a goat and a man that took a month to carve. A four-foot-high ice sculpture dominated the buffet. More than a ton of food, a third of it tropical fruit, had been flown halfway around the world for the event. Seven chefs, also flown in for the occasion, had worked for 48 straight hours to prepare it.

Native music wafted through the main hall. A fashion show, a dance presentation and a movie entertained the munching guests, hundreds of them. Just outside, native artisans plied their crafts: woodcarving, leather puppet-making, batik painting.

And placards everywhere proclaimed the identity of the host: "Enchanting and Beautiful Indonesia."

Each year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, one country is chosen to host a big bash. Last year it was Tunisia; the year before, India. This year, Indonesia is the country commanding attention, socially and otherwise.

Indonesia has some image problems in the United States, where questions have been raised about contributions to the Democratic Party through an Indonesian corporate executive and where working conditions in some of Indonesia's factories are criticized. Its government has come under fire from world organizations for repressing unions and political opposition, and for failing to establish a democratic regime.

But this year in Davos, where 2,000 business and government leaders come to network for six days each year, Indonesia has a high, and glowing, profile. Businesspeople flock to Indonesian lunches to make investment deals, passersby gawk at the Indonesian art on the walls of the meeting center, and everyone gobbles the satay on skewers at the reception.

This meeting in the Swiss Alps of government leaders, corporate chieftains and various opinion-makers is not about telling governments to reform their undemocratic ways. It is about money, power and information.

Indonesian officials say their self-promotion here is not a response to their woes across the Atlantic. Rather, they say, they are demonstrating the success of their economy.

At a luncheon hosted by Indonesia, Goeran Lindahl, president of the giant Swiss engineering firm ABB, told the 120 attendees: "By any yardstick the story of Indonesia's experience has been an impressive one. We are ready to be a long-term and committed partner with Indonesian authorities and customers." The Swiss company is heavily involved in the Indonesian energy business.

More than 40 Indonesians are here, including four cabinet ministers -- the largest delegation the country has sent. For them, Davos is a place to woo foreign investors and tout their economy, which has grown enormously in the last 10 years or so.

In the United States, the ripples are still spreading from the disclosure last fall that various people connected with the giant Indonesian Lippo Group conglomerate, and its vice chairman, James Riady, donated $450,000 to the reelection campaign of President Clinton and to the Democratic National Committee.

Riady and his wife contributed $50,000 to Democratic Party committees in 1992. The act was not illegal because the couple were legal residents of the United States at the time. But Republicans asked whether there was a connection between the contributions and White House policy toward Indonesia, which Clinton administration officials have denied.

Riady was listed as an attendee in Davos on the computer system that ties the vast conference together, but he did not return e-mails requesting an interview. Other members of the Indonesian delegation said they had not seen anyone from Lippo.

Riady's name came up, however. Asked at a news conference about Indonesia's image abroad, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas responded: "Let us accept the facts. The question of contributing to the Democratic Party is an established practice. There are rules and regulations." Riady "did this as his personal business. The Indonesian government has nothing to do with it. . . . We do not need Riady and his dollars to influence the U.S. government, if the U.S. government can be influenced."

Indonesia also has come under fire from labor and other advocacy groups that criticize working conditions in many foreign factories benefiting from low wages.

In recent months, Indonesian workers have begun demonstrating for increased recognition of free unions, and citizens have rioted following a crackdown on the opposition.

"In reading the newspapers, we see a lot of exaggeration," Alatas said. "It sounds as if Indonesia is about to explode. . . . Why should it be a surprise that a country such as Indonesia gets into trouble as it develops into a rich country? If England and the United States needed 100 years to come to the stage of the AFL-CIO, why can't we have a few more years to develop and become more perfect?"

In a presentation to a business lunch, Hartarto Sastrosurarto, coordinating minister for production and development, discussed some of Indonesia's problems, such as its high poverty level and its enormous gap between rich and poor. But as one high-level attendee put it afterward, "There were a couple of issues notably not talked about: East Timor and political liberalization."

On the fringes of the forum, however, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan met with Alatas today for exploratory discussions and promised to give new impetus to the search for a solution to the bitter diplomatic tussle over the future of East Timor, annexed by Indonesia in 1975.

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