US Citizenship Costs Indonesian Energy Minister His Job

Indonesian President Joko Widodo dismissed his newly minted Energy Minister Archandra Tahar late Monday after it was found out that he also holds American citizenship, which is illegal under Indonesian law.

Archandra, a senior petroleum engineer who spent 20 years working in the United States, was appointed to the post of energy and mineral resources minister as part of a cabinet reshuffle on July 27, putting him in the job for only three weeks, a new record in Indonesian politics.

In addition to dismissing Archandra, Jokowi appointed Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan as the interim energy minister until the President picks a new minister to replace Archandra, who was handpicked by Luhut and who was expected to largely concentrate on oil and gas, while mining policy would likely be overseen by Luhut anyway.

The ongoing nationalist direction of energy and mining – a policy that favors local firms over large foreign companies – which began before Joko became president is likely to continue.

No change in direction

While the ouster is considered embarrassing to Luhut, a savvy ex-general who was formerly the President’s chief of staff before becoming Coordinating Security Minister and now concurrently Maritime Affairs Minister, it gives him direct power over the management of the country’s considerable natural resources.

Luhut won a struggle with Sudirman Said, the energy minister prior to Archandra’s appointment, who was considered incorruptible and who went public with attempts to suborn a huge bribe from the US-based Freeport McMoRan on the part of the former House Speaker. Luhut and others have opposed the extension of Freeport’s contract of work for its massive Grasberg mine in Papua, supposedly to strike a better deal for the country.

Sudirman was known to favor the extension for Freeport and was also widely praised for bringing needed reforms to a notoriously corrupt ministry. Ultimately, the plain-spoken Sudirman was no match for Luhut, who is also close to the ousted Speaker of the House, Setya Novanto, who is now chairman of the Golkar Party, which recently pledged loyalty to the president in a wide-ranging political deal.

The Archandra sideshow, it appears, was simply a case of lack of follow-through in the office of the president in appointing a key minister at Luhut’s urging with perilously little independent vetting. There are now rumors that other ministers may hold dual citizenship, which may be a sign of new political battles ahead.

"Following questions from the public about the citizenship of the energy and mineral resources minister, the president has decided to honorably discharge him," Minister of State Secretariat Pratikno said in a televised announcement.

Pratikno said the decision was made after Jokowi “received information from various sources” and “had taken various dimensions into consideration.”

Reports that Archandra held US citizenship emerged over the weekend as headlines over the passport allegations began appearing online late Sunday. Numerous sources confirmed that he became a US national sometime in March 2012 after a naturalization process.

The reports also revealed that he had used his US passport to enter Indonesia on several occasions in the past.

Indonesia does not recognize dual nationality, meaning locals who take an oath of allegiance to a foreign country automatically lose their Indonesian citizenship. It is unclear if criminal charges could be brought against Archandra.

Schoolgirl silliness

Embarrassingly, on the same day Archandra was dismissed, a 17-year-old schoolgirl was barred from being part of an elite student flag-raising contingent at official Independence Day ceremonies scheduled for Aug. 17 to be held at the presidential palace. The girl, who apparently holds two passports because her mother is Indonesian and her father is French, tearfully declared herself to be "fully Indonesian" but she nonetheless was banned from the ceremonies on the grounds of citizenship.

In Indonesia it is legal to hold two passports until the age of 18, when a young person must "choose" a country.

Archandra Tahar has insisted that he is an Indonesian national, saying he had a valid Indonesian passport while at the same time jokingly saying "My face and my accent are very much Indonesian." He earlier declined to directly answer a question on whether he had US citizenship.

The controversy has been seized on by Jokowi's critics to raise questions about his supposedly erratic leadership, which is considered a departure from Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s stable presidency during the previous decade.

The dismissal of Archandra has again put in the spotlight Jokowi’s penchant for rushing into decisions without first thoroughly considering all options available to him, analysts said.

Some critics point to his decision to rush the start of construction on the China-funded Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project has caused delays as the contractor for the project, PT Kereta Cepat Indonesia China (KCIC), has not yet secured clearance for the project from the relevant authorities.

His decision to name Rizal Ramli as coordinating maritime affairs minister last year also raised eyebrows because Rizal – another Luhut ally – was also a vocal administration critic and was later responsible for creating divisions within the cabinet with his controversial statements. Jokowi sacked Rizal after only one year in the position.

Some political analysts have blamed Jokowi for the chaotic situation in his administration, underlining the general rule of thumb that at the end of the day, he needs to make sure that everything is under his control and that all decisions are made from a well-informed process in order to avoid controversies that prevent his administration from working properly.