Why Are a Group of Indonesian Journalists Boycotting Starbucks?

Sometimes coffee is a delicious drink, sometimes it’s implicit in shady backgrounds of corruption and even human rights abuses.

Mar 24 2014, 11:41pm

The growing popularity of big American brands in Jakarta is undeniable. However, a group of journalists are boycotting some of the very biggest.

Why? Because they believe many of these brands, including Starbucks, are owned by one of the most corrupt, greedy, and filthy rich businessmen that Indonesia has ever produced.

Business tycoon Syjamsul Nursalim embezzled over $607 million U.S. from his own bank, BDNI, during the chaos inflicted by the 1997 Asian financial crisis and subsequent Jakarta riots. After channeling the cash to offshore accounts, BDNI customers made a run on their accounts. Nursalim then convinced the state bank to bail out his flailing business to the tune of over $2.5 billion.

He was indicted and imprisoned in April 2001 by Indonesia’s Attorney General’s Office, but oddly Nursalim was granted medical leave to go to Japan for treatment shortly after. Guess what? He didn't come back.

It's not clear why the Attorney General’s Office stopped chasing Nursalim in 2004, although having friends in high places probably had something to do with it.

Now, with an estimated personal wealth of over $950 million, Nursalim resides comfortably in Singapore while 100 million Indonesians scrape by on $2 dollars a day or less (not even enough for a small Starbucks latte). The brands he owns under his primary company and biggest lifestyle retailer in Indonesia, Mitra Adiperkasa (MAP), include Starbucks, Burger King and Zara among many others.

Jakarta has more malls than any other city in the world, and in order to compete, they need the big brands. Such is MAP’s domination that they can demand whatever fee they want from new malls.

While many latte-sipping Indonesians are unaware of Nursalim’s involvement (or simply choose to ignore an inconvenient truth—some people do actually LIKE the taste of Starbucks coffee), the green and white giant cannot plead the same ignorance. Insider sources have since confirmed to VICE that Starbucks knew full well about Nursalim’s underhand activities before they formed their incredibly profitable partnership.

But not everyone is willing to support the relentless lining of Nursalim’s bulging pockets. Bambang Harymurti, CEO of one of Indonesia’s oldest news organisations, renowned upholder of the free press and qualified astronaut, is leading the charge. Bambang, who likes his coffee strong and tasty, continues to pass the truth about Nursalim (and other such cronies) onto his young generation of journalists in an attempt to make them more socially conscious. He, and many of his staff, now boycott Starbucks and the other brands of Nursalim to make an example of those Indonesians who have benefited while others have suffered.

“Those of us who are privileged enough to have jobs, and the ability to buy consumer products, should be standing up for those who have been thrown into poverty by people like Nursalim,” he said. “My main focus is to get the truth out about the way these people make their money, but in the meantime I'm more than happy to drink local coffee.”

After the near-collapse of Indonesia’s economy in 1997, GDP per capita fell over 15 percent while 51 million new poor people emerged (i.e. those living on less than $2 per day).

In an election year for the world’s third biggest democracy, journalists like Bambang are optimistic that Indonesians will take greater effort to scrutinise not only the coffee they are drinking but also the presidential candidates, many of whom have shady backgrounds of corruption and even human rights abuses.

Hopefully they will forgo the Starbucks-equivalent candidate (nice packaging but that's about it) and opt for a more honest and independent brand of politician to avoid a frothy disappointment.

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