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Indonesia: An Example for Egypt, or a Democracy in Retreat?

February 16, 2011

By Robin Bush

As the world watched in wonder the phenomenal events in Egypt over the past weeks, a few solitary voices were already urging analysts and policymakers to look not toward Iran, but rather toward Indonesia for historical precedent that might help us make sense of what’s happening, and importantly, what might be to come.

The Carnegie Endowment’s Thomas Carothers, in The New Republic, reminded readers that in Indonesia, in 1998, a dictator of 32 years, firmly backed by the U.S., toppled in the face of a student-led popular movement – amid similar fears that extremist forces would fill the power void.


Above, peaceful protests in downtown Jakarta. As reformists in Egypt start to chart their course through a democratic reform process, experts are increasingly viewing Indonesia as a "Model for Egypt's Transition." Photo: Jonathan McIntosh.

In another piece, the Council on Foreign Relation’s Joshua Kurlantzick reminded us that despite those fears in Indonesia 13 years go – which have resurfaced now in Egypt surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood – Indonesia turned out to be “one of the democratic success stories of the past decade,” with multiple free and fair elections, constitutional and institutional reform, a vibrant civil society, and a free media. The Economist‘s Asia View also urged readers to look to Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim-majority country – for a positive model of authoritarian overthrow, noting that in the first free elections held in Indonesia, the majority voted for “secular” parties. Carothers pointed out that since Suharto’s fall, votes for Islamic parties have steadily decreased – in the latest elections taking less than 30 percent in total. These facts, and the generally moderate and civically-oriented role of Indonesia’s Muslim organizations, have led some western policy-makers to cite Indonesia as an example of “moderate Islam” to be followed in the Middle East.

These calls have been received warmly by Indonesian leaders, who are actively seeking to establish a greater role for Indonesia on the international stage. Indonesian leaders take pride in their membership in the G20, and often remind others – without flinching – of the fact that Indonesia heads the G20 working group on corruption. Indonesian diplomats also used their two-year membership on the UN Security Council (2007-09) to actively raise Indonesia’s profile internationally. Often, it is precisely Indonesia’s experience in democratic transition that is seen as the basis on which it can provide leadership globally. In 2008, Indonesia established the Bali Democracy Forum, with the mission of strengthening democratic institutions and discourse in Asia. Despite the initial skepticism from some quarters, the BDF, now in its third year, is seen as an important forum attracting senior leadership of Asian countries, as well as western powers. Indonesia takes the helm of ASEAN this year, and given its strong push for a higher bar on human rights, it is expected, and indeed promised by Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, that Indonesia will use this position to strengthen human rights in the region.

So as reformists in Egypt start to chart their course through a democratic reform process, and experts begin increasingly to view Indonesia as a “Model for Egypt’s Transition,” it behooves us to take a closer look at where Indonesia’s reform has taken the country 13 years later. It is true that in the years immediately after Suharto’s fall, Indonesia’s reform process was remarkable – constitutional change reconfigured the power of the presidency and the parliament, and confirmed that Indonesia would not be an Islamic state. A Blueprint for Reform for the Supreme Court was released and initiated. The military was separated from the police and gradually and peacefully relieved of its political role. The country devolved significant budgetary and political authority to directly elected district-level officials, allowing, at least in theory, citizens to hold their leaders more accountable.

All that being said, many observers and analysts in Indonesia today feel that reform has stagnated for years now, and in some areas, is actually regressing. Indonesians and international residents alike were stunned last week by the brutal killing of three Ahmadi (a sect that claims to be Muslim) residents in West Java. Gruesome videos circulated widely of a mob shouting “Allahu Akbar” while attacking a house where a small group of Ahmadis tried in vain to protect themselves with sticks and hoes. The three victims were forced to strip naked and bludgeoned lifeless, as a cheering crowd and a few limply ineffectual policemen videoed it on their cell phones. The next day in Temanggung, Central Java, a mob torched three churches, in an unrelated case of outrage against what they perceived to be a light court sentence against a man accused of proselytization and blasphemy. These two violent outbreaks clearly point to a deeper problem of increasing intolerance and declining religious freedom. Setara Institute and Human Rights Watch have data indicating a significant annual decline (30%) in tolerance over the past three years in Indonesia, and corresponding increases in violations of religious freedom. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), associated with many of the incidents of religious violence here, last week threatened to topple President Yudhoyono if he followed up on his suggestion that “groups who conduct violence may be disbanded.” What in many other countries would be seen as seditious speech provoked little reaction from law-enforcement officials here, perhaps because of close ties built by the chief of police with FPI, “in the context of security.”

The failure of the state to provide basic citizen security and uphold constitutionally-accorded freedom of religion is one glaring hole in the success story that is Indonesia – another is the flagrant and pervasive corruption that continues to impede growth and shackle economic development. This week, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) arrested 24 former legislators implicated in vote-buying in the election of a Bank of Indonesia director. And in the scandal that rocked and embarrassed the nation for weeks, Gayus Tambunan, a mid-level tax official in prison for providing millions of dollars in tax breaks, was caught wearing a wig while watching a tennis tournament in Bali and on holiday in Singapore – thanks to “accommodating” prison and immigration officials. Indeed, the second term of Yudhoyono’s administration has been plagued by corruption scandal after scandal, putting a deep dent in his own image as the “anti-corruption president” and impeding the parliament’s ability to review and pass legislation.

Indonesia has come a long way in a relatively short time and deserves much of the praise that is rather belatedly starting to come its way. It does provide an important example for Egypt, as a Muslim country that overthrew a dictator and integrated Islamic parties effectively into its democratic system. And, it has much to offer the region in the way of leadership on democratic transitions and reform. However, if it is to truly become a credible leader on regional and international platforms, it will have to confront head-on its own glaring problems in the areas of human rights and corruption. Many of the gains that Indonesia made in its reform process were made 10 years ago and have not advanced since. Now, a second wave of reform is needed to ensure that the country is able to live up to its tremendous potential – for the good of its own citizens and for the global community.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Indonesia, Washington DC
Related programs: Good Governance, Regional and International Relations
Related topics: Arab Unrest



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