Fifteen Years After Suharto, Indonesia Has Made Great Steps Forward

By John Riady

For most people, the great events of the day are sideshows to their own lives. The urgency of family, friends, God and work trump what the American poet William Stafford called the “grotesque, fake importance” of “great national events.”

Sometimes, however, the knock of history intrudes upon private life, and a public question must be answered before normalcy can return.

May 1998 was such a time. Fifteen years ago the riots and the fall of President Suharto took place, disrupting the daily lives of many Indonesians. Today, we have returned to the peace that prevailed before those events, with the gifts of a vigorous democracy, a healthy economy and growing prowess in the arts and sciences. But what of the tumult in between — what exactly did we overcome and how did we restore our lives back to normal?

First, we overcame disintegration. Today, it is hard to imagine that this was a serious concern, but it was. The Economist wrote in November 1999: “Indonesia, it is argued, is an artificial construct, with a bewildering collection of languages, religions and ethnic groups whose only common denominator is that the jigsaw once made up the Dutch East Indies. Once bits start dropping, the very idea of Indonesia begins to collapse.”

Indonesia was considered by some as “Asia’s Yugoslavia” (Far Eastern Economic Review, April 1999) or, more provocatively, “the Jakartan Empire” (Inside Indonesia, 2000). Pro-independence rumblings in resource-rich provinces, driven by human rights abuses during the Suharto-era and religious fervor, contributed to a sense that the nation might splinter before its fledgling democratic experiment had been given a shot. Hence articles in major foreign papers with titles like “Southeast Asians Fear a Breakup of Indonesia” or “An Asian Balkans?” The challenge was dire.

I have often thought of what those observers misunderstood. Neither unintelligent nor misinformed, they appear nevertheless to have underestimated Indonesia’s deep sense of unity.

Our patriotism is not of the chest-beating variety, and is indeed more understated than that I have encountered in other cultures. But there is no doubt it is strong. Decades of nation-building under successive governments, the use of a common language, and the shared familiarity of a common way of life, have knitted a real country out of this sprawling archipelago.

Faced with the opportunity to dissolve it all and pursue their own ethnic destinies, most groups — Sundanese, Makassarese, Balinese or others — did not budge and indeed did not appear to want to.

The second reason is the flexibility of successive governments in handling the separatist issue. The move to Regional Autonomy allowed some steam to be released while still maintaining unity. Autonomous regions received broader powers and a larger portion of resources revenues mined on their territory compared with other provinces. In addition, they receive funds for being autonomous regions. For instance, Papua and West Papua today get more than $500 million every year from the government’s Special Autonomy fund allocation, in addition to routine provincial budget contributions. Much of this largesse is misspent but it is a choice of the lesser of two evils. Had the government insisted on centralizing power in Jakarta, there is a strong chance the country would indeed have balkanized. Regional autonomy is Indonesia’s great compromise.

Aside from taming separatism, our Reformasi also succeeded in restoring normalcy in civilian-military relations. It is again easy to forget just how strong the armed forces were in the decades up to 1997, with guaranteed representation in the parliament, pivotal roles at historical turning points (1945 and 1966) and the entrenched doctrine of dwifungsi that legitimated the military’s involvement in civilian affairs.

Indonesia’s post-1998 success is first, that the armed forces eventually withdrew from formal politics at the end of the New Order regime, but also that they internalized the mentality of depoliticization that is the hallmark of any successful country. When in 2001 President Abdurrahman Wahid proposed to TNI leadership that a state of emergency be declared so that he could dissolve the House of Representatives, the proposal was rejected. The military was aware that overt political involvement would be counter-productive to efforts to restore the military’s public image.

Today, the military is still a major force, but this is quite different to 1998, when it was as likely to support an elected president as to sabotage him. To take the more recent example of post-Mubarak Egypt, Indonesia could have been a country in which the military was a wildcard and a potential menace to democratic rule. This is a fate we avoided.

Finally, we have for the most part avoided over-emphasizing race or religion in our politics. In a country like Malaysia, race is a very tangible thing. It can determine your access to schools and universities, the residential neighborhood you are allowed to live in, and the interest rate you earn on a bank account. This kind of “politics of identity” repels capable people. Those not in the favored group resent the special treatment of mediocrities while capable people in the favored group resent the insinuation that their success was not entirely of their own making. Our history in Indonesia with race is not always positive but on this issue we are going down different path to our Malaysian cousins. On this issue, over the long run ours is only the road to sustainable prosperity.

Indonesia’s story since 1998 is a positive and successful one, and we Indonesians should be proud of what we have achieved. We have vanquished balkanization, remilitarization and identity politics. Our democratic transition has been among the most successful and most peaceful in recent history. We have done this in less than 15 years.

Today, our task is less dramatic but no less important. Our biggest challenge is inculcating the importance of both rights and responsibilities as we build a major welfare state — with state-funded pensions, health care, and disability benefits — over the coming decades. Indonesia’s achievements over the last 15 years leave me with no doubt that we can, if we want to, create a sustainable system and fulfill the heady promise of independence in 1945, and democratic reform in 1998.

But let us move away from the grand language of history. Ultimately the great achievement of the past 15 years is to have created more political and economic breathing room to allow responsible and hard-working individuals to pursue their own affairs, to live freely and unhindered. For the most part, free from uncertainty and political tinkering, the tumult of public affairs gave way to the peace of private life. Indonesians are making good use of that peace by showing that merit, success and prosperity have found a home here.

This may be optimistic, but reflecting on the last 15 years of our democratic journey — and the experiences of other nations attempting to establish what we have built — there is reason to be optimistic, or at the very least, take a moment to celebrate and give credit where credit is due.

Mr. John Riady is associate professor and executive dean at Universitas Pelita Harapan’s Faculty of Law. He is also editor at large at BeritaSatu Media Holdings. Follow him on twitter @JohnRiadyA version of this post first appeared in the Jakarta Globe, here. Re-posted with permission. Feature photo courtesy wikimedia. 



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