Indonesia in 2005: Stable, Democratic and Decentralized

Statement of

Dr. Douglas Ramage
Representative, The Asia Foundation, Indonesia

to the

Committee on International Relations
Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific
U.S. House of Representatives

“Indonesia in Transition: Recent Developments and Implications for U.S. Policy”

Indonesia in 2005: Stable, Democratic and Decentralized

I. Introduction

Thank you for inviting me to testify before this Subcommittee on Indonesia’s democratic transition. It is an honor to be here today. I reside in Jakarta, Indonesia where I have been the Representative of The Asia Foundation since 1996.  I have been fortunate to witness, and as the Foundation’s Representative, to provide support for, Indonesia’s remarkable transition to a stable democracy during this time. My experience supporting Indonesia’s democratic transition through the Foundation’s technical assistance and grants to both Indonesian democracy organizations, as well as in support of reformist Indonesian government agencies, informs much of my testimony today. Given time constraints I will summarize my remarks in the time allowed and I ask that my written statement be placed in the record.

Indonesia in 2005 should not be seen as a nation in crisis.  Following a lot of turmoil over the past several years, Indonesia has emerged as a relatively stable country, with a highly decentralized, democratic system of government.  Indonesia, under its recently elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is continuing on a path of democratic consolidation and slowly improving its economic performance. Despite the earthquake and tsunami devastation in Aceh, Indonesia should be considered to be in relatively good shape – particularly given the fairly dire  predictions and worries of the past several years. And the state of U.S.-Indonesian relations is also stable, mature, cordial and mutually beneficial.

Yet how could this be the case?  Why should we be somewhat upbeat about Indonesia today?  After all, it’s been only seven years since the end of four decades authoritarianism under President Soeharto.  Especially when over the past several years many observers feared that Indonesia was either disintegrating – Balkanizing — or being taken over by radical Islam – Talibanizing.

II. Context: Indonesia’s Emergence as a Stable Democracy

In the past seven years Indonesia has experienced a severe economic recession and hyperinflation brought on by the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis, shocking episodes of communal violence, and political instability.  And yet in 2005, in the wake of three free and fair elections last year, Indonesia is more stable, democratic, unified, and at peace than it has been for years. In short, Indonesia feels more like a “normal” country than it has for years, struggling with the normal, albeit challenging, and in some instances, severe problems of governance, poverty, slow economic growth and unemployment, social welfare and environmental protection.

But let us consider briefly what has been achieved since Indonesia threw off authoritarianism in 1998 and has been rarely captured in journalists’ reporting:  a thriving free media, free labor unions, free political parties, a powerful parliament passing a battery of reform legislation and checking the power of the presidency, and modest economic recovery.  Some reforms have even moved with alacrity and commitment that could not have been imagined even a few years ago, and tend to be only barely recognized now.  Let me focus in further on these particularly striking examples of reform and democratization:

1. The Indonesian judicial system is in the midst of thorough-going reform. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has launched a far-reaching reform and restructuring process, which The Asia Foundation and USAID have supported through our law reform programs. This is an important step toward achieving an independent judiciary free from political interference. (Many observers have focused on the “bad” decisions, such as light sentencing of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir last week; but few have noted the way the courts have been busily convicting and sentencing scores of terrorists – arguably the best record in the region.) Corruption and “criminal” interference in the judiciary are the issues now, but the courts are absolutely not used to enforce the political will of the government as they were under Soeharto.

2. The Indonesian armed forces have also begun to reform. The military gave up much of their political power under pressure from civil society and voters and with a speed that is striking when compared with situations in some other post-authoritarian states. Though there is still a pressing agenda for further civil-military reform, it must be acknowledged that the military are now out of parliament, secondments to civilian posts have ended, there is the very beginning of a degree of defense budget transparency unimaginable a few years ago, and the military is increasingly under civilian control.  While much remains to be done to further entrench a professional armed forces in the context of a democratic Indonesia, but clearly a lot of the hard work has begun, and begun to take root.

3. Just two years ago I would not have told this Committee that the Indonesian National Police would, today, be on a surprisingly firm reform path. And this reform started with the separation of the police from the armed forces four years ago.  The police are now are also increasingly under civilian control, and are undertaking ambitious “community-oriented policing” programs in response to citizens’ needs – focusing increasingly on the need to reduce crime and improve services to citizens.  The police have also repeatedly demonstrated their increasing competence in investigating acts of terrorism and apprehending perpetrators of recent bombings – Bali, Marriot, and the Australian Embassy bombings.   It’s a relatively strong record, one of the better police records in the region on the terrorism issue.

4. Of all the reforms, one of the most important is the change from Jakarta-centric government to a highly decentralized system.  Most government authorities have been rapidly shifted to districts – essentially counties – and municipal or city governments, over 440 in total.  Most citizens can now effectively interact with their government and where communities are best able to hold government accountable. Now citizens know who is responsible, who is accountable – and its no longer distant bureaucrats in Jakarta. The challenge now is for citizens and local governments to use these new authorities and to show that democracy in Indonesia will also lead to tangible improvements.

5. Finally, the most striking reform is the adoption of free and fair elections resulting in peaceful changes of government. Peaceful, transparent, transfers of power, from one government to the next, from one leader to another, are hallmarks of stable, mature democracies. Transfers of power in Indonesia have in the past been wrenching and violent, in 1942, 1945 and 1965/66. In May 1998, many fully expected Soeharto to use force to remain in power. The fact that he did not, and at the end of the day, quietly stepped aside will likely be acknowledged in history. His successor, hand-picked B.J. Habibe graciously conceded his electoral loss in 1999, and in ,the past year President Megawati has quietly left the presidency after the people passed judgment on her government and found it wanting.

And in 2004, in the first direct presidential elections in Indonesian history voters gave an overwhelming popular mandate to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s 6th, and first-ever popularly elected, president.

It is worth reemphasizing: In 2004, more Indonesians voted in more elections and for more different candidates – and more peacefully – than any other country’s citizens, anywhere in the world.  In fact, Indonesians actually complained that voter turnout “dropped” from the world’s highest in a free society (over 90 percent in the 1999 elections) to about 75 percent in 2004 (still one of the world’s highest voter turnout rates).  A culture of democracy has not only taken root in Indonesia, but begun to flourish, in ways often not seen in supposedly “mature” democracies.

And moreover, when Indonesians got the chance to vote freely and fairly for the first time in nearly fifty years, citizens did not choose parties and candidates based on their religious affiliations.  In other words, people did not vote based upon Islam per se. The emergence of terrorism, inspired by radical groups mis-appropriating Islam, led some analysts to worry that voters would be attracted to parties espousing an Islamist perspective. However, these observers failed to separate the decades-long growing piety of Indonesians, from militancy and radicalism. That is, terrorism in no way demonstrated any popular, citizen base of support for the theology and politics of the terrorists.  Clearly, there is no broad-based support for militant Islam.

Voters instead chose based on a more “modern” combination of interests – concern about good governance and corruption and, of course, personality and perceptions of “leadership.”

Yet our impressions, drawn from headlines and images, and from analysis we can now see as off-base, have been of a nation disintegrating and radicalizing. In 1998-99, some analysts and plenty of journalists talked of the “Balkanization” of the nation, buying the line that Indonesia had been “held together” through coercion and that national unity was a facade, maintained and enforced by the military-backed New Order regime. Images of separatist movements in East Timor and Aceh were extrapolated and assumed to reflect the situation in much of the nation.

When the Habibie government crafted and passed a package of radical decentralization measures, the “woe is me” crowd pronounced that the planned rapid devolution of most political and financial authority to over 440 district and municipal governments would be disastrous.  The nation would soon be in the grips of “warlords”, “little Soehartos” and other unaccountable mini-dictators. And to further dramatize the prediction of a splintered, ravaged Indonesia, observers also assumed that corruption would actually increase in the post-Soeharto period. (In fact, we see today that while corruption is extremely widespread and pervasive, it has also “decentralized,” – and it has become easier to tackle at the local level.  In West Sumatra, for instance, 43 members of the provincial assembly have been convicted and sentenced for graft – boondoggles of $700,000 uncovered thanks to the efforts of a local NGO.

So why has Indonesia endured so well in recent years, confounding these apocalyptic forecasts? How did Indonesia shrug off so quickly the repression of the New Order? There are three likely answers:

First, many of Indonesia’s reformers knew prior to Soeharto’s fall that the over-concentration of power in Jakarta threatened the integrity of the nation, thus devolution of that power – the voluntary and wholesale surrender of authorities by the central government – occurred remarkably swiftly. The result of this transfer of power to local governments immediately removed one of the longstanding complaints of citizens – that Jakarta controlled “everything.” Now, responsibility and accountability of government to citizens rested primarily in districts and municipalities.  Does this mean that local governments are providing better services to citizens? No, in most cases not yet, but local government is now structured in a way that will eventually allow better provision of improved services and higher accountability to voters.

Observers also failed to consider a link between centralized politics and governance and communal violence. Why didn’t the vicious post-Soeharto communal violence, some of it based on religious and ethnic conflict (in Ambon, for example), spread throughout the archipelago? Because the problems of Indonesia may have never been really based in what former President Abdurrahman Wahid called the “primordial” issues of race, religion and ethnicity, but were instead derived from highly localized economic and political problems. Local problems did not lend themselves to Jakarta-based solutions. Indeed, once Indonesia decentralized there was an accompanying decline in local, supposedly “religious” and “ethnic” conflict. While such a decline in conflict may be coincidental, it is more likely because of the brilliance of a democratic Indonesia devolving problem-solving to local communities.

Second, much of the basic structure of a modern state was already in place. The New Order bore the structure and language of a democratic state – such as regularized elections – but not the content. And, somehow, citizens knew what was missing.

Third, rhetoric matters. During the New Order the government never ceased to use the language and institutions of democracy – representation, peoples’ sovereignty, legislatures, elections, rule of law, courts, and the constitution – to buttress its legitimacy. But precisely because under the New Order Indonesia remained a relatively open society, with access to information, mass media, and even entertainment from around the world, citizens knew what a democracy should look like and how a democracy should be implemented. The first nationwide survey of Indonesian understanding of democracy in 1999 – it was conducted by The Asia Foundation – showed that citizens had a remarkably well-informed view of what values constituted a democratic state, and which parts were lacking in Indonesia. Similarly, in 2001 in the first-ever nation-wide survey of citizen attitudes towards the judiciary and police, also conducted by the Foundation, we also saw that citizens knew how police should behave and what kind of treatment courts should give citizens.

These surveys provided a remarkable snapshot of the persistence, and even development, of a “culture of democracy” in Indonesia throughout the New Order. Therefore, when we consider again the question “Why has Indonesia made such a remarkably swift and peaceful transition to democracy?” we must look harder at the New Order itself and how it may have, ironically, bequeathed to Indonesia, in part, its current democracy.

Indonesia’s democratization movement did not begin with the fall of the New Order.   Rather, it began with the overthrow of the Sukarno and those citizens who envisioned a country that deserved more than the dictatorship known as “Guided Democracy” under Sukarno.  Perhaps ironically, Soeharto’s New Order itself, by improving lives through expanded education, improved infrastructure, telecommunications, and better health, gave Indonesians a cushion — thereby allowing Indonesian civil society to plan for the day when Soeharto left the scene.

One of the lessons of the authoritarian New Order for Indonesia’s new democracy may be that ideas matter. Ideas and language and discourse about a democratic Indonesia, born in the struggle against feudalism and against colonial rule and then continued against dictatorship and authoritarianism, amply prepared Indonesians to flesh out the democratic outline the New Order had, paradoxically, indoctrinated into them.

“Formal” politics may have been stilted, repressed and the freedom to mobilize the masses severely restricted, but now, well into Indonesia’s new democratic era, we can see that repression diverted citizens’ energies, and creativity flowed into areas of civic life that were not conspicuously “political.”

Religious organizations and civil groups flourished. NGOs under the umbrella of Islamic mass organizations were particularly dynamic. Islam in Indonesia began a thorough-going theological and social renaissance, in which enormous innovation went into re-thinking the role of religion in democratic life, and the relationship between Islam and politics in a pluralist Indonesia. Almost unique in the Muslim world, Indonesian Muslim intellectuals and community leaders came to the forefront of what later became the democratization movement. The quiet resistance of some Muslim organizations to the New Order’s intervention in their affairs established these groups and their leaders as key forces for a democratic Indonesia from the 1980s on. In fact, it was precisely these leaders of Islamic organizations that came to play such a critical, reform-oriented role in Indonesia’s new democracy.

In the foreword to a forthcoming book, Indonesia in the Soeharto Years: Issues, Incidents and Images, Goenawan Muhammad states that “control of community life was almost total” in the New Order.  Indeed, almost.  It was in the intellectual, community, civil society, religious, and arts communities that the idea of a better, more just, more open, and more democratic Indonesia remained vivid. Thus, when Soeharto fell, the nation did not fall. In the New Order the state was perceived to have tried to control most, if not all, aspects of national and community life. And yet either because the Soeharto regime may have consciously decided not to try to control everything, or simply because they tried and failed, the end result was the same: the decades of the New Order were highly varied in terms of social and political control, control was never uniform, constant, or total, despite episodes of appalling violence, repression, and restrictions on civil liberties. By the mid-1990s, when Soeharto was his most powerful, Indonesia boasted over 12,000 active non-governmental organizations, many working since the early 1970s to strengthen community development, to improve human rights, to provide legal services to the poor and politically disenfranchised, to protect the environment, and even to monitor elections. The arts also flourished and, like religion, became an outlet for political dissent and creativity.

Ironically, the New Order’s obsession with democratic “structure” (if not content), democratic language and rhetoric (if not reality), and an unwillingness, or inability, to control all aspects of community life, has somehow left Indonesia more stable, democratic, and hopeful than could have been imagined just a few years ago. For the first time in modern Indonesia’s history, government has been held accountable to ordinary citizens, spectacularly so, through peaceful, orderly processes. Indonesia’s severe problems of poor governance, environmental degradation, and poverty are the challenges – and opportunities – of a normal nation. The crisis has passed. And seven years into Indonesia’s new democracy, Indonesians have surprised the naysayers and the analysts, and perhaps even themselves, and emerged as an increasingly self-confident, democratic nation.

Given this overall context of Indonesia’s relatively rapid transition to a stable democracy, let’s turn to brief overview of how Indonesia is faring under the first four months of the Administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.  Five developments in recent months merit note:

  1. The appointment of a reasonably competent cabinet, with some outstanding choices, particularly in the justice, politics, and human rights sectors. A noted legal aid campaigner and law reform advocate was named as Attorney General. And a recognized human rights activist became Minister of Justice and Human Rights.  A highly respected civilian is now Minister of Defense.
  2. The appointment of a professional, competent, reasonably apolitical, trio of military service chiefs. There was a clear rejection by the President of the more hardline, politicized officers.
  3. There is also evidence that the President will make tough, politically unpopular decisions to help reform the economy — seen in his decision to significantly reduce fuel subsidies (key to improving the budget and removing distortions in the economy) that resulted in a 30% increase in fuel prices.
  4. The President and the government appear to have a commitment to an anti corruption program – seen in the appointment of the Attorney General, and permission of the government to try the Governor of Aceh on corruption charges (the prosecution is seeking an eight year sentence);
  5. President Yudhoyono has also kept to his campaign commitment to refocus attention on Indonesia’s infrastructure and investment needs – and to highlight the need for Indonesia to attract much greater foreign investment.

It is also relevant to take note of how the Indonesian government has responded to the December 26th Tsunami, particularly in terms of how Indonesia allowed and facilitated immediate and massive international assistance to flow into Aceh– an area that has been wracked by conflict for decades, including an on-going insurgency and on-going military operations against it.  Despite the massive loss of life and destruction in Aceh, the Yudhoyono administration also demonstrated that it continues its overall Indonesia-wide development and reform agenda. In other words, I believe the government deserves accolades for not focusing solely on Aceh, at the expense of other pressing reform issues, particularly related to the economy. President Yudhoyono resisted some suggestions from the international community to postpone his much-promoted “infrastructure summit” and the annual Consultative Group on Indonesia (CGI) meeting, of which Indonesia was, for the first time, the Host this year. The overall effect: demonstration that this government is competent and professional at managing multiple issues and agendas.

I know the committee is already deeply aware that the American relief operations have also strengthened US-Indonesian bilateral relations – which, as I noted in my introduction, were already stable, mature, cordial and mutually beneficial. But there was clearly a positive demonstration effect of massive US public and private assistance in Aceh. Indonesians have explicitly noted their appreciation for not only the American, but especially the huge five year Australian commitment of one billion Australian dollars, as well as other bilateral pledges.

This disaster also presents an opportunity, to some extent, to resolve the Aceh conflict – restating of negotiations with the Free Aceh Movement. The President also surprised observers with the appointment of new negotiating team, with Hamid Awaluddin, Minister of Justice and Human Rights, and Chief Negotiator, and oversight by Coordinating Minister for Political and Security affairs, retired Admiral Widodo. It is a fresh team, hopefully bringing new approaches and style to the negotiations.

In conclusion, and returning to the overall theme of Indonesia’s successful democratization – I would also like to emphasize that, although Indonesia democratized because of widespread Indonesian political will and commitment, U.S. development assistance, much of it in collaboration with The Asia Foundation, has also made a difference and has been important in Indonesia’s democratic transition.

Mr. Chairman, Indonesia is a country where the U.S. has gotten it right – In other words, through assistance to build democracy starting in the 1980s, a full decade before Soeharto fell, the United States invested in organizations – many of them Islamic organizations – and individuals who have since become the leaders of today’s democratic Indonesia. It is a record and a relationship to be proud of.

Thank you.

Douglas E. Ramage has been The Asia Foundation Representative to Indonesia since 1996. The author of Politics in Indonesia: Islam Democracy and the Ideology of Tolerance (London: Routledge, 1995 Second Edition 1997), Ramage first came to Indonesia as student in 1983 and has lived and worked in Indonesia for over twelve years.