Agam's Gecko
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

few weeks after witnessing the success of Thailand's pro-democracy movement back in 1992, I went to spend time with some friends in Jakarta and central Java. They were quite curious to hear about what had happened in Bangkok, and how the Thai people had become so motivated to stand up and resist a transparently choreographed return to military rule (in the wake of a fair and democratic election). Indonesians were well into their third decade under the virtual dictatorship of General Suharto and his "Guided Democracy" theory, and although cynicism about their apparent 'President for Life' was not hard to uncover, optimism or ideas about how reform might finally come were nowhere to be found.

For most politically aware Indonesians, the most daring act of resistance would take place within the ballot booth every five years, as an increasing proportion of voters were refusing to choose any of Suharto's permitted list of three parties -- the nationalist Indonesia Democratic Party (symbolised by the buffalo, and the colour red), the Islam-based United Development Party (symbolised by the Ka'aba, and the colour green), and Suharto's own vehicle, the Functional Groups Party (GOLKAR, symbolised by a banyen tree, and the colour yellow). Citizens who were feeling rebellious promoted the idea of "GOLPUT" (golongan putih, or the "white group"), meaning that voters would punch a hole in the white portion of the ballot -- registering a choice for 'none of the above'. More overt forms of dissent were considered too risky, and quite likely suicidal.

So while my friends were very interested in how things had progressed in Thailand, they saw absolutely no possibility for the growth of a similar movement in their country. I had the impression that they mostly saw their predicament as a static situation, with no changes on the horizon, or even within their lifetimes.

But change often comes abruptly, and courage appears when the invincible suddenly look vulnerable. Less than six years later, following a growing nationwide movement of student demonstrations (and after some of them were shot dead on their campus by soldiers), Suharto was gone. Thus began the long, and continuing process of Indonesian "reformasi."

Over the same period Thailand consolidated its new democratic gains, with several peaceful changes of coalition governments, and completing a long process of constitutional reform. The Kingdom was recognised as the most advanced democracy in the region, and certainly the one with the most vibrant, free-wheeling press. After a similar period of six years following the commencement of 'reformasi,' reform of the military and several peaceful changes of president (including the hiccup - which I viewed as an unconstitutional removal of President Abdurrahman Wahid in the form of a parliamentary coup d'etat), Indonesians voted in their first popularly elected president in 2004. The two countries were soon getting similar grades on their freedom report cards (advance the map one year to see what happened next).

Now, with Thailand's own hiccup last month in the form of a (popularly supported) coup d'etat, an appointed Prime Minister, and another new constitution-drafting process leading to elections next year, Indonesia is the undisputed champion in the Southeast Asian democracy stakes. I've swiped the title for this article from a piece by Shawn Crispin in the Asia Times Online.

He writes that many observers and academics have been surprised by "how quickly and smoothly the world's fourth-largest country has consolidated meaningful democratic gains," not only with the first direct presidential election which brought Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono into the post on a strong reform mandate, but also with the hundreds of less noticed local-level elections. Nearly 40% of local incumbents have been "booted from office at the ballot box" in recent years.
In certain conflict-plagued regions, local democracy is even having a healing effect. According to a recent report in the Jakarta-based Van Zorge Report, head and vice head candidates, often representing respectively localities' Muslim majority and Christian minority populations, have frequently teamed up to beat competing candidates who ran on a one-religion ticket. That is, local-level democracy is rewarding politicians who form religiously inclusive, not exclusive, coalitions.

Since 2001, Indonesia has implemented one of Asia's - if not the world's - most ambitious decentralization programs, rapidly devolving decision-making authority and control of resources from the center to the periphery. Many pundits predicted that rushed decentralization would lead to violent Balkanization across the sprawling archipelago, where historically aggrieved, suddenly empowered populations straddling resource-rich areas would opt to secede rather than cooperate with Jakarta.
It hasn't happened that way, local autonomy is credited with helping to end the decades-long conflict in Aceh, and grassroots democracy may be having a similar effect in Papua. Many experts who had been expecting national disintegration over the long haul, are having to rethink their premises. Similarly, the Indonesian example has put the lie to contentions that Islam is incompatible with democracy.
Political parties that have campaigned on strict Islamic platforms fared poorly against more secular candidates at the 2004 parliamentary polls.

Fundamentalists elected on anti-corruption tickets that have since attempted to push Islamic-tinged legislation in parliament, including a controversial anti-pornography bill, have seen their popularity fall dramatically in public opinion polls.
Shawn Crispin is a longtime 'Asia hand' formerly with the Far Eastern Economic Review, and he knows this region well. The article is a great overview of Indonesia's progress in its Southeast Asia context.

In the interest of not overwhelming readers with what is shaping up to be another one of my phenomenally long posts, I'll cut it short here and continue tomorrow with more on Indonesia's growing role in the battle of ideas within and about Islam, the potential for reform and fresh thinking in that field, and the possibilities for Indonesian export of a liberal Islamic modernism that may benefit some of those who seem stuck in a previous century.

Don't boycott Indonesia.


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