Indonesian Destinies by Theodore Friend
Indonesian Destinies by Theodore Friend

Indonesian Democracy: New Hope

Jan 20, 2005

The September 2004 election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono gives Theodore Friend reason to be hopeful about the future of Indonesian democracy.


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, and I'd like to thank you all for coming out on this cold afternoon. Today we're very happy to have with us Dorie Friend, who will be discussing Indonesia. One thing skeptics have said about democracy is that in principle it will work well in countries that have a system in place but it is impotent in the face of chaos. Not so long ago Indonesia, an extraordinarily complex country, seemed set to prove this point, as separatist movements and religious violence permeated the length of the world's largest archipelago and the world's most populous Muslim country. However, this past fall Indonesia, for the first time in its history, democratically elected a new President, former General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has promised to try to bring to this nation a new era of more responsive and competent government. Although the General received a generous mandate from the Indonesian people, even before the tsunami struck, the Indonesian government had faced several major challenges. These included three major terrorist attacks in the last two years executed by homegrown Islamic extremists, and in addition there have been a few local attempts at secessionist movements. In the aftermath of the destruction in Banda Aceh, many have stated that this is a moment that poses a critical test for the President to take full charge and exercise his leadership skills. But the question is: can he? Our speaker this afternoon is a recognized expert on Indonesia. His love of Asia began in the late 1950s when, as a Fulbright Scholar, he studied in the Philippines. Since that time he has been a student of Asian politics with a special interest in Indonesia. Throughout the years he has traveled often to Indonesia and been fortunate to have met most of the major players who have shaped this country since its independence. Dr. Friend is the author of Indonesian Destinies, which tells the story of the Indonesian nation from the time of the revolution against the Dutch through solving the terrorist bombing in Bali. He also wrote Between Two Empires: The Ordeal of the Philippines 1929-1946, which won the Bancroft Prize in American History, Foreign Policy, and Diplomacy, as well as The Blue-Eyed Enemy: Japan Against the West in Java and Luzon. From 1973-1982 Dr. Friend was the President of Swarthmore College. After leaving Swarthmore, two years later he became the President of the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship. Throughout the years Dr. Friend has pursued many interests. He has been a teacher, an historian, a political scientist, an economist, anthropologist, and a novelist. Currently he is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. When this discussion is over, I am confident that you will leave with an extremely informed understanding of contemporary developments in Indonesia. Please join me in welcoming our speaker today, Dr. Dorie Friend.


THEODORE FRIEND: Thank you very much, Joanne. I was reminded this morning in hearing excerpts of the speech that today is Inaugural Day in Washington, D.C., and that George W. Bush had his hand on the Bible, which brings up an analogy with William McKinley in the year 1900. What two things do these men have in common? Both were reelected President during unpopular wars. They were also popular, but there was some unpopularity in both cases with the Philippine-American and the Iraqi-American wars. The other common element is that the records say that they prayed mightily over their decisions. McKinley is recorded as saying that he prayed night after night on the question of whether to annex the Philippines. He didn't pray about invading it apparently, but then once he had broken it and owned it, the question was what to do with it, and he prayed over that. The Senate passed the annexation by one vote. As for George Bush, we have almost weekly or monthly accounts of his direct line to God. This is, however, a false analogy because upon investigation into McKinley's prayer, a friend has discovered it to be from a highly unreliable account by a general who had attributed the same motives, action and tone to Abraham Lincoln over the Battle of Gettysburg—that is, that we won because Abraham Lincoln prayed. Both the Lincoln and McKinley stories are likely false. Why do I mention this parallel? This intimacy with the Divine helped with America's Bible Belt in the latest election, and I have just recently come from Saudi Arabia where I found some striking resemblances in theology and rhetoric to our own Bible Belt. Admittedly it's a different religion, but rhetoric can be surprisingly similar, and beliefs in the literal truth of Scripture, and in personal guidance and wealth, health, and happiness. These are perfectly analogous from Wahabia to the Bible Belt. All by way of introducing a very different place, Indonesia, which is very unlike the United States, unlike Saudi Arabia, unlike Egypt or Pakistan or other markedly Islamic cultures. Indonesia has also recently held a very hopeful election. The title of my talk, "Indonesian Democracy: New Hope," was conjured up in October 2004 right after the election. Today I will also mention the tsunami in an exploratory way at the end of my remarks. What does the September 2004 election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono mean? He is a retired lieutenant general with two phases of cabinet service, a couple of phases of American officer's training, a few years as a military observer in Bosnia, real international experience in attitudes, including sensitive attitudes on human rights, not widespread in the Indonesian military. He is a promising man who won the largest direct presidential election in world history. As many Indonesians voted for President out of 220 million as did Americans out of a population of 270 million. There is no electoral college now in Indonesia because in the advances towards democracy of the last six years, since the deposing of Suharto in 1999, and the first real election since 1955, the indirect election generated a one-digit presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid, known as "Gus Dur." His party had less than 10 percent of the vote, but he won in the Parliament through a lot of fancy dancing. But he's functionally blind; if he were seated here he could not see beyond the end of this table. It's very hard to manage a country of that size with such limited sight. This became all too evident quickly and he was impeached in July 2001 and succeeded by his Vice President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, the first and longtime President of Indonesia, and the only President until Suharto. From 1944 to 1998 there were only two presidents and since then there have been four. The current president won by a popular margin (Parliament had amended the constitution for direct election) of 61-to-39 percent in a runoff, first prevailing handily over five candidates in July 2004, following Parliamentary elections in April. Indonesians have an appetite for elections, having been deprived so long. If you go to a restaurant in an Indonesian city and ask somebody for whom he will vote or for whom he voted, you'll get an intelligent, articulate answer. It is not an oppressed populace, not a stifled political imagination. It's very heartening to see and hear how people are composing their minds to vote. It's a right that they cherish. Having exercised this right in a free, open, fair election, certified internationally—with Jimmy Carter and the Europeans stamping it a good election—and conclusive by the margin, 61-to-39 percent, can we hope for major changes? Not too quickly. A friend who's an Islamic leader with a Ph.D. from Chicago likes to try to reconcile the Koran and James Madison. He believes that if Indonesia can bring off five such elections by 2019, it will have a stable democracy after all those years of dictatorship. I want to start being hopeful now. That's the reason for the subtitle of this lecture. Is there a danger or two ahead for Indonesia? Yes. There's the danger of electoralism—and you have only to point at the Philippines as an example of that—rather than true democracy, the appetite for voting being such that you forget about it after the vote and don't hold accountable those elected. Yes, the Philippines learned a lot of American lessons. They had their first democratic election in 1907, and now there's serious talk of revolution from people close to the source who might brew it and people far from the source who fear it, because those elections are not producing the kind of society and economy that the nation and its people deserve. If Indonesia falls into mere electoralism, it will have failed the hope of the last few years. Suharto felt as dictator that the people only needed what he called "a festival of democracy," which means sham elections. He actually called elections "a democratic festival"—let the people whoop it up and then let's close them down. An eminent Philippine leader, responding to George H.W. Bush's comment, "We just love the way the Filipinos love democracy," said, "We don't love democracy. We love elections." Keep the Philippines in mind as a test of where Southeast Asian democracy goes over time. For the present, I wish us to be hopeful about Indonesia under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono—SBY, as the Indonesians say. Among recent elections—Ukraine, Palestine, Iraq—Indonesia's is the most sound and the most hopeful. What are the components of a just democracy? A nation must have a professional and human military, a competitive and transparent economy, a vigorous and creative civil society. How does Indonesia fare in those dimensions?

    • Congress has cut back on the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program because of human rights violations by the Indonesian army in 1991, in 1999 and in 2002. SBY is the poster boy of this program, but there are also some criminal posters too. General Prabowo, General Faisal Tanjung, General Wiranto, General Hendropriyono—all went through the IMET program, and all either have domestic human rights cases, international human rights cases, or major Human Rights Watch allegations against them. To keep the record clear, SBY faces no such allegations. Can he ride on top of the military that contains such characters? One hopes so.
    • A competitive and transparent economy is another requirement. That will take a lot of work in Indonesia.

I'll spend a bit more time on a vigorous and creative civil society. You can count organizations, which have gone from a few hundred to several thousand, but many NGO offices are very small and they can never organize under one umbrella. There are no independent sectors, such as John Gardner organized in this country. Now I would like to turn to Banda Aceh. As you look on the map at the island westernmost in Indonesia, at the tip of Sumatra as it points into the Indian Ocean, Aceh is the province on the tip, the northwestern-most province, with about 4.5 million people. There are two major roads running down the island on the two coasts, on the east to Medan, a major port in north Sumatra, and on the west side which faced the earthquake and the tsunami. The east coast has survived, but huge parts of the west coast were cleaved off by the wave. The latest tally I have heard is 117,000 dead and 800,000 homeless, which is a huge proportion of the Acehnese population. The tsunami is testing Indonesia, the world and the United States. Behind the news is the fact that from 1873 until 1911 the Acehnese were fighting against the Dutch to maintain an independence which they say goes way back. The name of one of the forebears of a rebel leader who is exiled in Sweden translates as "Alexander the Younger," "Alexander the Great," as they track themselves back that far. This man carries around a photocopy of a letter from President Ulysses S. Grant to his forebear signing a trade treaty with Aceh in the 1870s. It was sufficiently sovereign so that the United States negotiated a trade treaty with Aceh 130 years ago. The Acehnese, however, participated in the revolution with other Indonesians against the Dutch, accepted a role as a province in the new republic in 1945, and then got impatient with it. In 1957 they broke out in rebellion, a rebellion crushed by 1961, suppressed again in 1976, again in 1990-1991, and ever since an element in Aceh has been in revolution. The situation is very unlike East Timor, whose history has been very restless from 1976 onward too. The UN never recognized Aceh's revolution as worthy of international recognition, whereas East Timor was absorbed and annexed by Indonesia without UN acceptance. The East Timorese always had a flat, plain, frontal, legal case for independence. There is no such modern case in international law for the Acehnese, and no country has registered support of it. Just the same, the revolution has been on going. In 2003 then-President Megawati let her military declare martial law there and sent in 40,000 troops against an alleged 5,000 rebels. Those should be good odds by ordinary guerrilla war ratios. The revolution has been dampened, so that the government lightened the proclamation from martial law to "civil emergency" in 2004. The analogy probably fits in some way with Northern Ireland. From 1969 onward, an element wished to join the Republic and leave the British. How has that been resolved? Only through two failed agreements in 1974 and 1985, and finally the recognition by the IRA that they weren't getting anywhere with sustained military activity, and so they declared a unilateral cease-fire in 1994. It eventually succeeded in 1998, after much tough negotiating, in an agreement which fundamentally creates a nonviolent conflict, to be followed one day by a perfected autonomy. The problem in Aceh now is a civil war that is temporarily swamped with the tsunami but won't go away. There are people who say tsunamis have no politics, and that's true, because this one hit eleven nations on the rim of the Indian Ocean. But civil wars don't ultimately care about tsunamis either; they are not cleansed by tsunamis, and this one I fear will not be. So one has to look to a lot of dynamics on the spot now to see how Indonesia as a republic, as a just democracy will behave towards the Acehnese. Very early on I found a website with thirty-six different NGOs in Jakarta, some of them new, some of them old, all focused on relief to Aceh. Since then it has multiplied in other islands. I know of an effort based in the little island of Flores, another in Jokjakarta, and in central Java. Everywhere Indonesians are responding to the Acehnese, who have been saying "We don't want to be part of you." But Indonesians are saying, "You are part of us and we're responding to you." What impact that will have long term I can't say. The Indonesian people have responded with money, goods, clothing, as has the international community overwhelmingly. The American government is a little slow and a little low in its pledge; American citizens are doing very well as usual. The outpouring is enormous. The tsunami is acting as a test of humanity, as a test of Indonesian civil society, and it proves that Indonesia has a degree of spirit and generosity that no other test could have evoked.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: What you say about Indonesia and about SBY is absolutely right. We are investing enormous amounts of hope in his presidency. He is easily the most promising figure to have emerged in Indonesia for a very long while. You're far too generous to Gus Dur, whose problems were not only his sight. SBY faces many more problems than simply infatuation with elections. He faces some very short-term political problems, the thinness of his political base being the most evident. He has very little support in the Parliament. He's a large enough character to build that support, and in that sense the tsunami is a political opportunity for him. Why it is that so few people in this country take an interest in Southeast Asia? In Australia, we have a very substantial body of academic devotion to Southeast Asia that was there even before Australia discovered, thirty of forty years ago, that its destiny lay in Southeast Asia. It's such a rich field, Indonesia being among the richest parts of the field but not by any means the only part. It astonishes me coming to this country, which is so expert in so much of the world, the richest country in the world, with extraordinary expertise for example in North Asia, that the level of common awareness about Southeast Asia is so thin. THEODORE FRIEND: I wish I had a response to your question. It could be argued that having waged very bloody wars in the Philippines to annex them and in Vietnam to prove some strategic point that is still elusive, Americans are unhappy about Southeast Asia as an area of engagement for the United States and, hence, have not informed themselves about Indonesia, which is 3,000 miles long, from Seattle to Bermuda, if you stretch it on a map, and 220 million people. On the other hand, Americans don't remember the Philippine-American War, and increasingly don't remember the Vietnam War. Excuse me for intruding a current political observation, but if they had remembered the Vietnam War, they might not be in Iraq. Indonesia hovers like a beautiful rain cloud right above Australia, but it's far away from us. We pay more attention to Cuba, this little kidney bean of a place ninety miles off Florida. QUESTION: In my education, much more focus was placed on Western civilization, European and American history and geography, than it was on Asia. This is not a good excuse, but academically the focus wasn't there. My question is trying to understand more about the military. In the news they showed the rebels coming out of the jungle, welcoming aid. I still don't quite understand their cause and issues, why it is so important for them to break away and why the conflict is so strong. THEODORE FRIEND: Aceh's own view of itself is: "We are the verandah to Mecca." They as Indonesians—although they think of themselves as Acehnese—look westward to Mecca. They don't look eastward to Jakarta. Many Indonesians are deeply Muslim, many are syncretically Muslim, and many are nominally Muslim. There are all kinds of Muslims in Indonesia. The Acehnese are most predictably and intensively strongly Muslim, going back to the Padri War in the early 19th century through Minangkabau lands in Sumatra and in Aceh, where they were affected by the doctrines of Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab. Pilgrims to Saudi Arabia on the hadj brought back Salafi doctrines, some of them wrapped around jihadists' doctrines in the early 19th century, and fought an extraordinarily intense war, until the Dutch intervened to arbitrate and clamp down on both sides. The Acehnese have a Muslim identity that's far more intense than most Indonesian Muslim identities, and they have this separate provincial history. They feel that they have had their natural wealth of oil and gas stolen by the Suharto government, and they have met with many human rights violations, in the last twenty-five years particularly, in the attempt to control their rebellion. The Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), Movement for Free Aceh, is not a very kind movement either. It has burned down schoolhouses and engaged in other such unjustifiable actions. QUESTION: How do you think the tsunami will affect the conflict? THEODORE FRIEND: I will answer hopefully, because it's too easy to take the political scientist's route and say that interests are always interests. I hope and believe that many phenomena out of the current crisis will generate new sensibilities both on the part of the Acehnese and on the part of the central Indonesian government and standard Indonesian psychology. The Acehnese are seeing a tremendous outpouring of other Indonesians coming to their aid. That has to have an effect. They're seeing Catholics from the island of Flores, a couple of thousand miles away, coming all the way to help them with food, shelter, clothing. And the Indonesian people are seeing on their television night after night American helicopters rescuing isolated communities in Aceh. The aircraft carrier USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN was about five days' steaming away from the crisis when the tsunami hit, and even without an invitation from the government, but awaiting no invitation or orders, turned into that area, and were met by villages washed out to sea. Then they anchored and began relief efforts when permission was obtained from the Indonesian government. India and Thailand declined international help of this kind. Indonesia needed it and accepted it. My friends in Jakarta report that nightly on TV, they see helicopters coming from the Abraham Lincoln and dropping down into isolated places and carrying away wounded people. This can also have an effect, softening the Indonesian view of the rest of the world, while the Acehnese view of the Indonesians is being softened. QUESTION: There is such a thing as too much democracy, and the Indonesian constitution is a bit of a mess. What is the possibility for some reform of the constitution? The second question is more about economic development. When you compare Indonesia to Malaysia or Singapore to the north, you wonder what's keeping Indonesia from the Southeast Asian "miracle." The last question is about the experiment in Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, with which you're involved. THEODORE FRIEND: I'll answer you on both the too much democracy and the economic development question. The major problem is corruption. That can be addressed, and SBY has declared that he will do so. If that can be corrected to some degree, Indonesia brought up in the transparency international tables from 106 out of 110, that will make a big difference. Somebody needs to keep jabbing SBY and reminding him of campaign promises to address corruption, which would attract more Western investment. Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta has a very interesting program in religion and cross-cultural studies. You can't speak of comparative religion when there is only one superlative religion, which is Islam in the views of many. But if you speak of religion and cross-cultural studies, then things become open. There is a program so named and so conducted in this major university in Indonesia. The Metanexus Institute of Religion and Science in Philadelphia is supporting that with foundation money and challenge money. It's very hopeful. I have lectured there and been quite impressed with the permeability of the consciousness of the students and faculty, the ease of exchange of ideas across cultural boundaries. That may just help give you a little glimpse of how it is to think and function in Indonesia, very unlike some other parts of the Muslim world. QUESTION: The climate now as a result of the tsunami seems to have provided the best opportunity in many years for SBY to sit down and negotiate with the secessionists. Many feel that if he does not do this, or if the talks fall apart again, the Acehnese movement will become increasingly Islamist. THEODORE FRIEND: I agree with the thrust of your question, SBY ought to do it, seriously and as soon as it can realistically be done. I have indicated a Northern Ireland model in which it could be done, with patience. The dates in Northern Ireland remind us that it took two dozen years to get through failures and take shape. And then I come to the part of your question that alludes to the Islamism in Aceh. The Acehnese are Muslims of their own kind and very intense without being necessarily Islamist in the customary American journalistic sense. What do I mean by that? In 1998 Osama bin Laden contacted the GAM saying, "Don't you want to be part of my network?" The answer was, "Thanks, but no thanks. We have our own movement. We don't need your franchising. You've got your 'Terrorist McDonald's' and you're issuing franchises for frying up various places, but we have one of the great mosques of Indonesia and one of the great Islamic traditions of Indonesia. Thanks, but we don't need you." That's central to Acehnese psychology. QUESTION: Would you expand on your comments regarding the impact of seeing American assistance in the wake of the tsunami? There has been something of a sea change towards the negative in Indonesian attitudes towards the United States. Do you think that this might help swing them back towards the positive? THEODORE FRIEND: The Pew Polls report the favorable/unfavorable outlook of Indonesians regarding the United States. In August of 2000 Indonesians were 75 percent favorable to the United States. By August 2003 what are the figures? Subject to correction by somebody who tracks these things closely, they were 85 percent unfavorable. An enormous shift, showing that it's a highly volatile datum; but also that the Indonesians don't like to see other Muslim nations attacked by American planes and troops. Maybe the attitude post-tsunami will relax somewhat. If I as an Indonesian were reacting to helicopters on television coming in for MedEvac operations day after day after day, I would say, "They can't be all bad." And if I read some of the letters of American sailors and soldiers and airmen involved, that would be even more striking. I read one from a guy who used to fly in wing planes. The orders were to store all the wing planes down in the cellar of the Abraham Lincoln, get the helicopters up, and keep them going. "When did you last fly a helicopter?" "Two years ago." "Okay. Remember how you did it, get out there and keep going." They got teams going with military men, ordinary men in the ranks, who are very happy to do something for people and not against them, and write home about how evacuees remind them of their sons and daughters. Maybe some of this will come through. Maybe the generous America, which has always been there, has a chance to come through the tsunami. There is a social membrane through which our good intentions can percolate. QUESTION: Would you comment on East Timor, which is mostly Christian as I understand it, as opposed to Indonesia which is mostly Muslim. THEODORE FRIEND: There hasn't been much in the news because the drama was really through 1999. I was there in June of 1999. The worst part was September. The UN got in with Australian and Southeast Asian troops and a mandate to take hold. The result, the referendum of August of 1999, was four-to-one in favor of independence, not for amalgamation with Indonesia. This choice was validated and enacted in the Indonesian Parliament later that year. The Indonesian military had interposed itself. There have been some documents, which I believe to be authentic, that have been leaked that show that they had a plan first to win the referendum by intimidation and violence if necessary; and then, secondly, if it went against them, to leave scorched earth, which they left, and 1,000 or 2,000 dead or more, depending upon what estimates you take. How is the independent nation of East Timor faring? It has a slender and quirky existence. If more oil is discovered in the Timor Gap between Australia and East Timor, that will help. The Australians have struck a very nice prospective deal with the East Timorese, with a high percentage go to East Timor. JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for being with us.

You may also like

A Dangerous Master book cover. CREDIT: Sentient Publications.

APR 18, 2024 Article

A Dangerous Master: Welcome to the World of Emerging Technologies

In this preface to the paperback edition of his book "A Dangerous Master," Wendell Wallach discusses breakthroughs and ethical issues in AI and emerging technologies.

APR 11, 2024 Podcast

The Ubiquity of An Aging Global Elite, with Jon Emont

"Wall Street Journal" reporter Jon Emont joins "The Doorstep" to discuss the systems and structures that keep aging leaders in power in autocracies and democracies.

APR 9, 2024 Video

Algorithms of War: The Use of AI in Armed Conflict

From Gaza to Ukraine, the military applications of AI are fundamentally reshaping the ethics of war. How should policymakers navigate AI’s inherent trade-offs?

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation