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A Worthy Role Model for the Arab World?
Assessing Democracy in Today’s Indonesia -- Part I
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
A Worthy Role Model for the Arab World?

The Arab Spring has been likened to many revolutions that have come before, including most recently the fall of the Soviet Union and as long ago as the revolt that swept Europe in 1848. Comparative history is a risky endeavor, often driven by an intellectual insecurity rooted in the overwhelming need to couch a messy present in terms of a past we think we already understand. But as Mark Twain so aptly corrects, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.' In terms of popular uprisings, the Arab Spring is nothing new in the grander sense, but it is unique and will continue to play itself out according to its own narrative for most likely will be decades to come.

There is also the inevitable tendency- call it a proclivity- to reach for more current role models that we, the democratic minded, would hope the Arab Spring should best follow on its rocky road to reform. Indonesia’s revolution of 1998 is one that was quickly seized upon by many political observers. “If only Arab nations shall go the route of Indonesia,” is the tune we hear being sung in many establishment quarters, most of them sounding from Western democratic institutions and governments. This is due mainly to the fact that Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, and perhaps the only Muslim nation that has embraced democracy "successfully."

The Indonesian revolution, per se, is defined in specific by the democratic overthrow of an authoritarian regime. Thirteen years after the fall of Suharto, political scientists and the international diplomatic community are elated to cite Indonesia as the poster boy for the idea that Islam and democracy can co-exist.

But is the Indonesian revolution really over with? Have the emergence of democratic ideals and liberalization of governance run its course as a fait de complet? The vast archipelago’s history had for thousands of years been anything but democratic or liberal. Can the three to five thousand years of rule characterized mainly as slave societies subject to the absolute authority of rajas, sultans, colonialists, and military generals be overturned and cleansed from the slate in a mere decade plus?

It is doubtful any thoughtful, educated response could be anything other than “no”, but the preponderance of Indonesia-boosters tend to gloss over the half-baked nature of Indonesian reform by preaching patience. Democracy, like a grape vine, doesn’t bear fruit in the early seasons, they insist. America, for instance, had to come to grips with a civil war some eighty-five years after its own founding before the prospects of “freedom for all” stood a clear chance of success. This, they posit, is the case for any and all nations who overthrow dictatorships, monarchies, and colonial rule in favor of home-based democratic rule. Proponents of Indonesia-as-role model for the Arab Spring also tend to substantiate their rosy assessment by way of opinions based on the perspective that equates Indonesia’s rapid economic growth with true liberal reform. The two, they seem to say, are mutually sufficient and necessary and hence go hand-in-hand.

Then a blistering alarm was broadcast internationally by Al Jazeera just last week, alleging an unholy alliance between retired, Suharto-era generals and violent Indonesian-based Islamist groups such as the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) and other pro-sharia law groups (however less violent) such as the FUI (Forum Ulama Indonesia). The FPI, especially, is vehemently in support of banning the Islamic sect called the Ahmadiyah, as have harassed Christian congregations. The alliance’s specific mission, reports Al Jazeera, is to overthrow president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whom is cited as weak and too reformist minded.

It was inevitable that such a marriage would come about post-Indonesian revolution. Suharto vigorously oppressed Islamic groups from entering Indonesian political life, and banned religious-based political parties. He feared their clout, as proven by Darul Islam’s strength and tenacity in fighting the formation of the Indonesian republic in favor of an Islamic state during the revolutionary period post- World War II. No surprise, then, that Islamic parties quickly organized themselves after 1998 and captured as of today some one-quarter of total political support of the voting census.

In this context then, the greater question is, “Can nationalism and democratic reform rebuff the counter tide of Islamists and authoritarian ex-generals and will the Indonesian people continue to support liberal reform in a predominantly Muslim Indonesia?”

Two weighty questions have been proffered here. What follows is an attempt to at least begin to answer the second as stated in the past paragraph by means of assessing the first, which tackles the current state of the Indonesian republic. In a future installment, I will attempt to tackle the much more difficult query as to whether Indonesia’s is a worthy role model for emerging Arab reform.

The following is IDEA’s check-list of stock assessment questions with answers provided by the author of this article. The outlook here is by default one of foreign perspective. I don’t pretend to be an Indonesian expert, but I have lived in the country for several years, am married to an Indonesian, can speak and read the national language, and am avidly interested in Indonesia’s historical course. The purpose here is to provide a baseline assessment which others can use as a springboard for their own thinking.

Criteria is based upon sixteen points taken from a list as provided by IDEA, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance as appears in their 2008 manual. (The manual is available for download off the internet) IDEA is based in Stockholm, Sweden.

In main, IDEA states the philosophical basis of the criteria to be the following:

Every person is entitled to live their life in dignity and free from fear, with a fair share in their country’s resources and an equal say in how they are governed.

The democratic ideal in and of itself seeks to guarantee equality and basic freedoms; to empower ordinary people; to resolve disagreements through peaceful dialogue; to respect difference; and to bring about political and social renewal without convulsions.

There is no such thing as a perfect democracy. Democracy is not an all-or-nothing affair, but rather a shifting continuum.

Only those who know a country’s culture, traditions and aspirations are properly qualified to assess its democracy.

Only citizen and others who live in the country being assessed should carry out a democracy assessment, since only they can know from experience how their country’s history and culture shape its approach to democratic principles.

Democracy is a political concept, concerning the collectively binding decisions about the rules and policies of a group, association or society. Such decision making can be said to be democratic to the extent that is subject to the controlling influence of all members of the collective considered as equals.

I don’t believe the following criteria to be exhaustive in scope. Some of the particulars as germane to Indonesia escape through the sieve, admittedly. For that reason, important issues that need consideration such as the religio-political power struggle as briefly explored previously have been included in this article. But the assessment is a useful exercise, and for that matter, I strongly endorse those teachers and students of democracies across the world to take the time to assess their own country’s state of the union accordingly.

Democracies are never fixed ends, and rarely live up to the meaning of their creeds. They are at best on going experiments with trajectories that can change with frightening and surprising rapidity.


Citizenship, law and rights: Nationhood and citizenship: is there public agreement on a common citizenship without discrimination?

If one answers “yes”, then the exceptions are glaring: Those whose religious beliefs and affiliations fall outside of the six religions recognized as legitimate by the Republic of Indonesia. Indigenous West Papuans. Said exceptions are considered citizens, legally speaking, but not without suffering discrimination. Indonesia’s track record as per human rights, especially in terms of religion of race, falls very short of any qualified definition of what values any true democratic upholds as a matter of principle.

How far are cultural differences acknowledged, and how well are minorities and vulnerable social groups protected?

Taking the answer to #1 by extension: Vulnerable social groups may be protected by law, but not so by governmental institutions and their practices- least of all the judiciary, law enforcement, and military treatment of certain segments of the population. This extends in general to ethnic, racial, and religious minorities as defined by regional demographics. The unanswered attacks on Christian churches, sexual minorities, and the Ahmadiyah religious sect are all current examples of how far Indonesia- both in terms of its government and overall societal values- falls short in terms of protecting minorities. The greater Indonesian mentality as regards treatment of minorities is the society’s most glaring shortcoming and provides the greatest threat to its success as concerns adherence to democratic values.

Rule of law and access to justice: Are state and society consistently subject to the law?

Rule of law in the greater sense is weak due to its flagrant disregard by those in power. Ad hoc governmental decision by edict answers to whim of leadership not necessarily rooted in the constitution. Both the founding philosophy of Pancasila and the Indonesian constitution are both regularly violated with impunity. Rule of law is extraordinarily weak in Indonesia, and varies considerably region-to-region. Freedom of religion, for example, is “called for” in Indonesia’s constitution, but holds no water in practice. Laws and principals are often dismissed, and in the most brazen and casual ways. Social norms often trump, and those norms are often regional in character.

Civil and political rights: Are civil and political rights equally guaranteed for all?

All bets are off in terms of equal guarantees. As mentioned in #1 & 2, religious, ethnic, and racial discrimination are practiced by several anti-democratic forces at work throughout the country. The exact nature of civil and political inequality differs region-to-region. Fault-lines tend to exist in the divides created by disproportionate demographics that favor one ethnic, racial, or religious group. Majority rule as untempered by a respect for minority rights is too often the result.

Economic and social rights: Are economic and social rights equally guaranteed for all?

Again, “equal guarantee” is a pie-in-the-sky ideal. There is ample evidence that certain minority groups are systematically denied human rights. Socially speaking, the Ahmadiyah faith, highland West Papuans, and transgender/gay-and-lesbian communities come quickly to mind. In terms of economic guarantees, the country’s widespread corruption undermines any kind of real meritocracy where a person’s hard work and education can make a deciding difference in building a decent future life. In terms of human resource politics, too many pathways to higher positions in society are blocked by those who don’t have the money to buy their way in. This applies to those looking to become not only a university professor, but even a policemen or soldier. Pay-offs are required to get past the gate keepers who control coveted, high paying positions in society. For the great majority of poor, the only way they can acquire many material items to improve their life style is to buy items on credit from loan sharks who charge excessive interest rates.

Representative and accountable government- Free and fair elections: Do elections give the people control over governments and their policies?
Free and fair elections are not uncommon in Indonesia. Local elections, for instance, are monitored closely for transparency. The populace will soon rise in protest- often violently- if an election is considered fraudulent, and the powers that be are forced to reappraise electoral outcomes in the light of disagreement. But if judged by follow-up once candidates assume power, results are mixed at best. This comes as no surprise as the same could be said of scores of countries. For example, the national parliament as based in Jakarta is considered by most to be rife with corruption, ranking nearly as high as that found in the national police force. That said, legislators, the president , and the president’s ministry is sensitive to negative press and public opinion. People power does play a role in the national dialogue as part of the sausage-making routine that characterizes the formulation of legislation and policy making.

The democratic role of political parties: Does the party system assist the working of democracy?
Indonesia suffers from overload when it comes to the institution of political parties. With nearly forty active national parties extant, there is a virtual overkill of party participants, and as a result, the political landscape is fractured. Too much of a good thing is one possible analysis, as many of the parties represent the interests of real and viable parts of Indonesian society. Too many of these parties are long on self-promotion and short on cogent policy platforms, though, and are personality driven. Cult-of-personality is substitute for a strong political foundation built on values used to generate policy alternatives. This demonstrates Indonesia’s current lack of political maturity, which in part is due to the poor educational levels found across the country. Crowds tend to support leaders who are high in the military, financially successful, are members of a family dynasty, or charismatic in some other way. The marketplace of ideas runs a very distant second to the more superficial aspects listed. Hence, democracy suffers.

Effective and responsive government: Is government effective in serving the public and responsive to its concerns?

Government is slow to respond to vital concerns. It often lacks the vision and experience to carry out much needed reform and infrastructural development. Corruption also drains away much needed funds once set aside to be used to serve public programs. Public programs look good on the paper, but their promise disappears once the embezzlement starts. This is in part due to the infancy of the country’s democracy, it’s third world status, and it’s underdeveloped pool of leadership. In terms of human resources and expertise, the country is on the rise, but it still is too dependent on foreign investment and foreign expertise when trying to attack the staggering problems the country faces.

The democratic effectiveness of parliament: Does the parliament or legislature contribute effectively to the democratic process?

Parliament is considered corrupt by most Indonesians, and a body that feeds without shame from the public trough. Their perks and pay are extreme and way out of proportion. Their mission and vision holds precious little in terms of their value for rule of law, and holding the government in general to account for its actions. The quality of leadership is very uneven as Indonesian democracy is still only twelve years on into its experiment.

10. Civilian control of the military and police: Are the military and police forces under civilian control?

SBY has taken executive action to distance the military from civilian affairs, but TNI is still actively pursuing illegal business activities in order to fund itself, which the government still lacks the ability to do. TNI also carries out their defence of the country according to their own brutal methods, especially in those matters regarded as threats to “territorial integrity” as found in West Papua. The police abuse their powers regularly, follow their own whims, and are not trusted by the population at large. They are in cahoots with thuggish elements such as the notorious FPI and are the greatest exemplars of corruption in RI. The police are empowered to arrest, investigate, and bring people to trial, and have jurisdiction in both criminal and civil areas of the law. Though not immune to civilian control, in practice both TNI & the National Police force are powerful enough to hold the executive and judicial branches at bay, including demands of the president of RI.

11. Integrity in public life: Is the integrity of conduct in public life assured?

Assured? That term is far from being appropriate to the imperfections that mark all societal bases of power, no matter the country. Having said that, as per Indonesia, widespread corruption at all levels of government and business make a mockery of said integrity.

12. Civil society and popular participation: The media in a democratic society: Do the media operate in a way that sustains democratic values?

Freedom of the press exists in Indonesia, though select journalists and human rights activists are targeted, harassed, and sometimes assassinated for their work in holding the government and prominent individuals accountable in Indonesia. Such crimes rarely come to court or are the perpetrators brought to justice. No real priority is given to such cases. Comparatively, of all the basic freedoms that make for a humanitarian-based society, press freedom may rank as the strongest in modern day Indonesia. Though ranked fairly low for its overall press freedom as compared to those of all the world’s 200+ countries, Indonesia is certainly a breath of fresh air as compared to almost any other press in the ASEAN charter nations. (Unfortunately, that is not saying much) There are plentiful daily reminders of news reporting aimed at challenging repression as found in all manner of articles published by a wide variety of news organizations in the country. However, a large percentage of such print reporting is produced by organizations based in urban areas where more highly educated readers live and work. Freedom of the press-in-print is not considered a danger by oppressive forces at work in Indonesia most likely because so few people read (newspapers are expensive), and television tends to police itself to maintain a bland, conservative profile as establishment interests own the airways.

13. Political participation: Is there full citizen participation in public life?

In terms of the electoral life, this is where one can laud the Indonesian populace as having a true desire for a democratic system of government. Indonesians show up at the polls to vote and participate enthusiastically in elections in large numbers. They seem to enjoy the political process and their interest often translates into active participation. The darker side to this equation is that in terms of electoral campaigns, political parties and their candidates tend to pay-off large numbers of people. Many people attending political rallies, for example, are paid to do so. Those participating in public demonstrations, which occur daily in Jakarta, are paid similarly.

Politically-minded people who coalesce around issues as well as political parties feel empowered enough to organize all manner of groups and associations. Indonesia could rightfully be called a “nation of joiners”, and there is a strong cooperative spirit extant across the country. The community spirit, known as “gotong royong,” is a great strength of the people as found in the country’s core identity.

14. Decentralization: Are decisions taken at the level of government that is most appropriate for the people affected?

With the government move to decentralize just after the fall of Suharto, there has been a decided shift in responsibility aware from “Pusat”, or central command and control in Jakarta, to the provincial level. The favored ethos at work in Indonesia is for not only increasing power as deferred to regional and their district entities, but also to increase newly designated districts and sub-districts. Lower level governments are on the increase as new two and more districts are being carved out of one old. The populations of new government offices and civil servants is on the rapid rise, especially in the more remote areas of Eastern Indonesia. Jakarta, once the alpha and omega of all funding and power, is handing off that power to regional governments as it is just impossible for a centralized government to be responsive to the people’s needs in such a vast island nation spanning 5000 kilometres west to east, and 2000 kilometres north to south. In the long run, decentralization will most likely help more than not once corruption can be properly monitored and the leadership pool increases in experience and quality. Measuring this particular assessment point over time is as critical as any in marking Indonesia’s road to a greater democracy and equality of economic opportunity and assured human rights.

15. Democracy beyond the state: Is the impact of external influences broadly supportive of the country’s democracy?

In preface, Indonesia has made concerted moves into the international arena with hopes of becoming an international player with a reputation for fairness and cooperation. As ASEAN’s most populous country and largest economy, Indonesia has shown ambition to exercise a leadership role within the charter. Their pro-active involvement with negotiations surrounding the sensitive issue of Myanmar’s supposed turn from authoritarian to democratic rule is a good example. Indonesia has also volunteered assistance to the Palestinians, and supports the Palestinian struggle to establish its own sovereign state. More famously, Indonesia has been taken a lead in fighting terrorism in joint cooperation with western nations ever since the 2002 Bali bombing. Some claim Indonesia’s success in this domain to be considerable. International kudos have been enjoyed by Jakarta, and increased military aid has been one resulting benefit for the central government and the military as well. On the humanitarian ledger, the government is quick to offer assistance to country’s suffering from natural disasters, following suit the tremendous aid Indonesia itself enjoyed after the great tsunami devastated Aceh in 2004. Most recently Indonesia has extended aid to Japan post-earthquake and tsunami. Whether these actions is considered by the average Indonesian as reflexively supportive of the country’s own democratic principles as set forth in both letter and practice is debatable. The public is generally unaware of their government’s foreign policy influence, and as such, there is little scrutiny or debate. Foreign affairs remains off the radar screen for most Indonesians, but not so internationally. Indonesia is given high marks for its citizenship qualities as an internationally responsible citizen amongst nations. It is one of the few country on earth who lives and acts internationally without fear of some other nation. Indonesia really has no state enemies in the conventional sense.

16. The country’s democratic impact abroad: Do the country’s international policies contribute to strengthening global democracy?

The stated mission of foreign policy as articulated by president SBY’s administration is pro-democratic and non-interventionist. Granted there is hypocrisy at play given Indonesia’s repression of certain minorities within its own country, but its international outlook generally values peace and harmony between nations. If the Indonesian government doesn’t call for the growth of global democracy per se, it certainly believes in international peace and cooperation. The government has organized several international forums on the growth of regional cooperation through trade, investment, and negotiation as well as addressing global warming. The Indonesian government has been pro-active in this kind of diplomatic outreach, and in that context, looks good on paper. Outside of not recognizing Israel, Indonesia has promoted an all-inclusive embrace of almost all countries of the world, forging close ties with almost all nations, including sworn enemies of the West such as Iran and North Korea. Indonesia is hyper-conscious of their unique position of being “enemy-free”, and have every intention of playing the impartial, honest broker in international disputes. This position in the international order is one Indonesia hopes to capitalize on, and bolster itself into a position of power and influence in the international order. Whether these diplomatic positions, missions, and visions actually contribute to the strengthening of global democracy is hard to measure at this early date, but Indonesia- especially in the case of Myanmar- has demonstrated a concrete desire to promote democracy in nations who would at the very least like to give the appearance of taking the first calculated steps towards liberal reform.

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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