Opinion :Indonesia cannot be complacent

The remarkable transition to democracy by Indonesia after the fall of Suharto is showing signs of wear and tear.

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim society, is often held up as a model for Arab reformers. When Suharto fell in 1998 after three decades of authoritarian rule, Indonesia managed to keep both Islamist extremists and the army out of government. Instead, civil society groups led Indonesia’s ”spring”, pushing a panicked elite to deliver liberal democracy and an open society.

These reforms have weathered the Asian economic crisis, elections, leadership changes and the GFC. Now the economy is growing at almost 7 per cent. If things stay on track, Indonesia is predicted to be one of the global ”big 5” within decades.

This could be you, foreign optimists tell Arab rebels. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono agrees, eager to sell Indonesia’s ”democratic Islam” brand as the United States looks for regional counterbalances to China. Indonesia’s success in breaking Jemaah Islamiah with the open trials of hundreds of terrorists makes it all the more attractive to the West.

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But are things really going so well in Indonesia? That country’s former finance minister and crusading anti-corruption reformer, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, was in Australia recently. Now a managing director of the World Bank, she played a key role in Indonesia’s recent economic successes but her visit is a reminder that Indonesia’s remarkable democratic transition is showing signs of wear and tear.

Three things in particular are starting to look wobbly in Indonesia: anti-corruption efforts, religious freedom and human rights. All make for difficult policy but are vital to a working democracy. Many Indonesians fear that unless government responses improve soon, Indonesia’s decade-old democratic spring might start looking more like autumn.

Mrs Indrawati’s career is a good example of the problems. Well known for personal integrity, she was a tough and disciplined finance minister, receiving much of the credit for Indonesia surviving the GFC so well. Despite this, she was forced out in 2010 after campaigning for anti-corruption taxation reform.

Her mistake? She targeted the group of companies linked to tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, the head of Golkar, Suharto’s former party. Her enemies responded by accusing her of misconduct in a 2008 bank bailout. Although repeated investigations and audits found no evidence to support these claims, Yudhoyono did little to support her and her position eventually became untenable.

The same period saw intensified attacks by the elite on Indonesia’s crusading Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK), including attempts to discredit its leaders. Many Indonesians now point to this and Mrs Indrawati’s resignation as marking the end of the reform period. They are probably right.

Religious freedom is also threatened. A decade after September 11 and nine years after the Bali bombings, hardline conservatives have become a bigger problem than terrorists like JI. Violent attacks by extremists on religious minorities have escalated, with the government doing little to stop them. In February, three members of Ahmadiyyah, an unorthodox Muslim sect, were murdered by a mob in west Java. Twelve of the killers received absurd sentences of three to six months for ”inciting hatred”, but a survivor got six years for not obeying a police order. The manifest injustice of this has become symbolic of a wider lack of protection for religious beliefs.

In response, the government lamely cites the fact that the majority of Indonesians are Muslims, when that is, of course, the very reason why minority beliefs need protection. It also ignores the fact that most Indonesian Muslims regard this persecution with disgust.

The third (and related) problem is human rights. Democratic Indonesia has a strong record of signing up to international treaties but less success in implementing them. Long-running separatism in West Papua has recently led to episodes of military torture, and 21 deaths in violence at local elections. Government responses have been mainly rhetoric and wrist-slapping, despite calls for a more concrete political solution. Indonesian legislators, however, reacted angrily to criticism by international human rights groups, in scenes reminiscent of Suharto-era defensiveness.

The popular consensus in Indonesia now is that when push comes to shove, Yudhoyono’s government prefers to do as little as possible. That means it is usually the politically weak who lose out, whether they be anti-corruption crusaders or religious and ethnic minorities. Some attribute this to Yudhoyono’s hyper-cautious personal style, but Indonesia’s new democratic system plays a part too. Since 1999, no president has headed a party with a majority in the DPR, the Indonesian legislature, and polls show the electorate remains fragmented, disillusioned, and uncommitted.

The result is weak government forced to horse-trade to pass legislation. And that empowers Indonesia’s own faceless men, the elite fixers. Many believe they are successfully undermining the post-Suharto reforms, despite hundreds of arrests by the KPK of crooks from all major parties – including, most recently, Muhammad Nazaruddin, the former treasurer of the president’s own Democrat Party, caught by Interpol on the run in Colombia.

All this made Indrawati a symbol of reform and resistance to corruption and the creeping deterioration of democracy. There are even calls for her to run for president in 2014.

The field is wide open. Yudhoyono has served two terms and cannot run again. Most other party leaders are on the nose: leftovers from Suharto-era politics, like Indrawati’s bete noire, Aburizal Bakrie.

In an effort to persuade Indrawati to return home and run, reformers recently set up a new party to be the electoral vehicle she lacks. Her candidacy would be a very long shot in a system saturated with money politics – and bitter enemies – and Indrawati remains tight-lipped about her intentions. But with Indonesia’s democratic spring starting to turn decidedly chilly, who could blame her for staying in Washington?

Professor Tim Lindsey is director of the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne.

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