Thursday, February 03, 2011

Indonesia's Lessons for the Arabs

A foreign dictator, leader of a large Muslim nation with radical Islamist elements, an ally and client state of the United States despite a horrible record for human rights abuses sitting astride a strategic waterway, critical to the passage of oil tankers. Egypt 2011? No, Indonesia, 1998.

Almost everything one sees unfolding in Cairo day-by-day took place thirteen years ago in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, as street protests and riots that killed more than 1,000 forced strongman Suharto (like many Indonesians he went by one name) to resign as president after 32 years in power.

Would that the events taking place in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East work out as well as they did in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto. Since 1998 Indonesia has become a working democracy, an increasingly important friend of the U.S. an ally in the war on terror and a linchpin in a developing arch of democracies to contain any ambitions of China in Asia.

Of course in 1998 there was less concern that Indonesia was going to turn into an Islamic state. Suharto’s downfall came during a kind of window of more than usual American indifference to Asia’s most populous Muslim nation. The Cold War had ended and Suharto was no longer seen as an unsavory but needed bulwark against Communism’s spread in Asia.

At the same time, it took place well before the attack on America on September, 11, 2001 which overnight propelled fear of Islamic fundamentalism into the forefront of America’s national agenda and foreign policy and military concerns.

The main catalyst for Suharto’s eventual downfall was the Asian Financial Crisis that broke out in 1997. Indonesia was particularly hard hit by the precipitous fall in its currency, resulting in painful adjustments mandated by the International Monetary Fund, rising food and gasoline prices

One of the main lessons from Indonesia’s experience that can apply elsewhere is that democratic reforms don’t always have to come immediately. It is possible to open the system in an orderly fashion. It was only in 2004, six years after Suharto was deposed, that Indonesians were able to choose their president through direct elections.

Unlike Egypt (until recently) Suharto had always filled the post of vice president, so when he did resign, there was a figure, in his veep, B.J. Habbibie, a technocrat who had served as a minister for science and development, who seemed a tolerable replacement, at least temporarily. His two immediate successors were chosen in the old-fashioned way by an electoral college.

But all during this time there was a steady procession of reforms pointing toward more open democracy. The press was freed to report on political developments, more parties were allowed to contest seats in parliament, the army, which previously had a guaranteed block of seats in parliament, was moved totally out of politics.

All of this culminated in the first direct presidential election held in 2004, when 150 million Indonesians went to the polls to elect an army general, Susilo Banbang Yudhoyono, president after defeating the incumbent, the daughter of the country’s founder Sukarno. He was easily re-elected in 2008.

Did the democratization of the world’s largest Muslim state turn Indonesia into an Islamic state or hotbed of terrorism? The country does have an Islamist terror group known as Jemmah Islamiya, often referred to as the Southeast Asia branch of al-Qaeda. There have been terror bombings, most spectacularly in Bali October, 2002.

But Jakarta has been remarkably successful in suppressing terror groups. Its special anti-terrorism group Detachment 88, partly funded by Washington, has successfully tracked down terrorists and broken up their networks. Only last week it charged the country’s most senior radical Muslim cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, with terrorism.

It is true that the fall of Suharto has been accompanied by a rise in Islamic fundamentalism. They and other conservatives were successful in enacting a very stiff anti-pornography law in 2008. However, fundamentalists have never won a majority in parliament, and in 2002 parliament rejected a proposal to declare Indonesia an Islamic state.

Meanwhile, Indonesia is once again becoming more and more important to the U.S. as a key link in a new ‘arc of democracies” stretching from India through Southeast Asia to Japan and South Korea. Among other things, it sits astride the Strait of Malacca, which is as important a waterway as the Suez Canal.

President Barack visit to Indonesia last year was more than a nostalgic return to a place where he spent part of his boyhood. It underscored how much Washington recognizes how vital this Muslim-majority nation has become to protecting and enhancing American interests in Asia, and an example that other Arab nations could follow.


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