HONOLULU (Apr. 25, 2009)—Indonesia is drawing praise from the United States as it emerges from decades of authoritarian rule as a promising democracy, but the country with the world’s largest Muslim population still faces challenges ranging from government corruption to election problems and weak political representation of women. That was the assessment of Indonesia’s maturing democracy during a daylong Indonesia conference and cultural event held at the East-West Center on April 24 under the banner, “1999-2009: A Decade of Reform.“

Since the 1998 fall of President Soeharto — a former general who ruled for 32 years — Indonesia has held three legislative elections and embraced a vibrant press. Greater freedom of expression among its 240 million citizens has also provided a boost to movie production and the arts.

Those developments have led President Barack Obama’s administration to view the country as a key partner in several ways, including the administration’s efforts to reach out to the Muslim world, according to Ambassador Charles Salmon Jr., a foreign policy advisor with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. “Things are very much in an upward trajectory in U.S.-Indonesian relations,” he told an audience at the Imin International Conference Center.

Salmon noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a strong message toward bolstering Indonesian ties when she visited the country in February during her first overseas trip as the top U.S. diplomat. Meeting with Clinton, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told reporters that in Indonesia, “democracy, Islam and modernity can go hand in hand.”

Clinton also stopped by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations secretariat and said the Obama administration intended to sign a treaty of cooperation with the group, as well as work toward restarting the Peace Corps program, according to Salmon. Obama has also pledged to partner with Indonesia in education, healthcare and in efforts to combat terrorism, avian influenza and global climate change, he added.

Indonesia is among several countries participating in a UN program to curb emissions of greenhouse gases caused by deforestation. It will host the 2009 World Ocean Conference in May, said Salmon, the keynote speaker at the meeting last week, which was organized by the Hawai‘i chapter of the Indonesian Student Association in the U.S.


“Definitely, the U.S. has an interest in Southeast Asia, and I think Indonesia is going to be an important partner because it has the biggest Muslim population in the world, it’s the biggest market in Southeast Asia, and it’s actually now quite ironically the best functioning democracy” in the region, said Michael Buehler, a postdoctoral fellow in Modern Southeast Asian Studies at Columbia University in New York.

“We see a rollback of democracy all over Southeast Asia, and Indonesia has suddenly become the shining example,” he said.

Buehler said Indonesia wants to mend U.S. military relations that were damaged by human rights abuses by the Indonesian military after the 1999 independence referendum in Timor-Leste (East Timor). Internationally, he said, Indonesia hopes to win American support to deal with issues such as a land dispute with China over the Spratly Islands, as well as accusations by Malaysia that Indonesia has harbored pirates who roam in the Strait of Malacca, a tight ocean corridor between the two nations.

Buehler believes Indonesia’s greatest democratic advancement has been in the area of election reform. He cited the abolishment in 2005 of a process that had local government officials elected though parliament. “We’ve had direct election of government and the president,” Buehler said. “Now, people vote directly, and not through parties anymore, so this is an increase of accountability for the Indonesian people.”

On April 9, Indonesia held parliamentary elections through an open-ballot system that gave voters more influence, Buehler said. “Before, in the elections in 2004 or 1999, you had closed party lists. People who were at the top of the party list would get automatically into a parliamentary seat no matter how many votes they got,” he said. “It was very nontransparent.”

However, while election changes have led to greater political competition, Buehler said it has also driven up costs to run a successful campaign. And, he added, enforcement of Indonesia’s campaign finance laws has been lax, leaving room for fraud. “Money-politics has increased, political corruption has increased, which makes it very difficult for civil society figures that don’t have financial backing to get into these political positions, because now you simply just have to pay so much to run in these elections,” he said. “That is, I think, the biggest obstacle.”

Buehler said Indonesians have mixed feelings about the democratic shift. While Soeharto’s departure was celebrated, poverty and corruption remain widespread, and human rights violations still occur, he said. “A lot of the people are still very frustrated because they don’t see real improvements in their daily lives,” he said, calling Indonesia “an established, low-quality democracy.”

Teguh Santosa, an East-West Center participant and a contributing journalist for Rakyat Merdeka Daily in Indonesia, said reporters no longer fear “repression by the state.” Still, he expressed disappointment over the handling of the latest election, noting that some 14 million eligible voters, out of some 171 million, may have been disenfranchised.


Women have also struggled to get into office, according to Nihayatul Wafiroh, an EWC participant from Indonesia who is advocating for gender equality in politics there. She said a law enacted prior to the 2004 elections that instructed parties to have at least 30 percent of women among their candidates has not translated into greater representation in parliament.

Meanwhile, results from the recent election are still being tallied. It appears the centrist Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will take the largest number of seats of any party in the 560-seat parliament, putting him a good position to win a second term in July, according to media reports, though at least two of his challengers have sought a fraud investigation.


The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.

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