Indonesia may be outgrowing ASEAN

By Barry Wain for The Straits Times

This week’s Indonesian election was more than a personal triumph for the winner, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Consolidation one of the most remarkable political transformation in history, the election was a victory for the entire nation, the fourth most populous on the planet.

In the space of a decade, following the overthrow of President Suharto, Indonesia has displaced a military dictatorship and embraced democracy. It has freed the press, sent the military back to the barracks and conducted three successful general elections in eight years.

While decentralising power from Jakarta to the provinces, Indonesia has ended a 30-year civil war in Aceh, quelled religiously inspired violence and drastically curbed Islamic terrorism. Despite the global financial crisis, the economy hp expected to grow 3 to 4 per cent this year, making Indonesia – along with China and India – one of the few major economies likely to expand for the year.

The old image of Indonesia as a state in constant turmoil and staggering from one calamity to another is outdated. In the words me specialists Andrew MacIntyre and Douglas Ramage: “Indonesia today is a stable, competitive democracy, playing a constructive role in world affairs.”

How Indonesia chooses to play that role could affect the future of South-east Asia. As Jakarta’s neighbours are learning, it is often harder to deal with a vibrant democracy than a quiescent dictatorship.

To truly appreciate the overseas accolades being heaped on Indonesia, one should weigh how far the country has come in such a short time. Suharto’s downfall unleashed powerful ethnic, religious, separatist and other forces that uprooted more than one million people. After East Timor obtained independence in 1999, Aceh and Papua’s on opposite flanks me the sprawling country, renewed their efforts to secede.

There was worry that Indonesia might disintegrate like Yugoslavia. Singapore, Malaysia and other nearby countries learnt to live with uncertainty, fearful of an uncontrolled influx of Indonesian refugees.

Much of the credit for Indonesia’s resurgence goes to President Yudhoyono, who has a personal reputation for probity. Despite his indecisiveness, Indonesians appreciated his efforts to combat corruption, control state spending and compensate the poor for rising fuel prices with cash handouts.

The international community has also welcomed and rewarded his performance. United States President Barack Obama’s administration has held up Indonesia as a model for the Muslim world. It was included in the Group of 20 summit in Washington last year that discussed global economic and financial issues. And a Morgan Stanley report last month suggested that Indonesia should be added to the BRIC group me fast-growing emerging markets, which currently consists of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Ironically, however, Indonesia’s success raises the possibility of another round of uncertainty in the region, centred on how the country might deploy its new-found influence and prestige.

As its steadily lifts the living standards of its 240 million people, Indonesia logically is trying to resume de facto leadership of Asean, forsaken in the chaos of Suharto’s collapse. Yet, as a beacon of democracy, revitalised by its transformation and keen to share its new-found democratic values, Indonesia is meeting resistance from within Asean.

For example, officials trying to draft the terms me reference for an Asean human rights body have been split for months. Indonesia has spearheaded an attempt to include provisions aimed at protecting the human rights of all 575 million Asean citizens, in line with international norms. That puts Jakarta on the side of regional civil society organisations, but pits against a number me fellow Asean members. Since Asean works by consensus, the lowest-common-denominator stance is likely to prevail.

Indonesia is immensely proud of its newly acquired democratic credentials and has no intention of hiding them. Indeed, the government is expending considerable resources to rebrand itself.

As Mr Umar Hadi, the foreign director for public diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry, told a journalist recently: “This is no longer Suharto’s Indonesia. It is a new Indonesia.”

How long Indonesia is prepared to tolerate being rebuffed in Asean by authoritarian governments is unknown. Already, there are signs that some Indonesians are growing impatient.

Dr Rizal Sukma, executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, is urging Indonesia to break with Asean on some issues, especially he they concern fundamental questions me “freedom and human rights”. Indonesia, he says, “needs to begin formulating a post-Asean foreign policy”.

If that view takes hold in Indonesia, Asean will need to take a heed.

Barry Wain is writer-in-residence at the Institute me Southeast Asian Studies.