This article was written by a friend of mine, Francisco Lara Jr. Lara is a Research Associate at the Crisis States Research Center (CSRC), Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics. What he has to say is sufficiently timely and important for me to cede this space to him today. AMID controversies over plunder and corruption, extrajudicial executions, and armed conflict, this country has missed an event of regional and global significance right in its own backyard. That is that the Philippines is no longer the democratic incumbent in Southeast Asia, having been dethroned by an awakening giant south of Mindanao. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo may persist in chasing US President Barack Obama to the ends of the earth, but she will get nowhere.

For a country that has been fighting below its weight class for decades, Indonesia is now vying to become the new democratic heavyweight of Southeast Asia. It is rising fast from its authoritarian past, and gaining recognition as democracy’s gatekeeper in the region. The democratic gains of the past five years have improved accountability and governance, widening the room for effective and credible government officials who expose malfeasance, corruption, and plunder to maneuver. Meanwhile, civil society organizations and community associations have intensified the scope of local initiatives in protecting human rights and the environment and exposing malfeasance in local governance.

The United States, Western and Central Europe, Japan, South Korea, China and India have all upgraded their diplomatic, security, and developmental ties with the country over the past five years. International development agencies that left Indonesia as a non-priority country in the 1990s are queuing to get back in. Indonesia’s increasing presence on the world stage has led some observers to describe the sea change as Bandung II, in reference to the 1950s Bandung Conference that saw the resurgence of non-aligned states as a global bloc led by Bung Karno (Sukarno). In a region faced by a resilient despotism in Burma, and democratic reversals in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Indonesia offers a whiff of fresh air, a fact underlined by its recent successful electoral exercise.

The outcome of the recent legislative elections was never in doubt. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) has captured the minds and hearts of a large section of the citizenry and is pushing through with decisive reforms that should see the entry of professionals and the undermining of traditional politicians in the high echelons of government. Indeed, the question now is how he will use his momentum and his mandate to steer Indonesia into a sustained path of growth, deepen the unity of a large but fractious nation, and secure a firm seat in the table of global leaders. The emergence of a technocrat has calmed the nerves of the financial and business community.

But SBY’s brand of “anti-politics” leaves no doubt that steering parliament behind his proposals will face some difficulties. He will need to build a new coalition to bring together the style and methods of the technocrats with the passion and influence of the Islamic-based parties that constitute his new base of support. Meanwhile, new security risks will certainly arise in the midst of a severe global crisis. International observers have warned against the likely increase in communal tensions and the eruption of violence as a mix of political movements and parties exploit the economic crunch and the elections for their political agenda.

Nevertheless, SBY has upped the ante in the face of a serious economic crisis and the threats that still face Indonesia internally. Despite persistent shortfalls in the protection of human rights and the fight against corruption, the gains from the steady improvement of Indonesia’s democratic institutions have helped train the spotlight on individual freedoms and the fight for good government, both of which helped to forestall conflict and unrest in 2008, providing some guarantee of the country’s ability to weather the effects of the global economic crisis and the transition to a new administration. SBY has secured a loyal and reliable deputy that can help pilot the ship as he deals with the political demands of his allies, the needs of Indonesia’s military and security forces, and the brewing conflicts in places such as North Maluku, Central Sulawesi, and West Papua. His newfound mandate can be brought to bear in ending separatist struggles, using the template for change that his administration used in diffusing the separatist conflict in Aceh. Finally, Indonesia is attracting significant attention from other world leaders.

SBY was a critical presence in the G-20 talks in London and has received accolades from Middle Eastern countries that see Indonesia as a reliable voice for their own issues. Indonesia’s much-delayed recognition on the world stage, and SBY’s stature as a representative of a region that most people still refer to as the Far East has enhanced his leverage within Asean. There is even talk of establishing a mini-G-20 within East Asia, with China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and India as members, and with Asean having only an observer’s seat. This will be the biggest blow to the egos of other leaders in the region, as Indonesia steps up to the plate as Southeast Asia’s new pitcher. This reality is most painful for the Philippines, which used to pride itself as the democratic beacon in the region. For all her talk about economic recovery and political maturity, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s more lasting legacy will be her country’s image as the region’s economic laggard and democratic has-been.

Source: The INQUIRER – Philippines