Friday, February 25, 2011

Removing a Dictator Does Not Make Indonesia a Model for Egypt

Former President Suharto

On the day of Hosni Mubarak's resignation as president of Egypt, I sat in a coffee shop in Indonesia with a friend who had helped to bring about a similar resignation of Indonesia's former strongman, Suharto, just 12 years ago.

Today, Indonesia enjoys what many Western diplomats have praised as a thriving democracy. Yet my friend looked at me and said: "Our biggest mistake was thinking all we needed was Suharto's resignation. We hope Egypt can strive for better."

The feeling of simultaneous regret for his own country's situation and hope for that of countries protesting in the Arab world is not unique to my friend; it is one that has been echoed at food stalls, in universities and on social media outlets across Indonesia.

If senior US policy experts are touting Indonesia as one of the key models for emerging Muslim-majority democracies in Egypt and potentially elsewhere in the Arab world, why have so many Indonesians said that Egypt should learn from their country's failures rather than its supposed successes?

In the years following Mr Suharto's downfall, legalistic and institutional reforms were in many areas broad and thorough. But many Indonesians said those who praise the country's free elections and institutional reforms are missing the point.

The reforms that matter - those that would stem the pervasive corruption, improve social service delivery and stop violent mobs from being able to harm and kill minority groups at will - may have been enacted, but in many cases they have not been implemented. Essentially, Indonesians said they have not yet seen the fruits of democracy in their daily lives.

Without proper polling data it is difficult to determine how reflective these sentiments are of the Indonesian population as a whole. But the extent to which such sentiments have been expressed on social media outlets and in the three regions of the country where I have done fieldwork is striking. When compared with the praise that has been heaped on Indonesia by US foreign policy experts and senior officials, it is startling.

In fact, the contrast points to a much larger problem in the approach to democracy promotion among the most senior levels of US policy making, particularly as it fits into diplomatic relations. By focusing too heavily on the procedural indicators of democracy to judge a country's democratic "success," such as free and fair elections or legal reforms, policymakers as well as commentators risk missing many of the issues that contributed to civil unrest in Indonesia 12 years ago, and they are doing so across the Arab world today.

In fact, by heaping too much praise on governments that continue to fail in the basic fundamentals of liberal democracy and universal rights - such as minimizing corruption or protecting minorities - the US government risks accelerating the frustration and disillusionment with democracy in these societies.

Indeed, Dr Robin Bush, The Asia Foundation's country representative in Indonesia, has written on multiple occasions over the past two years about the threat that ongoing corruption and poor social service delivery present to the Indonesian democracy. She has noted the small but rising nostalgia in some communities for the stability of the Suharto era.

Indonesia was ranked 110th out of 178 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index last year. Thus, for Indonesians, hearing that their country is a beacon of democracy has seemed to create questions about the applicability of democracy more than anything else.

"This is it?" people wondered.

No one is saying that Indonesia is going to erupt into a wave of regime-change protests tomorrow, or that its citizens' problems are anywhere near those of protesters in many countries now. The fact that I am able to write this is a testament to that fact.

However, if US policymakers hope to promote governments that are truly going to address many of the frustrations creating instability in the Middle East and other parts of the world, it is important that they look soberly at the shortcomings, as well as successes, of countries like Indonesia.

Indonesia's fate is yet unwritten. To sell the country as a wholesale democratic success is to undersell democracy and the sentiments of many of its citizens.

After all, if there is anything that the beginning of the 21st century has shown the world, it is that neither the US government nor any other government can afford to ignore the voice of the individual.

By Jamie Morgan - Straits Times Indonesia has been in Indonesia for the past year via a grant from the US-Indonesia Society, doing research on US engagement with Muslim communities in the country. Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia.

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