Across a wall at the Masjid Istiqlal in central Jakarta there is a banner that reads: “Independence is the inalienable right of all nations therefore all colonialism must be abolished.” Colonized by the Portuguese, French, British, and then Dutch for almost five centuries, this commanding statement opens the preamble of the 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia. Across the road from the independence mosque – the biggest in Southeast Asia – sits Jakarta’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. Just north is Glodok, one of the largest Chinatowns in the world. Here, Buddhist and Confucianist temples are protected against development by the local government.
The topography of this region of Jakarta is a poignant reminder of Indonesia’s proclaimed “unity in diversity.” However, it was not long ago that virulent discrimination and persecution of Chinese Indonesians was the state-endorsed status quo. Under Suharto’s New Order, Chinese-language schools, festivals and newspapers were banned.
The tragic consequences of official discrimination were seen in 1998, when riots targeted Chinese people and their businesses in Jakarta, Medan, and Solo. That fateful year also saw the fall of Suharto and the inception of the Reformasi era. Since then, Indonesia has transitioned from a highly centralized authoritarian state to a radically decentralized democracy. No longer do all roads lead to Jakarta; formal political power exists at even the village level.
Indonesia is now the strongest democracy in its immediate region and the third largest democracy on the planet. Far from banning Chinese traditions, the nation now marks Chinese New Year with a public holiday. Few nations with significant Chinese minority populations can say the same.
After its third successful direct presidential election in 2014, the country has proven itself a rare case in Asia. According to Freedom House, Indonesia is evidence that democracy “remains vibrant outside of the global north” and provides an example for its ASEAN neighbors attempting to transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
Despite being an impossibly vast archipelago of some 17,000 islands, whose population of 250 million people has huge cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity, Indonesia is worlds apart from the political dysfunction that plagues its ASEAN neighbors in Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Whilst domestic civil society and media commentators criticize political parties and the national legislature as dominated by corrupt, greedy elites who are out of touch, Indonesia’s political parties continue to mature, become more moderate, and demonstrate willingness to compromise.
Corruption remains the largest hurdle for the development of Indonesia’s political system. For example, the Asian Network for Free Elections has reported that vote buying was more prevalent during the 2014 presidential elections than in 2009. It has serious ramifications for policy as well. Former President Yudhoyono’s introduction of a moratorium on deforestation in 2010 was extended to last four years, yet because of noncompliant, corrupt local governments, the problem of illegal logging has only become worse.
Despite ongoing weaknesses in its democratic institutions, however, Indonesia’s elections continue to be recognized by international observers as free, fair and competitive, which is a momentous achievement for democracy in the Asia Pacific region.
Importantly, democracy has provided space for the rapid expansion of civil society, for better or worse. The NGO sector expanded exponentially during Reformasi, from an estimated 10,000 NGOs in 1996 to more than 70,000 by the year 2000. As they mature, NGOs are not merely focusing on poverty alleviation and welfare, but also address a range of rights-based issues from women to indigenous peoples, from the LGBTQI community to asylum seekers.
This is badly needed. Despite promising to deliver policies to improve Indonesia’s human rights performance, President Jokowi has enthusiastically pursued annual executions for drug criminals, ignoring widespread objections from the international community. Religious freedom and persecution of minorities remain a significant problem, as evidenced by violent attacks on Chinese people, their property, and Buddhist temples in North Sumatra earlier this month.
In recent months, the army, associated paramilitary groups, and radical Islamist groups have been actively fanning fears of communism, LGBTQI people, and other “foreign influences.” This highlights the prevailing political influence of the military, which has yet to abandon the dwi fungsi or dual role granted to it under the Suharto regime.
While difficult and complex, these problems may be understood as natural teething problems of any society that has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis from dictatorship to democracy in a short period of time. In fact, whilst democracy is on the wane worldwide, Indonesia represents an important bastion of electoral democracy and pluralism.
Indonesia’s unique strengths are demonstrated in even the darkest of times. During this year’s terrorist attack in Jakarta, people stayed in the streets to provide food to police and emergency workers. The following day many demonstrated their democratic freedom of assembly and expression by taking to the streets to tell ISIS sympathizers that #KamiTidakTakut – we are not afraid.
It is undeniable: Indonesia is an exceptional, wonderful, and flawed nation. Its challenges are many but Indonesia’s people – empowered by diversity, resilience, and youth – will rise to the challenge.
Max Walden works in the international development sector n Indonesia and is a Research Assistant with the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Center at the University of Sydney.