REVIEW: Article

United States-Indonesia Relations in 2001

Anyone tracking recent conflicts and bloodshed in Indonesia would surely agree that “different opinions concerning religion, concerning government and many other points have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”

But those words were not written this year about Indonesia. They were put forward 214 years ago by James Madison in the Federalist Papers. As America’s early history shows, the growing pains of democracy are never as easy to handle or as peaceful as we would like them to be. 

Indonesia has certainly seen its share of religious and ethnic animosity, government oppression and political infighting in its 55 years as a nation. If it can master the fine art of political cooperation for the common good, I believe it has the potential to become one of the world’s key democracies. 

Our overriding goal must be to continue to help Indonesia develop the democratic institutions that will help it stabilize its economy, resolve its internal conflicts through peaceful negotiation, and develop a stronger sense of legal certainty; in short, to help Indonesia emerge as the largest Islamic democracy and the third largest democratic country in the world. 

This task will not be easy. Under the “guided democracy” introduced by former President Soekarno, and during the 33-year rule of former President Soeharto, many Indonesian democratic and legal institutions existed on paper, but had little real power or role to play. Over time, even democratic and civic behavior atrophied.

Members of Parliament attending the annual session were told to “datang, duduk dan diam” (“assemble, sit down and shut up).” And a pervasive legacy of corruption— stretching from the Presidential palace to village chiefs—earned Indonesia a consistent Top Ten ranking in Transparency International’s list of the world’s most corrupt countries.

Indonesia must therefore build its newly democratic institutions on very shaky foundations. This makes it critical to establish a sense of legal certainty in Indonesia. 

Fair laws, developed by a vibrant and effective Parliament; consistent and impartial enforcement of those laws; and full transparency and accountability of the public sector are sine qua nons for Indonesian democracy to survive.

We are working closely with the National Police, the National Human Rights Commission and other legal and social institutions to help them develop expertise in conflict resolution, negotiation techniques, forensics and judicial investigations, mediation and other alternatives to the past legacy of legal and human rights abuse. 

We hope the Indonesian government will allow us to expand this cooperation in the future, and will recognize that political stability, economic predictability and social cohesiveness all stem from legal certainty. 

People who know their rights will be respected are more willing to respect the rights of others, whereas continued uncertainty and corruption only leads to more of the same.

Making this issue even more critical, Indonesia is a land where five of the world’s major religions and hundreds of diverse ethnic groups must not only coexist, but also learn to cooperate toward common democratic goals.

Sadly, we have seen recently how these religious and cultural differences can lead to tragedy in times of political and economic uncertainty. 

In Aceh and Irian Jaya (West Papua), two regions on opposite ends of the country that have historic grievances over political domination and economic exploitation by the central government, heavy-handed efforts to quell separatism have led to grave human rights abuses and driven many more citizens to support the separatists’ cause. The separatists, too, however, engage in human rights abuses, leaving the local population squeezed between two armed camps.

In the Moluccas, communal conflicts escalated over a two-year period, producing a horrific cycle of murder and revenge between Muslims and Christians (and between rival Muslim factions) and dividing previously peaceful cities into no-man’s zones today. 

In Kalimantan (Borneo), hundreds of Madurese settlers were brutally driven from their homes in March 2001 by the native Dayak tribespeople. Some Dayaks feel threatened by the influx of migrants to Kalimantan from other overcrowded and impoverished parts of Indonesia (like the island of Madura); the transmigration policy aggressively pursued under past governments lies at the root of many current conflicts. 

In all of these cases, the United States (US) continues to support the territorial integrity and unity of Indonesia, while at the same time urging the government here to seek—through cooperation, negotiation and dialogue—peaceful solutions to these vexing historical legacies.

East Timor is a special case. The world did not accept Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor and the Indonesian military’s 24-year war to overcome Timorese resistance was ultimately unsuccessful.

In 1999, the people of East Timor were given a choice between greater autonomy and independence in a United Nations (UN)-monitored referendum. Almost 80 percent of the population chose independence, and the retreating pro-Indonesia militias and elements of the Indonesian military left little behind except death and destruction.

East Timor is today on the verge of becoming the first new nation of this millennium. Elections will be held in August 2001, and soon afterward the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) hopes to pass the reins of administration over to a democratically-chosen East Timorese government. 

The US is playing a key role in helping to build democratic institutions in East Timor and in cleaning up the wreckage left behind by Indonesia’s retreat, while at the same time pressing the Government of Indonesia to allow all remaining refugees the right to choose freely to return to East Timor; to investigate and prosecute those guilty of war crimes in East Timor; and to establish peaceful bilateral relations with its new neighbor.

America’s core relationship with Indonesia remains strong. And no matter how frustrating its politics have been in the past and its transition to democracy becomes in the future, we can never afford to ignore Indonesia.

Geographically, Indonesia stretches further from east to west than the continental US, and over half of the world’s trade (and much of its petroleum) sails through its waters en route to and from markets in Asia, Europe and North America. 

Strategically, the security of most of Southeast Asia rests on a stable Indonesia and would be seriously threatened if a number of mini-states emerged from a political collapse here. 

Economically, Indonesia is a major oil producer and member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a center for manufacturing and natural resources and a major market for US raw materials and manufactured goods. 

Politically, as the world’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia could have a far-reaching influence on support for democracy and tolerance not only in Asia—in Burma and China, for example—but around the world. A failed experiment in democracy here, on the other hand, would give comfort to surviving autocratic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

In the end, America’s objectives in Indonesia are the same goals that most Indonesians seek for their country: we want an Indonesia that is peaceful, stable, democratic, unified, and prosperous. 

Our areas of priority in Indonesia are simple—to support democracy, rule of law, human rights, economic growth, regional security, social development and national unity. The best way to achieve any and all of these goals is by working with the domestic institutions that can help Indonesians achieve them by themselves. 

The 1997 Asian financial crisis starkly revealed the importance of sound political and economic policy to support domestic and global well-being—and the high cost of imprudence and poor governance. The lesson we all learned is that strong markets require good governments, good rules, and good laws. 

The US has played a critical role in international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank to support economic reform in Indonesia in a way that satisfies its creditors but does not pass an undue burden onto the country’s poorest citizens. 

Through the Consultative Group on Indonesia, we are offering over US$ 270 million in assistance in Fiscal Year (FY) 2001. Much of our aid and grant support goes to non-governmental institutions and academic centers that are helping to bring reforms from the grassroots level and to support a more vibrant civil society. 

Over the past three years, the United States has also provided more than $350 million in grant food assistance, and we have provided food and humanitarian assistance to refugees and victims of social crises and natural disasters in the Moluccas, Aceh, Papua (Irian Jaya), West Timor, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Java. The United States, through our US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Naval Medical Research Unit (NAMRU) missions here, has also helped improved the state of Indonesian health care and population programs.

Over 800 Indonesian scholars have participated in the Fulbright Scholarship program since it began here in 1952, and hundreds of thousands of Indonesians have studied at US universities through other means of funding.

A stable, peaceful and prosperous Indonesia is what its neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Australia and New Zealand want, and it is what foreign investors, including American companies, desire. 

A stable, peaceful and prosperous Indonesia will make it easier to conduct business in this richly-endowed nation; will offer a large market for American products; and will have a positive influence on the political stability, security and economic recovery of the entire Southeast Asian region. 

The most critical time in Indonesia is right now. Running one democratic election is easy; getting to the second one with free political institutions intact is the hard part. 

We must recognize that our overall goal of a united, democratic, peaceful, and prosperous Indonesia can only be achieved in the long term. There will surely be uneven progress and numerous setbacks along the way. Moreover, decisions along the way must and can only be made by the Indonesian government and people. Our role is to advise when asked and assist those efforts that we believe will help Indonesia through this historic transition. At the same time, however, we must not lose sight of important steps that need to be part of any lasting reform agenda, including accountability for human rights abuses and corruption. To do otherwise would be to reward impunity, and retard badly needed political, legal and economic reform efforts. 

The Indonesian military is obviously an important institution in such a diverse and dynamic country. However, military reform is also essential to Indonesia’s progress as a democracy, and it must remain a key policy consideration for us. The extent of our contact with the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) will be governed by the extent of progress on respect for law and for human rights. Along these lines, the US Congress has enacted legislation that conditions the resumption of bilateral military assistance on effective efforts by the Indonesian government to bring to justice those responsible for human rights abuses in East Timor and Indonesia, facilitate the return of East Timorese displaced persons, cooperate with the UN transitional administration and help curb West Timor-based militia incursions. A better accounting of the military budget is an important aspect of civilian oversight that is also a priority for us by law as well as common sense. Over the long term, it is essential the Indonesian military focus its attention on Indonesia’s external rather than internal security. Toward that end, we will focus a large amount of our assistance on the development of a capable and responsible civilian police force.

There are some who say that Indonesia is suffering from “too much democracy” today, as tragic inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts continue in far-flung areas of the country and threaten national stability. 

But I would argue that it is not too much democracy, but more than 35 years of not enough democracy that is the root cause of many of these problems.

In 1949, during Indonesia’s struggle for independence, Mohammad Hatta (who became the country’s first Prime Minister) said: “Struggle demands sacrifice, suffering, patience and a conviction that our goals will be achieved. We must be prepared to fight on for a very long time, and we must make certain that the base of our efforts is pure, because it is the purity of our goals which is our strength.”

Today, those words remain as valid as those of James Madison and America’s Founders. 

The battle for democracy in Indonesia is not over. It will require additional struggles, sacrifices, suffering, patience and conviction by the Indonesian people. We, too, may have to struggle for a long time, alongside Indonesia’s own citizens, to help them achieve the sort of liberty, freedom, diversity, security and prosperity that we now enjoy in the United States of America. It is a struggle well worth pursuing.

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United States Ambassador to Indonesia