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By Theodore Friend

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Ronald Palmer, on Indonesian Politics and the Military, 1997-1999, in From Repression to Reform?:
"While Indonesia is nominally a democracy — indeed the third largest democracy in the world — it is still in the grip of forces of repression that will make the process of further far-ranging change very difficult."

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A coherent and delimited mission for the armed forces is only one of the areas of reform in which we must hope Indonesians will work out their own future. Reattracting capital and regenerating first rate business momentum in a fresh transparent environment could take five years. Business, when faced with necessity, actually seems to modernize its practices faster than other institutions. Reforming and professionalizing the army could be achieved in five to ten years. Recovering lost ground in education and achieving new plateaus of learning and skill could be done in ten to fifteen years. Rescuing the court system from corruption, and nourishing rule of law, could reach significant effectiveness in fifteen years, or at best ten. If Indonesia with leadership, luck, and patience can achieve substantial progress by sustained effort in these tasks, its fifth successive democratic election in 2019 could see it standing proud among the world’s democracies. With synergy among all enterprises mentioned, that goal could be achieved by its fourth, or even third, such election.


Example is the best advice. America, if it is true to itself as a federal republic, an open society under the rule of law, with competitive enterprise and transparent procedures, will continue to have a magnetic power of attraction in Indonesian national behavior.

I believe we should recognize that our major interests there are few and simple. One is ideals; they can be summarized in the thought that both freedom and development advance fastest when they are allowed to be mutually reinforcing. The other is concrete: it can be summarized in the fact that no hostile technology or power can soon make the strait of Malacca as danger-fraught as the strait of Taiwan. The sea lanes through Indonesia stand for our geostrategic interest there, especially the flow of oil to allies in Japan and Korea. With these factors in mind, we must quietly help Indonesia to realize a reformed political economy that will allow it both to fulfill its democratic dream and to resume its role as the center of gravity in a reorganized ASEAN.

In what ways may we help?

  1. Explicitly support the values that the reform government represents. Nourish Gus Dur as the elected leader with moral support, without overpersonalizing the relationship.

  2. Endorse what I understand to be a proposed expansion of the AID budget for Indonesia, still at a modest level, but intended to bolster legal reform, local democracy and civil society projects.

  3. Support IMF and World Bank projects, for their invaluable multilateral aid toward Indonesia recovery, in confidence that criticisms since the onset of the Asian crisis have strengthened discipline in the administration of both.

  4. Reinstitute IMET and JCET programs for advanced education of Indonesian military in the United States. Punishing a past administration does not help the present one. Breaking such ties does nothing to advance the reform movement within the military. The current free press in Indonesia was launched by a retired general as Minister of Information who learned Jeffersonian principles at Fort Benning.

  5. Encourage public and private foundations to form consortia as was done for Eastern Central Europe after the Berlin Wall fell. Now that the Suharto walls have fallen, American foundations should cooperate further for:

    1. support of community recovery programs;
    2. initiatives in educational renewal at all levels;
    3. scholarships for Indonesian students now in, or wishing to come to the U.S.;
    4. special programs by media foundations in the disciplines and limitations of a free press; and,
    5. special programs by bar associations and legal institutes to advance the capacities of young Indonesians in law, procedure, and regulation.

  6. Stand fast in the whole Southwest Pacific. Pull away no military assets. Remain what Lee Kuan Yew asked us to be many years ago, “the sheriff of the Pacific.” Recognize that Islamists in Southern Malaysia are expressing sympathy with arms and money to separatists in Aceh. Tactical moves and occasional statements by China suggest that it might like to be a neighborhood posse-leader. Realize that the whole region may be more like our own “Wild West” than it was twenty years ago. Be prepared for restrained action if necessary.  


Published with the permission of FPRI, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684.

Theodore Friend, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is currently writing a book on the history of Indonesia.


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