FOR a quick insight into Indonesia’s ambitions of exerting regional power and global influence, visit Bali in December when the luxury beach resort morphs into an animated hub of discussion and debate on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Delegates to the Bali Democracy Forum are a motley crew: the meeting held recently brought together representatives from over 80 countries and hundreds of observers. The conference’s title ‘Enhancing Democratic Participation in a Changing World: Responding to Democratic Voices’ may not be catchy and some speeches were tedious. But the message from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono remains unequivocal: Asian countries must match their economic success with democracy and political reform.
The focus this year was inevitably on the Arab Spring. The Indonesian president warned that based on his country’s experience, there were no quick fixes. “It is safe to assume that in the early years, things will be more difficult before it gets better … Democratic success has to be built, earned and improvised every step of the way. Indeed, elections are only one of the tools of democracy and building a mature democracy takes a lot more than holding elections.”
Launched in 2008 to encourage discussion and exchange of views on democracy among Asian countries, annual meetings of the Bali Democracy Forum have become a potent exercise in Indonesian public diplomacy.
The Forum has grown in credibility and prestige over the years, spotlighting Indonesia’s democratic record since the fall of president Suharto in 1998, and the country’s increasingly vocal and visible aspirations to become Asia’s prime normative power and champion of political reform and democracy.
The message from Jakarta is strong and clear: Indonesia matters — in both Southeast Asian and on the global stage. The country’s new breed of gutsy and self-confident politicians and diplomats are breaking with the cautious approach of past administrations by working hard to give Indonesia a stronger regional and international voice.
Indonesia’s transformation from dictatorship to a modern and robust democracy in the past decade is no modest achievement — and through the annual meetings in Bali, Indonesia wants to spread the gospel of democracy.
Indonesia’s foreign policy ambitions are not new. The country has long been active on the regional and international foreign and security policy stage. However, President Yudhoyono, now serving his second and final term in office, has given a new boost to the reputation of Southeast Asia’s largest economy and most populous nation, successfully portraying it as one of Asia’s most exciting countries with constructive contributions to make. Helped by men like former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda, Indonesian diplomacy is now in full gear, its officials no longer content to watch from the sidelines as regional and world leaders step up engagement with China and India.
Mr Wirajuda, a gentle and affable man, tells me in Bali that Indonesia wants to share its experience with Arab countries in transition. “We can learn from each other’s mistakes,” he says. The focus has to be on social justice, on fighting corruption on not allowing a monopoly of power. “Governments have to be sensitive to the aspirations of the people,” he underlines.
Significantly, Turkey was also present at the Bali meeting.
Still, in the last few years, Indonesia has taken its place in the G20, become a force to be reckoned with in Asean and adopted a moderating role within the OIC. Jakarta’s efforts at fighting terrorism and radicalisation are watched carefully by its neighbours as well as the United States and the European Union.
Long-term prospects are bright. Indonesia’s economic growth rates — expected to remain around the six per cent mark in the near future — continue to impress. Demographics are excellent; 44 per cent of its population is under 24, meaning a growing workforce in years to come. Basic literacy rates are at 90 per cent (although education still needs a lot of investment). The country is resource-rich. It’s a major exporter of soft commodities such as palm oil, cocoa and coffee, as well as coal.
But it’s not just a geared play on commodities. The economy is mostly driven by domestic demand, with consumption accounting for around 60 per cent of GDP. Indonesia is also strategically located: half of world trade passes by its northern maritime border, giving the country a strategic role in ensuring safe and secure international navigation.
Small wonder then that US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Wen Jiabao, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard are among leaders who have recently trod the red carpet in Jakarta. The US and Australia are seeking to sign ambitious cooperation pacts aimed at enhancing ties with Indonesia, clearly seeing the country as a counterweight to China’s growing influence in the region. As the driving force behind many Asian regional integration initiatives, Indonesia is often held up as an example to be followed by neighbouring Myanmar, a role that Jakarta does not shun.
To fulfil its regional and global ambitions, however, Indonesia will have to put its domestic house in order. Indonesians tell me the country remains riddled by corruption and religious extremism is still a problem. Few doubt that Indonesia needs to make faster progress in addressing issues like freedom of expression, military reform, police brutality (especially in Papua), treatment in prisons and of minorities.
“We remain vigilant as Indonesia is not totally free from the prospect of new communal conflicts flaring up,” the Indonesian president told delegates at the Bali Forum, adding: “The more we guarantee human rights for our citizens, the more durable our democracy will become.” It is a lesson for many countries, not just those living through the so-called Arab Spring.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.