(Note: This article was written before United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Indonesia was postponed until June)
DENPASAR, Bali – Indonesia remains one of the world’s greatest stories never told. United States President Barack Obama’s visit from March 23 to 25 to the country where he spent four years – as schoolboy Barry Soetoro with an Indonesian stepfather – provides an opportunity to enlighten Americans about this sprawling archipelago that has emerged as the world’s third-largest democracy.
Indonesia is at times referred to as the world’s largest Muslim country; by law it’s a secular country with the world’s largest Muslim population. Indonesia’s overwhelmingly Muslim founders who won independence from the Dutch after World War II made a conscious decision not to create an Islamic state and chose as the national motto “Unity in Diversity” rather than “In Allah We Trust”.
Those founders understood realities about Indonesia that the US must grasp today if it is to build stronger bilateral ties. For nearly half a century, US relations with Indonesia were based on Indonesia’s position on key shipping routes between East and West, a position that has brought traders to these islands for centuries.
The US view was transformed by Cold War geopolitics that designated Indonesia as a potential key domino with human and natural resources coveted by both sides of the ideological struggle. The anti-communist imperative crumbled along with the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the US Congress in subsequent years restricted military aid in response to a lengthening list of armed forces atrocities and political repression.
Big picture, wrong frame
For nearly a decade, America has looked at its relationship with Indonesia through the lens of anti-terrorism. Like its anti-communist predecessor, the focus on anti-terrorism tries to squeeze bilateral ties into a US frame that doesn’t necessary fit. Creating a mutually beneficial relationship that meets the strategic interests of both sides requires better US understanding of all that Indonesia is, and all that it needs.
Indonesia’s 17,000 islands, where 700 languages are spoken by hundreds of ethnic groups, sprawl across more than 3,200 miles (5,120 kilometers). At the western extreme in Aceh women are covered from head to foot in accordance with local interpretations of Islamic law.
At its eastern extreme in Papua, animist tribesmen armed with bows and clothed only in penis gourds hunt wild pig. An estimated 40 million Indonesians subsist on less than US$2 a day. Muslims comprise 86%, or about 198 million of Indonesia’s estimated 230 million people. That leaves 32 million non-Muslims, larger than the entire population of Iraq.
Two million to one
The size of its minority population indicates that Indonesia is huge both demographically and geographically. “I’ve been assured only one percent of Indonesians are violent extremists,” former US ambassador to Indonesia, Ralph “Skip” Boyce, used to say. “So there are just two million people trying to kill me.” He was only half-kidding.
Indonesia is democratic, albeit recently so, after more than half a century under different forms of one-man rule. Founding father Sukarno instituted what he termed “guided democracy”, a system that had all the trappings of democracy but none of the substance. General Suharto took over in a 1965 coup that led to more than three decades of authoritarian rule that also featured carefully controlled elections with pre-determined outcomes and a rubber-stamp legislature. Suhatro’s anti-communist, investor friendly, military dictatorship fitted the US model of “our SOB”.
Today’s Indonesia has lived up to the demands of the reformasi movement that led to Suharto’s resignation in 1998 and is arguably now the most authentic democracy in Southeast Asia. It has succeeded in the ultimate test – a lawful transition of power to an opposing political camp – three times since 1999.
In 2004 and again last year, Indonesians elected their president by direct popular vote, a more democratic system than even the US uses. The next milestone will come in 2014, when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono completes his second term and legally cannot run for re-election, according to the revised, post-Suharto constitution. There is little doubt that Yudhoyono, who studied in the US, will comply.
The downside of Indonesian democracy is that it has given legitimacy to calls for imposing Islamic law since Muslims are the country’s overwhelming majority. However, democracy has also shown that Islamic parties attract only minority support. In 2004, they attracted an all-time high 38% of the vote, thanks to the rise of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamist party that ran on an anti-corruption platform.
PKS also benefited from disaffection with the erstwhile reformist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), whose leader Megawati Sukarnoputri played along with corruption as president. But in 2009, amid a rising tide of attempts to impose sharia law locally, Islamic parties’ vote total fell to 29%. The 1945 decision to establish a secular rather than religious state seems to have been the right one for the vast majority of Indonesians.
A couple with history
Indonesia’s history with the US is less clear-cut. The US is still widely suspected of aiding Suharto’s takeover in 1965 as Sukarno became more openly aligned with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as a counterweight to Muslim groups and the military, and strengthened ties to China and the Soviet Union.
Up to 500,000 people were killed in the post-takeover purge of PKI supporters that the military and Muslim hit squads turned into a national bloodletting. American support to Suharto, including close links and generous military aid, went on for decades without questions about increasing political suppression. In 1975, US-procured weapons were crucial to Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor.
On the commercial front, US companies are currently behind two of the highest-profile foreign investments in Indonesia: Freeport McMoran’s massive gold and copper mine in West Papua and ExxonMobil’s drilling in the Arun gas field in Aceh. These projects have relied heavily on cooperation with security forces and unsavory elements of the government. Many Indonesians consider the projects exploitative examples of US imperialism.
More recently, the US focus on fighting terrorism has alienated many Indonesians. The overwhelming majority of Indonesians – former ambassador Boyce’s 99% – don’t like terrorism any more than Americans do, particularly when it takes place on their home turf and victimizes Indonesians. But they also resent outside intrusion into their affairs and any perceived assault on their sovereignty.
US (and Australian) attention to radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the alleged spiritual leader of local terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, has elevated his status and influence beyond his Islamic school in remote central Java. Meanwhile, the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have created local perceptions that America is fighting a war against Islam.
Despite all of these grievances, Indonesians have generally remained positive about the US. According to a Pew Research survey of global attitudes, favorable impressions of the US among Indonesians fell to an all-time low of 15% in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq, but rebounded to nearly 80% following the US aid given to Aceh after the 2004 tsunami.
But in Indonesia, even that lofty approval rating leaves close to 50 million people with anti-American feelings. Now with former Jakarta resident Barack Obama in the White House it gives the US an opening to make a new start.
To make it work, the US needs to emphasize soft power. The Obama adminsitration has begun with expanding academic exchanges and bringing back the Peace Corps after a 44-year absence as English teachers in schools. But the needs go far beyond the classroom.
One soft power priority could be assistance in reforming the judiciary. Dishonest judges, police and prosecutors are not only a source of distrust of government among Indonesians, but also discourage the foreign investment Indonesia needs to build modern infrastructure and realize its vast economic potential.
The interests of Americans and Indonesians converge on developing a nation that’s less poor and more equitable, with a government that’s less exploitative and more responsive. That means assistance in keeping Indonesia on a democratic path, avoiding the backward slips of its neighbors in Thailand and the Philippines and preventing the archipelago from becoming a breeding ground for violent extremism.
It’s a tall order, but arguably the right leaders for the job are now in place in both Washington and Jakarta.
Longtime editor of investor rights advocate eRaider.com, Gary LaMoshi has written for Slate and Salon.com and works as an adviser to Writing Camp. He first visited Indonesia in 1994 and has tracked its progress ever since.