Indonesia’s Democracy in Reverse

Recent Features


Indonesia’s Democracy in Reverse

Is Indonesian democracy going forward or back? Growing religious intolerance suggests to many the former.

Readers of last Friday's edition of The Australian may have been struck by the juxtaposition between an opinion piece by Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, in which he described Indonesia’s democracy as going ‘from strength to strength’, and the headline on the very next page: ‘SBY urged to back UN on religious violence.’

In the article on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Peter Alford reported that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay had written a ‘firmly worded letter’ to the Indonesian foreign minister expressing concern about violence and discrimination against Indonesian religious minorities. Pillay called for a ‘complete review of national and local laws to ensure they complied with Indonesia's national constitution.’

For many observers of Indonesian politics, the disturbing trend toward greater religious intolerance—culminating both horribly and publicly in the beating to death of three Ahmadiyah members in Cikeusik, West Java in February—represents a retrograde development for Indonesian democracy.

When combined with the apparent inability of the security forces to protect religious minorities, and the adoption of Shariah and discriminatory laws by local and provincial governments (in violation of Indonesia's pluralist Constitution and international treaty obligations, as the United Nations reminded Jakarta), one might wonder what precisely is going on in Indonesia.

As Alford characterised it: ‘Yudhoyono's public efforts have been limited to occasional and unspecific speeches urging tolerance.’ It seems odd the Indonesian government and indeed, the president, aren’t making a more concerted effort to clamp down on religious extremism, given its potential to undermine the government's democratic legitimacy at home and abroad.

Part of the explanation can be found in an interesting Jakarta Globe article published earlier this month, which argued that a group of disgruntled retired military officers are using hard-line Islamist groups to incite violence in order to weaken the president. They are motivated essentially by three factors, according to the article: dislike of Yudhoyono, co-religious sentiment with hard-line Muslims, and financial gain in patronage to Islamist groups.

Why such intense dislike of Yudhoyono? The retired generals are angry because he has failed to provide enough political positions for military officers. Their aim, according to one security analyst quoted, is to destabilise Indonesia, topple the civilian-controlled government and return the country to military rule.

Indonesian politics has always been awash with conspiracy theories and talk of coup plans. Fanciful as some of the claims may seem, what is clear is that the ‘illiberal’ nature of Indonesian democracy is fuelling growing religious intolerance, which if not checked, has the potential to reverse some of the remarkable gains 13 years of democracy have delivered.

(This article is an edited version of an entry that appeared in the Lowy Institute's Interpreter that can be found here.)

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia’s foreign policy.