21 August 2011

Indonesia risks downgrade of its democratic rating

Endy M. Bayuni*, Jakarta Post
Unbeknown to many in Indonesia, international public opinion of their country has taken a turn for the worse this past month following a series of media reports that could just lead to a downgrade of its credentials as the third-largest democracy in the world.

While it never exactly enjoyed a “Triple A” rating for its democratic standing, Indonesia has come 
a long way since the demise of the Soeharto dictatorship in 1998 to earn its place among democratic nations. 

Not only today is it recognized as the largest democracy in the world after India and the United States, Indonesia has also come to be described as the largest democracy among Muslim-majority nations.

That view, however, may have been shattered by two recent reports on Indonesia: The ridiculously light sentences meted by a court against the murderous perpetrators of a mob attack on followers of Ahmadiyah, a religious sect that mainstream Muslims in Indonesia have denounced as heretic; and the ongoing violence in Papua that has led to 24 deaths of civilians and security officers, and Jakarta’s poor handling of the independence aspirations in the easternmost province. 

Both stories were not only widely reported in the international media, but provoked unusual though not unexpected reactions from foreign governments and parliaments, in addition to the usually vocal human rights organizations.

On the Ahmadiyah case in which 12 men received prison terms ranging between three and six months, the European Union delegation in Jakarta called on the government to do more to protect religious minorities. 

The UK parliament carried a motion urging Indonesia to abide by its commitment to freedom of religion. 

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US was disappointed by the “proportionally light sentences”. 

On Papua, human rights groups urged US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to raise the issue during her visit to Indonesia at the end of July.

While reaffirming US support for Indonesia’s sovereignty over both Papua and West Papua, she called on her Indonesian hosts to hold an open dialogue with representatives of Papua. 

The US State Department says Papua, including the observation of human rights there, is a matter of importance for US and Indonesian bilateral relations.

Papua’s independence aspira-tions received a big boost early this month with the convening of the International Lawyers for West Papua in Oxford University in the UK. 

In Jakarta and major Papuan towns, demonstrations were held simultaneously to support the Oxford conference and the call for a referendum of self-determination in Papua.

This barrage of “negative” news in the international media runs counter to the staple of positive publicity Indonesia seems to have enjoyed in recent years for its stable and functioning democracy, and impressive economic growth.

The recent events, and most importantly the way Indonesia is handling them, may have just downgraded the country to a dysfunctional democracy. 

The country today is increasingly looking like the Indonesia of the Soeharto era, a pariah state that systematically violated the basic rights of its own people, or failed in its task to protect the rights of certain groups, particularly minorities.

Having championed democracy and human rights in many regional and international fora these past few years, Indonesia has suddenly switched to defensive mode. It even sounded chauvinistic, reminiscent of the Soeharto regime. 

On the Ahmadiyah court ruling, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the government must respect the independence of the judiciary process and added that religious intolerance was not only seen in Indonesia. 

In an interview with the US TV talk show program Charlie Rose in April, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said that while Indonesia’s Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, as President he had to pay attention to the feelings of the Muslim majority.

On Papua, many members of the House of Representatives reacted strongly to the Oxford forum, stressing that a referendum was completely out of the question and then urged the government to summon the British ambassador for allowing the conference to take place in the first place. 

The same House members had been silent all along when the violence and abuses were taking place in Papua and were widely reported by the local media.

The Ahmadiyah verdict and the Papua violence may now weaken Indonesia’s voice and moral persuasion whenever it speaks on human rights and democracy.

As an emerging democracy, Indonesia has been a forceful speaker on democracy and human rights in ASEAN, and this was most particularly visible during the write up of the ASEAN Charter and the creation of the ASEAN Human Rights Body. 

Indonesia has also won international accolades for holding the annual Bali Democracy Forum and for taking initiatives in launching interfaith dialogues in the region and the world. 

Indonesia has also been suggested as a possible model for other Muslim-majority nations aspiring to become democracies after this year’s Arab Spring, including Egypt.

The Indonesian House of Representatives has been among the most vocal critics of Myanmar’s human rights records and has not shied away from recommending its expulsion from ASEAN. 

But if Indonesia is now no longer walking the talk, it loses all credibility in whatever it says on democracy and human rights.

While the world was not blind to the pending human rights problems besetting Indonesia all these years, it was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, assuming that nascent democracy was resolving these issues, and granted Indonesia the status of a democratic nation. That view of Indonesia may be changing soon, if it has not happened already. 

It remains to be seen whether the downgrading of Indonesia’s democratic standing in the world public opinion court will affect its economic standing, which is on the rise and is expected to soon receive “investment grade” from international rating agencies. 

But as far as its work on democracy and human rights is concerned, it looks like Indonesia has to go back to the drawing board.

*The writer is a senior editor of The Jakarta Post and currentlya visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Washington.

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