Indonesia: the long journey to democracy

by Marco Cossu*

There are five main islands which form the Indonesian Archipelagic State: Sumatra, Java and Borneo (belonging to Malaysia in the north-west section), Sulawesi and Irian Jaya, the western part of New Guinea. The island nature is reflected in the cultures of the approximately 300 ethnic groups present: the main group is the Javanese people who represent 36% of the population and they are mainly located on Java, the most densely populated island, where the capital is situated. The complex framework and the territorial fragmentation have not, however, presented a threat to the territorial integrity of Indonesia, with the exception of the independence movements in Aceh, the province on the island of Sumatra, and on the island of Papua. In 2002 the question relating to the former Portuguese colony of East Timor was resolved. After twenty-four years of Indonesian occupation, marked by violent clashes and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council, the eastern part of the island, with a Christian-Catholic majority, gained independence from Jakarta making Dili its new capital. The strategic geographical position and exposure to the dynamics around the North China Sea have had a considerable influence on the history of the archipelago. Traditionally connected to Indian and Chinese influences, the history of modern Indonesia features a close relationship with Europeans. In the Seventeenth Century, the Dutch established control over the region through the Dutch East India Company, establishing themselves, on the one side, over the local kingdoms, by now declining, and, on the other side, over the Portuguese and English colonial ambitions. The Dutch colonial rule continued for more than three centuries, until independence in 1945, except for a period of Japanese occupation during the second world war.

Under the Japanese military occupation, the first Indonesian nationalist unrest was felt, voiced by Ahmed Sukarno. Shortly before the Japanese surrender, Indonesia declared its independence, but had to wait until December 27, 1949 before the occupying troops withdrew and the Dutch colonial forces recognized this independence after hard-fought struggles and negotiations. It was Sukarno, the protagonist of the political scene between ’49 and ’65, to assert himself over a very complex situation, featuring territorial disruption and ethnic distinctions. The path to independence was steered by a harsh regime, interventionist in economic policies, aligned in the context of the Cold War with the “non-aligned” countries. The real leitmotif of Indonesian policy was the strong instability, resolved most times in autocratic turning-points. Later on, an attempted coup against Sukarno by the Communist movement culminated in a military takeover. From that time onwards it was General Suharto who dominated Indonesian politics without a break from 1965 to 1998. However, the fortunate economic decisions were offset by a repressive and corrupt regime. It took until 2004 for Indonesia to begin to be talked about as a democratic country, thanks to the election of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. However, the journey to Indonesian democracy is still a long one: although changes in power take place peacefully, the system is still not mature enough to manage the centrifugal forces and localisms generated by the complex ethnic make-up and the fragmented territorial composition of the archipelago, especially with regard to economic crises. The latest presidential elections were held in 2014 resulting in the appointment of the current president, Joko Widodo.

Islam and religious freedom

Indonesia is the center of attention of international observers because it is the most populous Muslim country in the world. 87% of the population is of the Islamic faith, 10% is Christian and there are Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian minorities. Except for the violent skirmishes in the Maluku Islands between Muslims and Christians between the end of the Nineties and the early 2000’s, the different religious faiths have learned to live in peace, managing to contain conflicts. The presence of several radical Islam fringe movements, linked to the international terrorist network, however, gives cause for concern. Since the era of Sukarno, religious freedom has been a pillar of the country and requests to introduce Islamic Law remain the preserve of a minority political representation.

*Originally published on ABO.net