What Indonesia Can Teach Sudan
December 13, 2010
Not long before the UN-run popular consultation in East Timor in 1999, an Indonesian general told me that if the East Timorese voted for independence, Indonesia would surely break apart. He cited the centrifugal forces at work that would pull the diverse country to pieces. In effect, East Timor’s departure would set the dominos in motion.
One hears similar sentiments in Khartoum ahead of a planned January 9, 2011, independence referendum in southern Sudan. Such views, if held by senior members of the government, could present an obstacle to the completion of essential agreements between the government and the South to enable the referendum and allow for the peaceful division of resources and assets if the South votes for independence. They could also lead to violence if northern leaders decide they are unwilling to give up the resource-rich South no matter the results of the referendum.
While no two situations are the same, and one makes comparisons between countries at one’s risk, it is possible that Indonesia has useful lessons to teach the Sudanese government. Indeed, Indonesia could play an important role by assisting the Sudanese, especially those in the government, through the difficulties of the upcoming period.
There are similarities between the situations of the two countries that are compelling. A recent report from the CSIS Africa Program sets out the problem in northern attitudes regarding the South and its potential independence. CSIS scholars Richard Downie and Brian Kennedy found a sense of denial in Khartoum and “despondency and gloom.” The “ignorance and lack of empathy” they identified among northerners about southerners led to statements that betrayed “paternalistic attitudes and casual racism.” I found similar attitudes in Indonesia before and in the immediate aftermath of the popular consultation.
In 1999, Indonesia was in the early, tentative stages of a transition to democracy after more than 30 years of military rule. It was slowly recovering from the Asian economic crisis. Rebels in the provinces of Aceh and West Papua were fighting for independence, and confidence was not high. Losing the small, resource-rich territory of East Timor was, in the short run, a terrible blow to Indonesians. The violence after the announcement of the overwhelming vote for independence was caused in part by the unwillingness of some Indonesian authorities to allow the territory to leave unpunished. I saw the devastation in East Timor in the wake of the violence. I lived in Jakarta in the immediate aftermath of the vote and felt the anguish and uncertainty of that period.
The decade that followed was not easy for Indonesia. Over that time, a president was impeached and the country was hit by terrorist attacks, a tsunami, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. In 1999, Indonesia held its first free elections since 1955. Legislative elections occurred before the East Timorese vote and presidential elections immediately after. Throughout the years that followed, despite these natural and man-made setbacks, and with fits and starts, Indonesians continued to strengthen their democracy. Power shifted back and forth among parties, and presidents voluntarily left office, all through constitutional means. Indonesian civil society and voters held political leaders accountable, turning out those who did not deliver. Identifying the factors that led to Indonesia’s successful transition is not an easy matter. Democracy is not a magic bullet for all problems. It is, however, possible to see that Indonesia moved on after the East Timorese opted for independence and focused on pressing internal issues rather than dwelling on the past.
Looking back, the Indonesian generals’ fears were misplaced. Since 1999, the country has secured its democracy and grown its economy at a rapid rate. The global economic crisis has been a mere speed bump for the hot Indonesian economy. The armed conflict in Aceh has been resolved by a peace agreement that provides a special status for the territory.
Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest country by population and the largest Muslim-majority country. Its size and economic success place it among a small group of emerging powers. With the largest economy in Southeast Asia, it is increasingly a major player in the region. Indonesia is the next chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the next East Asia Summit, and it will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in 2013. It will be interesting to see how it uses its rising influence in those forums.
Indonesia’s growing clout positions it well to help Sudan. And, because it is not in the region and does not have deep entrenched interests in Sudan, it can play a relatively disinterested role. Indonesia has contributed significantly to the peacekeeping missions in Sudan by providing troops and police both to the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) and the African Union/UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). Perhaps it is time for Indonesia to play a quiet diplomatic role as well.
Mark Quarterman is senior adviser and director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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