60 Years of Independence

Indonesia's Hard Road to Democracy

The signing of the Aceh peace settlement practically coincides with the 60th anniversary of Indonesia's independence from Dutch colonial rule. Sybille Golte on the country's stony path to democracy

photo: AP
Elections as a democratic rite of passage – an Indonesian voter submits his ballot paper at the Presidential elections in 2004

​​It may have been a coincidence, but the symbolism was plain to see: the peace agreement between Indonesia and its troubled province of Aceh was signed only two days before the nation celebrated its 60th Independence Day.

Unity plus diversity within a multi-ethnic state, religious tolerance and a high standard of living for all: when the charismatic leader Sukarno founded the Indonesian state in 1945, these were the central elements in his political philosophy.

Lack of unity

Today, unity is still lacking, especially on the outer islands of the archipelago, where there are recurrent clashes between rival ethnic and religious groups.

The peace agreement with Aceh, signed in Helsinki, might also provide a template for the solution of such conflicts. If so, then Indonesia could achieve the goals Sukarno aspired to six decades ago, for himself and for his compatriots.

In the long term, a shared colonial past was never going to be more than a weak glue to hold this huge multi-ethnic archipelago together. And although the Indonesian state was founded on the idea that people and religions should live together in peace, that idea has not been filled with life in recent decades.

Misgovernment and nepotism under Suharto

De facto, for the 30 years until the end of the 90s, Indonesia was, a military dictatorship led by General Suharto. It was just one example among many of how developing countries had taken wrong turnings. In the period of East-West conflict, a pro-Western stance had often been often enough to make any dictator an ally.

Under Suharto, Indonesia achieved notoriety as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. A re-settlement programme transferred people from the overcrowded land mass of Java to the outlying islands, thereby laying the foundations for many of the current ethnic conflicts. In the midst of the Asian economic crisis, misgovernment and nepotism accelerated the country's rapid economic decline.

Suharto's democratic heirs are faced with serious difficulties: an administrative apparatus that functions only by means of bribery, a corrupt judiciary, widespread poverty and unsolved ethnic conflicts. Against this explosive background, the 90s had drawn to a close and the process of democratisation begun.

Today, Indonesia is the third-biggest democracy in the world. This is no thanks to its Western partners, who had for years supported the military dictator Suharto; rather, it demonstrates the political maturity of the country's population.

Elections as a democratic rite of passage

Indonesians have recognised the value of democratic structures much more quickly than some of their politicians; and while the reform of state institutions is making only slow progress, the people came through their democratic rite of passage with flying colours during last year's nationwide elections.

At a time when dialogue with the Islamic world is being eclipsed by war and terror, the most populous of Muslim countries is returning to a democratic system based on Western models.

It's a process that demands support, not least because the greed of many international investors (along with the Asian economic crisis) has contributed to the impoverishment of broad swathes of the Indonesian population.

The root causes of most of Indonesia's ethnic conflicts are economic. In Aceh, too, the main issue has been the distribution of the province's natural resources. If the current peace process is nurtured and takes root in other regions, then Indonesia might finally achieve the objectives proclaimed in 1945: the peaceful and prosperous co-existence of its many peoples.

Sybille Golte


Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan


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