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Some real good news

July 19th, 2005

If we’re looking for good news from the Islamic world, as most of us are, can I suggest that the best place to look just now is right next door in Indonesia[1]. The Indonesian government has just signed a peace agreement with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). There’s plenty more to be done, and such agreements have failed before, but the chances this time look better than ever, as GAM has finally abandoned its demand for independence and the central government seems willing, for the first time, to concede real autonomy.

Regardless of whether this agreement holds, Indonesia’s successes since Suharto resigned have been simply amazing. At that time the economy was in a mess, there had been decades of brutal dictatorship, the army was involved mainly in domestic repression and deeply entangled in both politics and business, East Timor was still resisting occupation, Muslims and Christians were engaged in communal fighting, encouraged by sinister interests within the state and terrorist groups like JI and Laskar Jihad operated more or less openly. The odds of coming through this without some sort of crisis, or worse, seemed slim.

In the subsequent seven years, there have been four peaceful changes of government, each of them (in my view) an improvement. The army is out of parliament, and increasingly confined to its appropriate role in national defense, Timor is an independent, and friendly, neighbour, Laskar Jihad has disbanded, and JI has been largely broken up, with many of those involved in terror crimes now facing death or lengthy terms of imprisonment. Communal fighting in places like Ambon has stopped almost completely, and even long-running struggles like that in Aceh seem to be on the brink of peaceful resolution. The economy is still problematic, but it seems to be on the mend.

Things aren’t perfect of course, and in a democratic society that fact can’t be concealed behind a mask of official propaganda as it was in the Suharto years. But if everything in the world was going as well things have gone in Indonesia lately, we wouldn’t have too much to worry about.

fn1. Mark Bahnisch points to more good news here

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  1. Factory
    July 19th, 2005 at 23:06 | #1

    “If we’re looking for good news from the Islamic world”
    Hmm is it really meaningful to think of part of the “Islamic world”? Not that Indonesia is insufficiently muslim, but as a country it seems more useful to look it as an SE asian country, rather than a Muslim country. In the same way that it would be more enlightening to think of europe, america and australia as ‘western’ countries, rather than as ‘christian’ countries.

    Particularly since you could apply many of the same observations about other SE asian countries with little change needed.

  2. July 19th, 2005 at 23:52 | #2

    I don’t want to sound too starry-eyed, but I agree that in the circumstances, Indonesia’s progress with the democracy thing has been very impressive to date. There’s still a long way to go with reforming the military, as well as tackling corruption and poverty (and I still don’t like how West Papua is looking) but given where they’ve come from, you’re description of ‘amazing’ seems quite apt.

    When I was there for a couple of days recently – [url]http://andrewbartlettonline.blogspot.com/2005/06/more-impressions-of-aceh-beyond.html [/url] – some of the things I saw I frankly felt we should be learning from.

    For example, while their press is fairly feral at times, the diversity of their media puts us to shame. I also saw an article while I was there in the Jakarta Post complaining that their version of the Press Council was requring them to publish a correction in a similar location and of similar size to the original erroneous article! If only that could apply here.

    As another example, whilst the lack of clearly distinguishing philosophies in their political parties has its drawbacks, their Parliament is clearly stronger than what ours has become (something that is probably seen as a hinderance to ‘strong government’ by the Australian press gallery). Notice the recent controversy over the possibility of their Parliamentary Committee being able to block the ambassadorial appointment of another country (i.e. Bill Farmer). In Australia, our Parliament doesn’t even have any power over appointments of our own Government, or treaties they decide to ratify, let alone appointments from foreign governments.

    And even with the controversy over whether the rebuilding is happening quickly enough in Aceh (an overstated concern in my view) – frankly, we haven’t even finished some things from the Canberra bushfires from two or three years ago. I wonder how we’d go with rebuilding after a disaster of tsunami magnitude. In the end we did fairly well with Darwin after Tracey in 1974, but my understanding is that there were more than a few hiccoughs along the way.

    There’s plenty of problems and pitfalls still there, but I don’t think we can be too condescending about their democracy or too complacent about ours.

  3. July 20th, 2005 at 03:54 | #3

    Ultimately Australian prosperity will come through Indonesian prosperity. Their strides toward a democratic market economy is remarkable, especially with the changes they have managed in six short years since contagion became the irritant cause to throw out a repugnant dictator. Many of the remaining issues in Indonesia come from the persistent ills of the Suharto regime that they are still flushing from their system. For instance the commission into Munir Said Thalib was really about asserting civil control over the BIN.

    Terrorism for Australia is a foreign policy issue as Indonesia is taking our hits for us. They have handled it with more dignity, effectiveness and success than we have in our expeditionary wars in the Middle East. The difference being that Indonesia has treated terror as a civil issue while we have gone after it as a military problem. We were wrong to pursue it in that manner, Indonesia was correct.

    Australia should be courting Indonesia with a genuine Free Trade Agreement. We have complementary economies and Australian economic prosperity can advance Indonesian prosperity and vice versa. We also need another nation, heavilyh into manufacturing to take our commodities to keep the Australian economy hot. Indonesia is well placed to be that nation as it continues its growth.

    Australia and Indonesia will be two economically powerful democratic nations in the South Pacific with shared regional political, economic, security, stability and defence interests. That should give Australia the impetus to kick its cancerous anglosphere habit.

  4. stephen bartos
    July 20th, 2005 at 11:18 | #4

    The islamic world is a large and diverse one, with a number of success stories like this. Which makes US congressman Tancredo’s proposition that the US should “take out” Mecca in the event of a terrorist attack on the US all the more incredible (reported fairly widely and also blogged on extensively in the US, but rating not much of a mention in Australian media). Where a country like Indonesia is trying to make progress, and succeeding, but has a small minority of hard line extremists, this sort of comment only inflames the latter.

    PS Factory, your comment would be more accurate if you excluded america (by which I take it you mean the USA) because the US has always considered itself a christian country, and certainly in public statements by their current president is strongly portrayed as such.

  5. July 20th, 2005 at 16:42 | #5

    “…progress with the democracy thing…”

    But that’s precisely what’s wrong with all this analysis. It isn’t testing whether things are any good at all, only whether agreement has been reached, democracy (so called) is being indulged in, and so on.

    It is entirely possible for all those things to be used as mere wall paper to camouflage existing or even deteriorating evils. So the test should always be, is that what’s happening or are things truly getting better?

    For instance, are the Aceh developments any more beneficial than the truce in the last days of the Palestinian Mandate? Or is one or the other side trying to move into a better position? And even if both are acting in good faith, will that merely be at the expense of continuing exploitation of the locals while the Animal Farm pigs merge with the men? And, to the extent all really is well, are the signatories merely cutting their own throats like so many free staters?

    It’s just far too early to call any of this progress, and these are the wrong tests of improvement anyway.

  6. jquiggin
    July 20th, 2005 at 17:08 | #6

    PML, you’re always making this point or something like it, and I can never follow it. Do you have some sort of alternative criterion of improvement in mind that you can point to?

  7. Andrew Reynolds
    July 20th, 2005 at 21:26 | #7

    PML,
    At the risk of going off-topic, could you also please let us know what you mean by ‘free staters’? Do you mean this mob? If, so why are they cutting their own throats?

    Back on topic, having been (partly) brought up in Suharto’s Indonesia it is good to see what is happening there. Being an expat we were heavily sheltered but the corruption was clear, even to a child. Seeing my mother arguing with a policeman who was threatening her with imprisonment while holding out his hand in broad daylight scared the hell out of me – particularly as he had an SMG over his shoulder.
    While I do not think that corruption will be driven out of Indonesia in my life time (if ever) a free press and improving institutions are the only way to reduce it.

    Sorry, PML, but things are truly getting better.

  8. July 21st, 2005 at 13:53 | #8

    I will clearly have to do a full and hopefully clear statement. If I rush it will obviously not get the point across, which is obviously what I’ve got wrong so far.

    But I will mention that the free staters were the likes of Michael Collins who signed their own death warrants by signing a treaty over Ireland. That particular example as meant to clarify that getting a commitment might only be a case of detaching the leadership from its constituency, with more harm than good done after all. It’s what “moderate” Palestinians face all the time, and that Israelis know full well they are pushing for.

  9. July 21st, 2005 at 20:48 | #9

    Indonesia is a good example of how the development of democracy is best fostered from within a nation rather than having it imposed by force.

  10. July 21st, 2005 at 20:50 | #10

    I’d also like to draw people’s attention to an excellent blog I’ve recently discovered by an Australian Muslim feminist who regularly posts on good news from Islam.

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