Democracy in Indonesia

Democracy in Indonesia is still fragile due to ongoing political turmoil that has marred its transition to democracy. The country has moved toward economic development, but the new freedoms brought by democracy are still limited. The general population has not yet voted in a national election. The future of democracy in Indonesia is a question mark, as numerous human rights abuses continue to go unpunished.

Indonesia, officially the Republic of Indonesia, comprises a broad strip of islands in the South Pacific Ocean and Oceania. It contains more than seventeen thousand islands, including Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, Andong, Lanai, West Timor, Palau, East Timor, and the smaller island of Borneo. A decade ago, Indonesia was led to independence after the Second World War. Under the leadership of President Sukarno, who was also a military leader during the war, the new country embarked on a period of rapid economic growth and political progress.

After three decades of full political and economic growth, along with massive US backing, Sukarno decided to attempt a military intervention into East Timor. Although the move sparked a bloody conflict that left thousands dead, Sukarno stood firm against his peers and the rest of the Indonesian military. He made a personal choice to put himself in charge of a civilian body that would re-elect him for a third term as president of Indonesia. The newly empowered military quickly launched a series of abuses against the civilian population, which brought the international community into sharp focus on Indonesia.

In response to widespread democracy in Indonesia, the United States under President Harry Truman and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) started efforts to help ensure democracy in Indonesia. United States Secretary of State John F. Kennedy along with top US military leaders such as General Douglas MacArthur and General George S. Patton introduced the first phase of the United States’ program in Indonesia – helping the military junta defeat the Indonesian National Armed Forces (FARF). The US program called Operation Streamline was designed to provide the Indonesian military with additional training and equipment so that it could defeat the communist parties in the country. Although US assistance did not directly involve any change in the Indonesian constitution, it did push the military towards democracy. This was accompanied by the delivery of American-supplied radios and television sets to the military, which helped spread a sense of democracy throughout the country.

As the military pushed for more control over society, however, public support for democracy eroded as citizens became tired of seeing their president presides over a corrupt and inefficient government. Concerned by this erosion of public faith in the institution of democracy in Indonesia, the Ford administration negotiated an amendment to the Indonesian constitution in response to this unrest. The amended code added a stipulation that when a president had been removed due to the loss of election results, a new presidential commission would be established to choose a president based on universal suffrage. The amendment was passed into law in 1957 and remains a stain on Indonesia’s image to this day. The amended code also required a limit on the number of terms a president could serve before relinquishing power to a new president.

Military coups are not common in Indonesia, but periods of military rule have occurred several times in the past, most notably in Aceh, where a fierce battle between the armed forces and civilians resulted in the ousting of the elected president. After the downfall of the communist party, the military continued to reign as president after an election where there were limited choices for civilian oversight. These circumstances have led to a significant deterioration of political conditions in Indonesia, but the continued support from the United States and other regional governments has enabled the country to make rapid progress toward democracy.