An Indonesian Future: Overcoming the Challenges of an Islamic Democracy: Aguswandi Is an Indonesian Post-Conflict Advisor and a Senior Program Officer for the Aceh Peace Resource Center. He Is Also a Human Rights Advocate and a Former Leader of the Aceh People's Party

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When Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is widely known by his initials (SBY), addressed a prestigious audience gathered at the Harvard Kennedy School Forum in September 2009, he confidently asserted his country's place in the world. At Harvard, one of the world's most respected universities, SBY wanted to reply to President Obama's June 2009 speech at Cairo University, the oldest university in the Middle East. Aides close to the Indonesian President confided that SBY himself had revised the speech a dozen times leading up to the event, trying to find the appropriate tone and narrative. He thought it very important that Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world and the place where the US president had spent his childhood, answer Obama's challenge.


SBY went beyond Obama's call for a new beginning and outlined a nine-point plan to "reinvent a new world" and create harmony among civilizations. Leading with pervasive hope and optimism is a significant step forward for Indonesia. The weight SBY gave his speech is a sign of Indonesia's perception of itself as a rising power and the acceptance, if not enthusiasm, of its role in relieving tensions between the West and Islam. This faith is not misplaced. After all, Indonesia is a Muslim country that exercises democracy; it has not only survived the global economic downturn, but it also continues to grow unperturbed. Expecting the country to gain in influence, optimists position Indonesia next in line to rise after China and India and further predict it to join the group of Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC), the club of leading emerging economies.

The Rocky Road to Democracy

Indonesia's confidence on the international stage is buoyed by its internal economic, social, and political accomplishments. These feats were unimaginable 12 years ago when the country was in turmoil and on the brink of collapse.

In 1999 some analysts were even speculating about a balkanization of Indonesia, fearing that the referendum that led to East Timorese independence would catalyze a domino effect. National unity was very fragile at that time, stretched to its limits over an archipelago of approximately 17,000 islands and encompassing 300 local languages and identities. In other parts of the country, especially in Aceh and Papua, the central government violently suppressed separatist movements that vocalized their right for self-rule. Ethnic conflicts were erupting in Maluccu, in Kalimantan, and even in some parts of Java. The early years of the 21st century were among the most challenging of Indonesia's struggles to maintain unity since its independence from the Dutch.

The economy was fragile and unable to absorb the shock of the Asian financial meltdown of 1997. There were heavy job losses and high unemployment, which fueled further resentment among domestic populations. Pro-democracy movements brought an end to the dictatorship, but the celebration was cut short as uncertainty ensued and corruption spread, from the central government to local officials in farflung districts and provinces. Indonesians quipped at the time that it was the end of the big Soeharto but only the beginning of many small Soehartos throughout the country.

Processes of reform stalled, and the new model of democracy failed to deliver significant developments and economic progress. Even neighboring countries mocked Indonesia's exercise in democracy. Singapore, in preserving the legitimacy of its own less democratic system, jibed that Indonesians may have democracy but they cannot eat. People began to doubt democracy was the answer.

From this period of uncertainty, Indonesia has stabilized and grown in strength, surprising political commentators. The Economist declared a golden age for Indonesia in international relations in early 2009, noting that the country enjoys good terms with all nations. …