Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Between Democracy and Chaos: Indonesia at a Crossroads

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Between Democracy and Chaos: Indonesia at a Crossroads

Article excerpt

Our presence in the Asia-Pacific permits us to engage in South-east Asia through military exercises as well as the native communities. In Indonesia, we interact with the armed forces in command post/field exercises and occasionally in limited civil action projects that further support the legitimacy of the local and national authorities. However, as we execute these yearly commitments in this strategically imperative nation, which occupies some of the most important gateways of global trade, unrest and instability grow.


Indonesia is the largest archipelagic nation in the world, consisting of more than 15,000 islands that are home to 6 major religious groups, 300 ethnicities, and over 700 linguistic communities. Indonesia is also home to the largest Muslim population in the world, with a substantial majority following the Sunni tradition. Since 1945, Indonesia has experienced rapid and successful economic, political, and social development, which has led its economy to become the largest in Southeast Asia. This transformation led to the resignation of a ruthless dictatorship in 1998 and further established Indonesia as today's successful and only liberal democracy in Southeast Asia as well as the only regional member of the G-20. As a result of these milestones, the country has been commended as a role model and possible conduit for peace and democracy for fellow Muslim nations and the region. Unfortunately, the successes of this young democracy have had a high price, as years of bloodshed and the near balkanization at the turn of the century have shown.

Indonesia's postdictatorship transition was marred with economic turbulence in the aftermath of the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997, which fueled the 1998-2002 ethno-religious communal conflicts resulting in nationwide carnage. Since then, several government actions led to the recovery of the Indonesian economy, enforced the peace between warring factions, and strengthened the democracy.

However, Indonesia is experiencing a new rise of violence as its traditional terrorist organizations such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) continue to weaken and disappear. This terrorist activity is not receiving the same degree of international media coverage as the Jakarta and Bali bombings (2002-2009), although it presents a new and greater danger to national and regional stability. In fact, aspects of this new trend are more deeply rooted in the historical phenomena of this archipelagic nation. As the United States pays closer attention to the events of the Arab Spring, while winding down the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, this vital portion of world is slowly slipping into instability.

Can our regional engagements support the stability and security of Indonesia and further secure global trade in its national waters? Can we provide these forces with the tools to prevent another nationwide ethno-religious conflict? Are we sharing lessons from our nation's reconstruction experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq? Can we further enhance our bilateral engagements with civil-military training from which we can both prosper?

This article discusses this emerging threat in Indonesia, as well as its potential catastrophic effects in the Asia-Pacific and the world. To present my argument, I follow historical examples of Indonesia's social behavior of the colonial period and recent past and compare them with more recent events. Furthermore, I propose several ways that our expeditionary forces and interdepartmental efforts could mitigate these rising challenges and support a continuum of democracy in this vital part of the globe.

A Modern and Liberal Democracy

Indonesia emerged as a flourishing and modern democracy shortly after the end of President Suharto's dictatorship (1967-1998). Unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, and unlike the more recent turbulence in the Arab Spring nations, this was a swift transfer of power that led to peaceful and free elections in 1999. …

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