Indonesia: The Great Transition

By Sulistiyanto, Priyambudi | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Indonesia: The Great Transition


Sulistiyanto, Priyambudi, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Indonesia: The Great Transition. Edited by John Bresnan. New York and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005. Softcover: 318pp.

This book is an ambitious academic volume written by a group of Indonesianists based in the United States. Its editor is John Bresnan, an Indonesia specialist based at Columbia University. The book is aimed at helping all of us to understand the phenomenon of, to use the editor's term, "the great transition" experienced by Indonesia. Using a multi-dimensional approach, it encompasses history, anthropology, politics, economics, and international relations to examine the causes, consequences, complexities and challenges of Indonesia's path to democracy. A range of issues including the process of nation-state building, modernity, political Islam, centralization, regionalism, political parties, military, leadership, economic reform, and globalization are critically examined by the authors. Theoretically, this book does not offer an alternative to the existing approaches to the study of contemporary Indonesian politics/political economy, but it does give us grounded views on Indonesia beyond the views which are often found in the media or are given by "instant" Indonesia experts.

In the prologue, John Bresnan sets out some concerns regarding the lack of understanding about the struggles and the dynamics of Indonesia's historical and political trajectories and the consequent strong need to educate the general public on this very important country. He outlines the magnitude of the problems faced by Indonesia after the fall of Suharto in 1998. He also worries about the ability of leaders in the post-Suharto period to hold the country together in the midst of a seemingly unending series of crises, and he poses questions that are answered by the contributors of this book.

Chapter 1 is about Indonesia at the "big picture" level. It is written by Donald Emmerson from Stanford University who works on Indonesian politics. He examines critically the view that the state has been in total control over the archipelago and its people. He argues that as the process of nation-state building in Indonesia is ongoing, the pursuit of knowing the identity of Indonesia is important. He highlights four important areas of identity that could help us to understand Indonesia (p. 8): spatial Indonesia (physical, social and political lines); centrifugal Indonesia (causes for disintegration); historical Indonesia (from pre-colonial, colonial to post-colonial periods); and personal Indonesia (which can be found among individuals). By integrating these identities into a comprehensive analysis, he argues that events and developments such as the breakaway of East Timor, the struggles in Aceh and Papua, the process of decentralization, and elite rivalries during the post-Suharto period are issues that Indonesia has to face. By saying that we can also expect that anything can happen in Indonesia in the future including the emergence of "new" Indonesia, the one that differs from what we have seen right now. With the rise of localities and of local power combined with the weakening of the centre, the break-up of Indonesia is still possible.

Chapter 2 examines the historical genealogy of religious plurality and social diversity in Indonesia. It is written by Robert Hefner, an anthropologist from Boston University who has researched widely on Islam and modernity in Indonesia. Among his provocative works are Civil Islam, Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (2000) and Remaking Muslim Politics (2005). He argues the importance of acknowledging the religious and social diversities inherited from the past and making them useful in providing "social capital" that can enhance the consolidation of democracy in Indonesia in the future. In doing so, he traces back the inter-religious engagements that helped establish the religious plurality that spread out through the Indonesian archipelago. He also points out that Dutch efforts to contain the spread of Islam in the past not only failed, but created "unintended" consequences which were the expansion of Islamic organizations and religious civic organizations to counter those established by the Dutch (pp. …

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