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Indonesia on the Rise: Is It a Model for New Democracies?

July 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Indonesia is an evolving, prospering democracy, but the country continues to struggle with corruption and economic inequality. Ray Suarez reports.
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RAY SUAREZ: Two hundred forty million people living on 6,000 islands strung along the equator. An old, complex culture melding influences from across Asia.

They belong to hundreds of ethnic groups, speak hundreds of languages and make up the largest Muslim population of any country in the world.

After years of fast economic growth, Indonesia now has one of the 20 largest economies in the world. But think, how often does this huge, dazzlingly diverse, increasingly wealthy place break through onto the world’s news agenda?

Not often.

There have been terrorist bombings of western-related targets, hotels in the capital Jakarta, and on the island of Bali. The tsunami in the western province of Aceh, and in the 1990s, rising resistance to the decades-long rule of Suharto, whose departure paved the way for democracy, and reform.

In fact, many people now point to Indonesia as a model for Egypt as it tries to move from dictatorship to democracy.

RIZAL MALLARANGENG, political reformer with the Freedom Institute: It is some kind of experiment. Is it possible a very large country, Islamic country, can push the democratic path. But the last ten years we proved that we did ok.

RAY SUAREZ: Rizal Mallarangeng, a political reformer, and sometimes candidate, runs a think tank in Jakarta.

RIZAL MALLARANGENG: We got our freedom, basic freedom, basic guarantees of our basic rights. The economy is moving forward, 5 percent, 6 percent, which is very good. But of course, democracy is messy stuff. We’re not that rich yet. Our GDP is just far below the United States. But we are striving. We are going to right direction.

RAY SUAREZ: Talk to people in government, in positions of influence, they, too, applaud the political reforms. … But say more must be done if Indonesia is to join a surging group of economies that includes China and Brazil.

DEWI FORTUNA ANWAR, aide to Indonesia’s vice president: We have to admit that Indonesia has performed much better in advancing the cause of our democracy — political democracy — than advancing the cause of real economic democracy.

RAY SUAREZ: Dewi Fortuna Anwar is the deputy chief in the office of the vice president.

DEWI FORTUNA ANWAR: But in the economic sector, you still have to have the capital, the connections and so on, and it is still not yet a level playing field. And some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths and others have to scrape for their living.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a short drive from crowding, open sewers, and a daily struggle to get by to a new class of Indonesians thronging shopping malls that rival any in the world for opulence and selection. Rank and file Indonesians are clear about the difference between democracy and economic progress.

Sophia runs a market stall in the Javanese city of Surabaya.

SOPHIA, market merchant: In the time of Suharto, life was much better. Now, life is getting worse. Prices are too high. Poor people like me can’t afford things.

RAY SUAREZ: Ahmad drives a pedicab.

AHMAD, pedicab driver: I often can’t afford to buy the things I need. I have to be selective in the things I buy.

RAY SUAREZ: A 16-year-old nursing student, sure she will live better than her parents, is less confident about today:

STUDENT: Life is getting worse because our government doesn’t ‘t pay attention to the lives of people, especially poor people. They only think about themselves. Every time a new president is elected, they say things will be different. But they aren’t.

RAY SUAREZ: Over the last 15 years this country has accomplished some pretty important national goals. It’s moved from authoritarianism to democracy, with freer, fairer and more open elections. It’s put together solid years of back to back to back high levels of economic growth. But one thing Indonesia hasn’t managed to do is root out the legendary levels of corruption that discourages foreign investment and  handicaps future economic growth

Sidney Jones watches Indonesia for the International Crisis Group.

SIDNEY JONES, International Crisis Group: In some ways almost because of substantial economic growth, people see income inequalities increasing and the corruption has just gotten completely out of hand. One of the concerns is that you now have a parliament that’s trying to cut away at the powers of the only institutions with integrity in Indonesia. One of those is the anti-corruption commission, another one is the constitutional court here,

RAY SUAREZ: When we visited the anti-corruption commission, it was crowded with civil servants arriving to have their contracts audited, checked that government money is being spent in a clean, legal, and verifiable way.

Upstairs, Commissioner Umar Haryono is concentrating on putting parliament members and government officials in jail, and trying to transform Indonesia.

UMAR HARYONO, Corruption Eradication Commission head: We arrest one corruptor and will become more maybe two, three more corruptors here because the problem here, the big problem, is our democracy system. Because in order to get elected as a government official as a parliament member, sometimes they need to pay a lot of money.”

RAY SUAREZ: Protests against corruption are almost a daily occurrence in Jakarta. Everyone we spoke to said it’s the cost of running for office that’s the root of it all. Winners have to pay off the people who paid to get them elected.

SIDNEY JONES: This is one concrete example, a district head called in his minister, his local head of education and said, we need, I need you to provide x amount of money to get that. You get it any way you like, but I need you to produce that amount of money. That individual then goes to the heads of schools that he runs and says I need x amount of money in order to collect the pot of money that I have to give the candidate who appointed me to this position. Because if I don’t pay he’s going to transfer me somewhere else. The head of the schools then puts the, the onus on the teachers to come up with the money. The teachers then put the onus on the parents and children end up having to pay in order to graduate from one class to another or to get report cards.

RAY SUAREZ: The international corruption monitor transparency international rates Indonesia in the bottom half of the world’s nations when it comes to official corruption. Its score has hardly moved in years.

Indonesia has had more success in targeting terrorist violence. It has a strong track record finding, arresting, and trying religious extremists.

DEWI FORTUNA ANWAR: It is important to remember that Indonesia is probably one of the few countries that has been able to arrest a lot of terrorist activists and bring them to justice, due process of law and imprison them. Some of them have been executed. We do not have rendition. We do not have secret prisons we do not have military tribunals, everything is done properly according to due process of law.

IMAM H. ALI HANAFIA, Istiqlal Mosque: In Indonesia Islam is very tolerant of other religions. Islam doesn’t recognize violence. That might be hard for people outside of Indonesia to understand but that is Islam in Indonesia.

RAY SUAREZ: Imam H. Ali Hanafia leads the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, where stadium-sized crowds of worshippers pour inside for Friday prayers. The country has had a secular government since the first days of independence from the Netherlands in 1949.

The Imam said relations between mosque and state are good.

IMAM H. ALI HANAFIA: Islamic society in Indonesia has connected to the government and the other way around. Muslims are represented in the government and I think Muslims feel very free to give input.

RAY SUAREZ: A surging economy, and millions waiting to feel the gains, an assault on stifling corruption, with a long way to go, a government that acknowledges the role of Islam in the society, and is trying to protect religious minorities … for all the worries about getting through today, belief in the future is strong.

AHMAD: I didn’t go to school so I have this job. But my kids will finish at least high school so they will be able to get a better job.

NURSING STUDENT: God willing. I believe that I will have a better life than my parents.

SOPHIA: I’m convinced my children will have a better life.

RAY SUAREZ: The government in Jakarta will have to deliver and soon to keep Sophia’s hope alive