Indonesian President: ‘Reforms are Painful’

Indonesia 2011

By Jayshree Bajoria

May 25, 2011

Also published at Council on Foreign Relations

Indonesia, an emerging economy with about 6 percent GDP growth rate, is raising its regional and global profile as the 2011 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and member of the G20. But foreign investors remain wary because of problems with infrastructure, a weak legal system, and widespread corruption. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in an interview with CFR's Jayshree Bajoria and other U.S. editors, says the country is serious in conducting reforms. But he admits it will be a long and "painful" process. The president also expressed concern about growing radicalization in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country. He defended government policies to bring perpetrators of religious violence to justice even as international human rights organizations and the United Nations express concerns over growing attacks against religious minorities (JakartaGlobe). On lessons that Indonesia could offer Egypt and other countries in the Middle East seeking democracy, Yudhoyono says the militaries in the countries must reform first.

As a member of the G20, Indonesia is increasingly playing a larger role in the world. What do you see as the future of Indonesia's role in the region and the world as it becomes a growing economic power?

A big part of our global cooperation [is] obtaining global growth that is strong, balanced, sustained, and inclusive. And ensuring that we have a safer and a better economic system, including reforming financial architecture.

Secondly, Indonesia is a developing country. Indonesia is the only member of the G20 from Southeast Asia, so what we have to do is voice the interests, the aspirations, and the hope of developing nations. In various G20 summits, I always [address] topics such as development, financial inclusiveness, and combating poverty. Indonesia will benefit from being a member of the G20, but I hope that the G20 will also listen more to the voice of the developing nations.

To bring Indonesia to the next level economically and politically, what would you say are your top three challenges?

Our top challenges and priorities are building good governance and combating corruption, strengthening the legal framework and putting in place rule of law, building infrastructure across the country, and mobilizing the resources to invest more in this country. Reforming bureaucracy, and improving the legal framework is our agenda now. Hopefully by seeing that our [business] climate is getting better, by seeing that we are very serious in conducting our reforms, many investors can come and invest more in Indonesia.

Indonesia has been a leader in trying to ensure economic development in an environmentally sustainable way. When can we expect a moratorium on new logging concessions (NYT) and what concessions, if any, will be made to businesses that are concerned about the moratorium's impact?

The moratorium has actually been signed. It is very important for us to make sure that our own country, our own environment, is well protected. In addressing climate issues, we have to follow the principles of common, but differentiated, responsibilities and respective capabilities. The developed countries must take the lead, but developing countries must do more. It is challenging because I have to convince my own people that this is not simply a moral obligation to join the international community in preserving the environment, but we need to ensure that we have a better environment for our future generation.

What we are doing now is developing regulations. On the one hand, [there is] the need for developing timber plantations for our economy, but we have to regulate, we have to supervise, and we can do that without jeopardizing our environment. I believe very strongly that we could address those two things simultaneously--our economic interests and our obligation to preserve our forests. I could continue then by having a policy [to] limit the use of peatlands for business projects and we can allocate idle or critical lands that can be used for agriculture and for plantation projects.

There have been growing instances of violence against some religious minority groups, especially the Ahmadiyas, in the last few months. Also, according to news reports, some radical religious organizations are making greater inroads into university campuses (JakartaPost). Are you concerned about growing radicalization and increasing discrimination against religious minorities in the country. And is the government doing anything to counter that effectively?

Because of the wave of globalization, there is a trend of growing radicalization across the globe, including in Indonesia. In the reform era, because freedom is everywhere, sometimes there are [also] movements in our society that could endanger our social harmony, tolerance, and unity. We have to stop the increase of radicalism in this country. If you look at the bigger picture, you see harmony, tolerance, unity is still there but, of course, there are elements in our society that have extreme stances and attitudes.

We have to protect the freedom of religion in this country so the government does not ban any religious belief or religions, including the Ahmadiyas. Rather, we try to avoid any unneccesary crisis that might happen between different religious followers.

But we try to regulate with the aim of avoiding and preventing any physical clash that might happen between [different religious groups]. Maintaining harmony and tolerance cannot be taken for granted. I know the challenge, but we are doing our best--on the one hand, respecting human rights and also upholding our constitution, and on the other hand preventing the unnecessary clash that might happen between the communities.

What are you doing to to tackle corruption and what do you think your legacy will be in that regard?

Our reforms are painful, many ups and downs. That's why Indonesia is not in the position to lecture, to tell Egypt, for example, to imitate or to follow our path.

Combating corruption is a difficult task. We have brought more than 150 government officials, ministers, parliamentarians, governors, mayors to justice. We have achieved a lot in building a good atmosphere of being fairer. But it's a long way to go.

You are witnessing the impact of the decentralization of our government by having autonomy in all regions in Indonesia. The reality is because the mayors and the regents [in local governments] have their autonomy to allocate the budget, to make decisions, then corruption does occur. It doesn't mean we aren't focusing on preventing and combating corruption at that level; this is a national campaign. We are mobilizing all anti-corruption agencies while reforming our justice system as well. There are also problems in our law enforcement agencies in combating corruption, so this is huge challenge for me. But I believe that someday, maybe fifteen years [or] twenty years from now, Indonesia will be having a cleaner system.

You mentioned that Indonesia is in a transformational period. Is there anything that you feel you need from the Obama administration for that transformation?

We have promoted our bilateral relationship to a higher level. When President Obama visited us last November, we adopted a comprehensive partnership between Indonesia and the United States. We agreed to further enhance our bilateral cooperation, including cooperation on economy, trade, investment, education, science and technology, health, and other things. Of course, we maintain our close cooperation in the field of security, in combating terrorism, in continuing efforts on democratization. I believe that the United States does contribute to our endeavor in transforming our nation.

In the past, there were many problems in our bilateral relations, Indonesia was sanctioned by the Western countries, including the United States, following the happenings in East Timor. But over time, after they [realized] that we are very serious in conducting reforms and we are also changing along the way, then the willingness to enhance our cooperation is, in my view, quite real. I believe the United States actually can also do more for Indonesia.

Is there anything in particular you would like the United States to do more of?

It's my hope that China can do the same [as us]-- avoiding gunboat diplomacy and solving any dispute in this region peacefully.

Yes, having close cooperation in the field of education, healthcare, science and technology is very important. If we could uplift that kind of cooperation, besides the existing cooperation, it will be beneficial for Indonesia.

Is Indonesia concerned about China's growing military and economic strength in the region and in the world? And how do you see it affecting Indonesia's own security interests and economic prosperity?

There is no source of conflict between China and Indonesia. There is a dispute over South China Sea [islands] between China and several ASEAN member countries, but not with Indonesia. The fact is Chinese military power and economic power is increasing very, very significantly in the last two decades. It is the right of China to build its military might and its economic power. [We are concerned with] maintaining order in the region and implementing the so-called peaceful way in solving problems in this region. I had a talk with other ASEAN leaders and they share the same view as me that China must be a part of preserving the security and order in the region. It's my hope that China can do the same [as us]--avoiding gunboat diplomacy and solving any dispute in this region peacefully.

Some have suggested that Indonesia could be seen as a model for countries in the Middle East that are moving toward democracy. Do you believe that? And if so, what advice would you give those countries?

Our reforms are painful, many ups and downs. That's why Indonesia is not in the position to lecture, to tell Egypt, for example, to imitate or to follow our path. But Indonesia can share our experiences, our successes, and our failures in conducting reforms. When Indonesia started its reforms for democratization, the military conducted its reforms first. I led the team for military reforms for almost two years. So the people trust the military-- that we first conduct our own reforms, stopped playing politics, back to respecting democracy, respecting human rights, and we invite the civil society to be part of our reforms. Right after that, the military respected the reform process with its difficulties and challenges.

I am wondering whether in the Middle East and North Africa the military can play that kind of role, reform itself before being part of the national reforms. Each country must decide its own path, decide its own architecture in conducting reforms. I know that the military is strong in Egypt and other countries, and the military must show the people that they are reforming first.

Jayshree Bajoria traveled to Indonesia on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors' trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP) in Washington, D.C.