Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at human rights organisation CSW, and author of ‘Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril – the rise of religious intolerance across the archipelago’ (2014). He is also co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
Thirteen per cent of the world’s Muslims live in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. With a population of 251 million people, it is the world’s fourth most populous nation, and with an estimated 17,508 islands stretching across the Indian Pacific Oceans, it is the world’s largest archipelago and south-east Asia’s largest economy.
It is the world’s sixteenth-largest economy, predicted to be the seventh largest in the next twenty years. It is a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), headquartered in Jakarta, a member of the G20, and the Organization of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), and the UN Security Council.
Indonesia is also the world’s third-largest democracy and last week completed the world’s biggest election. In a single day, over 190 million voters went to the polls to choose the President, the national parliament, provincial legislatures, and local councils. Despite a deeply divisive and hotly contested campaign, the atmosphere on election day was calm. It is quite a feat, in such a diverse and enormous terrain.
It should also be remembered that Indonesia has only been a democracy for twenty years, but it has made a remarkable transition from decades of military dictatorship. It is not perfect – democratisation is not complete and it is not without lingering human rights questions – but nevertheless it deserves greater recognition than it receives in order to learn lessons about peaceful change.
I have spent the past three weeks in Indonesia, a country I have followed for more than a decade. Every time I come here, it fascinates me further. I am perplexed as to why, given all its credentials listed above, it does not receive more attention.
In a post-Brexit age, Indonesia matters. We cannot simply be thinking China. Indeed, as China turns ever more repressive towards its own people and ever more aggressive towards the rest of the world, we should not be putting our eggs in Xi Jinping’s basket. We should be looking beyond to other emerging powers.
We should, of course, be deepening our relationship with the United States, as Tobias Ellwood rightly argues. But we should also be looking to deepen friendships and trading relationships with countries beyond Europe which share similar values, have growing influence and offer potential for trade. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia are such countries. But so too is Indonesia.
Although official confirmation of results is not expected for several weeks, preliminary results give a clear victory to incumbent Joko Widodo, with 55 per cent of the vote, ten points ahead of his rival. This is a clear victory for democracy over a return to authoritarianism. It is a vote for the future and against a return to the past. And after a campaign where it became clear that religion matters, it is nevertheless a rejection of hardline Islamism.
President Widodo’s rival, former General Prabowo Subianto, son-in-law of former dictator Suharto, is accused of grave human rights violations and was backed by a coalition of radical Islamists. On election day I spoke to one, from the vigilante Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a thuggish mob known for attacks on minorities, who told me: “Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country. We want Islamic teachings to be implemented in full in every area of life. Those who do not implement them, we give them a warning, and then we send in our Islamic Defenders Army.” When asked why FPI supported Mr Prabowo, he replied: “Because he has promised us he will implement our vision”. Thank goodness he didn’t win.
Indonesia has long been held up as a role model for tolerance. In recent years that reputation has been under increasing pressure. Religious intolerance has been rising. The Wahid Foundation reported 265 incidents in 2017. In May last year three churches in Surabaya were attacked by a family of suicide bombers. The imprisonment of Jakarta’s former governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (‘Ahok’), an ethnic Chinese Christian and friend of Widodo, on charges of blasphemy in 2017 was a wake-up call. And the imprisonment of a Buddhist woman, Meliana, simply for asking a local mosque to reduce the volume on its loudspeakers, has shocked many.
Yet although threatened, Indonesia’s pluralism is not lost. I spent Easter with one of the churches in Surabaya that was attacked in May last year, and the church was filled with thousands of people on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil, protected by police and Muslim security guards. Good Friday is a public holiday, in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
Exactly a week before election day, the family of former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, a respected Muslim cleric known as a defender of religious minorities, organised a conference of religious leaders from all major communities in support of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together agreed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi in February.
And just two days before polling day, when they were busy preparing for the vote, local government leaders in Panongan, a sub-district of Tangerang in Banten province, just outside Jakarta, joined Muslim clerics to discuss inter-faith harmony with me. It was hosted by a Catholic priest, Fr Felix Supranto, who has turned a previously hostile situation into a “unity in diversity village”, working to build inter-faith relations.
Britain has every reason to deepen its friendship with Indonesia – for trade, security, and for the promotion of democracy and human rights. We are well positioned, with the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Indonesia, Richard Graham, being the only Member of Parliament to be fluent in Indonesian. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which he also chairs, is increasing its engagement. Indonesia’s current ambassador in London, Rizal Sukma, is a truly outstanding envoy for his country and one who I know shares our values.
But we must do more. We must encourage President Widodo to use his second term to defend the rights of minorities, promote pluralism, and counter intolerance. Under Indonesia’s constitution he cannot seek a third term, so he has nothing to lose. He must be bold in defending and reinvigorating Indonesia’s tradition of pluralism against the voices of hate. We must also urge Indonesia to be more pro-active on the world stage in defending human rights, especially for persecuted minorities in its region such as Burma’s Rohingyas and China’s Uyghurs.
Indonesia has an important story to tell, of how it transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, and under a re-elected president who comes not from the country’s ruling elites but from the slums, it is time for Indonesia to be heard.