Sunday, May 01, 2005

The rut of democracy without prosperity

The Straits Times
May 28, 2004

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA - Frederick Douglas once rued that 'if there is no struggle, there is no progress'. In its recent past, Indonesia has struggled, but progress still seems far away.

Six years ago this month, Indonesia experienced some of the most memorable events in its modern history. On May 12, 1998, four Trisakti University students were shot during a demonstration that was part of the student activist movement that toppled the 32-year Suharto regime and started an era of reform (reformasi) and democracy.

Known as the May Riots, the shooting incident was followed by a series of anti-Chinese violence from May 13 to 15 in which more than 1,000 ethnic Chinese Indonesians were killed, about 5,000 Chinese-owned stores and buildings torched, and dozens of ethnic Chinese women assaulted and raped.

As Indonesians commemorate the sixth anniversary of the May Riots, it seems the past six years of reformasi have been a disappointment. For one thing, those who committed these inhuman acts have not been brought to justice. More important, little economic progress has been made. It seems Indonesia's past struggles to bring about democracy have been in vain.

For democracy to have any meaning, it must be accompanied by economic growth and translated into jobs, which in turn enable people to meet their basic needs on a daily basis.

By the same token, the economic pie must be big enough so everyone has a share of it. This economic balance is the basis of social stability and order. When this condition does not hold, it gives rise to ethnic hatred and social unrest. As an old saying has it: 'Hunger makes anger.'

This was exactly what happened in Indonesia in 1998. The ethnic differences between the indigenous Indonesians (pribumi, or 'of the soil') and their ethnic Chinese counterparts - whose ancestors migrated to Indonesia as early as the 1500s - were not the root cause of the May Riots. It was the economic inequality between them that ignited the fire.

Let's not forget that the ethnic Chinese account for about 4 per cent of the Indonesian population, but own roughly 75 per cent of its private economy, including its largest conglomerates. They are members of what Yale law professor Amy Chua calls 'market dominant minorities'.

To be sure, six years of reformasi brought about some remarkable democratic changes. For instance, in 2002, the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) approved a constitutional reform package that allows the electorate to select the president by direct vote, removes 38 seats in the MPR the military used to occupy, and reiterates that Indonesia is a democracy and not a theocracy by rejecting a motion to apply syariah, or Islamic law, across the nation.

Unfortunately, in economic terms, Indonesia cannot be said to have achieved much progress during the reform years. Its many problems remain.

Besides rampant corruption and a lack of cross-sector competitiveness, there has been no significant increase in the Indonesian growth rate.

Indonesia's high unemployment is a consequence of its lack of sufficient economic growth in recent years. The Indonesian economy grew by 0.8 per cent in 1999, 4.9 per cent in 2000, 3.4 per cent in 2001, 3.7 per cent in 2002 and 4.1 per cent last year.

These may be high by the standards of developed countries, but are too low to provide the nation's 220 million people with jobs. During the Suharto years, growth averaged 7 to 9 per cent.
Come July and September, when Indonesians hit the polls to select their president and decide who will be the leader of their future, not only do they need to vote with care, but they also need to remember their recent past. If they don't, they may repeat it.

The writer is a Jakarta-based political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Indonesian Dream: 'Unity In Diversity' In Transitional Times.


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