Thank you. I’m actually not completely sure why I was called on to speak. I suppose, perhaps, it’s because I’m the senior American official present. Perhaps it’s because I was a founding chairman of the board of USINDO [the United States-Indonesia Society]. In any case, I think I’m in the position of the dear departed in an Irish wake where I’m somehow essential to the proceedings, but not expected to say too much. [Laughter]
And since the hour is late, I’d like to be brief. But I do have three reasons why I am happy to be asked to make some comments. First of all, it is something to be proud of to have had a small part in helping to set up the U.S.-Indonesia Foundation. I will confess my part was small. As chairman of the board, you get to take credit for the great work of the president of the organization, as well as the great work of [former USINDO president] Ed Masters who was there with us from the beginning.
When Ed came to me and proposed this some 10 years ago, President Suharto was just beginning, I think, his sixth term in office. And if you’d asked us to make a bet, I imagine we might have said, well, on the 10th anniversary he’ll be celebrating his 8th term in office. And I certainly don’t think either of us would have made a bet that in that time period, USINDO would have three presidents and Indonesia would have five.
But in fact, it is a marvelous thing that this society was created at a time when Indonesia has assumed a really important role on the world’s stage, when it is critically important to promote understanding with Indonesia here in the United States and, for that matter, hopefully understanding in the U.S. and Indonesia. It was certainly timely. Ed, thank you for doing it. Thank you, Allene [Maters, USINDO senior advisor], for being such an important figure there throughout. And I’m happy if I can at least say I was present at the creation.
Secondly, it’s a privilege to be here to thank an old friend, [Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Peoples’ Welfare] Alwi Shihab, for being here tonight, and to thank him for taking on important responsibilities in this new government—but actually, Alwi, to thank you for a lifetime of service.
I think it’s important to emphasize what Ed talked about in that biographical sketch of Alwi Shihab. In case you didn’t notice it, he was educated in Islamic philosophy originally in Egypt. He went on from that to do something, I suppose, unexpected of an Islamic philosopher—and that was to make money. And he did it very successfully as a businessman for a number of years. But obviously, that wasn’t his goal in life, because once he had been successful as a businessman, as Ed pointed out, he went back to study. And he didn’t just go back to study anything; he went back to study religion and, specifically, comparative religion.
And the thing that has impressed me from the time I first met him—and impressed me throughout—is this man’s deep commitment to understanding the nature of other religions, to understand those things that religions have in common more than those things that separate different religions. And in that respect, I think Alwi represents something that is incredibly important about Indonesia that is perhaps not universal, but is one of the strongest features of Indonesian society. It’s a tradition of tolerance, a tradition of respect for other religions, not based on indifference, not actually based on secularism—but based on deep belief in God and also a deep belief that there is more than one way to worship God.
I was very much taken with that attitude when I was ambassador 20 years ago. I am even more taken with it today, when it is so clearly one of the most important needs in this world of ours—I think everywhere and clearly, particularly one might say in the Muslim world—to have that emphasis on understanding one another and respecting one another on religious grounds.
And finally, I’m happy to be here tonight because this is also an occasion to celebrate Indonesia’s success as a democracy—one can say success so far, a fragile success. Alwi has reminded us that things can go backwards. It’s always good to remember things can go backwards. It’s probably the best way to keep going forward.
But Indonesia has had its second consecutive free and fair presidential election. Much of the political science literature will—[applause]—much of the political science literature will remind you that that is a real landmark for democracy. There are a number of countries that have had “one man, one vote, one time.” That’s not democracy. Indonesia has now had two successive free and fair elections. But much more than that, I think, it’s gone through a great deal of political turmoil, ultimately successfully. This election itself is a product, let’s remember, of the successful amendment of the Indonesian constitution.
I remember visiting Indonesia at the time of the elections as an observer five years ago and everyone was a bit concerned about the indirect method of election. But when you said, “Well, why not go to some kind of direct election,” usually they, first of all, pointed out, “Well, why don’t you Americans try it first?” [Laughter] But then they would say, “Well, frankly, we’re afraid of opening up our constitution to a whole string of amendments.” To be honest, it happened without my even noticing it, so I may have to go back and check. But somehow this major change in the Indonesian constitution was affected without destroying the constitution. That’s a real achievement.
So the achievements are substantial, but they’re even more substantial when you set them against the background of what people expected. Remember, Indonesia made the transition to democracy after being engulfed by an economic tidal wave with the collapse of the financial markets in 1997, 1998. It’s hard to imagine less auspicious circumstances for a transitioning democracy, in the economic condition of Indonesia six years ago.
Moreover, the experts will tell you that Indonesia is too poor to be a successful democracy. Apparently, that didn’t stop the Indonesian voters. They didn’t care that they were poor. They chose to make a difference. And in fact, I think one of the things that was remarkable about those elections was not just that they were free and fair. But, in fact, if one can judge from a distance—and it’s always good to be a little careful to presume to judge other people’s opinions about their country and their politics—certainly to outside observers, it looked like an election in which the Indonesian people gave a very strong mandate to their new president for reform, a very strong mandate to work against corruption, and a very clear mandate against religious extremism. You can’t look at what happened in that election without realizing that the voters were making a rather profound political statement and not just picking somebody who was popular. So I think it’s a huge accomplishment. It’s a huge accomplishment in the face of enormous obstacles.
Frankly, Indonesia’s done better in the last six years than I ever dared to hope, even though, as we all know, there are huge obstacles in front of it. And I think if you try to find the reasons for that success, there are multiple reasons. I think, [writer/producer] Rhoda Grauer, that actually the great culture that you described is part of the reason. One cannot be in Indonesia very long without being impressed with how deep the multiple cultures of Indonesia go and how much pride people take in these cultures. And the fact that—I believe I’m right in saying this—not only the Buganese, but the Javanese, the Balinese and the Bataks had all invented their own alphabets before they had any contact with the Arabs or the Chinese or the West Europeans. There are enormously deep-rooted cultures in Indonesia—multiple cultures—that I think are part of the strength of that country. It was, I believe, in spite of the dictatorship, a considerable development of civil society in Indonesia.
I was struck even when I was ambassador almost 20 years ago that the Indonesian press was quite a vibrant institution. You wouldn’t always know it from reading the newspapers because they weren’t always allowed to print what they knew, but unlike controlled media in some countries where the press was simply an organ of the government bureaucracy. As many of you know, the media in Indonesia were, for the most part, independently owned and most of the people who worked for them were independently minded. And, in fact, I think there was a real strong tradition of free journalism even under the Suharto regime, if it was nonetheless suppressed and reigned in. And I might say that I hope that that strong tradition continues and is not reigned in under democracy; it would be tragic.
I think one has to say also in spite of its defects, some of which we hear about a lot, the Indonesian military has also done a lot to contribute in a positive way to the success of democracy, as Alwi has said. And [Indonesia’s newly elected president] Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono himself has personally played an important role. Being a modest man and a humble man, he will probably never tell us exactly what he did during those crucial events of May 1998. But I think it is clear that the Indonesian military allowed a political process to proceed without intervening. And I think the leadership of the military at that time deserves some considerable credit for the relatively peaceful way in which the Suharto dictatorship ended. And I think they deserve a good deal of credit for the progress that Indonesia has made along democratic lines in the intervening years.
And if I can take a little bit of credit here for a much-maligned program called IMET [International Military Education and Training], I want to remind all of you, if you don’t know it, that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a distinguished graduate of the IMET program. In fact, as president of his country, his picture should now go—will go—in the hall of fame at the Command and Staff College in Leavenworth as a graduate of the Command and Staff College. [Applause]
I’d like to think—in fact, I believe—that he probably deepened his understanding of democracy, deepened his understanding of a military that is subordinate civil rule from his education here. And that’s a process that I hope we can see restored. And I hope, I look forward very much, to an old friend of mine, Juwono Sudarsono returning again to the defense ministry where he was the first civilian minister of defense, I believe, in Indonesia’s history. And I believe there are many in the forum that also believe in the importance of an effective military institution to the future of his country. And I look forward in my capacity as a defense official to being able to work with him.
But I would say among the many reasons why Indonesia has been successful is that point that I made about Alwi and about the Indonesian tradition of tolerance and of understanding, which is not only tolerance of religious diversity, it’s tolerance of ethnic diversity. It’s a belief in the importance of compromise. There were periods in Indonesia’s history that were marked by other characteristics. But I think the dominant characteristic and the one that so many come to know well and come to admire and love is its respect for diversity and, indeed, a celebration in diversity. In this world, post-September 11th, we need it desperately. And I hope with Alwi that we will be able to support this Indonesian democracy with more than just rhetoric. I hope that the American people can understand that in this war against terrorism, it is as important to have examples of successful Muslim democracies as it is to kill and capture terrorists.
From the department I come from, I cannot overestimate the importance of the latter effort that I believe in the long term is even more important to show to the Muslims on this earth that democracy is the right way for them. There is very chilling literature that the various al Qaeda people post on the Internet. The one that I haven’t forgotten deplores the prospect of democracy succeeding in the Arab and Muslim world, because, this writer said, “if democracy succeeds, Muslims will come to love life too much and fear death and be unwilling to commit jihad.”
Well, what he regards as a terrible vision, I regard as a wonderful vision. I think Indonesia has an important opportunity here to make that vision a reality for more than 200 million people, the great majority of whom are Muslims. And I think it is in our own self interest as a country, the United States, to help see them succeed. So Alwi, I join you in wishing very strongly that we can move beyond the rhetoric.
I think President Bush believes in the importance of what your president is doing and what your people are doing and what you personally are doing and we will try to do everything we can to help. And I would just say, of all the ministries in your government, I can’t think of one that’s more important than the ministry of education and I’m glad to see it comes under your portfolio.
With that, I’d like to conclude, if I might, with one last recognition. We have three presidents in this room. They haven’t been president of Indonesia, but they have been president of U.S.-Indonesia Society and I think it would be appropriate if we had Ed Masters and [former USINDO president] Paul Cleveland to join our court up here and let’s get a family photo. Thank you. [Applause]