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Last Updated: 04/22/2009
The Indonesian Election and Peace in Aceh: an example worth following
Michael Vatikiotis

The recently held general election in Indonesia demonstrated convincingly that plural societies in Southeast Asia can be trusted to express their popular will without resorting to violent conflict. For many years it was argued by conservative ruling elites that the fullest expression of popular sovereignty through untrammelled electoral processes posed a threat to nation building as it would allow groups of people in conflict with the state to destabilize society and eventually vote their way to separation.

But in this case, for the first time in Indonesian history, regional political parties were allowed to contest the election in former war-torn province of Aceh. Whilst there are lingering fears that the sizable mandate won by the Aceh Party could be used to push for a referendum on independence (and evidence of attempts by the Indonesian military to undermine the new regional party), it is worth noting that incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudho-yono's Democrat Party also scored well in the polls, and the post election rhetoric of the Aceh Party has only called for a full implementation of the terms for peace agreed upon under the 2005 Memorandum of Understanding.

What this means is that Indonesia's territorial integrity is no longer as fragile as it was once thought to be. One of the biggest fears once Indonesia's transition to democracy was that it would lead to the country flying apart.

Instead, democracy has reduced levels of internal conflict and strengthened Indonesia's territorial integrity. It can't be a complete coincidence that the conflict in Aceh was settled barely a year after the 2004 election in which Indonesians felt for the first time that they were directly electing their leader. Many of the demands for autonomy and self government made by the Aceh Freedom Movement had been granted to every province under liberal decentralization legislation implemented after 1999 under democratic rule.

After three peaceful elections in the past decade, it is now important for Indonesia to impress upon its regional neighbours that the democratic political process is a significant treatment for chronic conflict within society.

That decentralization and autonomy don't fuel separatism, people can be trusted to manage their own affairs at the local level and take rational decisions at the ballot box. If Indonesia was to start investing in the propagation of these ideas, it could contribute to regional peace and security.

There are indications that Indonesia is keen to set a regional example. Last year, President Yudho-yono launched the Bali Democracy Forum. Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said the Forum was "aimed at enshrining democracy on the strategic agenda of Asia." This in turn is part of a broader Indonesian effort to push for concrete discussion of critical peace and security issues in regional fora, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

This of course will be an uphill struggle because the majority of ASEAN member states shy away from regional discussions on peace and security, let alone internal political arrangements. Therefore, to become an effective catalyst for political reform in the region, Indonesia must push harder for a significant change to prevailing norms of diplomacy within the 10 ASEAN member states. To do this, Indonesia will need act boldly, going beyond rhetorical flourishes and invest in some institutional capacity building.

Indonesian analysts have been outspoken critics of the newly adopted ASEAN Charter, doubting that other member states will support the full implementation of its provisions for dispute resolution or respect the charter's embrace of democracy and human rights principles. But the commentary has been long on rhetoric and short on practical suggestions about how to prevent this happening.

The government can help by channelling more resources into effective public diplomacy and reaching out to regional partners. It would be inappropriate and counter-productive for Indonesia to rely on traditional Western donors to underwrite the advocacy of democracy.

As part of this program of capacity building, Indonesia could usefully increase its level of support for the ASEAN Secretariat, which is located in Jakarta. Whilst additional funding for the Secretariat must be agreed upon by all member states, support could take the form of workshops and retreats with the objective of strengthening regional capacity for implementation of the ASEAN Charter.

For their part, Indonesia's neighbours would do well to change their perception of Indonesia. The country has turned a corner in terms of nation building and is unlikely to fall apart. Despite all the fears of the past few years, extremists and dangerous radicals have been pushed to the margins and have not gained ground at the ballot box.

Yes, Indonesia is a complex, plural society, which to some of the region's more homogenous societies is often seen as menacing in itself. But its people are free, increasingly participate in governing their own affairs, and are largely at peace with one another. For Indonesia to be a haven of peace, freedom and stability in modern Southeast Asia sets an example worth following.

The writer is Asia Regional Director of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.