Writing the World: Suharto, Democracy – Security and Freedom

The paramount struggle within our modern democratic society is the constantly shifting balance between freedom and security. Demonstrated time and time again, and posited by political scientists and practitioners alike, security is a prerequisite for a healthy civil society and for the realization of social justice. However, it is often the case that freedoms are undermined in order to establish security. 

The recent passing of once president of Indonesia Suharto is a striking case. The Indonesia of today is the most vibrant democracy of South East Asia, many say the only true democracy in the region. It’s easier to understand the passion within which Indonesians engage in political discourse when you consider that, hardly ten years ago, the authoritarian regime suppressed political opposition to the point of killing thousands. The demonstrations and reforms, known as Reformasi, that brought down the dictator was like the uncorking of a pressurized bottle – from under those decades of rule by an iron fist burst forth the vibrant, if occasionally not entire flawless, democracy in which the country now governs itself, as well as a diverse and free press. 

While Suharto’s regime was no doubt responsible for human rights abuses and a calculated oppression of civil society, crimes for which Suharto was never held responsible, the era of authoritarianism did leave a legacy of stability, economic growth, and above all, security. Here enters the fine balance between security and freedom however; security is required for a healthy civil society, but social justice and a thriving civil society are also needed to sustain security and economic prosperity. Despite its successes, it was the very unwillingness to give Indonesia’s civil society a space within which to participate in the country’s politics that let to its collapse.

Today, however, democracy in Indonesia is challenged once again. While democratic rights and freedoms are well established, there is a large population that is now experiencing insecurity. The economic hardship of a huge number of Indonesians is unsustainable, and there are many regions that lack basic infrastructure. With the rise of insecurity, people are more likely to turn toward anything to fill the security vacuum. As has already been witnessed in such situations in Indonesians as well as in the Middle East, this can prove to be fertile ground for institutions such as fundamental religious groups. Indonesia, of course, is home to the largest Islamic population in the world, and this should be of special interest to the United States.

Indonesia is, indeed, the keystone to the global Islamic movement with which the United States is now struggling to define its relationship. While there is no automatic correlation between Islam and terrorism, the occurrence of insecurity in Indonesia provides an opening for those organizations that do promote terrorism, and this is where action must be taken.

The death of Suharto should be a sign of hope, that the legacy of the dictator can be not the oppression of civil society and human rights, but a stability and security in which social justice and inclusiveness can continue to be strived for.

To Be Continued

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *