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Democratic Indonesia's lesson for Australia

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Waisak processionI recently had the privilege of celebrating the key Buddhist festival of Waisak by joining thousands of Buddhist worshippers in a procession towards the historic Borobudur Temple in Indonesia's Central Java province.

What struck me as I followed the two-kilometre route through small dilapidated villages was the sea of Indonesian Muslims, Christians and Hindus lining up on both sides of dirt roads to pay their respect to their minute Buddhist population.

This is the spirit of Pancesila, the philosophy at the heart of Indonesian society that emphasises equality and mutual respect. It is the Indonesian Bill of Rights and Human Rights Charter all rolled into one and has taken new found significance since the fall of Suharto's authoritarian regime and the rise of the terrorist group Jamiah Islamiah.

Not that we Aussies know or particularly care about this, unless you are Kevin Rudd — visiting Indonesia today — or part of the political and diplomatic establishment.

In a recent report titled 'Seeing Indonesia as a normal country', the influential Australian Strategic Policy Unit lamented the 'sharp disjuncture' existing between political leaders' unprecedented cooperation and the ignorance that continues to fester between average Australians and our South Eastern Asian neighbours.

This disparity is glaringly reflected in a 2006 Lowy poll stating most Australians don't even know that Indonesia is a democracy.

So how to counter this worrying development? Both governments began designing a series of exchange programs which attempt to break the ice on a local level through the use of educational scholarships, sports and cultural exchange.

As a recent alumnus of the latter, I spent two weeks travelling through this vast country meeting Indonesians from all walks of life — from politicians and scholars to students and families. I was overwhelmed by ordinary Indonesians' deep desire to have a dialogue with Australians that has long been restricted by oceans and privilege.

Australians often sneer at multi-faith dialogue initiatives as being elitist chinwags hollow of practical outcomes, but Indonesians' inclusive form continues to dampen potential flash points in religiously diverse communities. The result of this is a thriving democracy that should be viewed as a beacon for the Muslim world and which can offer expert advice to advanced countries striving for social cohesion.

While in these shores the mere opening of a religious school or an ignorant comment can spark confrontations between self-labelled Muslim and Christian leaders, Indonesian society has adopted a live-and-let-live ethos that has continued unabated for centuries.

Indonesia's labelling as a basket case of corruption and terrorism denies the significant strides the country has taken since its democratic reformation a decade ago. The fact it survived its historic bloodshed and iron fisted rule without falling apart is the miracle of the Indonesian story.

I found races of this in the Indonesian Centre for Islam and Pluralism, a Jakarta based NGO that specialises in conflict resolution among communities and working with Islamic boarding schools in preaching a message of an inclusive Islam.

It is also in the ingenuity of Sekolah Citra Alam, an award winning kindergarten that is a leading innovator in the field of environmental education, where children of all faiths are taught planting techniques and environmental conservation at the age of three.

And it is in the plethora of youth magazines self-published by socially conscious students who don't require a government summit to be reminded of their democratic right to be politically active.

The Indonesians I met haven't forgotten the kindness Aussies have shown in the aftermath of the harrowing 2004 tsunami. But what is most required now is an influx of social capital. Exchange programs should continue looking beyond the political and educational bubble to include the unsung heroes of everyday society such as welfare workers, teachers, nurses, local police and small business owners.

The resulting exchange of experiences and practical ideas between normal Australians and Indonesians will immeasurably empower both countries in combating the growing tide of ignorance. It could also do as much to enrich this vital strategic alliance as the deep symbolism and ceremony of a head of state visit.

'Kevin Rudd's architecture for the Asia Pacific' (Jakarta Post)


Saeed SaeedSaeed Saeed is a Melbourne writer and youth worker. He was a participant of an Australian Indonesian cultural exchange program hosted by the Australia Indonesia Institute.


Waisak Flickr image by killermonkeys

Topic tags: saeed, kevin rudd, jakarta, indonesia, asia pacific, inter-cultural dialogue, Waisak, Borobudur Templ



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Existing comments

I agree that Indonesia is attempting a huge and potentially useful task in implementing a pluralist democracy in such an ethnically and religiously diverse country.

But it would be unrealistic to say that the attempt is bearing fruit so soon. In fact, in my opinion, Pancasila, far from being a model of interfaith relations, stands in the way of the development of genuine pluralism and democracy.

You have a Department of Religion which is there solely to maintain the supreme dominance of Islam in the political and social spheres. And now, unknown to poor Kevin, a wave of repression has broken out against a very large section of allegedly deviant Islam. the government steps in to take away the freedom of religion of millions of citizens. But for a group like Jemaah Islamiah, with their spiritual head running around off his head, it has taken a decade or more for any move at all to be taken against them. Apparently their view of Islamic action is not too objectional at all.

I am not an ignorant opponent of Indonesia or Islam. I have lived up close with both. But a lot of development is required before the Indonesian populace can come to critically examine their government system and its effect on pluralism and tolerance in their country. Take the trend to gradually overwhelm the christian majority in Papua for an instance. Within a decade, by government policy, they will be in a minority in their own country.

As yet, on each of the five large islands in Indonesia we have various mutely antipathetic 'kaum' or tribes, held in check by the allegedly overwhelming majority of power held by Islam.

Without that restraint, the forces of the new democractic cohesion are as yet vastly outweighed by forces of tribal antagonism, which would otherwise, for reasons of corruption and ineffective government if not religious oppression, break away from and dissolve the Pancasila pact and the Javanese empire altogether.

Pat Mahony | 14 June 2008  

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