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The Washington Quarterly 25.3 (2002) 135-146

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A Failed State?

Jusuf Wanandi

Is Indonesia a failed state? Even after almost five years of multiple crises—economic, political, social, and cultural—one could not say that of Indonesia today. Indonesia has become a weak state, but not a failed one. Nevertheless, the question is valid: If the crisesIndonesia faces continue for another 5-10 years, could the country become a failed state? Because this outcome is not impossible, the Indonesian elite should overcome its differences and forge a degree of unity to try to find solutions to the various crises besetting the country. The leadership must prioritize their actions, but are they able to do so?

After the fall of President Suharto (1967-1998), the elite gave little attention to unity and the national interest because the government had mismanaged these objectives during Suharto's rule, which used authoritarian methods. Instead, the pendulum swung in the other direction, and the focus became group or individual interests. At last, after so many years of misery and strife, a sense of urgency and willingness to put the Indonesian house in order again is emerging. The elite seem to be renewing a sense of national unity and ordering the government's priorities to restart the engine of economic development that just recently held so much promise for Indonesia.

History of the Nation-Building Process

Observers often refer to some earlier Hindu kingdoms such as Sriwijaya and Majapahit as the precursors of the Indonesian nation. In the modern sense, however, the country's existence is based on Indonesia's nationalist movement, which first started in Java in 1908 and then spread throughout the archipelago. [End Page 135] In 1928, youth from across the islandspledged to build one country, one language, and one nation—a pledge that became the basic principle of the nation and the state. Indeed, the battle against Dutch colonialism in the form of the Netherlands East Indies was the only real unifying factor that led to the establishment of the Indonesian nation and state.

After the Republic of Indonesia was established in 1945 following colonialism, nationalism, and revolution, the elite among the various ethnic groups, religions, and races were all determined to establish a new national identity and, in so doing, subdue the political consciousness of their own separate groups. Indonesia has more than 490 ethnic groups. Although almost 90 percent of Indonesians follow Islam, Indonesia has many Protestants, Catholics, Hindus, and Buddhists, among other religious groups. The state has no official religion but recognizes the aforementioned ones. Racial groups such as Chinese, Arabs, and Europeans constitute Indonesia's minorities.

Although a federal system of government may be most suitable for accommodating these groups, Indonesians never seriously considered constructing one because of the overwhelming depth of the diversity. Moreover, because the Dutch first proposed a federal system in 1948 for neocolonialist reasons, a stigma attached to this form of government, which became unacceptable to the political elite.

Presidents Sukarno and Suharto addressed the problem of unity by adopting an authoritarian system that lasted for 40 years (8 years and 32 years under each ruler, respectively). The two presidents tried to strengthen Jakarta's role as manager of the various regions. Sukarno initially tried to accomplish this task with his charisma and charm; he eventually resorted to authoritarianism and military might to solve some conflicts. Suharto mainly used the army as a second line of authority to centralize the political system and the bureaucracy. As a result, extensive regional autonomy has now become an important issue on the national agenda. The government can never enforce Indonesia's unity by might alone. In the end, a political systemso stymied by force from the center in Jakarta will arouse only rebellions and insurgencies.

In 1999 the government enacted new autonomy laws (Law Nos. 22 and 25) that provide for full participation of about 400 districts (kabupaten)in governing the country. Implementation could begin messily, but in the long run the new laws should give the regions a strong sense of belonging and, in turn, give Indonesia another chance...


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