Indonesian Foreign Policy: ‘A Million Friends and Zero Enemies’

Bimo Yusman and Ted Piccone

After nearly ten years in office, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (widely known as SBY) will hand power this July to an elected successor in competitive multi-party elections. His efforts to consolidate Indonesia’s democracy and expand its economy have yielded tangible gains across a variety of measures, with much more room to improve. His mark on Indonesian foreign policy, while rooted in nonalignment and pragmatism, has been noteworthy for its willingness to address values of democracy and human rights head-on. What will this legacy mean for Indonesia’s potential as a leader for other societies, particularly from the Muslim world?

Indonesia’s first directly elected president, SBY came to power in 2004 with more than 60 percent of the vote; in 2009, he won re-election in the first round by a similarly wide margin. After a tumultuous transition following the 1998 downfall of the despot President Suharto, the relative success of these two elections, and the country’s acceptance of the results, propelled Indonesia’s rapid transformation into a flourishing democracy and economic dynamo with a rapidly expanding middle class. Now, with SBY unable to seek a third term due to constitutionally mandated term limits, the race is on to succeed him.

Several figures have emerged at the forefront. Abdul Rizal Bakrie, head of a successful business conglomerate, is the leading candidate for the Golkar Party, the ruling party during General Suharto’s 32-year reign. Prabowo Subianto, a former Special Forces commander under Suharto who ran unsuccessfully for vice president in 2009, heads the Gerindra Party ticket. Joko Widodo, the current governor of the capital city Jakarta, is most favored to become the next president according to nationwide polls.

Unlike Bakrie and Prabowo, Jokowi (as he is known), is a relatively new politician who made his name in the post-Suharto era. He has a reputation for being an honest politician with a can-do attitude, detached from the old political guard embodied by Bakrie and Prabowo. Although he is a favorite to win, it remains unclear whether he will run if his party’s leader, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, chooses to make another claim for the presidency. As the campaign heats up, one thing is certain: most of the presidential hopefuls will focus on tackling domestic issues such as improving infrastructure and curbing corruption. During the past year, SBY’s Democratic Party has been marred by corruption scandals and his political image has taken a hit.

While his domestic policy agenda may now be in jeopardy, it seems that SBY’s foreign policy legacy will largely remain unscathed as his term comes to an end. Much credit should be given to his administration for guiding Indonesia to economic prosperity and international prominence in the last ten years. He has worked to expand Indonesia’s clout on the international stage mainly through its active leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and closer cooperation with India, Australia and China. SBY’s administration has been eager to share its experiences on democratic transition with other leaders of aspiring democracies, including Myanmar and Egypt, and hosts an annual Asia-Pacific forum on democracy designed to lend legitimacy to a political reform agenda. SBY also has chosen gradually to increase Indonesia’s international profile by taking part in the G-20 summits and co-chairing the UN Secretary General’s 27-member High Level Panel on the Post-2015 (Millennium Development Goals) Development Agenda.  Although this strategy has elevated Indonesia’s standing in the international spotlight, doubts on its rise as an influential global player persist, as SBY’s administration has avoided major commitments that would compromise its historic preference for neutrality and non-interference.

Benign Internationalism and Human Rights

To understand Indonesia’s current foreign policy behavior, one must delve into its recent history. Just like politicians in the United States who channel its founding fathers, Indonesian leaders look to their independence heroes for inspiration. After gaining independence in 1945, Indonesia’s first president—Sukarno—pursued a “free and active” foreign policy strategy. The strategy entailed protecting its own national interests, not aligning with major world powers (i.e. the Soviet Union and the United States), and forming strong bonds with other non-aligned countries such as India. During this period, Indonesia became one of the leading members of the Non-Aligned Movement, which grew out of the group’s founding conference hosted by Indonesia in Bandung in 1955. After General Suharto came to power (1967-98), however, Indonesia kept a lower international profile and cultivated close relations with Washington and other Western economic powers in order to develop its economy.

What we see in Indonesia’s current foreign policy stance is a blending of these two strategies. It is engaging with the international milieu of both major and minor powers, but still holding back on making significant commitments that could challenge its preference of remaining relatively neutral in international disputes. In a country obsessed with Facebook and other social media, SBY used his 2009 inaugural address to describe the strategic outlook of Indonesia’s current foreign policy this way:

“Indonesia is facing a strategic environment where no country perceives Indonesia as an enemy and there is no country which Indonesia considers an enemy. Thus Indonesia can exercise its foreign policy freely in all directions, having a million friends and zero enemies.”

For Indonesia, having “a million friends and zero enemies” does much to help sustain its impressive growth in foreign trade and investment. It also helps explain its reluctance to take hard human rights positions that might upset major economic partners that have poor human rights records, such as China. Furthermore, Indonesia is generally timid in making strong commitments to uphold human rights at the international level because it continues to struggle with its own human rights issues. Recently, for example, Indonesia has seen a significant uptick in religious intolerance and government infringement on civil rights and liberties. As the Muslim world’s largest democracy, such troubling internal human rights issues pose a real threat to the credibility of its leaders’ claim to be a beacon of democracy for other fragile democracies.

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Indonesia’s longstanding preference for non-intervention and opposition to external attempts to meddle in others’ internal affairs align conveniently with its desire to avoid international criticism of its own domestic agenda. This is one motivation behind Indonesia’s failure to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Amid calls from the DPR (House of Representatives) to ratify the Statute, Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro stated:

“We’ve already got a law on human rights, a law on human rights tribunals and the Constitution, all of which govern the rights and responsibilities of all citizens. All of them cover the issue of human rights. So even without ratifying [the Rome Statute], we’re already complying with the principles enshrined in it.”

Although Indonesia is generally complying with the Rome Statute, it has not officially ratified it for fear of compromising its independence to handle sensitive issues on its own. Ratifying the statute could open Indonesia to unwanted attention by the ICC and limit its options if crimes against humanity were to occur within its borders. While Indonesia is not high on anyone’s list for ICC scrutiny, religious intolerance is growing (most notably the destruction of homes belonging to the Shias of the Sampang Regency at the hands of their Sunni neighbors), and a culture of impunity prevails amongst the country’s security forces. Its elite counterterrorism unit—Densus 88—has been implicated in killings of suspected terrorists and last March, members of Kopassus—the Indonesian Special Forces—stormed Cebongan prison and executed four detainees suspected of murdering a Kopassus sergeant.

Unfortunately, this culture of impunity amongst members of the armed forces is nothing new. During Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of East Timor, its military committed atrocities against the East Timorese—most notably the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre and the spate of killings after the East Timorese independence referendum in 1999. The Santa Cruz tragedy occurred when Indonesian troops opened fire on a memorial procession at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in the East Timor capital of Dili. The East Timorese independence referendum of 1999 saw at least 1,200 East Timorese slaughtered by anti-independence militias backed by the Indonesian army.

Efforts to seek justice for the atrocities in East Timor bore no fruit. A makeshift human rights court set up by Indonesia and the UN Special Panels in East Timor tried 18 individuals for abuses committed during 1999, but all were acquitted. The CAVR, which ran from February 2002 to October 2005, accused Wiranto, Chief of the Armed Forces during 1998-99, of being complicit in the abuses committed in East Timor. The Serious Crimes Unit—a prosecutorial body within the UN Mission in East Timor—issued a warrant for Gen. (ret) Wiranto’s arrest in 2004, but the East Timorese government never forwarded it to Interpol. East Timor’s leaders have opted for a reconciliatory approach with Indonesia, rather than seeking punishment. Former East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta spoke on the issue in 2006:

“We have consciously rejected the notion of pushing for an international tribunal for East Timor because, A, it is not practical, B, it would wreck our relationship with Indonesia, and, C, we are serious about supporting Indonesia’s own transition towards democracy…In today’s Indonesia or in the foreseeable future, there will be no leader strong enough who can bring to court and prison senior military officers who were involved in violence in the past. . . . They are still too powerful.”

Indeed, these former Indonesian military officials still hold much power. Wiranto ran for the presidency in 2004, the vice presidency in 2009, and will likely run for the presidency again in 2014. Lt Gen. (ret) Prabowo—mentioned earlier as a possible presidential candidate—is alleged to have been responsible for human rights violations during the widespread rioting in Jakarta surrounding Suharto’s downfall in 1998. Although the ICC’s jurisdiction is not retroactive, Indonesia’s troubled history of impunity may give its current leaders reason enough to hold the international lawyers at bay for the foreseeable future. Regardless of the Rome Statute’s fate, the next president will have to tackle the rule of law agenda frontally, on its own or with help from the international community.

Further from home, Indonesia’s evolving views on international norms of democracy and human rights were evident in its handling of Syria. SBY suggested that Bashar al-Assad step down from power to allow for a political transition towards leadership accepted by all Syrian parties involved. SBY made the suggestion during a meeting with a delegation of Islamic scholars led by Sheikh Muhammad Ali Ash-Shobuni of Saudi Arabia on January 7, 2013.

It seemed Indonesia would take a more active approach in helping to resolve the Syrian crisis. However, Indonesia so far has done little to follow up on SBY’s statement. At the UN General Assembly on May 15, it abstained from voting for a resolution condemning al-Assad’s Syrian regime and accepting the Syrian National Coalition as party to a political transition. Foreign Minister Natalegawa summed up the reason behind the abstention:

“Indonesia is not able to support the resolution because it contains elements that run counter to the established international law and international relations by taking side with certain parties in the conflict. For Indonesia, the legitimate government of Syria is for Syrian people themselves to decide, not outside parties.”

Indonesia’s behavior towards the Syrian crisis encapsulates a shift toward a more engaged effort to encourage others to uphold international human rights and democracy norms, particularly in the Muslim world, while avoiding any meaningful, substantive action. From the Indonesian perspective, supporting the rebels would cross a line toward meddling in Syria’s affairs, which would contradict its coveted notion of non-interference. Supporting the rebels could also disappoint China and Russia and cause rifts in the already deeply divided bloc of Islamic nations.

Similarly, in regards to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, SBY has maintained Indonesia’s commitment to non-interference:

“We do not have a recipe, neither are we advising Egypt on what to do. We are not in the position to do so, and that would not be right.”

At Egypt’s request, with some gentle prodding from Jakarta, Indonesia advised Cairo in 2011 regarding organizing elections and setting up regulations on political parties. But this assistance was carefully packaged in tones of non-interference as highlighted in Foreign Minister Natalegawa’s comment:

“We used the bilateral approach, which was more acceptable and they opened up to us and invited us to come to share our experience…But we must ensure that we do it cautiously without giving the impression that we are lecturing them.”

While these examples demonstrate Indonesia’s growing engagement with the international community, it remains wedded to its historical preference for neutrality and non-interference, i.e., to have “a million friends and zero enemies.”

Apart from its limited engagement at the global level, Indonesia has taken some action within its neighborhood to promote human rights and democracy. For example, it has made concrete efforts to encourage Myanmar to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Shortly after the Burmese government crackdown on the participants of the Saffron Revolution in 2007, SBY sent retired General Agus Widjojo to cajole Myanmar’s military junta to embrace democratic transition. During the 1990s, Gen. Widjojo was known to be one of the reformist thinkers in the Indonesian military who encouraged Gen. Suharto to step down to make way for a democratic transition. Indonesia has also provided humanitarian assistance to conflict-prone areas of Myanmar, including $1 million to help build three schools in the Rakhine State. These and similar efforts to help Myanmar’s transition have drawn praise from its democratic friends, including Australia.

The Bali Democracy Forum (BDF) is another medium through which Indonesia has promoted international norms of democracy. Indonesia launched BDF in 2008 as an annual open intergovernmental forum on the development of democracy in the Asia-Pacific region. Participating countries engage in dialogue based on sharing experiences and best practices in regards to promotion of democratic ideals. The Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD)—also established in 2008—supports the BDF’s goal of instilling concepts and skills for peace and democracy through intellectual exchanges, training for practitioners, joint missions, network building, publications, and capacity building at Bali’s Udayana University where it is headquartered. It also has actively supported the creation of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), a weak but nonetheless important initiative to insert human rights into the ASEAN agenda, and appointed a civil society leader as its representative. It voluntarily held a human rights dialogue with the Commission on June 25, 2013, where it reported to the Commission on the current human rights issues within the country.

While these developments are a step in the right direction, they also highlight that Indonesia is playing it safe in taking responsibility on human rights and democracy promotion. It cautiously promotes rights in countries of the greatest immediate interest – those within its ASEAN neighborhood – with a modest and soft touch. As the champion of ASEAN, Indonesia carefully has leveraged Myanmar’s interest in the rotating presidency, which it will assume in 2014, to nudge it closer to embarking on a serious democratic transition. The Bali Democracy Forum, for all its appeal, is also criticized for its inclusivity; countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran take part in the Forum largely to pay lip service to their own credentials as “democracies.” Similarly, although Indonesia has boosted the AICHR’s influence by voluntarily opting to engage in a human rights dialogue with the Commission, ASEAN’s human rights body continues to have limited impact because it lacks a mechanism to enforce good human rights practices or to demand information from member countries. It is merely a consultative body, where member countries can choose whether or not to consult with it to improve their protection of human rights. Indonesia’s next president should use its clout in ASEAN to encourage other member nations to support the development of enforcement mechanisms for the AICHR.

SBY has taken Indonesia a great distance toward a special seat at the global table. In order for Indonesia to reach its full potential as an influential global player, its next leader should build on this record and be willing to saddle up and take on more substantive actions to promote human rights and democracy at the international level. To do so, it will have to make more commitments than it has to date to both practicing and promoting the liberal international norms it now proudly embraces. It should also invest in building the regional architecture needed to help engender and sustain democratic transitions in its own neighborhood, where it has immediate interests. If, on the other hand, Indonesia does not take the fight for human rights and democracy to the global stage, it will limit its influence as a global leader. In sum, Indonesia is making a lot of interesting noises, but isn’t really making any music yet. The country’s next president needs to continue where SBY left off, and do much more.

This article was originally published by
The Diplomat