Fri, 09 Aug 2002

U.S. not perfect, but willing to improve

Ralph L. Boyce, Ambassador, U.S. Embassy to Indonesia, Jakarta

We live in an increasingly interconnected world with more and more barriers between people falling each day. These new contacts open opportunities for trade, cultural exchange, and improved understanding. However, jarring new contacts as well as long simmering old animosities can flare up into violence and conflict more quickly as the barriers and filters that once separated different racial, ethnic, tribal and national groups melt away.

This is true between nations but it is also true within nations. This is globalization, as my friend Tom Friedman says, it is "The One Big Thing people should focus on." This will require us to come up with new and better ways of dealing with each other both internationally and within Indonesia -- especially with the lifting of many of the old constraints of Soeharto era.

Indonesia, like the United States, has always been a richly diverse country; that diversity coupled with its abundant natural resources ensures Indonesia's bright future. The people of Indonesia have a largely embraced pluralism, seeking contact and trade with others, showing tolerance and respect for differences in belief. Long before the first Portuguese or Dutch trader arrived on the shores of Java, coastal principalities and inland sultanates had begun a lucrative trade in spice, cloth, grain, and gold between Maluku, Sulawesi, Java, and Sumatra. From ports of these islands, traders sent goods to China, India, and southern Arabia half a world away.

During this period of remarkable growth, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam came to Sumatra and Java, further enriching an archipelago already characterized by perhaps as many as 500 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups. At a few times and in a few places in the pre-colonial period, Nusantara's rulers applied harsh and absolute rule forcing religious minorities to convert to Islam. In Java, the Malay Peninsula, and southern Sulawesi, as noted scholar Robert Hefner writes, "the law was applied with a gentler pluralistic hand." Similarly, Sir Thomas Raffles remarked that Java's legal administration in 1817 was "a prerogative liberally exercised" and diversity of belief respected.

Nevertheless, as the archipelago fell under ever-tighter colonial rule, most native residents of the Dutch East Indies suffered rough justice that pit one group against another to prevent unified opposition.

In the United States the framers of our constitution took pains to ensure that the tyranny of the majority would not trample the rights of the minority. Most of the amendments to the U.S. constitution deal with protecting the rights of individuals either from the government or from the majority. Similarly, in Indonesia at the time of independence, Sukarno, Mohammed Hatta, Sutan Sjahrir, and Mohammed Yamin worked hard to bind together a diverse nation and protect the rights of all of Indonesia's citizens.

"Even in family," Hatta said, "the members still must have the right to express their feelings in order to take care of the collectivity." Hatta knew that what makes pluralism work, prevents conflicts, and keeps economies growing are strong institutions, a clear legal framework, and impartial justice.

That framework ensures that when one member of society violates the rights of another those institutions will resolve the problem fairly and conflicts will not escalate from the level of individuals to the level of communities.

Unfortunately, Hatta's spirit of unity, along with the rule of law, suffered soon after independence. Numerous groups felt aggrieved by what they considered the broken promises of the independence struggle, separatist fighting ensued, and the break down the political system opened the door to Sukarno's "guided democracy." Exploitation of political, religious, and ethnic differences followed and worsened further during the Soeharto era. Ethnic and religious groups were increasingly pitted against each other and "the law" served the interests of only a privileged few.

In 1998, the vice-grip of the Asian financial crisis and long pent-up demands for reform and democracy squeezed the New Order out of power. In the absence of a functioning, transparent justice system, the cynical exploitation of inter-group conflicts resulted in repeated eruptions of violence in Jakarta against ethnic Chinese, in the Moluccas and Central Sulawesi between Muslims and Christians, and in Kalimantan between indigenous Dyaks and ethnic Madurese.

It is no coincidence that billions of dollars of corruption came to light at the same time these conflicts ignited. The absence of the rule of law deepened both the economic and the social crises that struck Indonesia.

Indonesia is not the only country to have faced these challenges. In the United States, early in our history our forefathers hotly debated the question of religious freedom and role of religion in government. In the 1600s in New York and Massachusetts, efforts by the Dutch Reformed Church and Congregationalists, respectively, to institute an official religion led to lawsuits and civil disobedience. By the time of our independence, the view that people should be entitled to their own beliefs had won the day. Nevertheless, the role of religion in our society is still a matter of debate.

During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, racial and ethnic conflict and recognition of the need to respect the rights of minorities drove a series of landmark civil-rights legislation and changes in popular attitudes that transformed the United States. American Nobel laureate Martin Luther King, Jr. put it best when he said in 1963 that "we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is is the time to make real the promises of democracy."

Ethnic or religious violence still occurs from time to time today in the United States, but the government investigates and prosecutes it vigorously. This certainty dissuades those who would try to inflame group conflicts and reassures those who may be harmed that they need not, and should not, take the law into their own hands.

Today, America is wrestling with billion dollar corporate scandals and the challenge of cleaning up enormous financial mess that those scandals have left. As we did with our own savings and loan crisis almost 20 years ago, the United States government is investigating these cases carefully, prosecuting those who have committed crimes. In fact, our Congress has already passed new legislation to prevent it from happening again. President Bush recently signed tough new legislation regarding accounting transparency and prosecutors arrested officials of Worldcom and several other companies for securities fraud.

This paper was presented during the Castle Asia Conference on Pluralism, Intergroup Conflict, and National Economic Recovery in Jakarta on Aug. 7.