The presidency of Indonesia now fits Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono like a warm glove on a winter’s day.
I met him this week for a long discussion in the sparkling colonial grandeur of his presidential palace in Jakarta, but I also saw him in a Jakarta Imax movie theatre, watching a remarkably moving documentary on the orangutans of Kalimantan.
In these and in the many other contexts I’ve observed him over the years, SBY, as he is universally known, gives the impression of a leader comfortable in his own skin, and in his own country.
Formerly a reformist army general, SBY was first elected president in 2004, and re-elected with a thumping mandate in 2009. His critics feel he has disappointed with an anaemic reform agenda.
In truth, his record is impressive. Anyone thinking back to the Indonesia of 10 years ago, much less 15 years ago, can only marvel at the process.
Take the economy. Let SBY tell the story: “Last year, our economy grew by 6.5 per cent, and we are aiming at 6.7 per cent growth this year.” That sort of growth is a very big deal for Indonesia’s 230 million people; it means literally millions coming out of poverty and entering the middle class. And at a time when credit downgrades are spreading across the globe, Indonesia has now achieved investment grade.
Says the President: “I am glad that at a time when some countries and banks are being downgraded, Indonesia has been elevated by both (rating agencies) Moody’s and Fitch. But we cannot be complacent, and we will continue to push for reforms.”
Under SBY’s leadership, democracy has been consolidated in Indonesia, with voter participation rates most countries would envy. Indonesia is now the prime exhibit for the case that Islam, democracy and economic development can be a natural combination.
Nonetheless, I ask, is there a continuing threat from Islamist extremists?
“Being an optimist, I have every confidence that democracy, Islam and modernity are the critical elements of our social fabric, and have contributed to the country’s progress,” he says.
“There was some turbulence in the early years of democratic transition, but today we are a strong democracy based on religious freedom. The vast majority of Indonesian Muslims embrace moderation and tolerance. Yes, we do continue to face the challenge of extremism, as in many other countries, and some terrorist cells still exist. But they will not shake our commitment to democracy and they will not change the character of mainstream Indonesia as peace loving and freedom-loving people.”
I ask the President about the shocking killings of some members of the Ahmadiya sect, which mainstream Muslims regard as heretical because they regard their founder as a prophet. His response is an important statement of core Indonesian values: “The problem surrounding Ahmadiya followers is a sensitive issue in Indonesia, particularly among our Islamic organisations. I believe it is also a challenge in other Muslim majority nations. The killing last year of some Ahmadiya members shocked the nation and those responsible have been held accountable. First and foremost, Ahmadiya followers are our fellow citizens and we have a duty to protect them from harm.”
SBY is the most pro-Australian president Indonesia has ever had. He instinctively looks for ways to cooperate with Australia and it may well be, as one analyst recently argued, that relations between the two countries will never be better than they are now.
On the other hand, the governments in Jakarta and Canberra are building a dense web of cooperation which serves both nations’ interests.
SBY describes Australia as “not only a close neighbour, but a close friend”. Naturally, he will not be drawn on the Rudd-Gillard struggle, except to say he hopes Australia’s leadership issues are resolved peacefully and quickly, because the relationship with Australia is so important for Indonesia.
“The comprehensive partnership (between Australia and Indonesia) is on track,” SBY declares. “There have been some hiccups, for example on the issue of the live cattle export ban, but the relationship is strong and can withstand such challenges. I think the challenge is how to deepen this relationship to capture more public imagination. We need to minimise the perception gap that exists at the grassroots level on both sides. I think people-to-people relationships are the key to a robust partnership.”
But SBY is ambitious for the relationship and calls for Canberra and Jakarta to cooperate more on global issues, not least on global financial management.
“Indonesia and Australia work closely to institutionalise the G20 summit process and its follow-up cooperation,” he says. “I recall a number of my phone conversations with prime minister Gillard and also with former prime minister Kevin Rudd on this issue. This is the latest example of how Indonesia and Australia can make a difference globally. There is a great deal of work to do on global issues.”
The President also echoes the Gillard government’s view that a regional approach is necessary to tackle people-smuggling. He says: “As a major transit country for the illegal movement of people from central and southern Asia to Australia, Indonesia has continually emphasized that this issue can never be dealt with by a single country on its own. This is not something new for Indonesia and the region, as we were also a major transit country for people fleeing Indochina in the 1970s.”
SBY emphasizes Indonesia’s preference for the issue to be dealt with under the auspices of the Bali process, which Indonesia and Australia co-founded in 2002.
The two nations do not always see eye-to-eye on regional issues, however. The announcement of US troop rotations through Darwin drew some criticism in Indonesia. SBY says he raised the troop rotations with both US President Barack Obama and Gillard, and both assured him the presence of the troops “does not threaten any country in the region”.
As a confidence-building measure, he has suggested that Australia and the US conduct disaster relief exercises involving as many regional countries as possible, including China.
One of the many ways in which the SBY presidency has been of critical importance to Australia is that it has seen Indonesia re-emerge into the role of natural leader of Asean as an institution and of Southeast Asia as a region.
The President last year hosted the historic East Asia Summit in Bali which saw the US and Russia admitted as full members of the EAS. This means that the EAS is the key institution of which both the US and China are members, and which has a mandate to discuss and deal with regional security issues.
SBY describes the Bali meeting as ushering in a “new chapter” for the EAS. This was a key foreign policy aim of Rudd as PM, and one which Gillard has maintained (though with less obvious personal investment), namely the integration of the US and China, in part, through the EAS.
SBY is optimistic about the prospects of promoting sensible regional cooperation between the US and China. Indeed, he makes it plain that he, and the region, expect no less.
“The US and China are becoming increasingly interdependent economically. I believe each is invested in the progress of the other. I am sure that the leaders in Beijing and Washington strongly realise that the US and China need to construct a different kind of 21st-century relationship.”
SBY makes it clear that this is a regional expectation. He says: “I believe that every country in the region wants to have good relations with both America and China, and we also see our relationship with them as complementary and win-win. We all want the US and China to work together to be part of solutions to regional and global issues.
“In many ways, the East Asia Summit is an ideal forum for America and China to work with other countries to advance regional cooperation based on equal partnership. But the Asia Pacific belongs to all countries in the region. And that is why Beijing and Washington also need to work closely with the other regional countries.”
But perhaps SBY’s most distinctive and remarkable contribution on an international issue, so far, has been his little-known role in fostering political liberalisation in Burma. “The political events in Myanmar (Burma) are one of the most encouraging recent developments in Southeast Asia,” he says. “It was no easy road, and we need to encourage them to continue on this path to democracy and reforms.”
SBY believes Burma has done enough for Indonesia, and Asean more generally, to look forward to its assuming the chairmanship of Asean in 2014, a huge political development.
There is probably no foreign leader who has been more influential in the unfolding events in Burma, as SBY reveals in our interview. “I can reveal to you now that we tried to do our part by engaging (former Burmese dictator) Senior general Than Shwe several years ago in a process of personal correspondence.
“It was an initiative that I personally took and kept to only very limited circles. Through such personal correspondence I was able to communicate with Senior general Than Shwe on sensitive issues away from the media spotlight, without posturing, in ways that were frank but constructive.
“That correspondence, which involved several letters back and forth, allowed me to develop trust and confidence. From these interactions I became more and more convinced of the efficacy of engagement rather than sanctions or isolation.”
SBY also reveals that he has conducted a private correspondence with Aung San Suu Kyi, encouraging her in her democracy campaign. He also acted as the chief international interlocutor in recent months with Burma’s president, Thien Sein, whom he describes as an old friend.
SBY says that he has emphasized support both for democracy in Burma, but also for Burma’s national unity and territorial integrity. “For us, they are two sides of the same coin,” he says.
“Indonesia went through the same ordeal, and we know how much national unity and territorial integrity are critically important during transitions. If you only talk about one issue without the other, then you are less likely to receive a positive response.
“I have a conviction that our (Indonesia’s) transformation, including the TNI (military) reform, is relevant to be shared with Myanmar, as we used to have a political system dominated by the role of the military.”
SBY has emerged as the senior statesman of Southeast Asia and is gradually bringing Indonesia into a position of global influence commensurate with its size and potential. It’s a giant task, and one which he has carried on in almost unbelievable cooperation and good spirit with Canberra.
There was absolutely nothing inevitable about this. Though the future holds no guarantees, under his leadership SBY has given Australia the most benign possible version of our giant neighbour. It is an Indonesia with which we are slowly becoming, if not quite relaxed, at least distinctly more comfortable. The relationship may not yet fit like an old glove, but it’s no hair shirt either.