Two decades since the end of the Suharto era, Indonesia has seen a remarkable transformation into a democracy. But the recent rise in religious intolerance and extremism threaten to jeopardize the progress made.
When former Indonesian President Suharto announced his resignation via televised address in May 1998, many people cheered. After all, he was vacating the seat of power that he had occupied for 32 years, marking the beginning of the era of "reformasi" or reform.
"Our hope was that Indonesia would be better and more peaceful and prosperous in the future," recalled Jakarta resident Donny Baskoro.
Suharto's resignation came on the heels of riots that broke out between May 13 and 14, 1998, in Jakarta and several other Indonesian cities. Mass violence, demonstrations and civil unrest of a racial nature, triggered by economic problems like food shortages and mass unemployment, claimed more than 1,000 lives. This eventually led to Suharto's departure and the fall of his New Order government.
Ironically, 20 years later, on exactly May 13 and 14, 2018, bombs exploded in Surabaya and Sidoarjo. The perpetrators were members of the fundamental Jamaah Anshorud Daulat (JAD), an outfit affiliated with "Islamist State" (IS).
"Is this the fruit of freedom of expression championed by reformasi?" asked Aloysius Denny, one of the parishioners of the Maria Tak Bercela Catholic church in Surabaya, one of the three bomb targets in Surabaya.
Many experts believe that over the last two decades, following Suharto's departure, there has been an improvement in civil liberties in the Southeast Asian nation, including freedom of expression and association.
The post-New Order Indonesia has also experienced peaceful decentralization, the transformation of the military and the demilitarization of the government and police, and the rise of many independent political parties.
The country has also witnessed the increased participation of women in public affairs, the mushrooming of civil society organizations, the rise of civilian regimes, the growth of a free press, as well as the implementation of free elections, among others.
Yet, the post-New Order era gave birth to other issues as well.
"The biggest disappointment of the post-Suharto era is the rise of national and transnational Islamist movements and anti-pluralist groupings," Sumanto al Qurtuby, a cultural anthropologist at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, told DW.
Tunggal Pawestri, a human rights and diversity activist, says democracy in Indonesia has been on the decline recently and has yet to be enjoyed by minority groups, such as Christians or Ahmadi Muslims. "These groups may at times be attacked and the state cannot provide them with ample protection. They are attacked by religious vigilante groups that have the ability to 'intimidate the state,'" she told DW.
This religious intolerance, according to rights activist Wimar Witoelar, has been exacerbated by politicians exploiting the issue. "In last year's provincial elections in Jakarta, former Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was hampered by the issue of blasphemy."
Sirojudin Abbas, Program Director of Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC), told DW that the struggle of institutionalizing democracy in Indonesia will continue during the coming elections and beyond. With imminent parallel legislative and presidential elections, the political environment is heating up. The use of religious-laced political rhetoric may fill public spheres and fuel divisive sentiments.
"Like during last year's Jakarta governor election, religious rhetoric facilitated by an explosive social media campaign could again become the main tool of political mobilization," he warned.
Meanwhile, Alissa Wahid from the Wahid Institute argues that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the reform-era Indonesia was inseparable from global influence. Religious sentiments that often lead to acts of terrorism may be heartbreaking, but according to her, Indonesia’s democracy is not threatened by terrorism.
"We now need a leader who can be a role model, and who can motivate the people and work towards building a modern Indonesian democracy," Haris Azhar, director of the Lokataru Foundation, a human rights organization, told DW.
Helping Indonesia's poor
Activist Tunggal Pawestri underlined that the government should be more assertive. "Open up space for a fair battle of ideas. The right should not be constantly given space to campaign openly, while the left and liberals are constantly silenced," she argued.
When Suharto assumed power in 1967, it was followed by the worst mass murder in the country's history, with allegedly up to three million Communist Party of Indonesia (KPI) members and sympathizers killed in a couple of years. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned without trial.
Ariel Heryanto, a professor of Indonesian studies at Monash University, told DW that the overall picture is heartening now. However, he added, a lot more needs to be done to improve the nation's civil rights. "Civil rights and personal freedoms have not been the best areas of progress in post-1998 Indonesia. The New Order's anti-communist propaganda remains alive and kicking. Respect and tolerance in inter-faith relations have worsened," he said.
Sirojudin said that most Indonesians believe that despite some weaknesses, democracy remains the best political system for their country.
"Authoritarianism or religious-based political systems are not suitable for such a culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse country as Indonesia. In a way, this could indicate an early phase of democratic maturity," he told DW, adding that this is the test for democracy in a Muslim-majority country.
"If Indonesia survives in these upcoming elections, the country will enjoy a stronger institutionalization of democracy."