Voices about Asia: ‘Indonesia did not collapse’ – Interview with Professor Ehito Kimura

Prof. Ehito Kimura earned his education at many excellent universities. He received his Bachelor of Science of Foreign Science degree at Georgetown University in 1996, MA in International Relations at Yale University in 2001, and PhD in Political Science at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006. In 2006-2007 he was a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, and since 2006 he has been also working as an Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

Prof. Kimura’s research focuses mainly on Indonesia, and especially on the post-Suharto (post-1998) period with an emphasis on political change and transformation, issues of marginality and periphery, phenomena of decentralization and democratization in Indonesia. Thus, he is an author of numerous articles and conference papers on subjects related to Indonesia. He is also currently working on a book manuscript entitled Proliferating Provinces: Territoriality in Post-Suharto Indonesia.



             I really wanted to include a Southeast Asian country in the ‘Voices about Asia’, so a meeting with Prof. Ehito Kimura was a sort of great luck at the end of 2011. When I asked Prof. Kimura to meet with me on Dec. 6, 2011 on a very short notice, I was about to leave Hawai’i for good in a week. He was kind enough to agree to this last-minute interview, and share his knowledge about Indonesia and his research. Prof. Kimura is one of the few professors in Hawai’i, who deal with the subject of post-Suharto Indonesia, which makes him an unusual and valuable scholar in the field of international relations and political science.

            In this interview Prof. Kimura talks about Indonesia not only on a domestic, but also international level. He raises issues of transformation, decentralization, democratization, nationalism, civil society, colonialism and post-colonialism, etc. in Indonesia, but also emphasizes different levels of interaction of this country with other states, e.g. within ASEAN, within East Asia (especially in regard to Japan and China), and the West. Above all, Prof. Kimura intends to say that Indonesia ‘did not collapse’ after 1998, but transformed and now moves on into the new era of possible leadership in the Southeast Asian region.

– Małgorzata Citko

Małgorzata Citko: Thank you so much for the meeting today. I would like to ask first, what specific subjects do you deal with in regards to Indonesia?

Prof. Kimura: My main area of focus is the issue of political change in Indonesia. I started off with an interest in East Asia, Japan, China, Korea, etc. as an undergraduate student. In the mid- to late-1990’s there were many interesting things going on in Southeast Asia. For example, the Asian Tigers, as they were called, were growing and becoming more politically confident and they spoke of Asian values, which was an interesting and controversial political concept. Then the Asian financial crisis happened and these economies that were flying high in the 1990’s collapsed which lead to massive political change in the regions.

While all of this was happening I began to focus my interest in Southeast Asia. I spent some time in the Philippines, Thailand, etc., but it was Indonesia that was most interesting to me. Indonesia had a strong, centralized authoritarian regime in the 1960’s and arguably from the 1950’s onward, up until 1998. There were international issues related to East Timor, human rights violations, military violations, etc. It became interesting to see how Indonesia would transform itself after 1998.

My research has since been broadly about that transformation and trying to look at it comparatively, that is, what does it mean for other countries undergoing similar transitions. My main project was to examine the process of democratization and decentralization. The interesting question for me was Indonesia’s survival. In 1998, after the collapse of the Suharto regime (General Suharto was second President of Indonesia in March 27, 1968 – May 21, 1998), many people questioned the state’s survival. It is a multi-ethnic state with separatist movements not just in East Timor but also in Aceh (located on the northern tip of island of Sumatra) and Papua (western half of island of New Guinea). These issues began to be discussed, especially when then-President Bill Clinton was talking about the implications of supporting an East Timor withdrawal. Clinton asked what would happen to these other places and raised the question if this would be the collapse of Indonesia, and so on. People were also comparing it with the experience of Yugoslavia, and talking about the potential ‘Balkanization’ of Indonesia. I found this all interesting but took it in a different direction.

I noticed that Indonesia did not collapse. In fact, it stayed strong and resilient as a country. However, there were many territorial changes happening internally. In particular, I focused on the territorial dimensions of new provinces and new districts that were being created. I wanted to understand the phenomenon of why this was occurring rather than what we expected, which was more external fragmentation and collapse. Instead, it was an internal fragmentation.

What connections do you see between the end of the Suharto regime, decentralization and democratization?

It has been argued that true decentralization requires real democratization, because it involves giving more autonomy to the particular regions and this is hard to do in a centralized authoritarian state. In theory, it could be otherwise, but not typically. Indonesia undertook something called the ‘big bang decentralization.’ This was one of the biggest decentralization measures introduced and it was done at the district level as opposed to the provincial level. Districts are smaller political zones. Concerns arose about how to manage this as there are 30 some provinces and 500 some districts. If you give the districts more autonomy than the provinces then there are logistical problems. On the other hand, doing this at the province level might promote broader disintegration. The whole initiative of decentralization was based on the context of being a centrally run country for so long, even though there were such broad cultural and political differences historically in the archipelago. Introducing these measures at the district level was seen as something necessary to the reform process, both democratization and decentralization.

Do you think that the term ‘regionalization’ applies to Indonesia, perhaps in comparison to similar processes in Europe?

Indonesia is still a unitary state. Even though it seems as though they are giving more autonomy and decentralization, the definition of federalism requires this autonomy be embedded into the constitution. Indonesia is not a federal state on this definition. In other words, the state could take that power back whenever they wanted to. For comparison, the United States Constitution requires the approval of three-fourths of the state legislatures to pass an amendment. In that context, there is tension in Indonesia. Indonesian nationalism is still there and people still consider themselves Indonesian. However, there are groups that also consider themselves ethnically Minangkabau, ethnically Javanese, or ethnically Minahasa, etc. I try to argue that there are ways in which the experiences of some groups have been in the context of the Indonesian revolution and Indonesian nationalism. In some ways, it is a regionalization, but also it is a form of nationalization. There is still an assertion of Indonesia national identity in terms of one people, one language, one country, etc.

How did the post-Suharto period affect civil society?

A number of significant things have happened. There is clearly a more vibrant civil society with freedom of speech and the media allowing them to report on things that they would not be able to report on 15-20 years ago. There are many more NGOs working on environmental issues, labor issues, human rights issues, etc. There are marches on the street. Almost everyday there are demonstrations in front of the palace.

There is also a flip-side phenomenon going on where people are talking about Islamic identities that are starting to emerge much more strongly than they would have in the period of Suharto, in part, because the Suharto regime was so religiously repressive, especially in the early and middle years. For example, they merged many religious political parties into singular parties, they did not allow government officials to wear Islamic dress, etc. There has been a resurgence of Muslim practices and identity at the societal level more recently. Which is in contrast to the Muslim political parties who are not doing that well, comparatively. There have also been concerns about fundamentalism. At Ramadan some groups try to intimidate others whom they think are not observing the rules of Ramadan properly, etc. Experts have noted that the religious tenor within society has become more tense. All of this plays into the state of post-1998 civil society.

What do you consider to be the ‘periphery’ with regards to Indonesian nationalism?

Historically, the center/periphery debate was essentially talking about Java on one hand and the outer islands on the other. It was mostly geographical, with Jakarta located on Java, an island with 60-70% of the population. It was argued that there was a political and cultural Javanization going on in Indonesia. To some extent, these concerns might continue. However, in the decentralization era, the idea has been to give a more equitable voice to the differing regions. For example, during the Suharto regime, most governors of the outer islands were appointed and often times they were either military, Javanese or Golkar, the main political party. Now, there is more of a movement to elect governors from the region, or from different political parties, or non-military. There was some concern that this might create fragmentation but the fact that these regions can elect individuals from their area is empowering.

So it has been a real transformation of the periphery?

Yes. Academics will always notice the threat of problems after decentralization such as corruption, cronyism, nepotism, etc. In fact, there have been ways in which the centralized government has been trying to take back their power with regards to appointing regional governors. Despite these problems, the decentralization initiative is there and there to stay. The good outweighs the bad.

Can you speak a bit more about nationalism in Indonesia?

When people talk about Indonesian nationalism they talk about national ideology, Pancasila. It has five pillars of belief in one God, just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy guided by inner wisdom arising out of deliberation, and social justice for all people of Indonesia. Within this Indonesian nationalism there are fragments of ethnic nationalism and religious nationalism, claiming that Indonesia should be Islamic, etc. At this time, Indonesian nationalism is based on that national ideology and is not particularly threatening. Though there are sometimes nationalist tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Is this nationalism specifically in opposition to some other entity or nation?

Not right now. Historically, Indonesian nationalism and foreign policy are related to Indonesia having been part of the Non-Aligned Movement (a group of states that do not consider themselves formally aligned with or against any major power), having been very anti-United States, trying to maintain independence from great world powers and go along with India on various issues, etc. Right now, Indonesian nationalism is trying to play a more global international role but has yet to be a big force in the post-Suharto era.

What are the priorities of Indonesian foreign policy making and how would you situate it with regards to the rest of Southeast Asia?

Indonesian foreign policy has changed a lot since 1998. Internationally, it always had a black eye with regards to East Timor and being a military-authoritarian state. Now, Indonesian foreign policy has opened up and sees itself strategically playing a larger role in global affairs. It is the fourth largest country in the world. It is the largest Muslim country in the world. It is one of the largest democracies in the world, etc. There are many more voices influencing the public policy voice now that it is a democracy. The strength of the Indonesian President and whether he can work well with the foreign policy team affects matters, as well, in a way that would not have mattered during the authoritarian era.  Now, democratized Indonesia is trying to play a larger role within Asia and within the world. It is the only Southeast Asian country in the G20. There are still residues of the Non-Aligned Movement in that they do not want to be too pro-America or pro-China, etc. However, there are all sorts of dilemmas here that are ongoing as part of a foreign policy in the making. Regardless, Indonesia has yet to realize its full potential on the international scene.

What are Indonesia’s regional priorities?

Definitely the creation and maintenance of an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) free-trade zone and Indonesia playing a key leadership role within ASEAN, are top priorities. As a democracy, Indonesia sees itself as being able to be a broker in cases with Myanmar/Burma or in conflicts between Cambodia and Thailand, etc. Since Indonesia chaired ASEAN in 2011 they see themselves as mediating these affairs. Therefore, not only being a leader in ASEAN but also being a representative for Southeast Asia on the global stage.

Are there other countries in the region aspiring to the same goals?

The countries that are in potential leadership positions are countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand to some extent. Since the 1950’s one of Indonesia’s main competitors has been Malaysia and there have been issues with the history of Konfrantasi (the Indonesian/Malaysia confrontation in 1962-1966), with immigration and migration, etc. Indonesia is recognized as clearly the largest country in the region and also politically powerful, so it is going to play a significant role, one way or another. I am not sure that it will come naturally. However, there is a definite effort to play up Indonesia’s leadership capabilities by the current Foreign Minister (Marty Natalegawa) both regionally and globally.

What is the influence of regional post-colonialism on Indonesia, particularly in policy related to Japan?

I have a particular interest in the historical legacy of Japan and other colonial powers in the region, and how it relates to war crimes, ‘comfort women’ (women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military in WWII), etc. If you compare East Asia and Southeast Asia, it appears that Japan has better political relations with Southeast Asia then with East Asia on these issues. The ‘comfort women’ issue, the Nanjing massacre (1937-1938), etc. are explosive topics in East Asia. I do not understand how these are not politicized issues in Southeast Asia, because there were ‘comfort women’ and massacres in Southeast Asia, the Manila Massacre (1945) and the Burma Thailand Railroad (1942-1945) for example.

I have a research interest in understanding the different types of dynamics with that colonial past. I think one could argue that domestic political structures in those places involved more reparations, historical ties and admission of what happened in Southeast Asia than there really was in terms of what happened in East Asia. Yet, there were ‘comfort women’ in Manila and in Indonesia. In the past, they have come forward and there has been talk of reparations, of payment, etc. In the 1970’s there were the Tanaka Riots (also known as The Malari Incident or the Fifteenth of January Disaster, protests against a visit by then-Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, 1974) and demonstrations against Japan. I think the dynamics of East and Southeast Asia, in terms of Japanese colonial legacy has been different.

Do you think that Soft Power foreign policy tools are playing a role in this difference?

I do. I think Soft Power as well as culture, like anime and Japanese brands, create a softer image. In fact, Christine Yano (Chair of the Anthropology Department, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa) has written about these issues in an interesting kind of way. These may be reasons why the Southeast Asian experience has been somewhat different from the East Asian experience. The Japanese were also in Southeast Asia for a shorter amount of time. They really colonized Korea and parts of China, whereas in Southeast Asia they colonized but were kicked out after a couple of years. If you speak to the older folks in Indonesia they will tell you that they remember the Japanese colonization and the treatment by the Japanese soldiers. As someone who is Japanese, it is somewhat awkward because I know that those atrocities did take place. However, it does not produce the same visceral reaction that it does in East Asia.

I want to ask a similar question but with regards to China. There are varying opinions on China’s role in the region, what is Indonesia’s position?

There are two parts to this issue. First, Indonesia sees lots of opportunities because Southeast Asia has such a large Chinese diasporic community. The ethnic Chinese in Indonesia are a small part of the population and have, at times, been seen as a scapegoat of sorts. Yet, there is a lot of economic growth coming into Southeast Asia from China. It is just the reality that China is a huge economic power right now and it is likely to continue being such.

The other side to this is in terms of raw foreign policy. Take the South China Sea, for instance. A lot of people are concerned that China is exerting its economic, political and military muscle in terms of taking large parts of the Spratly Islands and claiming the entire sea. This is why Indonesia and other countries have called for China to embrace a kind of code of conduct and a declaration on conduct for the South China Sea. This is part of an attempt to mobilize ASEAN as a block to counter the rise of China. Strategically, Indonesia sees itself as the key core to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF, official multilateral Southeast Asian dialogue), the only real security institution in Southeast Asia, if you can even call it an institution. Indonesia then aligns itself in this way so that it can be seen as a balancer and instrumental to the region.

I think one of the mantras of Indonesian foreign policy is ‘rowing between two reefs’, and those reefs being, potentially, the United States and also China. Yet, on the other hand the recent president has articulated a vision of ‘a thousand friends and no enemies’, or something to that effect. There has been criticism as to what that means. What are our priorities? I think the APEC summit and President Obama’s visit to Australia in November 2011 both indicate a growing concern about the rise of China. Therefore, there is also a potential way in which the United States is going to build up more relationships and more partnerships with countries in Southeast Asia as a way to balance against a rising competitor.

How is Indonesia important for the United States in a global context, and vice versa?

Indonesia and the US signed a comprehensive partnership which was touted by the Obama administration and the Susilo Yudhoyono administration as being natural kinds of partnerships on certain issues. For the US, there are a number of different things. For one, Indonesia is an example of a large Muslim democratic country. In the context of the US interventions in the Middle East and the Arab Spring, etc., Indonesia is a kind of model. Indonesia likely sees itself as a kid of bridge on the model of Turkey.

One of the exchanges is a way in which both countries can understand each other, culturally or religiously, etc. The other thing for Indonesia and its role in United States policy is on things like climate change. Particularly because Indonesia is largely forested but is growing and so deforestation is a major issue. Partnerships where Indonesia scientists are coming to the US can be beneficial to a global agenda for the US. There are all sorts of other interactions that occur, as well, like security related issues, military exchanges, officers that come to Hawai’i and train at the Asia-Pacific Defense Academy.

Indonesia needs to be careful with how close it gets to the United States and Europe. In that regard, Obama’s trip to Indonesia and his historical ties to Indonesia are really important for this relationship. During the Bush administration there were many ways in which that relationship was problematic. Still, there will be voices critical of a close alliance with the United States. The push is more towards the non-alignment, independent sort of stance with its foreign policy. Since the Suharto era, one thing that has always been emphasized is a free and independent foreign policy and that they are not lackeys to major foreign powers, that they remain sovereign. However, I think that the US-Indonesia relationship has been very strong over the last few years because of the reasons just mentioned.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Edited by Matthew Izor, Department of Philosophy at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Voices about Asia: ‘Indonesia did not collapse’ – Interview with Professor Ehito Kimura Reviewed by on 16 marca 2012 .

Prof. Ehito Kimura earned his education at many excellent universities. He received his Bachelor of Science of Foreign Science degree at Georgetown University in 1996, MA in International Relations at Yale University in 2001, and PhD in Political Science at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006. In 2006-2007 he was a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University,




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