Democratization, National Identity and Indonesia’s Foreign Policy

Indonesia has gone through a drastic transformation since the downfall of President Suharto in May 1998. Its national identity has evolved as a result of a process of democratization that has transformed Indonesia into the third largest democracy worldwide. The country also remains a rare example of a Muslim majority democracy. In light of its diversity and history, the issue of national identity remains critical to contemporary Indonesia. Since its independence, Indonesia’s national identity has mostly been a nationalist project driven by the search for unity, political stability, and economic strength. Over the last 20 years, it has included the promotion of an open and democratic society and respect for human rights. The process of democratization has also repositioned the role of Islam in the national identity.

Indonesia’s domestic transformation has extended to its foreign policy as demonstrated by its adoption of a normative agenda that encourages the promotion of democracy and respect for human rights in Southeast Asia and beyond. This article explores the existing connections between Indonesia’s process of democratization, its evolving national identity, and its foreign policy. It reviews how Indonesia has encouraged democratic values and respect for human rights in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and through other institutional means like the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF) and the Bali Process to counter human smuggling and trafficking. Yet, despite its initiatives and some accomplishments, insufficient leadership, resource limitations, and ongoing resistance from other Southeast Asian nations have restrained Indonesia’s ability to promote democracy and human rights in the region. Indonesia seems, therefore, unable—or unwilling—to move beyond the projection of its own democratization experience and to become an influential source of advocacy for domestic policy transition within the wider region.

Indonesia’s process of democratization

Indonesia first experienced a short period of parliamentary democracy after its independence from the Netherlands in 1949 before being replaced by an executive presidency when its first president Sukarno introduced “Guided Democracy” in 1959.1
An abortive coup in October 1965, mounted allegedly by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), was followed by Sukarno’s political downfall. Lt General Suharto assumed executive powers in March 1966, which initiated a new era in Indonesian politics known as the “New Order,” which strictly controlled any form of political participation. Suharto limited the number of political parties and regulated their activities. No free elections were organized. Instead, Suharto and his government used a political organization, Golkar, as an electoral vehicle to dominate parliamentary elections.2 Hence, Indonesia remained undemocratic for more than four decades, marked first by “Guided Democracy” and later by the “New Order.”  

The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 eventually contributed to the democratic transition process in Indonesia and the introduction of new civil liberties. The country was embarrassed and deeply affected economically by the strict conditions on loans imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Student demonstrations calling for Reformasi (reform) led to the resignation of Suharto in May 1998. It started the process of democratization and decentralization that changed Indonesian politics and led to free elections. The first years of democratization were politically and economically tumultuous with three non-directly elected presidents (B.J. Habibie, Abdurracham Walid and Megawati Sukarnoputri). Habibie began liberalizing politics, dismantling state control over the media, and removing anti-subversion laws. A multitude of political parties emerged in this new democratic environment, including Islamist parties. Habibie also supported a referendum on self-determination in East Timor organized by the United Nations in 1999. The vote in favor of independence over autonomy led to violence and eventually to a UN peacekeeping operation.

The country’s first direct presidential election was won by retired three-star general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004, which brought to an end this transitional period in Indonesian politics.3 After years of socio-economic instability, Indonesia started to experience steady economic growth by the 2000s, and the national economy recovered from the consequences of the financial crisis. After Yudhoyono’s re-election in 2009, the 2014 election of Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, further established the process of democratization, as he was the first elected leader not to originate from the country’s military or political establishment. The initial results of the presidential election on April 17, 2019 pointed to Jokowi winning close to 55 percent of the popular vote against his opponent, Prabowo Subianto. With official results only due in late May, Prabowo contested the pollsters’ results and proclaimed victory. Barry Desker notes that Prabowo would have made “a major contribution to the institutionalisation of Indonesian democracy and strengthened the electoral process” if he had instead acknowledged his defeat.4 After it had been confirmed in late May 2019 that Jokowi had won 55.5 percent of the vote, Prabowo announced that he would challenge the official result in the Constitutional Court.

Indonesia’s evolving national identity

As the fourth most populous country in the world, Indonesia has a large population of 240 million that is spread across the largest vast land area in Southeast Asia. Indonesia also consists of an extensive maritime territory that derives from its status as an archipelagic state, and it is the largest Muslim nation in the world with more Muslims than all of the Middle Eastern states combined.5 In terms of indigenous ethnicity, the country has approximately 300 distinct ethnic groups and over 700 local languages and dialects. Moreover, the Republic of Indonesia was not established based on a common historical unity or legitimacy but rather on its identity as a former Dutch colony. Michael Leifer explains that “Indonesia is a unitary republic without historical antecedent within its contemporary territorial bounds, which were established by a waxing Dutch colonial rule from the end of the sixteenth century.”6  

Indonesia’s national priorities have mostly remained constant since its war of independence against the Dutch colonial rule. They involve “maintain(ing) the integrity of its far-flung territory, ensuring the cohesion of its diverse society, and promoting the country’s economic interests.”7 Security challenges to its sovereignty and territorial integrity have traditionally come from within its national boundaries, especially in terms of separatist movements in Aceh, West Papua, and other parts of the country. Indonesia continues, therefore, to focus on domestic stability and territorial unity in light of internal tensions and socio-economic inequalities. Over the last 20 years, the national identity has also evolved to include the promotion of democracy, respect for human rights, and the development of an open political environment.

When Sukarno first proclaimed Indonesia’s independence in August 1945, which was to be followed by a revolutionary struggle against the Dutch until 1949, he opted for a state philosophy, Pancasila (Five principles), that ensured the equality of all religions despite the fact that Islam is practised by a vast majority of the population.8 Sukarno, therefore, defined the identity of Indonesia as “neither theocratic nor secular.” The philosophy of Pancasila and Sukarno’s idea of “unity in diversity” (Bhinneka Tiunggal Ika) continue to symbolize Indonesia’s embrace of cultural and religious diversity. Suharto preserved this religious identity although he cultivated support from within the Muslim community by the 1990s for political gains.9

The demise of Suharto’s “New Order” was accompanied by a rise of nationalist and religious movements. Democratization and the decentralization of politics increased the use of exclusive politics and accelerated fragmented religious and regional identities. One observed an increase in religious nationalism, as the unifying force of Islam became salient in Indonesia’s changing national identity.10 The first few years of democratization also saw the rise of an unprecedented number of civil conflicts in West and Central Kalimantan, Central Sulawesi, and the Moluccas, fuelled by religious and ethnic sentiments.11 While fears of such separatist groups have lessened in recent years, the risk of an ineffective political system in Indonesia remains a source of concern.

Muslim identity politics has increasingly resulted in the mobilization of religious-based support. For example, it played a major role during the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election when members of the Muslim community protested in large numbers against Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s first Christian and ethnically Chinese governor.12 Ahok was eventually given a two-year sentence for blasphemy due to a speech delivered during the campaign. Jokowi’s decision to choose as his running mate in 2019 Ma’ruf Amin, an Islamic scholar who had testified against Ahok in his trial, was widely regarded as a move to bolster his Islamic credentials. Islam played an important role in those presidential elections. Both Jokowi and his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, campaigned along religious lines and the national election revealed signs of a more divisive society.

Indonesia’s foreign policy

Indonesia’s approach to foreign affairs is best characterized by its so-called “independent and active” (bebas dan aktif) foreign policy; principles articulated in 1948 by Mohammad Hatta, then vice president. It is influenced by a “desire to put political relations with other nations on a footing of mutual respect.”13 The origins of the Bebas dan Aktif policy can be found in its Constitution of 1945 and its principles have served as the foundation of Indonesia’s foreign policy from Sukarno to the present day.14 It should be noted that Islam was never adopted as an official framework in the country’s foreign policy nor has it served as the basis for the conduct of foreign relations.

Foreign policy has not been a priority to most Indonesian presidents since the process of democratization started in the late 1990s. B. J. Habibie was overwhelmed by domestic priorities and did not pay much attention to foreign policy. Abdurrachman Wahid sought to build closer relations with China, India, and the Middle East but with limited focus and success. Following her father’s legacy (Sukarno), Megawati Sukarnoputri “reaffirmed the place of nationalism and Indonesian independence in foreign policy.”15 Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in contrast to his predecessors, placed foreign policy as a high priority. One of the most distinctive phrases used by Yudhoyono to describe his approach was his principle of “a million friends and zero enemies.”16 Donald K. Emmerson explains that Yudhoyono “broadened the rationale for Indonesian involvement in foreign affairs. A non-economic case in point has been his desire to leverage his country’s stature as the world’s third-largest democracy.”17 Finally, the Jokowi government has not given much importance to foreign policy beyond bilateral relations with great and middle powers focusing instead on addressing domestic socio-economic challenges, such as infrastructural weaknesses and income inequality driven by low human development indicators.

Nevertheless, as an extension of its process of democratization, Indonesia has sought to project its own domestic experience and promote democracy and respect for human rights in Southeast Asia and beyond. Many observers have highlighted the connection between democracy and Indonesia’s foreign policy over the last 20 years. Amitav Acharya argues, for instance, that Indonesia has relied less on expanding its military and economic capabilities, and has instead “develop(ed) a positive virtuous correlation among three factors—democracy, development and stability—while pursuing a foreign policy of restraint towards neighbours and active engagement with the world at large.”18 Likewise, Dewi Fortuna Anwar has stressed that “Indonesia’s identity as the third-largest democracy in the world needs to be constructed as the primary image of the country,” adding that democracy and the respect for human rights should serve as the basis for Indonesia’s foreign policy.19

The connection between democracy and foreign policy can be seen in Indonesia’s approach toward Myanmar. Jakarta repeatedly called on the military junta in Myanmar to move towards democracy prior to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2010 and the opening up of the country in 2011-12. Jakarta preferred to seek a regional solution to the Myanmar question based on inclusiveness and dialogue, and it opposed the imposition of sanctions on the country by international institutions (the United Nations and the European Union) and external powers like the United States. More recently, Indonesia has attempted to mediate an on-going sectarian conflict between the Muslim Rohingya minority and the Buddhist majority in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Yudhoyono, in particular, spoke out repeatedly in support of the rights of the minority group and offered Myanmar Indonesia’s own expertise in solving communal violence.20 Jakarta has long emphasized that it views the conflict as a rights issue and a communal problem, as opposed to it being a religious question. Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi in the Jokowi government took the lead in Southeast Asia in visiting Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2017 to deal with the conflict in Rakhine State.21

Within ASEAN itself, Indonesia insisted on references to democracy and respect for human rights in the ASEAN Charter adopted in November 2007. It also lobbied for an ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, established in 2009, and an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, signed in November 2012. Prior to that, the Indonesian government had been instrumental in including a human rights dimension as part of the ASEAN Security Community concept first proposed in the 2003 Bali Concord II.22 However, Jakarta’s overall success in promoting these values through ASEAN has remained questionable. All the ASEAN initiatives were eventually adopted in a compromised and watered-down form to address the concerns of the less democratic Southeast Asian states.23 Their functional value in terms of institutional implementation is, therefore, open for debate. Indonesia has been disappointed by the resistance from some ASEAN members to endorse a more democratic form of domestic governance based on a common set of values. This state of affairs may have convinced Jakarta to move beyond ASEAN on certain matters. One of Indonesia’s most influential public intellectuals, Jusuf Wanadi, sums up the current state of mind when stating that if the regional body “cannot move beyond its lowest common denominator, as defined by Laos or Myanmar, it is likely that Indonesia will seek to become more independent from ASEAN.”24

Beyond its own regional body, the promotion of democracy and human rights has defined several foreign policy initiatives adopted by Indonesia in recent years, although with limited success. Jakarta has attempted, for instance, to promote democracy through the Bali Democracy Forum. It launched the forum in 2008 as the first governmental or track-one forum for dialogue on democracy in Asia, and the process has continued with the 11th BDF being held in December 2018. Evi Fitriani explains that the forum “was an important instrument for Yudhoyono to pursue his ambition of Indonesia becoming a respected entrepreneur of normative change.”25 Likewise, the BDF has been referred to as the “pride of place in Indonesia’s public commitment to democracy.”26 It is held annually as an open inter-governmental platform seeking to promote democracy by focusing on dialogue, the sharing of best practices, mutual respect, and the principle of equality.27 The BDF can thus be regarded “as a means for Indonesia to share its experience as a recently transitioned democracy with countries that were, in its view, pre-transitional.”28

The announcement of the BDF, made within a decade of Indonesia’s own democratic transition, was welcomed internationally. Yet, the initial enthusiasm has been tempered by some concern over its structure and practices. Regional activists are worried that the BDF is merely a space where countries can share their views on democracy and that it provides non-democratic governments with an opportunity to redefine and lower the conceptualization of democracy.29 Being a forum and not an organization with “measurable outcomes,” Donald Weatherbee argues that it is “difficult to avoid thinking of it as other than a ‘talk shop.’”30 Moreover, China, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam have been participants, leading critics to argue that the BDF gives legitimacy to undemocratic regimes. Former foreign minister, Hassan Wirajuda, the organization’s key architect, has rebutted such criticism by pointing out that the BDF was created as “an intergovernmental forum about democracy, not among democracies.”31 Some analysts have, nonetheless, questioned if the BDF is largely ceremonial and whether Indonesia has the political will and necessary resources to translate a forum into concrete political action.32

Indonesia has also attempted to promote human rights by tackling the problem of human smuggling and trafficking in the region. Indonesia is one of the main transit countries of refugee populations in Southeast Asia and a key transit for asylum seekers hoping to reach Australia by sea. The authorities face the problem of identifying and differentiating between bona fide refugees and economic migrants who are seeking refugee status to gain entry into a recipient country.33 Indonesia has since February 2002 co-organized with Australia the Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. The so-called “Bali Process” brings together numerous countries from the Asia-Pacific, North America, and Europe as well as international agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Meetings of the Bali Process were held in 2002 and 2003 followed by a gap until 2009 when the process was reactivated. The latest Bali Process Ministerial Conference was held in August 2018. The process has functioned as a platform for the dialogue and trust building among member states.

Various factors explain why the Bali Process has so far only had a limited impact beyond the endorsement of non-binding measures. The question of undocumented migration is politically sensitive, and national governments often prefer to react to crime at a national level, especially as human smuggling and trafficking touches on questions of national jurisdiction, the sharing of information, extradition laws, and problems of corruption. Yet, some limitations of the Bali Process are linked to Indonesia’s own lack of leadership and limited resources. The infrequency of the meetings and the absence of a secretariat to oversee administrative work and coordination have undermined its impact.34 Information sharing between participating states is lacking and “remains one of the major hurdles in improving coordination among the participating problems.”35 As the co-organizer, Jakarta could have played a coordinating role. The fulfilment of such a task has arguably been undermined by domestic constraints. At the national level, Indonesia’s borders remain porous and authorities are reluctant to stop asylum seekers from leaving for Australia. Antje Missbach notes that Jakarta would have to significantly increase its border control budget to tackle the problem, and she claims that this “appears unlikely at the moment, because the Indonesian government does not consider the flows of asylum seekers as a high priority.”36 The situation is made worse by the fact that human smuggling and trafficking have caused deep tensions between Indonesia and Australia and that they continue to this day to have a negative impact on bilateral ties.

Finally, Indonesia has sought to promote interfaith dialogue in the context of rising religious fundamentalism and a widening gap between the Western and Muslim world. Rizal Sukma has suggested, for example, that Indonesia was in a position to play “a role as a global Islamic voice.”37 Jakarta launched the first regional interfaith dialogue in 2004 in Yogyakarta, and the Indonesian foreign ministry also set up similar initiatives through the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Indonesia has sponsored bilateral interfaith and intercultural dialogues with countries as diverse as Australia, the Vatican, the Netherlands, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Lebanon, Chile, Argentina, Hungary, and Serbia. To do so, the Indonesian foreign ministry has worked with the country’s two largest Muslim organizations: Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah.38 That said, Indonesia has faced challenges in acting as a bridge, as ethnic conflicts and acts of religious intolerance in Indonesia have sometimes marred the country’s claim as a moderate Islamic force.39

In short, Indonesia has sought to promote democracy and the respect for human rights beyond its borders. It has pushed its normative agenda through multilateralism and dialogue. The nexus between interfaith dialogue, human rights, and communal peace has also been explored. There is, however, some skepticism regarding the country’s ability to go beyond the simple projection of its experience in democratic transition. Sukma remarks that Indonesia faces a difficult challenge to be a democracy advocate as it is the “lone voice for democracy in a region dominated by authoritarian and semi-autocratic regimes.”40 The politics of Southeast Asia are problematic for democracy promotion, as the ASEAN members remain diverse politically and value the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of other states above all.

The role of external powers

The United States, arguably, influenced the process of democratization in Indonesia when it first started in the late 1990s. These countries had built close security and economic relations during the Suharto period. Yet, this partnership did not stop Washington from applying an arms embargo and suspending military ties in response to abuses committed by the Indonesian armed forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia) in East Timor during the 1999 post-referendum period. Restrictions on the Indonesian armed forces included prohibiting access to credits to purchase US military equipment and to participate in military education training programs. In 2002, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific James Kelly again criticized Indonesia for the government’s lack of accountability for human rights violations perpetrated in East Timor.

The US position on Indonesian domestic politics was further influenced by the Bali bombings of October 2002, which highlighted the threat of radical religious terrorism in the country. Jemaah Islamiah (JI) was held responsible, and it later claimed responsibility for the bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003. Other terrorist attacks in Indonesia included the September 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and the October 2005 attacks in Bali. The United States, and others, put significant pressure on Jakarta to crack down on JI and other terrorist groups.41 Until the Bali bombings, the Indonesian government had denied the existence of a terrorist network within the country. For example, Megawati had refused to ban JI. Wise asserts that the reason was “the pervasive view that banning JI meant capitulating to Western demands.”42 The Bali blasts changed the country’s perception. After his election, Yudhoyono adopted a series of measures aimed at curbing domestic violence. Worth noting was the setting up of Counter Terrorism Task Force Detachment 88, an elite police group trained by American and Australian advisors.

One may speculate whether the rising strategic and economic competition between the United States and China as well as the shift away from democracy and human rights promotion under the Trump administration has influenced Jokowi’s foreign policy. Unlike his predecessor, Jokowi’s initiatives have been driven less by a normative agenda. The current president has introduced a domestic orientation to Indonesia’s foreign policy by emphasising the need to protect the nation and provide security to all its citizens.43 Priorities now include bilateral relations and attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) to support domestic infrastructure projects. Moreover, in light of Trump’s transactional approach to foreign affairs and the rise of China as a military and economic power, Indonesia is increasingly faced with the challenge of having to balance its relations with Washington and Beijing. Amid rising geopolitical competition, Indonesia still adheres to its traditional “free and active” foreign policy. This means that Indonesia continues to avoid taking sides between any competing blocs and refrains from forming military alliances. Yet the promotion of democracy and respect for human rights may well have become secondary in this uncertain strategic landscape. The Jokowi administration is instead apprehensive about trade and geopolitical rivalry and its effect on Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

Jokowi announced during the 2019 campaign that he would continue to focus on large infrastructure projects, funded through joint ventures with China, Japan, and other sources. Analysts have speculated that Jokowi will open Indonesia’s door to foreign investment in his second term to build infrastructure projects and unlock economic growth.44 A greater reliance on Chinese FDIs has partly resulted from the new trade policy adopted by the Trump administration, especially since the US president has called for a shift in trade imbalances between the United States and its trading partners, including Indonesia. Moreover, the recent escalation in the trade war between China and the United States has affected Indonesia’s currency and financial market. The Rupiah has fallen and Indonesian equities have weakened as foreign funds pull out of the country.45 With a potential slowdown of its economy, it will be more challenging for Indonesia to uphold its normative foreign policy and its role as a responsible follower of the “rules-based order.”46

Beyond geo-economics, the escalating tension between the United States and China has narrowed Indonesia’s room for diplomatic initiatives. For example, in response to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept promoted by the United States, the Jokowi administration proposed its own version of the term at the ASEAN summit in Singapore in 2018. Evan Laksmana explains that Jakarta was uncomfortable with an Indo-Pacific concept endorsed by Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and New Delhi and offered instead an ASEAN centric vision based on the body’s own principles and centrality in the regional architecture.47 Significantly, the Indonesian proposal for an alternative approach was turned down by the other member states, as they were concerned to be further embroiled in the US-China rivalry.

In short, Indonesia’s policy options have been further narrowed by the rising competition between the United States and China and the ongoing trade war risks affecting its economic growth. Such regional circumstances will make it less likely for Jokowi during his second term to drive a normative agenda and promote democracy and respect for human rights in his foreign policy.

Future challenges for Indonesia’s democracy

The process of democratization in Indonesia is likely to face a series of challenges in the coming years due to compromises made by the Jokowi government to Islamist voices and the military. Such challenges are the result of a changing national identity and suggest a grim evolving situation in Indonesian politics. As discussed above, the process of democratization has been accompanied by a rise of Muslim identity politics and the fragmentation of society. This was illustrated by the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election and Ahok’s conviction for blasphemy.

The compromises made toward Islamist voices have included Jokowi’s initial decision to release Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the JI mastermind, ahead of the 2019 presidential elections. It was widely speculated that the plan to release the extremist was motivated by electoral calculations, especially to guarantee the support of the conservative Islamist Crescent Star Party (PBB). Jokowi’s government had previously ignored requests calling for Ba’asyir to be released due to his deteriorating health or to be put under house arrest.48 Jokowi eventually retracted his announcement of early release after much protests, both domestically and from the international community.49 Arguably driven by identity politics, Jokowi decided to travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia to perform the Muslim pilgrimage three days before the polls. Jokowi had attempted to promote closer ties with Riyadh and the Saudi government announced during his visit, its decision to raise Indonesia’s annual hajj quota by 10,000 to 231,000 pilgrims.50

Jokowi has also taken some conciliatory steps toward the military and its changing role in Indonesian politics. This has led to speculation regarding a potential return of the Dual Function (Dwi Fungsi) of the TNI as both a military and political force, as system that defined Indonesian politics during the Suharto period. Jokowi has brought high-ranking military officers into the executive by, for example, appointing General Wiranto as coordinating political, legal and security affairs minister, at the dismay of human rights activists.51 Jokowi has also indicated that there could be more positions in the executive branch for military officers in an attempt to appease the TNI.52 Johannes Nugroho explains that “the termination of dwifungsi for the past 20 years has been one of the key democratic achievements of Indonesia’s Reformasi” and that the return to a “policy resembling dwifungsi will be a setback for both democracy and military reform.”53


Indonesia has relied on its status as the third largest democracy worldwide to push a normative agenda in its foreign policy especially in Southeast Asia. Indonesia has encouraged democratic values in ASEAN and acted as a third-party mediator in Myanmar as an extension of its domestic politics; yet, the less democratic members of the regional body have contested its focus on domestic governance and interference in the affairs of other states. Hence, Indonesia’s support for institutional mechanisms meant to enhance a domestic form of democratic governance is not endorsed by all the other ASEAN members. The latter continue to operate based on different political systems and disparate socio-economic conditions remain in Southeast Asia. These differences prevent ASEAN from forging a shared perception on ideational matters.

Indonesia has also faced mixed results when implementing policy initiatives due to insufficient leadership and domestic constraints. This has created a gap between Indonesia’s ability at generating policy ideas and transforming them into implementable strategies. This gap has been illustrated, for instance, by its inability to enhance regional cooperation against human smuggling and trafficking through the Bali Process. Likewise, Jakarta has so far not attempted to transform the BDF into a functioning organization. Indonesia’s capacity to move beyond the projection of its own democratization experience will depend on its own domestic resilience and long-term economic development. It will also depend on Indonesia’s ability to preserve some room for manoeuver in a worsening strategic environment. The current struggle between the United States and China makes it less likely that Indonesia will be able to focus on a normative foreign policy in the coming years.

Finally, the political situation and changing national identity in Indonesia need to be followed closely. Jokowi was viewed after his first presidential victory as a hope for democracy in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Many compared him to President Barack Obama in the United States. Five years later, the process of democratization is increasingly driven by Muslim identity politics with presidential candidates campaigning along religious lines. The national election of 2019 also showed signs of a more divisive society. In addition, the political dynamics have evolved with a potential return of the military in socio-political affairs. Such developments are a source of concern as they may ultimately endanger the overall process of democratization in Indonesia.  

1. Michael Leifer, Dictionary of the Modern Politics of South-East Asia, 3rd Edition (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 17.

2. Ibid., p. 18.

3. Edward Aspinall, “Elections and the normalization of politics in Indonesia,” South East Asia Research, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2005), p. 119, as cited in Harold Crouch, Political reform in Indonesia after Soeharto (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), p. 35.

4. Barry Desker, “Indonesian Presidential Election 2019 – Another Term for Jokowi: Some Significant Developments,” RSIS Commentary, No. 82, April 26, 2019.

5. Ann Marie Murphy, “Indonesia responds to China’s rise,” in Bruce Gilley and Andrew O’Neil, eds., Middle Powers and the Rise of China (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014), p. 127.

6. Michael Leifer, Dictionary of the Modern Politics of South-East Asia, p. 17.

7. Ann Marie Murphy, “Indonesia and the World,” in John Bresnan, ed., Indonesia: The Great Transition (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), p. 240.

8. The Pancasila philosophy puts forward the following: “Belief in one supreme God, just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy guided by wisdom in the consultative and social justice for the entire principle of Indonesia,” Directorate of Foreign Information Services, Indonesia, Indonesia 1996: An Official Handbook, Department of Information (Perum Percetakan Negara RI, 1995/1996).

9. William Liddle, “Islamic turn in Indonesia: A political explanation,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 55, No. 3 (1996), pp. 613-34.

10. Jajat Burhanudin and Kees van Dijk, Islam in Indonesia (Amsterdam: ICAS Publication Series, Amsterdam University Press, 2013).

11. Tim Huxley, Disintegrating Indonesia? Implications for Regional Security (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2002).

12. “Anti-Ahok to Anti-Jokowi: Islamist influence on Indonesia’s 2019 election campaign,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, IPAC Report, No. 55,

13. Mohammad Hatta, “Indonesian foreign policy,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1953), pp. 444-45.

14. Banyu Perwita Anak Agung, Indonesia and the Muslim World: Islam and Secularism in the Foreign Policy of Soeharto and beyond (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2007), p. 8; Donald E. Weatherbee, Indonesia in ASEAN: Vision and Reality (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013), p. 11.
Nasir Tamara, Indonesia Rising: Islam, Democracy and the Rise of Indonesia as a Major Power (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2009), p. 100.

15. Ibid.

16. “SBY: Indonesia has ‘A million friends and Zero enemies,”’ The Jakarta Globe, October 20, 2009,

17. Donald K Emmerson, “Is Indonesia Rising? It Depends,” in Anthony Reid, ed., Indonesia Rising: The Repositioning of Asia’s Third Giant (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2012), pp. 49–76.

18. Amitav Acharya, Indonesia Matters: Asia’s Emerging Democratic Power (Singapore: World Scientific, 2015), pp. 1-2.

19. Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Menggagas Politik Luar Negeri Indonesia Baru (Jakarta: LIPI, 2000), pp. 30, 37.

20. Donald Weatherbee, Indonesia in ASEAN, p. 53.

21. “Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi to meet Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar,” Channel NewsAsia, September 3, 2017,

22. John Ciociari, “Institutionalizing human rights in Southeast Asia,” Human Rights Quarterly Vol. 34, No. 3 (2012), pp. 695-725.

23. Rizal Sukma, “Domestic politics and international posture: Constraints and possibilities,” in Anthony Reid, ed., Indonesia Rising: The Repositioning of Asia’s Third Giant (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2012), p. 80.

24. Cited in Tan See Seng, “Indonesia among the Powers: Will ASEAN Still Matter to Indonesia?” in Christopher Roberts, Ahmad Habir, Leonard Sebastian,eds., Indonesia’s Ascent, Power, Leadership and the Regional Order (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 227.

25. Evi Fitriani, “Yudhoyono’s Foreign Policy: Is Indonesia a Rising Power?” in Edward Aspinall, Marcus Mietzner, Tomsa Dirk, eds., The Yudhoyono Presidency: Indonesia’s Decade of Stability and Stagnation (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2015), p. 80.

26. Donald Weatherbee, Indonesia in ASEAN, p. 30.

27. BDF’s official website,

28. Kelley Currie, Mirage or Reality? Asia’s Emerging Human Rights and Democracy Architecture (Arlington, VA: Project 2049 Institute, 2010), p. 22.

29. Ibid.

30. Donald Weatherbee, Indonesia in ASEAN, pp. 31-32.

31. As cited in Ann Marie Murphy “Democratization and Indonesian foreign policy: Implications for the United States,” Asia Policy, No.13 (2012), p. 90.

32. Rizal Sukma, “Indonesia Finds a New Voice,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 22, No. 4 (October 2011), p. 119; Wirajuda Muhammad Hadianto, “The impact of democratization on Indonesia’s foreign policy: Regional cooperation, promotion of political values, and conflict management,” PhD dissertation (London: London School of Economics, 2014).

33. Ahmad Almaududy Amri, “People smuggling in Southeast Asia: Trends, Challenges and Way Forward,” Australian Journal of Maritime and Ocean Affairs, Vol. 7, No. 2 (2015), p. 134.

34. Ibid., p. 145.

35. Ibid., p. 146.

36. Antje Missbach, “Doors and Fences: Controlling Indonesia’s Porous Borders and Policing Asylum seekers,” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, Vol. 35, No. 2 (2014), p. 240.

37. “Insight: debating Indonesia’s global role,” The Jakarta Post, March 11, 2010.

38. Azyumardi Azra, “Indonesia’s Middle Power Public Diplomacy: Asia and beyond,” in Jan Melissen and Yul Sohn, eds., Understanding public diplomacy in East Asia: Middle powers in a trouble region (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 146.

39. “Religious Intolerance in Indonesia,” Congressional Research Service, October 10, 2018,

40. Rizal Sukma, “Indonesia finds a New Voice,” p. 119.

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50. “Indonesia, Saudi Arabia Agree to Further Strengthen Ties,” The Jakarta Globe, April 15, 2019,

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53.   “Will Indonesia’s Military regain Civilian Roles?” Today, March 4, 2019,