Building U.S.-Indonesia Mutual Understanding Since 1994

A Dialogue with Members of the Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR)

Ade Nasution (Reform Star Party), Abdillah Toha (PAN), Marzuki Ahmad (Golkar), Effendi Simbolon (PDI-P), and Angelina Sondakh (PD)

A delegation from Indonesia’s House of Representatives, elected in April 2004 and visiting Washington for the first time, demonstrated a pro-active agenda of outreach and a feisty appreciation for the increasing powers of the legislature and the accomplishments of Indonesia since democratization began in 1998.  The group spoke to a USINDO audience on February 28 and visited key Washington officials during their three-day visit.

The group of five legislators was led by Ade Nasution, elected to the House in 2004 as a member of the Reform Star Party (PKB).  Nasution is an entrepreneur, a director of the Camerindo Company, and a key stockholder of Crown Hotel International.  Three of the five members are new parliamentary members, and all three are business people.  Effendi Simbolon (PDI-P) is a holder of oil and gas contracts in South Kalimantan with Pertamina, and Angelina Sondakh, who was Miss Indonesia in 2001, comes from the field of public relations and communication.  Nasution suggested that business people will have more action-oriented policies than old-style party leaders.

“We will lobby Congress during this visit,” said Angelina Sondakh, a member of President SBY’s Democratic Party (PD) and a new member of the House.  “The purpose of this visit is to communicate Indonesia’s ongoing process of democracy.  We will tell Congress we are working on this and specifically working on strengthening the staff of the DPR (House)” in order to fulfill the body’s constitutional roles of formulating and enacting legislation, approving the budget, and exercising oversight of government operations.

Abdillah Toha, a veteran member of the House from PAN, the party of Amien Rais, said the goal of the visit is to “begin a new relationship between the Indonesian parliament and the U.S. Congress.  The executive branch is important, but so is Congress.  We will inform Congress that we are the fourth largest country and the third largest democracy in the world.  While the war in Iraq has cost the Pentagon $200 billion, not one U.S. penny and not one bullet has been spent in Indonesia for the transition to democracy.”

“We must also show the United States that Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, practices democracy compatible with Islam.”  In response to a question as to whether it is necessary to point out the compatibility of democracy and Islam, Abdillah Toha responded that there are many perceptions outside Indonesia, citing reports in leading media outlets, that question whether Islam and democracy can co-exist.  It therefore should be understood that Indonesia, as the world’s third largest democracy and fourth largest country, has proceeded through three democratic elections in the past year alone, that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been elected by direct vote of the people for the first time, and the direct election of provincial and local officials will begin this year.  This commitment to democracy is embraced by Muslims and non-Muslims alike despite a very small group of trouble-makers.

Marzuki Ahmad, a veteran member of the House since 1987 from the Golkar party, said:  “We came to thank the people of the United States for their help with the tsunami relief and to show them the progress in Indonesia’s democracy.  We have seen a sea of change in Indonesia, from a very centralized government, through three presidents who stepped down, to the big step of directly electing a president.  Now it is our responsibility to safeguard our accomplishments and to strengthen civil society’s role in strengthening the democratic way.  We hope also to counteract some U.S. misunderstandings about Indonesia as a Muslim country.”  United States assistance, he concluded, is desired to help push Indonesian democracy forward.

In an exchange with members of the audience, the group received some advice about lobbying Congress.  “You are to be congratulated that Indonesia had three successful elections last year.  You should emphasize this.  Do not assume that members of Congress know how big Indonesia is.  Don’t assume that the vast geography of Indonesia has sunk in.”  This was from an American businessman with years of experience as a Congressional staff member.

“Explain your decentralization process to Congress.  This is interesting because the U.S. has gone through and still debates this issue: Federalism vs. States Rights.  Explain your point of view.”

The group also took some questions from the audience.

Q:  There is a lot of talk about rivalry between President SBY and Vice President Kalla.  Who is the real president?

A:  None of the panel was willing to acknowledge a serious split and most said they were given to understand that the two men had an agreement on a working relationship; they are “one package.”  SBY’s goal, it was pointed out, is to fulfill the constitutional role of the vice president to actively “assist the president” rather than simply substitute for the chief executive during absences from the country or perform ceremonial functions.  At the same time, it was observed that there are distinctions in style between President Yudhoyono and Vice President Kalla, with the latter – as a prominent businessman – being more inclined to take decisions quickly in contrast to the President’s more deliberative manner.

Further discussion revealed that the dynamics between the executive and the legislature are different since the vice president was unexpectedly elected chairman of the Golkar party.  “The president does not have a large bloc in parliament.  With 57 seats, the PD is the fourth largest party in the DPR.  After the vice president took over Golkar the situation changed entirely.  Now PD and Golkar are government parties.  PDI-P is the opposition.  My party (PAN) and other small parties are in the middle.  My opinion is that parties in the middle will become stronger,” said Abdillah Toha.

Further on the balance of power between the executive and the legislature, Marzuki Ahmad said, “Before [the constitutional amendments since 1999] the DPR did not have real power to control the government.  Now we have that, through the power to legislate and to control the budget.  The government proposes the budget, but we must approve.”  Angelina Sondakh cautioned, however, that the budget remains under the control of the Secretary General.  “If it remains in that control we are disadvantaged.  We must ask for more information from the Secretary General.”

Q: Control of the budget, wherein the greatest share of funding comes from military-run businesses and outside sources, is necessary to bring the armed forces (TNI) under control in a democratic society.  What is being done in this regard?

This query brought a rejoinder from General (ret.) Sudradjat, director general for defense strategy in the Ministry of Defense, who joined the DPR delegation in Washington, and also from other members of the audience.  The assertion, widely accepted by outside observers, was that the TNI receives 30 percent of its budget from the government and 70 percent from their own sources.  General Sudradjat said that the military requested 75 trillion rupiah for the current year and only received 21 trillion from the government.  In addition, he said, the military foundations, whose earnings go mostly to welfare to military families, earned 300 billion rupiah (roughly equal to $40 million).  That’s only 1.4 percent of the 21 trillion from the government, he said.  There is a lot of misinformation about this.

The panel may have expected more questions on Indonesian military subjects but the announcement by the U.S. Secretary of State that she had certified Indonesia to be eligible to participate in U.S. International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs was greeted favorably and may have preempted that as a point at issue in the bilateral relationship.  Nevertheless, the DPR delegation members stated that they were prepared to address concerns and criticisms about defense and military relations, including the Timika incident, Papua and, Aceh, in their talks with U.S. legislators.