Documents on Democracy

Issue Date January 2008
Volume 19
Issue 1
Page Numbers 183-186
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In September, as many as a hundred thousand Burmese took to the streets to protest military rule, but they soon met with harsh repression. The protests were spearheaded by Buddhist monks such as U Gambira, a pseudonym for the leader of the All-Burma Monks Alliance, who wrote a Washington Post op-ed from hiding on November 4 (he was arrested that same day). An excerpt appears below. For a full version of this text, see

Burma’s Saffron Revolution is just beginning. The regime’s use of mass arrests, murder, torture and imprisonment has failed to extinguish our desire for the freedom that was stolen from us so many years ago. We have taken their best punch.

Now it is the generals who must fear the consequences of their actions. We adhere to nonviolence, but our spine is made of steel. There is no turning back. It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey. Others will fill our sandals, and more will join and follow.


On October 24 in Washington, D.C., the National Democratic Institute presented Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of the Republic of Liberia, with its W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award. Her remarks in accepting the award are excerpted below:

For too long, those watching Africa have focused on personalities, relying on one person, often one big man, to lead the way.

You in this room, who work to guarantee free and fair multiparty elections, know that for too long in Africa, it has been one man, one vote, one time. But this mentality has failed Africa, undermining accountability and constitutionally defined government. It is not about the individual, the leader, but the institutions they build. . . . [End Page 183]

I am here as living proof to tell you that if the U.S. were to lose its will and go quiet on issues of liberty and human rights, that this would shake the foundations of democracy around world. . . .

I still believe that DEMOCRACY is sacred. We should not allow countries to call themselves democracies or to be accepted into global democratic institutions when, behind the rhetoric, liberty, personal freedoms, and civil rights fall prey to fear and repression.

We all know that democracy is not just about elections. It is about sustaining institutions of government and civil society that protect the individual over the State. It is about freedom of speech, and the inherent right to criticize State authorities. It is about due process and rule of law. It is about a level economic playing field, about the right to educate our children and practice any religious beliefs. . . .

So I ask the support of this audience today to ensure that I am not just remembered as the first elected woman president of Africa, but as the leader who turned a post-conflict country crippled by 25 years of decline and a civil war, with more than 200,000 dead and one million displaced, into a symbol of stability and democracy where the free market and private investment can prosper, where an empowered people, free from dependency and violence, can take their destiny into their own hands.


Dr. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, president of the Republic of Indonesia, gave the keynote address at the opening of the 40th Annual Conference of the International Association of Political Consultants (IAPC) in Bali, Indonesia, on November 12. Indonesia’s citizens received the IAPC International Democracy Award, which Yudhoyono accepted on their behalf. His speech is excerpted below:

Indonesia was one of the last countries that joined the so-called Third Wave of democracy that began in the mid-1970s. The democratic transition in Indonesia—with the world’s fourth largest population, the world’s largest Muslim population, in one of the world’s most ethnically diverse nations—was one of the momentous events of this Third Wave of democracy that swept the world at the end of the twentieth century.

I remember those early days of democracy well. There were many skeptics. Democracy, some said, would not last long in Indonesia. The people were not ready. The country was too big. The nation was too complex. Democracy, they said, would lead to chaos and even the break-up of Indonesia. Others said what happened in Indonesia was just “regime change” My favorite columnist, Thomas Friedman, lamented that Indonesia was becoming a “messy state.” And there are those who predicted democracy would unleash extremism and radicalize Indonesian politics. . . . [End Page 184]

Today, we can take a sigh of relief as the good people of Indonesia have convincingly refuted these concerns. . . .

Indeed, I would say that democracy in Indonesia has reached a point of no return. There are many signs to this: We have safely passed the “two elections” test, and also passed several presidential change-overs peacefully. We have radically and fundamentally changed the political landscape in Indonesia as a result of our national and local elections. We have instituted strong military reforms where the function of the TNI, apart from defending the territory of the state, is also to guard democracy and reforms. Notwithstanding political problems that sometimes arise, unlike in other democratizing countries, there has never been any concern about an impending coup. And there are countless public opinion polls showing that even though the public may lose faith with politicians, institutions or policies, their faith in the value of democracy remains unshaken and in fact only increased over time.

The conclusion is crystal clear: Democracy is here to stay in Indonesia permanently. Indonesia has proved that no matter the size of the population, the difficult geography, ethnic diversity, political complexity, or historical background, democracy can come and grow. This is not a lesson unique only to Indonesia: Many other democracies of all sizes and shapes have found this to be the case. . . .

Indonesian democracy, just short of a decade old, will also continue to evolve. I do not have a crystal ball to predict where and how our democracy will evolve over the long term. But I would like to offer several points that would be critical to that process.

First, it is important that Indonesia’s democracy becomes even more anchored, more grounded on the people. This is an important challenge because for many decades, Indonesian politics gravitated around the elite. Indonesians have complained about feudalistic tendencies in our political culture. This elitism is unhealthy for our democracy, and indeed was a factor behind the rampant disease of corruption, collusion, and nepotism (or KKN), which harmed our development for many years.

Today, politics gravitate around the people. Leaders, politicians must earn their votes to be elected to public office.

This is a democratizing trend that must always be strengthened. And brought as far as possible. When the current political term ends in 2009, all of Indonesia’s governors, local parliamentarians, regents, and mayors will be directly elected by the people in free and fair elections. What this means is that the pyramid of power will have been completely turned upside down.

But bringing democracy to the people means more than just organizing elections once every five years. It means that leaders must adapt by evolving a new political culture of participatory politics.

In this new political culture, the people must have constant access and genuine say to their leaders and to government policies. Leaders [End Page 185] must learn to evolve a new methodology of governance to produce responsible and accountable governance that would be the essence of a healthy democracy.

Secondly, as Indonesia’s democracy matures, it is critical to ensure that democracy is coupled with rule of law, and tolerance. Absolute freedom does not work. Democracy without rule of law will lead to chaos. And democracy without tolerance will lead to decay. Without rule of law and tolerance, democracy will lose many of its stakeholders.

Indonesia’s democracy is unique in that we are not just a multiparty democracy, but we are also a multiethnic democracy. To preserve this multiethnic democracy, we need to foster the kind of democracy that is able to protect and nurture what is best about Indonesia: our cherished values of unity, harmony, and tolerance.

And thirdly, democracy must also be coupled with the factor of delivery. When the people cast their ballot, they do so with the intention of improving their lives. That vote effectively becomes a deposit of trust, a token of confidence. Democracy must be a process of fulfillment of that hope.

It used to be said that the fastest and most effective way to achieve prosperity was through strong authoritarian rule. This was at least the adage of the 1970s, which drew from the lessons of Asia and Latin America, regions which were punctured with countries experiencing both authoritarian rule and high economic growth.

But as we cross into the twenty-first century and the new millennium, that is no longer true. Democracies can and do bring about stability, prosperity, and progress. Democracy, with all its shortcomings and weaknesses and messiness, can transform a nation in ways that also propel economic growth and social development.

I do not think it is a coincidence that countries that were part of the so-called Third Wave of democracy, with few exceptions, also generally happen to be enjoying greater prosperity and progress today. It is also not a coincidence that democracies which become successful are usually those that are able to combine democracy with good governance.

In the final analysis, democratic transition is not a linear process where you go in the path of a straight line from A to Z. In many cases, it is a stop-and-go process, rife with ups and downs and shocks and jolts. Every democratic transition is unique to its own circumstances, its own context, its own dynamic, as well as historical and cultural conditions.

Every democratic transition will require a process of adaptation and improvisation. This is what I have advised Senior General Than Shwe of Myanmar in my recent correspondence with him about Myanmar’s roadmap to democracy.

And this is also what we in Indonesia must continue to do. To adapt. To shift our mindset. To reorder our priorities. To embrace change gracefully and intelligently. To chart a new course for Indonesia.