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Ambassador addresses democracy in Indonesia

October 21, 2010
James T. Collins (left) and Dino Patti Djalal

James T. Collins (left) and Dino Patti Djalal

The Capitol Room at the Holmes Student Center was nearly full late afternoon Monday, Oct. 18, as more than 150 students, faculty and others gathered to hear an address by Dino Patti Djalal, the newly appointed Indonesian ambassador to the United States.

Djalal, who was in Chicago for a speech earlier in the day, came to NIU to speak about Indonesia’s developing democracy.

His visit coincides with NIU’s preparations for marking 50 years of academic involvement with the island country by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS).

In a touching moment prior to delivering his remarks, Djalal paid tribute to former CSEAS director and political science professor emeritus Dwight King.

The 45-year-old diplomat noted that King, who spent his career tracking Indonesia’s political tumult and subsequent evolution to the first free elections in the late 1990s, taught and mentored a number of Indonesian political science graduate students at NIU, many of whom are now in key government positions.

“As you retire,” Djalal told King, “you can look back with great pride at what you have done for the Indonesian people.”

Djalal, a political scientist by training, spoke briskly and passionately about Indonesia’s adoption of constitutional reforms since the 1999 elections following the fall of president and formal general Suharto in 1998. After years of authoritarian regimes, he said, “there was a widespread belief in Indonesia that democracy was a western thing, that democracy would bring us more problems than answers and possibly lead to the breakup of the country.”

In the end, Djalal said, “democracy came by accident.” After the 1999 elections, he said, “government had no choice but to open up.”

Constitutional reform brought such changes as term limits, decentralization and, in 2004, the first direct election of the president and vice president, who previously had been elected by the national legislature.

“In 2004, Indonesians were ready to select the best person for the job,” Djalal said. By the 2009 elections, Indonesia had undergone a “quiet revolution,” he continued, with direct elections at all government levels, a strong multi-party system in place and universal suffrage.

Dino Patti Djalal

Dino Patti Djalal

Djalal observed that Indonesia’s successful transition to a democracy increasingly seen as an important U.S. ally in Asia is still a “work in progress.” Grass-roots support has perhaps been the most important factor. “Democracy must be homegrown,” he said. “Most of the time, it cannot be directed from the outside.”

While Djalal was positive about the future for the Indonesian archipelago and its 238 million people, he noted that ultra nationalism, money politics and rising religiosity are new pressure points. “We also have to ensure that Indonesia produces good leaders,” he said. “We have to avoid the situation where you have plenty of democracy but not enough sense of public service.”

He also stressed the importance of an international education, which he himself experienced growing up in a diplomatic family.

Djalal took several questions from the audience before attending a short reception in the University Suite. In response to one student, Djalal reflected that in “a world that has become radically connected,” the best way to deal with change is to remain open-minded and non-ideological.

Djalal was introduced by Provost Ray Alden following remarks by Deborah Pierce, associate provost for International Programs, and James T. Collins, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

by Liz Poppens Denius, Center for Southeast Asian Studies