Republican luncheon speaker tackles Indonesian democracy |

Republican luncheon speaker tackles Indonesian democracy

Christine Ina Casillas/Daily Staff Writer

Indonesia is the largest Muslim democracy in the world, but not many Americans – or Eagle County residents – know its history.

But now some do. More than 30 people attended a luncheon Thursday for the Eagle County Republican Women’s committee at the Mustang Bar and Grill in Edwards to hear about democracy in Muslim countries. Speaker Christine Quinn Burtt, a Denver resident, worked in Indonesia with the top eight political parties, training them on message development, media coaching and recruiting volunteers. Burtt worked for the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization founded in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan.

“Indonesia has an old culture,” Burtt said. “It’s about 5,000 years old and was under the control of kings. They lived a tribal existence with a mix of people. They were very tolerant. Tolerance and diversity was important in their national code.

“Because of its ancient culture, the islands were ruled under various kings or sultans,” she said. The Chinese brought Buddhism as early as 500 A.D. By the 11th century, there was a strong influx of Hindu from India. Alliances were formed to keep out invaders and finally the region fell under the control of the Islamic kingdom of Mataram.

The country is a collection of 17,000 islands, 6,000 of which are inhabited, she said. The population is around 235 million, with 50 percent of the population under the age of 26.

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The natural resourece wealth of Indonesia brought the Dutch East Indies Company in the late 1500s. It built warehouses and forts, and consolidated its position until war broke put between Britain and Holland in 1619, she said. The Dutch launched an attack on the port city of Jakarta, renaining it Batavia.

“The Dutch controlled Indonesia until about World War II,” she said.

New leaders, terrorist threats

The Japanese overran the city shortly after the outbreak orf war, she said. But in 1950, Indonesia was declared an independent republic by Sukarno, the new leader.

Sukarno, a Muslim, was educated as a civil engineer and was a political activist during the last years of Dutch control and Japanese occupation. A strict nationalist, Sukarno reigned from 1950 to 1965.

There was a lot of unrest with the new leader, she said.

“One third of the world’s crude oil supply passed through the Straight of Malacca, one of the five most critical “chokepoints’ in global oil transit,” she said. “If the Straight of Malacca were to close, as was contemplated after the Bali bombing, nearly half of the world’s tanker fleet would be required to sail further, generating an increase in the price of oil.”

Then, the insurance companies placed a “war risk” designation on all Indonesian ports, forcing ships docking at those ports to forfeit their insurance coverage, she said. Singapore and Malaysia began escorting oil tankers and increasing naval patrols in their waters, but it didn’t eliminate the threat of terrorism in the region’s shipping channels.

Sukarno’s administration faced corruption when he shut out the international community in 1964 and stifled local protests with press censorship, arrests of politicians on corruption charges and nationalization of foreign-owned enterprises.

In this environment, the communist party of Indonesia, the PKI, grew powerful with more than 1.5 million members.

“It was said the “rivers ran red,'” Burtt said. “A wave of popular violence against the PKI began, and Islamic groups saw an opportunity to wipe out a political foe – the Communists.”

Failing health, a failed economy and political unrest caused Sukarno’s downfall, she said. Then, in 1965, Sukarno was ousted in a coup led by Suharto.

Suharto’s New Order regime stressed the idea of “unity in diversity” as integral to keeping the various provinces in one republic, she said. Like Sukarno, Suharto ruled with a heavy hand, keeping the peace and separatists issue tapped down with harsh military intervention.

Suharto was forced out in November 1998 when the economic crisis caused three days of rioting in Jakarta, she said. About 1,200 people were killed and 6,000 buildings were destroyed.

The mantle passed to Suharto’s vice president, B.J. Habibie. He was defeated in 1999 by the party of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, who received almost 34 percent of the vote and the largest number of votes for any single party. But a group of Muslim parties called the Central Axis installed Abdurrahman Wahid instead, saying a Muslim woman could be the next leader. Less than two years later, Wahid, was impeached and removed from office on corruption charges. Megawati ascended to the presidency, supported by the Muslim-controlled military and the powerful reputation of her father Sukarno, Indonesia’s first leader.

“When Sept. 11 happened, Megawati was the first to come to President Bush to offer help,” Burtt said. “They looked at it like this: If it could happen there, it could happen here, as well.

“But there is much more to Indonesia than terrorist threats,” Burtt said.

Christine Ina Casillas can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or at

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