Monday, January 12, 2009

Exclusive Interview: Indonesia expert Don Emmerson

When it comes to Western interpreters of Indonesian culture, they don't come any more senior than Don Emmerson. The distinguished Stanford prof is director of the Southeast Asia Forum, a senior fellow at the university's FSI, and took part in the National Commission on U.S.-Indonesian Relations, among countless other notches on his resume.

In part one of the interview, Everything Indonesia talked with Emmerson about his abiding love for the country, the upcoming elections, and the prospect of US-Indonesia relations under Barack Obama.

EI: You have a storied interest in Southeast Asia, when did your fascination with the region begin?

DE: It dates from the mid-1960s when I was a grad student in political science at Yale and got to know (and read the work of) Southeast Asianist historian/Indonesianist Harry Benda and French sociologist/Vietnamologist Paul Mus. I was torn between universalist political science and contextualist area study. Area study won. I was lucky enough to receive a Ford Foundation grant to do my dissertation field research in Indonesia in 1967-69. (The revised results later appeared as Indonesia's Elite.) However, having been born in Japan and raised in a succession of (non-Southeast Asian) countries due to my father's foreign-service career, I suppose (in retrospect) there never was any doubt that I would wind up working on international affairs. The spectacular diversity of Southeast Asia especially appealed to me, perhaps in part because my itinerant childhood had already led me to appreciate the pleasures of heterogeneity, including not only the actual, empirical varieties of reality, but the multiplicity of subjective ways in which its manifestations can be apprehended, interpreted, and acted upon. Southeast Asia is, in my experience, wonderfully unsettling to closed minds, including the mind of the scholar who needs the reassurance of homogeneity to reinforce a view of the world based on answers not questions.

EI: The election's coming up in 2009, what are shaping up as the definitive issues for that vote?

DE: Issues could be listed, but is there really one that is "definitive" in the sense of being make-or-break for every candidate nation-wide? Corruption? Perhaps. But one consequence of decentralization, combined with the sheer variegation of Indonesia (speaking of heterogeneity!), has been to bring local issues to the political fore. In that context it helps to distinguish the April parliamentary elections from the subsequent presidential ones. The latter will of course feature national personalities. If there is a wild card, I suppose it is the impact of the current global economic crisis on Indonesia. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 certainly contributed to Suharto's fall in 1998. But, so far at least, the damage done to Indonesia by this latest downturn has been less severe. In addition, personalities (as opposed to issues and programs) remain important in Indonesian politics, and in this respect, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has, so far, come across rather well in comparison to his predecessors and rivals. As of January 2009, this year's presidential contest is still Yudhoyono's to lose.

EI: How do you see US-Indonesia relations developing in coming years, particularly under Barack Obama, who has his own history with the country?

DE: Chances are Obama will visit Indonesia in 2009. This is most likely to occur in mid-November before or after the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in Singapore, to which he will be invited. Some say he could and should travel to Indonesia within the first hundred days of his administration. But foreign-policy crises in the Middle East and South Asia (and the possibility of new ones arising elsewhere), plus the overriding domestic political priority on getting the US through what is arguably the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, would seem (as of now) to favor a later visit.

As for the longer bilateral prospect, barring surprises, it looks pretty good. I sometimes joke that inside the Beltway Indonesia is seen as the "not-Iraq," the "not-Afghanistan," and the "not-Pakistan" all wrapped up into one Big Comforting Otherness: i.e., a Muslim-majority place that does actually seem to be a stable democracy that has overcome (at least for now) the threat of religio-political-communal violence. And this positive impression matters to the relationship quite apart from where Obama happens to have spent part of his childhood.

The question, I suppose, is whether a presidential visit to Indonesia would turn out to be substantively more than an exercise in public relations: the partial mending of an American image so badly damaged by George W. Bush. We need also to remember that, despite the distance from Java to Gaza, Obama's policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also matter. What Obama says and does in that regard between now and a possible Indonesian visit will affect its success or failure as a venture in public diplomacy.

EI: Any potential flashpoints between the two countries, that need to be worked on?

DE: "Flashpoints" seems too strong a term. Indonesia and the US have, in effect, agreed to disagree on various matters, but especially if Yudhoyono is re-elected I don't see rancor erupting in a major way. As the economic crisis worsens, trade-related issues could become divisive. Human rights, including the intimidation of minority groups, will remain matters of concern. But when disagreements arise, and they will, as long Indonesia continues to "look good" in American eyes by comparison to some other parts of the Muslim-majority world, the Obama administration is likely, ceteris paribus, to continue giving its counterpart in Jakarta the benefit of the doubt.

Tomorrow: Emmerson on the state of Islam in Indonesia

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Dedy W. Sanusi said...

Wow...It is very good post Christ. I am waiting for next post.

Christopher Taylor said...

Glad you liked it Dedy! More to come!