Indonesia's pluralistic society still needs to address the issues of social identity and multiculturalism. (Reuters Photo/Darren Whiteside)

Commentary: 72 Years of Indonesia's Independence


AUGUST 17, 2017

On Aug. 17, 1946, Yogyakarta witnessed the first anniversary of the proclamation of Indonesia's independence, with President Sukarno saying: "On Aug. 17 last year we proclaimed our independence with simple words – we weren't able to entirely imagine what we were dealing with. We only knew that our proclamation was a call to end 350 years of colonization. We presented it to the world as our right, our nation's right, our human right, our right to live."

Indonesia's journey after the independence, in the past 72 years, has been a narrative of heroism and transformation.

It has not been easy to build this diverse nation. However, we must be thankful for we have triumphed and endured tests after tests. When former United States President Barack Obama visited Indonesia in November 2010, he said: "I believe that Indonesia is not only a regional power that is rising, but also a global force."

The achievements of today are a product of accomplishments of the nation's children, from the times of Sukarno all the way to President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.

Transformation in the Era of Globalization

Independence is a golden bridge. During his speech on June 1, 1945, Sukarno said: "The other side of the bridge is where we bring about a perfect society." The generation then was known as the "golden generation." Its members changed the nation's destiny.

We can view Indonesia's transformation through four strategic aspects.

First, with independence Indonesia's role and profile had risen on the global platform. Our face in the international community became extremely relevant, with our mission to participate in implementing the world order founded on independence, world peace and social justice.

Indonesia's global role cannot be separated from the country's active foreign policy. Vice President Muhammad Hatta's 1947 speech "Rowing Among Reefs" ("Mendayung di Antara Karang") was a reflection on how to respond to the rivalry between Western capitalism and Eastern communism.

It served as a background to Sukarno's decision to organize the Asia-Africa Conference in 1955. Later, the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Aug. 8, 1967, was based on former President Suharto's role.

Within the context of Indonesia's foreign policy, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono once said Indonesia's international role was in being a bridge builder, peace maker, consensus builder and the voice of the developing world.

Indonesia manifested its role by building the global consensus through a vision reflected during the climate change negotiations at the 13th Climate Change Conference organized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in Bali, in December 2007. Indonesia has been pursuing this role by utilizing soft power to establish a dialogue between the West and the Muslim world.

As the voice of the developing world Indonesia was seen seen on various platforms such as the Non-Aligned Movement, the Group of 77, APEC and the Group of 20. This role grew when the United Nations secretary general appointed Yudhoyono as co-chair of the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons to formulate the vision for the post-2015 development agenda.

The panel produced the Sustainable Development Goals, or the 2030 Agenda, which replaced the Millennium Development Goals. On July 4, 2017, President Jokowi signed the 2017 Presidential Regulation No. 59 on the Implementation of the SDGs.

Second, Indonesia has transformed its centralized system of government to a decentralized model. The dynamics of relationships between the central government and the regions have been marred by a number of vertical conflicts fueled by injustice and imbalances between the central and regional governments.

After the reforms of 1998, President B.J. Habibie transformed the center-regions relations drastically. He passed the 1999 Law No. 22 on Regional Governments and the 1999 Law No. 25 on Financial Balance Between the Center and Regions.

Developments in the country led to the amendment of these regulations by President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who passed the 2004 Law No. 32 on Regional Governments and the 2004 Law No.33 on Financial Balance Between Center and Regions.

After 10 years, the regulations on regional autonomy were reorganized by Yudhoyono into three separate laws; the 2014 Law No. 6 on Villages, the 2014 Law No. 22 on the Election of Governors, District Heads and Mayors, as well as the 2014 Law No. 23 on Regional Governments. These three regulations have transformed Indonesian government into a more decentralized one.

Indonesia has also managed to settle the relations between the central government and the special regions. After the 1998 reforms, the government presented a special regulation for Aceh through the 2001 Law No. 18 on the Special Autonomy for the Special Province of Aceh as the Province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, and the 2001 Law No.21 on the Special Autonomy of Papua Province.

Due to the prolonged conflict in Aceh, a soft-power approach was undertaken with the the 2006 Law No. 11 on Aceh Governance. Meanwhile, in line with the policy of asymmetrical autonomy, the 2012 Law No. 13 on Special Privileges of the Special Region of Yogyakarta was passed.

Third, Indonesia's economic profile has continued to improve on the global and regional scene. The country's economic structure has experienced a rapid transformation. Within Asia, Indonesia grew from a low-income country to a middle-income country, and now stands as the world's 16th largest economy.

Similarly, the country has been paying attention toward alleviating poverty, unemployment and development of social security. A milestone in this sector was the launching of BPJS Kesehatan on January 1, 2014. The system is considered the largest health insurance system in the world.

What we see in the Indonesian economy today is an achievement of national development planning throughout the years.

During Sukarno's times, the country saw the National Plan for Universal Development charting the country's course toward development. This was followed by the establishment of the National Development Planning Agency in 1963. During the New Order, Suharto focused on rigidly staged national development through the Long-Term Development Plan (RPJP) and the Five-Year Development Plan (Repelita).

The political transition of 1998 had an impact on the national development. Under President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) and Megawati, the National Development Program (Propenas) document served as a guide in managing the country's development.

Amendments to the 1945 Constitution eliminated the Outline of State Policy (GBHN). In response to this, Yudhoyono developed a policy for development through the 2007 Law No.17 on the National Long-Term Development Plan (RPJP) for 2005-25.

As a result, Yudhoyono and Jokowi implemented the sectoral and regional development frameworks laid out in the Medium-Term Development Plan (RPJM) for 2005-9, RPJM 2010-14, and RPJM 2015-19, which also emphasized Jokowi's important vision on developing Indonesia's peripheries.

Fourth, Indonesia experienced transformation of its political life. Democracy was the best choice for the country. Indonesia has witnessed many changes in governments and leadership. We have passed the test of democracy.

In the beginnings of the democratic transition in 1998, various political scenarios emerged. Some mentioned the possibility of the "Balkanization" of the country and its disintegration. However, Indonesia went through its transition successfully. In 2004, the biggest test was passed with the direct election of the country's president and vice president.

The international community sees Indonesia as the third largest democracy, after the United States and India. In line with this, Indonesia's identity is recognized as one that conjoins democracy, modernization and Islam.


The past seven decades have also seen dramatic changes in the international community. Looking at the map of the world today, Indonesia needs to continue embracing its role as a bridge builder at the global and regional scene, especially in the face of tensions in the South China Sea, with regard to the Sustainable Development Goals, globalization, security and other relevant issues. At the national level, Indonesia will experience a demographic bonus that can be useful in its development. Between 2020 and 2030, its is projected that the country will acquire a demographic bonus of more than 70 percent in the working-age population.

Indonesia's pluralistic society still needs to address the issues of social identity, multiculturalism and social harmony. A clash of civilizations must be transformed into a harmony among civilizations. Tolerance is still tested in Indonesia.

The achievements and progress that Indonesia made in the past seven decades is an important capital. However, a lot of homework must be done if the country is to fulfill the promises its independence had brought.

We come back to Sukarno's words from Aug. 17, 1946. During the speech, he asked: "What did we have at the time [of the proclamation]? All we had was our will, our desire, our soul burning bright with the spirit of freedom."

Velix Vernando Wanggai is a former member of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's special staff, specializing in regional development and autonomy. He earned his bachelor degree in international relations at Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta and master's degree at Flinders University in Australia, before completing doctoral studies at the Australian National University.