SBY, Obama Could be Partners for Peace

SBY, Obama Could be Partners for Peace

, 14 April 2010

John Braithwaite


US President Barack Obama’s forthcoming trip to Indonesia is an opportunity to congratulate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for the considerable success he has had as a peacebuilder. He was a worthy Nobel Peace Prize nominee for his contribution to peace in Aceh, and made admirable contributions to building peace in Ambon and Poso, among other places. Unfortunately, he could never be a worthy Nobel winner because of the situation in West Papua. Obama’s visit is also an opportunity to confront the failure to grasp the need for peacebuilding in Papua.

In the aftermath of a series of shooting incidents around the giant US-operated Freeport mine, the human rights and militarized violence situation in Papua is as bad today as it has been for years. And it has been continuously bad for half a century. Young men in the highlands grow increasingly cynical of prospects for a genuine dialogue with Jakarta as a troop surge moves in.

If Yudhoyono could show West Papua the same strong leadership and support for a peace dialogue that he showed in Aceh and Ambon, he would deserve greatness in the history of his country. At present, he appears more like a pawn of the Indonesian military in his timid approach to peacebuilding in Papua. This is a sad contrast with how firm his approach was to move the military from being part of the problem to part of the solution in places like Aceh and Ambon.

Presidents Obama and Yudhoyono have much in common. As the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, and a very successful one in reducing extremist violence, Indonesia can work with the US to accomplish a great deal as peacemakers to end the era of violence across the Muslim-Christian divide around the world. Indonesia has a prominence today it never before had as one of the three largest democracies in the world and the most important Muslim member of the G-20. Obama, by his own admission, is a Nobel Laureate who has yet to earn that distinction through his deeds. A bold initiative on Papua could be the first step toward both leaders working together to be genuinely worthy of the Nobel in a sequence of initiatives to unite the Christian and Muslim worlds.

Indonesia suffered an explosion of religious violence, ethnic violence, separatist violence, terrorist violence, and violence by criminal gangs, the security forces and militias in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By 2002, Indonesia had what seemed to be the worst terrorism problem of any nation in the world. All these forms of violence have now fallen dramatically. How was this accomplished? What drove the rise and the fall of violence? Why has Papua been allowed to be such a disturbing exception to this overall picture of progress?

Emile Durkheim’s anomie theory is used to explain these developments in a new book I co-wrote with Valerie Braithwaite, Michael Cookson and Leah Dunn called “Anomie and Violence: Non-Truth and Reconciliation in Indonesian Peacebuilding.” Sudden institutional change at the time of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and the fall of former President Suharto meant the rules of the game were up for grabs. Ultimately, resistance to Suharto laid a foundation for a more democratic order.

The peacebuilding that occurred was not based on the high-integrity, truth-seeking and reconciliation model preferred by most western thinkers on peacebuilding and transitional justice. Rather it was based on non-truth, and even lies, but genuine reconciliation. This poses a challenge to restorative justice theories of peacebuilding with which I have been associated as a scholar.

Gotong royong is an example of a core tenet of Indonesian philosophy meaning mutual aid or “joint bearing of burdens,” as scholar Clifford Geertz puts it, or “reconciliation through working on shared projects.” In many pockets of Muslim-Christian conflict in Indonesia this has meant in practice that Christian communities help rebuild mosques they razed during a conflict or Muslims work side by side with Christians to rebuild burned-out churches.

Since our non-truth yet reconciliation conclusion was first reported in talks to restorative-justice conferences in the United States, we have had an interesting reaction from US Christian leaders on how American restorative justice efforts might actually learn from Indonesia’s experience. They reflect that in circumstances where a criminal shuns remorse and refuses to confront the truth of his crime, a first step toward truth, remorse and rehabilitation might be to have the criminal work to help his victims recover. There may indeed be scope for learning from gotong royong in Obama’s Chicago. Non-truth and reconciliation may be a stepping stone toward truth, justice and reconciliation in both the East and the West.

John Braithwaite is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow and founder of RegNet at the Australian National University.

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