By Endy M. Bayuni

JAKARTA, Indonesia (East-West Wire, April 18) - To many Indonesians, there was an air of familiarity when thousands of Baghdadis took to the streets to celebrate the downfall of Saddam Hussein on April 9. Even the looting and ransacking of shops and buildings -- though not the complete anarchy and breakdown of law and order –- reminded many Indonesians of the day they were finally delivered from the long reign of a ruthless tyrant on May 22, 1998.

Sadly, however, not many Indonesians shared the joy of that day when many Iraqis rejoiced at their newfound freedom. Instead, the news was greeted in Indonesia with a heavy dose of skepticism, with suspicions that the celebration was choreographed for American TV cameras, or only represented the feeling of a handful of Iraqis.

At any rate, the news of the "liberation" of Iraq was severely undermined by continued fighting elsewhere in that country, by the growing number of civilian casualties, by the massive humanitarian tragedy that was evolving in many of the "liberated" as well as "unliberated" towns of Iraq, and by lingering suspicions of America's hidden motives in invading Iraq. When all is said and done, however, Indonesians who had opposed the war, or what President Megawati Soekarnoputri termed America's act of aggression, must come to terms with the fact that the U.S.-led coalition forces had brought one good thing for the Iraqis -- freedom, at least freedom from Saddam Hussein and his thugs.

Iraqis may still be a long way from gaining their freedom in the real sense of the word -- especially freedom from fear, given the current anarchy –- but the collapse of the regime is the first step toward more meaningful freedom and nation-building.

Indonesians, of all the people in the world, should know exactly how the majority of the freed Iraqis must have felt that day last week. Among the most oppressed nations in recent history, Indonesia was also the most recent country to be freed from the reign of a ruthless tyrant. It was not more than five years ago that strongman Soeharto was finally forced to resign after 32 years in power.

We experienced what the Iraqis did. And we endured 32 years of tyrannical rule, longer than the 25 years suffered under Saddam Hussein's reign.

Soeharto may not have been as brutal as Saddam Hussein, but he was ruthless, nevertheless. Like Saddam Hussein, he was prepared to kill to sustain his power. Communists and suspected communists, Islamists, pro-democracy activists, civilians in Aceh, Papua and East Timor, and anybody else who dared to challenge his rule were among those who suffered the most under Soeharto.

Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975 was not unlike Saddam's attempt to annex Kuwait. If East Timor were as blessed with oil as Kuwait, it probably would have been a different story. Instead, the world waited a full 24 years before giving marching orders to the Indonesian forces to leave East Timor.

Like Saddam Hussein, Soeharto also used terror to sustain his power. His families and cronies used his position to accumulate wealth. They were living, and are still living, in opulence. Corruption eventually brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, and the ensuing economic crisis in 1997 led to the people's power that ultimately forced Soeharto to step down the following year.

Had the Iraqis taken a different route to win their freedom -- that is, through building stronger civil society groups first, and then bringing Saddam Hussein down from the inside rather than relying on external forces -- many more Indonesians would have joined in the celebrations with the Iraqis for their new found freedom.

It would have been a longer route to take, but it would have happened sooner or later. Remember, Indonesia took 32 years to get rid of Soeharto. Alas, the decision for the Iraqis was made in Washington. It was not the ideal route, but Iraqis will take their freedom, whichever way it came. Who wouldn't?

But there is perhaps another reason why Indonesians are not rejoicing at the liberation of Iraq. They have learned by now that freedom alone, while important, is not enough to deliver the goods, to put food on the table or to create jobs. After almost five years since Indonesians gained their freedom from Soeharto at a huge sacrifice, many people are asking today: What have we really gained since then?

Democracy, civil society, and prosperity -- these are the ideals. But to achieve them, you need to work hard, a lot harder. Removing the tyrant, as we Indonesians have learned, turned out to be the easiest part in the nation-building process. Perhaps Indonesians did not share in the joy with Iraqis as a warning that the road to peace and prosperity is long and filled with many obstacles.

April 18, 2003

Endy M. Bayuni is deputy chief editor of The Jakarta Post. He was a Jefferson Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu in Fall 1999.

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