Return to Indonesia

A reporter chronicles the revival of the world’s most populous Muslim nation a decade after its disintegration

Despite ongoing problems, Indonesia boasts one of Asia's strongest economies. (Ed Wray)
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But many challenges lie ahead. Yudhoyono’s popularity rating remains high—75 percent in early 2010—but has fallen 15 percent since his election, partly because of scandals within his government and criticism that he is indecisive. What if it continues to fall and he alters course, back-tracking into the dictatorial ways of his predecessors? What about deep-rooted corruption, which has drawn protesters into Jakarta’s streets; inertia in the civil service; the gap between rich and poor; and the continuing battle for the soul of Islam between moderates and extremists? In 2009, Aceh province, for instance, adopted a new Shariah law (law of God) that calls for death by stoning for adulterers. To the relief of moderates, concerned about tourism and foreign investment, Aceh has yet to carry out any stonings.

One day, I sat with six students in the shade of a kiosk at Jakarta’s Paramadina University, which includes in its curriculum a course on anti-corruption. The two young women present wore colorful jilbabs, the Islamic scarf that covers the hair and neck. All six spoke excellent English. They wanted to know if I was on Facebook and what I thought of President Obama, who as this story went to press was planning a visit in March to Indonesia, where he lived with his mother and Indonesian stepfather from 1967 to 1971. He has become popular in Indonesia since his campaign and election, and this past December a 43-inch bronze statue was unveiled in a city park, depicting a 10-year-old Obama wearing schoolboy shorts with his outstretched hand holding a butterfly. (A protest campaign that began on Facebook, arguing that Obama is not an Indonesian national hero, succeeded in getting the statue removed from the park. Officials transferred it to Obama’s former school in February.) I asked the students what their goals were. One wanted to be a computer programmer, another an entrepreneur, a third wanted to study in the United States.

“For me,” said 20-year-old Muhammad Fajar, “the biggest dream is to be a diplomat. Indonesia can have a big place in the world, and I want to be part of it. But first we’ve got to show the world that Indonesia is not just about poverty and corruption and terrorism.”

David Lamb, who traveled Asia extensively as a Los Angeles Times correspondent, is a regular contributor to Smithsonian.


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