While President Barack Obama has certainly excited the world with his vision of American diplomacy, one can’t help but wonder if the Nobel Committee overlooked the man who helped lead the world’s fourth largest country toward peace and democracy – former Indonesian President Jusuf Habibie.
To explain why Habibie deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, it might be helpful to travel back to early 1998. The Asia Financial Crisis had just taken the wind out of Indonesia’s economic growth. Protests rocked Jakarta and rioters burned and looted shops owned by non-pribumi. Even as President Suharto started to lose his grip on power, few believe the TNI would step back from politics. Many analysts predicted Indonesia would tear itself apart, leading to a bloodbath worse than the Balkans. A senior general even threatened student protesters with another “Tiananmen Square,” in reference the China’s bloody crackdown in 1989, rather than cede power.
Enter Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie. Habibie certainly never seemed like the leader who would lead Indonesia’s democratic transition. An engineer by training, he served as Minister for Technology and Research from 1978 right up to early 1998, where he managed several strategic industries. Admittedly, not all of his ideas proved wise; in 1994, he convinced Suharto to purchase the former East German navy for over $1 billion. Many experts believe Suharto chose Habibie as his Vice President precisely because the bapak believed nobody would risk overthrowing him if it meant leaving Habibie in charge. The value of Indonesia’s currency, the rupiah, fell by 36% the day after the announcement. When Suharto finally resigned on 21 May 1998 and handed the presidency over to Habibie, few were optimistic about the country’s future.
As president, however, Habibie displayed a hidden seriousness and commitment to reformasi. When he learned of the hundreds of political prisoners languishing in jail, Habibie ordered the POLRI to either charge them with actual crimes or release them. Soon afterward, many high-profile prisoners walked free for the first time in years. He also lifted restrictions on the media, political parties, and labor unions. In response to the riots against Chinese earlier that year, he issued presidential instructions to reduce discrimination against non-pribumi. He signed a law that decentralized power to the provinces, which gave local provinces and ethnic minorities more autonomy. In January 1999, he announced that the government would allow the people of East Timor to decide their future in a referendum. When the Timorese chose independence, Habibie respected their decision. He embraced democracy and announced new elections for the MPR set for October 1999. Perhaps most importantly, when Abdurrahman Wahid won, Habibie stepped down from the presidency.
President Habibie lasted in the Istana Merdeka for just 517 days. However, in that short time, he changed Indonesia forever and set the country on its current path to success.
A decade after Habibie’s presidency, Indonesia is in much better condition than anybody had dared hope. Far from breaking apart, the country’s sense of national identity and pride have risen to new heights. Decentralization has given Indonesians more control over government and enabled provinces to pursue local economic initiatives. Democracy has grown firm roots throughout the country. This past July, over 120 million Indonesians reelected President SBY in free and fair elections. Meanwhile, even in the current Global Recession, the International Monetary Fund predicts the country’s GDP will grow by 4% in 2009. President Obama and others now refer to Indonesia as the world’s largest Muslim democracy and a model for the rest of the Islamic world.
Other political leaders have won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading their countries toward democracy. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev won the Nobel for liberalizing the Soviet Union, as well as for withdrawing from Eastern Europe. In 1993, former President F.W. de Klerk shared the prize with Nelson Mandela for ending apartheid in South Africa. Like Habibie, both men realized that the old order no longer worked and embraced political reform. These leaders gracefully stepped aside when political events in their countries overtook them. However, in retrospect, with authoritarian creeping back into Russia and poverty on the rise in South Africa, Habibie’s reformasi appears deeper and more successful than either of these other accomplishments.
Of course, thousands of other people played important roles in the transformation, including Megawati, Amien Rais, SBY, and, above all, the masyarakat Indonesia. However, Habibie deserves credit for helping to steer the country on the right path during a difficult time. It’s not difficult to imagine what might have happened if he had acted differently – just look at Burma. In 1988, the Burmese people rose up against the ailing socialist system. However, nobody inside the government had Habibie’s vision. When the General Ne Win resigned, President Maung Maung continued to defend the old order. Frustrated with the political stalemate, the Burmese military seized power and ruled the country directly. Even after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won legislative elections in 1990, the army refused to transfer power. Today, the Burmese people suffer from poverty and widespread human rights abuses. Had Maung Maung been more like Habibie, he might have won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize instead of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Habibie has not received the recognition he deserves for his statesmanship in the late 1990s. Without Habibie, the country where Obama spent his youth might be embroiled in chaos. In setting the world’s fourth largest country on the path to peace, prosperity, and democracy, Habibie certainly belongs with Gorbachev, de Klerk, and now Obama as a Nobel Laureate. The process of nominating candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize remains shrouded in mystery. However, if the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to recognize somebody who has made a real contribution to peace and democracy, it should consider awarding former President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.