Mari Pangestu is a symbol of a new Indonesia. The economist turned technocrat, who now serves as Indonesia’s Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy, was born into a country rife with anti-Chinese sentiment. Under the strongman Suharto, Chinese Indonesians like her were effectively banned from publicly celebrating their holidays and discouraged from studying the Chinese language. In May 1998, amid a wave of unrest that would ultimately topple President Suharto, violent anti-Chinese riots swept the capital, Jakarta, and other cities. “If you had asked me in 1998, or before 1998, whether I could see myself in government, I’d say, no,” Pangestu tells TIME. But in the years since, “everything changed so much.”
May 21 marks 15 years since Suharto stepped down, ending 32 years of authoritarian rule and ushering in Indonesia’s era of reform, or reformasi. Southeast Asia’s most populous country is no longer wrecked by economic crisis or hobbled by austerity measures. Indeed, the country’s economy has been growing steadily, at an average rate of 5.7% over the past 10 years. Foreign investment was up 26% in 2012. Even more remarkable, perhaps, has been the sprawling, archipelagic country’s transition to democracy. “In 1998, they predicted Indonesia would break up, that we would be Balkanized,” Pangestu says. “I’m very proud of the process of democracy that has happened.”
Indonesians are rightly proud of their country’s transformation. Successive governments have systematically dismantled discriminatory legislation. In September 1998, President B.J. Habibie abolished the use of the terms pribumi (indigenous) and nonpribumi (nonindigenous) in official documents. In 2000, President Abdurrahman Wahid annulled the Suharto-era regulation that banned expressions of Chinese culture and religion in Indonesia, and two years later, President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared Chinese New Year a national holiday. In 2006, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reinstated Confucianism as one of the officially recognized religions in the country.
Through the years, Chinese Indonesians began to enter politics, breaking the ethnic barrier. Before Pangestu, there was Kwik Kian Gie, an economic czar under Abdurrahman and Megawati. Last year, Jakarta voters elected Joko Widodo and his running mate Basuki T. Purnama, an ethnic Chinese, as their governor and deputy governor, respectively. At least 15 Chinese Indonesians won seats in the 2009 legislative elections, according to the Jakarta-based think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies, up from a mere six in the 1999 polls. Indonesia has not only had Chinese legislators, officials and ministers, but it has also nominated Pangestu for the top job at the World Trade Organization (WTO). (She lost in one of the last rounds to two Latin American candidates; Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevêdo was chosen to take the helm of the WTO.)
That’s not to say discrimination has disappeared in the world’s most populous Muslim country. The relative openness that Indonesians have enjoyed since 1998 has given rise not only to civic freedom but also the proliferation of a small but influential number of hard-line religious groups, some of which have taken aim at the country’s religious minorities, particularly Christians, Shi‘ites and the Ahmadiyah — often winning tacit approval of local officials. In the past several weeks, as thugs attacked Ahmadiyah communities in different parts of Java, the local district government on the island of Madura told Shi‘ites driven from their home that they couldn’t return to their village. In late March, a church was demolished and another was shuttered by local administrations in West Java following protests from Muslim hard-liners. Also alarming is the comment of the recently re-elected West Java Governor Ahmad Heryawan, who was asked about the Ahmadiyah: “The problem will disappear if the belief disappears,” he said.
In recent years, a growing number of rights groups have called out Yudhoyono, the country’s current President, for failing to protect religious minorities despite the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. The Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, recorded 264 violent attacks against religious minorities last year, up from 244 in 2011. The Wahid Institute, a rights-monitoring group founded by the late President Abdurrahman, reported 274 violations of religious freedom and 363 incidents of religious intolerance in 2012, up from 92 violations and 184 incidents in the previous year. “In the past 15 years, religious violence has increased, especially under SBY,” says Choirul Anam, deputy director of the Human Rights Working Group in Jakarta, referring to Yudhoyono’s initials. “He fails to uphold the law, and he doesn’t have much vision about pluralism.”
Yudhoyono is slated to receive the World Statesman Award from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an American interfaith organization. Although the news has been greeted with protests in Indonesia, the President is nonetheless scheduled to be in New York City to accept the award in late May, his spokesman said. Certainly, Yudhoyono seems keen to share Indonesia’s story. In a speech in Singapore in late April, the President said his country’s story “proved that democracy, Islam and modernity can go well together.” Indonesia, he said, could help guide Arab Spring countries.
There is much to learn from Indonesia. But the country itself must guard against swapping one form of discrimination for another. Tolerance “has been a very, very important strength of Indonesia,” says Pangestu. “That’s why we were able to stay together as a country.” As Indonesia moves forward, it must heed this lesson.
MORE: The Other Indonesia