A tale of two countries | Inquirer Opinion

A tale of two countries

IT HAS 147 volcanoes compared to the Philippines’ 53. It has 300 native languages against the Philippines’ 187. It has 10,000 more islands and 150 million more people than the Philippines. The Republic of Indonesia is the world’s biggest archipelago and the country with the world’s biggest Muslim population.

I was in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta a few days ago in the last leg of a project of the Center for International Law (Centerlaw). The project’s aim is to band together human rights organizations in Southeast Asia for them to jointly address human rights problems in the region.


Filipinos have a dearth of knowledge about Indonesia despite its being one of our nearest neighbors and despite our having a common ancestry and a shared culture that thrived in our islands for hundreds of precolonial years.

Anthropologists have found that the brown people of Southeast Asia trace their common origin to an ethnic race in Taiwan that migrated southward by spreading first to the Philippine islands and then dispersing further down to the islands that now comprise Indonesia and Malaysia. Anthropologists base their conclusion on, among others, a finding that the languages of these brown people all came from one mother language (Austronesian). The variants that evolved from this mother tongue have an older-to-younger language continuum from north to south. Hence, the languages in the Philippine islands are older than the Indonesian languages. Listening to an Indonesian speak Bahasa, we hear many words that have the same meanings in Filipino, like buaya, sakit, anak, buka, lima, puti, and mahal.


While the origins of migration spread from north to south (from the Philippines to Indonesia), the subsequent development of precolonial civilizations spread from south to north (from Indonesia to the Philippines). The cultures of the Hindu empires and Islamic kingdoms that developed in the Indonesian islands spread northward to some of the Philippine islands.

After Indonesia and the Philippines gained independence from the Dutch and the Spaniards, respectively, both countries went through the harrowing rule of brutal dictators.  Suharto ruled Indonesia for 31 years, Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines for 21 years.

Both countries suffered from systematic killings, torture, disappearances and arbitrary imprisonment, with more than a million killed under Suharto, and more than 250,000 human rights violations reported to have been committed under Marcos. The economies of both countries were ruined by massive corruption that impoverished their peoples, while enormous wealth was amassed by the two dictators, their families, and cronies.

Both dictators were overthrown but were never prosecuted for their horrible crimes. In fact, the Marcos and Suharto families and their cronies continue to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth, and make a mockery of politics in both countries.

Like the Philippines, Indonesia is a fledgling democracy that largely enjoys a free press, free speech and assembly, and the right to vote. However, a culture of impunity remains deeply entrenched among Indonesia’s security forces. The police retain the dictatorship-era power to arrest and detain suspects for 60 days without need of court approval, and they continue to be accused of killings, torture, illegal arrests, and rampant corruption. Terrible human rights violations continue to be perpetrated in the province of West Papua, where 500,000 people have reportedly been killed since the Indonesian occupation in the 1960s.

The bright spot in postdictatorship Indonesia is the creation of a Corruption Eradication Commission (known as “KPK”). The KPK has far greater powers compared to our Ombudsman because, even without a court order, it can make arrests, conduct searches and seizures, freeze assets, impose travel bans, compel cooperation from government agencies, and even tap communications.

According to Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists president Eko Maryadi, the KPK has arrested more than 450 politicians, businessmen, police generals, military officers, and Cabinet ministers. Just last February, the KPK arrested a Supreme Court justice caught accepting a bribe.


From 2003 to 2012, the KPK notched an impressive 100-percent conviction rate against top government officials. It accomplished the feat because it is able to obtain solid evidence aided by its powers to search bank records, tap phone conversations and videotape secret meetings, being exempt from bank secrecy and wiretapping laws. For its “fiercely independent and successful campaign against corruption in Indonesia,” the KPK has earned international acclaim. It received the Ramon Magsaysay award for governance in 2013.

For its part, the Philippines has seen the conviction of one of its former presidents, the detention and prosecution of another former president, the impeachment of a chief justice, and the trial of three senators. The number of criminal convictions for graft of governors, congressmen, and mayors is also increasing. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales has commendably been issuing an almost-monthly decision dismissing erring public officials and permanently disqualifying them from holding any government post.

For Indonesia and the Philippines, it is an

arduous climb out of the pit into which they were thrown by brutal and corrupt dictators. It is a slow climb, but it is certainly better than the crawl back to the bottom advocated by

detractors of democracy.

* * *

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