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Conference Report: "Decentralization and Democratization in Southeast Asia" (Freiburg, 15-17 June 2011)


In 2011, the Freiburg Southeast Asia Study Group organized an "International Conference on Decentralization and Democratization in Southeast Asia" with a special section on 10 years of decentralization in Indonesia. The conference took place from June 15-17, 2011 in Freiburg, Germany.

The following conference report by Eric Hanstaad was published in:

Asien - The German Journal on Contemporary Asia, Nr. 121, Oktober 2011, pp. 84-86   

Decentralization and Democratization in Southeast Asia

Freiburg, 15.-17. Juni 2011

Nestled in the green foothills of the Black Forest, among the “Bächle” of Freiburg’s medieval streets, an international and multidisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners assembled for three days in June to assess the status of “Decentralization and Democratization in Southeast Asia.” The conference was sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and held under the auspices of the Freiburg University’s Southeast Asia Studies Program Konferenzberichte 85 ( entitled “Grounding Area Studies in Social Practice”. With a special section on a decade of decentralization in Indonesia, the conference highlighted the importance of the region’s dynamism within a globalized context of decentralized democratization. In the wake of the Cold War, ten years after the pioneering “big bang” programs in the Philippines, newly democratizing Indonesia embarked on even bolder decentralization reforms. Simultaneously, Vietnam’s incremental decentralization process contrasts with the recent military coup and political unrest in Thailand, and decentralization programs primarily in service of neo-patrimonialism in Cambodia. The regional diversity of decentralization and its complex entrainment with central bureaucracies, entrenched militaries, and money politics provided key areas of focus for the conference. In particular, the ten year anniversary of the implementation of Indonesia’s decentralization offered a critical moment to evaluate the achievements and shortcomings of these economic, historical, political, and cultural processes.

An evening reception hosted by the City of Freiburg offered an opportunity for the conference committee chairs, Günther Schulze, Jürgen Rüland, and Judith Schlehe (University of Freiburg) to welcome more than 150 conference participants from Europe, North America and Southeast Asia and to introduce the conference topic. The following Thursday morning, an opening statement by Günther Schulze on a decade of decentralization in Indonesia highlighted the dynamism, diversity, and relative under-theorization of decentralization in Southeast Asia as a fundamental justification for creating the conference and crafting its international and interdisciplinary design. In the first of three plenary sessions that followed, historian and anthropologist Henk Schulte Nordholt (KITLV, Leiden) presented “Decentralization and Democracy in Indonesia: Strengthening Citizenship or Regional Elites?” This session initiated the first of a lively series of discussions originating from questions about anti-corruption measures, cultural democracy, geographical factors, social networking technology, and the entrenchment of local elites within decentralization processes. The session made clear that decentralization and democratization do not always coincide, an insight corroborated by other conference contributions. Following two plenary sessions from Marcus Mietzner (Australian National University, Canberra), “Indonesia ten years after decentralization: local identity and the survival of the nation-state,” and Neil McCulloch (University of Sussex, Brighton) “Does better local governance improve district growth performance in Indonesia?” two afternoon parallel sessions included a total of more than forty individual presentations within six separate panels. These panels approached decentralization from interdisciplinary perspectives ranging from issues of local government proliferation (pemekaran), disaster risk management, public service delivery, fiscal decentralization, economic growth, local identity, political discourse, forest usage, corruption, and religion.

Braving a typical evening June rain shower and a brief cable car journey to the foothills of the Schwarzwald, participants found scenic and delicious refuge in the
86 ASIEN 121 (Oktober 2011) Restaurant Dattler with a dinner speech by The Ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia to Germany, his Excellency Dr. Eddy Pratomo. On Friday morning, a third parallel session offered seven panels with more than thirty individual presentations ranging from topics of “Decentralization and Local Elites” to “Culture and Media.” A late morning Round Table discussion, “Past Experiences and the Future of Democratization and Decentralization in Indonesia” prompted a provocative debate from panelists Jörg-Werner Haas (GIZ Indonesia), Heru Subiyantoro (Indonesian Ministry of Finance), William Wallace (World Bank), and Andy Yentriyani (Commission on Violence against Women, Indonesia). A conference closing speech by Judith Schlehe highlighted the value of an interdisciplinary approach and area studies focus when exploring decentralization from a grounded perspective linked to social practices of democratization. As conference organizers asserted, “the outcome of this renegotiation of governance structures, economic patterns and cultural identifications is by no means clear.” Nevertheless, this transnational gathering of academics and practitioners generated timely analysis and created much-needed debate charting developments in decentralized and democratic processes within the context of an unpredictable Southeast Asian future.

Eric J. Haanstad 


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