Indonesia's struggle: conquering a legacy of avarice and vice
By BEN ANDERSON *)
Saturday 12 May 2001
ndonesia is a strange country by any measure, and now one where, unlike
Thailand or the Philippines, the potential opposition between nationalism and
democracy is perfectly visible.
How easy it is to take the past for granted. Who in 1907 would have said that
a nationalist movement would be in place in 20 years, whose vision would
include an Aceh, a southern Bali, and a West New Guinea/Papua in the very
process of colonial incorporation in that year?
Who in 1940 would have said that within five years the sedate, highly policed
colony would experience a revolution, and be legally recognised as a new
nation-state within 10?
Who in 1962 would have said that within four years somewhere between half and
two million citizens would be massacred by the state?
Who in 1995 would have said that within three years its fabled economic
miracle would lie in probably irreparable ruins, and its famously
overpowering state would be a shambles?
It is important to remember Sukarno. He was almost the only young nationalist
in his generation who came from a mixed ethnic and religious background - his
father an at least nominally Muslim Javanese and his mother a Hindu Balinese.
In his long career, he worked tirelessly and mostly successfully to propagate
an inclusive, populist nationalism that was out of the reach of even Mahatma
Gandhi. This is why, a generation after his death, he remains a living
presence, without a rival in South-East Asia, except for the late Ho Chi
The hope Sukarno provided is quite visible in the huge popular support today
for his otherwise wholly unremarkable daughter, Megawati.
Needless to say, he made many mistakes, as we all do. From today's
perspective, the crucial one was the decision in 1950 to give strong backing
to a partly popular movement to destroy the Federal Republic of Indonesia,
which was the fruit of painful negotiations between the departing Dutch, his
own republic (concentrated on Java and Sumatra), and the so-called
federalists, mostly aristocratic groups in the outer islands who had
collaborated with the Dutch during the revolution.
In its place came an unlikely unitary republic against which rebellions, all
but one non-separatist, were quick to start. This decision gradually
concentrated the struggle for political power in the capital city and at the
national level, in what gradually became a zero-sum game, and eventually led
to the violent death of the huge, legal Indonesian Communist Party in 1965-66.
One has only to look at independent India for comparison to see how bad the
mistake was: there the federal structure permitted Indian legal communists to
rule for long periods of time in Bengal and in Kerala, without a
national-level cataclysm. And major ethno-linguistic groups also found room
for a certain degree of local autonomy.
Sukarno's durable successor, General Suharto, an unusually wicked and
determined man - who had served in the colonial military against which the
nationalist movement had fought - for his own reasons followed the logic of
unitaryness, but for quite different, and even more disastrous, reasons.
Sukarno had envisioned Indonesia as a unitary people; Suharto saw it as a
unitary territory, of which the resources were to be appropriated and
distributed for the benefit of his own regime.
Kalimantan's vast forests, Papua New Guinea's huge copper and other mineral
deposits, and Aceh's enormous fields of natural gas were exploited by
Sino-Indonesian cronies, loyal generals, and armies of obedient Javanese,
Madurese and other migrants.
It can be of little surprise that, after the dictator's fall, we are faced
with energetic independence movements in Aceh, which during the revolution
was a stronghold of the nationalist republic, and in Papua New Guinea, and
horrific ethnic violence in Kalimantan.
One of the biggest questions facing Indonesia today is whether a generally
sensible federal political system can finally be created, or whether it is
already too late.
There are plenty of self-interested, as well as disinterested, voices, in
Jakarta right now that make one of two arguments.
One is that with the example of liberated East Timor fresh in people's minds,
federalism will lead to the break-up of the nation; only a strong, coercive
centre can hold the country together. The other is that it will create dozens
of mini-Suhartos in different localities, controlling their federal fiefdoms
through local mafias of corrupt officials, moonlighting military killers,
professional gangsters and business monopolists.
In Sukarno's generation of nationalist leaders, very few died rich, and the
president himself was no exception. There were even plenty of military
leaders who lived quite simple lives. Suharto's astounding nepotistic
avarice, to which Americans, Japanese, Europeans and Australians all pandered
for their own greedy purposes, has no clear precedents in the country's
history. But it has had devastating effects, even if we exclude the final
crash of 1997.
Suharto's example and policies debauched the bureaucracy and the legal
system, both of which have become almost irremediably corrupt and nepotistic,
and created a suave qui peut middle class without courage or character, which
the late lamented Frantz Fanon would have contemplated with gloomy
This middle class, which slept comfortably through the massive violence of
the regime - whose physical victims over the years certainly exceed a million
people - is now actually alarmed. Police stations are burned by angry crowds,
drug dealers are murdered by neighborhood vigilantes, pedicab drivers have
reappeared en masse on streets long reserved for the automobiles of the
middle class, and they are no longer afraid to take violent collective action
against speeding Mercedes-Benzes. In the middle class, there are already
clear signs of nostalgia for the New Order - yes, above all, order - regime.
There is a famous Indonesian saying that goes: under the banyan-tree no
healthy plants can grow. Perhaps Suharto remembered this saying with some
malignant satisfaction when he gave his political machine Golkar the
banyan-tree as its electoral symbol.
Indonesia's present quarrelsome leaders grew up under its shade, and there is
not one who has escaped its corrupting, dwarfing influence. This is one
reason why the ghost of Suharto's long-gone predecessor remains a presence,
even a distant kind of promise. Of democracy? Perhaps not. But of popular
nationalism, which may have democratic possibilities, yes.
In Indonesia, nationalism must come first, meaning a strong feeling of
sharing a common fate and future. Countries where political leaders are
unashamed to have dual citizenship or green cards in America, where dominant
groups send their children abroad to be educated and quietly despise their
own culture, where millions of citizens are left to rot in fetid slums or
ransacked countrysides, are places where, even if they have democratic
institutions, nothing good is to be expected.
The problem is not so much a democratic deficit, but a deficit of
nationalism, especially among the well-to-do and the educated.
Patriotic and honest leaders can make a huge difference, both by their
decisions and by their examples. East Timor is the most recent striking case
For decades the Americans propped up Suharto. The British armed Suharto to
the teeth. Successive Australian governments, to their eternal shame,
colluded with Jakarta in the rape of East Timor.
What is needed now is less meddling, less arrogance, and less greed from
*) Ben Anderson is professor of international studies and director of the modern
Indonesia project at Cornell University, New York. This is an edited version
of his Alfred Deakin lecture, delivered last night in the RMIT Capitol