Indonesia: An Effort to Hold Together

The islands' "guided democracy" is divided by geography, ethnic differences, and religion
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No one would call Jakarta an elegant city, but it has absorbed its rapid growth better than some other capitals have. Jakarta's population now stands at more than 6 million people, four times as many as when Indonesia declared its independence, thirty-seven years ago. The city is a low-lying settlement, and, at irregular intervals, solitary skyscrapers rise above the landscape. They contain banks, government offices, hotels, and the offices of the foreign businesses that operate in Jakarta. Between the skyscrapers, beneath canopies created by papaya, palm, and banana trees, lie the kampongs, urban villages that approximate the life of the countryside within the city.

Children run through the alleys of their kampong but rarely cross its borders. The people in a kampong are often connected by blood, by ties to the region of the hinterland from which they have come, and by units of government, under the leadership of a lurah, or headman. The kampongs cover most of the land area of Jakarta, and because of them, the capital is sometimes called a city of villages. The greenery that surrounds them, the product of extremely rich volcanic soil and heavy, regular rainfall, gives a strangely non-urban air to Jakarta.

The buildings in the kampongs have roofs of weathered red tile, perhaps the only fondly regarded residue of 350 years of Dutch colonial rule. When viewed from a distance or from above, these roofs seem the emblem of a solid, prosperous settlement. Seen up close, the houses and small shops beneath the roofs are scarcely different from their ramshackle, tin-roofed counterparts in other poor countries of the world.

The rainy season begins around the turn of the year and lasts for four or five months. The rains come every day, generally in the afternoon. Two or three inches may fall in a matter of hours. After a storm, the canals that snake through the city, their brownish water used for bathing, laundry, and waste disposal, are full and fast-flowing, and water runs ankle-deep through the alleys of the kampongs.

During this year's rainy season, on one day of each month, an unusual number of people were wearing a similar item of clothing in the streets of Jakarta. Perhaps one in every ten wore a blue-and- black shirt of batik, the famous Indonesian cloth. The shirts were the emblem of Golkar, the "functional group," or party, that controls the Indonesian government, and many of the people who wore them had been at Golkar rallies earlier in the day. The rallies are held on the 17th or 18th of each month, in commemoration of the country's declaration of independence from Holland, on August 17, 1945. For public employees, attendance at the rallies, as well as membership in Golkar, is effectively part of their jobs, and was especially so as the May 4 election drew near.

The election was the third to be held since a "New Order" government, run by the military, took over from President Sukarno, in 1966. During the campaign, which was expected to be uneventful, tension mounted between Golkar and its major opposition, the United Development Party, and some political demonstrations were marred by violence.

Yet the election on May 4 was only the first stage in the process of selecting Indonesia's next president. The 360 delegates elected on that day to seats in the People's House of Representatives will be joined by another 100 representatives, mainly military figures, whom the government appoints. Then those 460 elected and appointed members of the House will be combined with another 460 people, all of them appointed by the government. These 920 people, more than 60 percent of them appointed by the very regime whose performance they are asked to assess, are collectively known as the People's Consultative Assembly They will choose the president in March of 1983, and the man they are expected to select is Suharto (like his predecessor, Sukarno, and many of his countrymen, he is known by a single name), who became acting president in March of 1967.

Earlier this year, amid a swarm of Golkar shirts on one of Jakarta's major thoroughfares, I asked an Indonesian businessman what all the excitement was about. Why the big buildup to an election whose outcome seemed foreordained?

"You forget," my companion answered gravely. "We are a democracy. Of course, we do not mean 'democracy' in your sense; that would not be right for us. Ours is a guided democracy, more appropriate to a young country such as we are."

The local definition of democracy is but one illustration, and probably the mildest, of the sense of strangeness that a Westerner feels at every moment in Indonesia. Here, as elsewhere in the developing world, nationalists and scholars complain that local traditions are being uprooted by Western values; but it is harder to take that complaint seriously in Indonesia than in most other countries. True, its officials deal with international oil and timber companies, and its urban youth frequent tape-cassette stores, where they can buy pirated versions signs of American and European hit songs for 1,000 rupiahs, or about $1.50 apiece. But many Indonesians still change their names after an illness for good luck, defer to the judgment of their kampong's headman, and seek political portents in the all-night puppet show known as the wayang.

The endurance of the Indonesian culture may be partially explained by the total indifference of many Westerners, especially Americans, to the nation's very existence. This is a source of considerable irritation to many Indonesian officials. As they quite rightly point out, their country has more than a small claim to be taken seriously. The Indonesian archipelago, which contains some 13,000 islands and stretches in a semicircle from Indochina southeastward toward Australia, includes such well-known islands as Java, Sumatra, Bali, Borneo, the Celebes, and the western half of New Guinea. (Borneo is now known as Kalimantan, the Celebes as Sulawesi, and western New Guinea as Irian Jaya.) Indonesia has a population of nearly 150 million, more than any other country except China, India, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Its officials point out that it is a major exporter of oil, natural gas, tin, rubber, and other sought-after commodities; that its territory controls both sides of the Straits of Lombok and one side of the Straits of Malacca, two crucial areas through which commerce—and warships—must pass en route from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean; that, along with the other members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), it represents the West's principal economic and strategic ally in an otherwise hostile region; that its resources and its human numbers make it a "sleeping giant."

Outsiders often tend to use Indonesia as an illustration for pat political theories. To the left, Indonesia is just another military regime whose arsenal the U.S. keeps stocking; to the right, it is a bulwark of anti-communism and private enterprise. The reality is more interesting than either of those views.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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