Indonesia: An Effort to Hold Together

The islands' "guided democracy" is divided by geography, ethnic differences, and religion
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As for its political system, there is no mistaking Indonesia for a liberal democratic state. Under the New Order, which has obtained since Sukarno ceded power to Suharto, then a general, most government officials have been soldiers, on active duty or retired. The press is controlled by self-censorship most of the time, and by more direct measures such as shutting down newspapers, whenever the need arises. In 1980, fifty prominent Indonesians took the daring step of presenting to the House of Delegates a petition complaining about the way President Suharto was interpreting Pancasila, the nation's political credo. Government representatives called the newspaper offices to ask them not to report the story; the incident was mentioned in the Indonesian press only indirectly, through reports of the government's rebuttal. And as this spring's elections drew near, the government suspended the political weekly Tempo because of its coverage of the campaign.

When unauthorized stories do make their way into the press, it is usually because the fine print of the Asian Wall Street Journal or the Far East Economic Review has dulled the censor's eye. The government has delegated the task of censoring foreign publications to the private newsagents, who carry out their duty in a haphazard and sometimes quixotic way. Mention of all things Chinese is prohibited, so a story about Hong Kong's subway system will have printer's ink smeared all over the photo of a subway sign bearing Chinese characters. Meanwhile, a long English-language report about guerrilla activity in the province of East Timor may well escape detection.

Shortly after seizing control from Sukarno, Suharto's military regime sent between 50,000 and 100,000 political dissidents to jail. The government admitted that 30,000 were still there by 1977; Amnesty International reported that the real number was probably two to three times that large. Through all the years of their imprisonment, most of these people had never been brought to trial. The government had planned to begin releasing them in 1975, at a rate of 2,500 per year, which would have taken roughly until 1990. Because the situation was giving Indonesia an unnecessary black eye, especially with the U.S., the government speeded up the schedule and released all but a few hundred prisoners by 1979. One of the nation's most famous novelists, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, was released in January of 1980, after being held for fourteen years without trial. Everyone now understands that those who choose to criticize the government must do so in a "constructive" fashion if they hope to remain at large.

In defending their system of "guided democracy," a number of Indonesians, including several whom the government would certainly classify as subversive, contended in conversations with me that the system was a natural product of the history and culture of their nation. Indonesia's history as an independent nation runs a mere thirty-seven years, and it has been dominated by the struggle to establish the authority of the central state. Even as the young nationalists of Sukarno's generation began plotting against the Dutch in the 1920s, they saw that holding the nation together would be at least as great a challenge as freeing it from colonial rule. The political effort to create "One Indonesia" encountered the natural barriers of geography, language, and culture in these diverse islands. From Sumatra on the west to Irian Jaya on the east, Indonesia covers more distance than does the continental United States, and because it is broken up into islands, it has far less natural cohesion. Anthropologists claim that there are more than 300 ethnic groups in the population. Even to the untrained eye, half a dozen clear divisions are obvious, the plainest being among the Malay population of Java and the central islands, the dark-skinned Melanesians of Irian Jaya and the eastern islands, and the ethnic Chinese.

These 150 million people, all Indonesians, speak about 365 languages and dialects. It was to counteract this source of division that the Indonesian Youth Movement, in which the young Sukarno and other nationalists joined to organize against Dutch rule, adopted as its pledge, in 1928, "One fatherland—Indonesia; one nation—Indonesia; one language—Bahasa Indonesia." As president, Sukarno placed enormous emphasis on teaching a national language to children of every island and ethnic group: Bahasa Indonesia, which means "language of Indonesia." Its origins lie in the trading language used along the Malay Peninsula. Among its political attractions was that it was not Javanese, the language of the group that dominated the he politics and economics of the archipelago for a long time. It is a simplified language—in the view of many people, oversimplified—that has almost no verb conjugations and that avoids the elaborate grammatical distinctions required by Javanese, Balinese, and other languages when a member of one social class addresses a member of another.

Sukarno's insistence on creating a satellite communication system for Indonesia, which at the time was widely derided in the West as ludicrous pyramid-building, was an indication of his determination to make language instruction available nationwide. There are still very few Indonesians for whom Bahasa Indonesia is a first language; because of its stripped-down semi-pidgin nature, a government project exists to keep the language "growing" and to make it more supple and useful. Nonetheless it has been more successfully implanted as a lingua franca than, say, Hindi in India or Swahili in eastern Africa.

In addition to the centrifugal forces set up by geography and ethnic difference are those created by religion. Islam as generally practiced in Indonesia is a far milder creed than Islam elsewhere in Asia or in the Middle East. When it was brought to the archipelago, in the fifteenth century, it overcame, but was tempered by, the Hindu, Buddhist, and assorted animist faiths that had preceded it. The 3 million people of Bali, for example, are nearly all Hindu, and their island is dotted with some 30,000 Hindu shrines, yet they live unmolested as part of a Moslem nation.

Still, there are religious divisions that can at times become acute. Differences of faith apparently had much to do with the bloodiest episode in Indonesia's recent history. "Amok," as in "run amok," is a word of local origin, and it is used to describe the nationwide massacres that took place in 1965 and 1966.

In the early sixties, Sukarno had flirted with both Soviet and Chinese Communists. He was the classic "nonaligned" figure of the fifties and sixties who was really aligned with the East. In this climate, the Communist Party made great strides in Indonesia. It organized so extensively that by the middle sixties Indonesia's was the largest Communist Party in the world. Sukarno himself seemed able to contain the tensions between the Communists and the military, but there was a general awareness that when he died, a showdown between the two forces would be inevitable.

As it happened, the showdown came earlier than that. In September of 1965, with Sukarno still in office, the Communists attempted to stage a coup. In October, guerrillas murdered six Indonesian generals, hacked their bodies into pieces, and threw them down a well.

The coup itself was soon controlled by the military, but the aftereffects were not. Through the rest of 1965 and early 1966, there was an orgy of internal slaughter. The government now claims that about 80,000 people lost their lives. Serious outside estimates range as high as nearly a million. The killings were largely a rural phenomenon and were concentrated on Java and Bali. Although many Indonesians now describe the episode as a simple struggle between Communists and anti-Communists, the fury of the killings reflected ancient religious and social cleavages. In Javanese society, there has long been a division between the santri, the minority of Moslems who take their faith quite seriously—making pilgrimages to Mecca, and regarding religious rules as their guiding principles—and the abangan, the much larger group for whom Islam is a nominal religion, grafted onto the older traditions of the island. The santri tend to include merchants and traders who live near the coast; the abangan tend to be peasants who work the inland rice paddies. The Communists had found many members among the abangan, but most of these people took the teachings of Marx about as seriously as they had taken the refinements of the Koran. After the attempted coup, members of these two groups went on rampages against one another. Gangs of young people, predictably, led much of the violence. By the time the violence abated, later in 1966, the army had assumed control of the government. Sukarno was eased out of office, and he died in 1970.

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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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