Indonesia: An Effort to Hold Together

The islands' "guided democracy" is divided by geography, ethnic differences, and religion

Many Indonesians invoke this background, if only obliquely, to explain why the nation's rulers have concentrated on the survival of the nation itself before refining systems of democratic participation. They also wonder what they might face in the absence of militarily "guided" rule. "We would like more elbow room," a journalist told me. "But not like you. We do not like that kind of disorder. We do not feel comfortable with it." One man highly critical of the regime asked, at the end of his list of complaints, "But what is the alternative?" He said that Indonesia had been through a period of liberal parliamentary democracy, between 1950 and 1958, and that in the ensuing chaos Sukarno had devised the policy of guided democracy. "I am not sure we can stand another one of your 'liberal' experiments."

The Indonesians' insistence on the importance of national unity and stability also helps explain the one truly raw nerve in their relations with the United States: the question of East Timor.

Timor is an island in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago, close to Australia. Its western half became part of Indonesia when the country declared independence, but the eastern half remained a Portuguese colony. In 1975, as Portugal went through its own political convulsions, East Timor declared its independence as a nation. Shortly afterward it was invaded and ultimately conquered by the Indonesian army

Even at its best, the natural environment on Timor and its neighboring islands is harsher and more forbidding than that of such lush lands as Java and Sumatra. Timor and the eastern islands are desolate, arid regions, which offer only a narrow margin for human survival. When war came to Timor, it all but eliminated the margin. Tens of thousands of people on Timor are thought to have died from combat, disease, or famine by 1979. The Indonesian government now contends that the island is under control—it was formally incorporated into the republic in 1976—but foreign journalists report that about 150 guerrillas remain in the hills of eastern Timor.

Each year, the Timor question comes up before the United Nations, and each year Indonesia is directed to let the Timorese freely determine their fate. Journalists and religious figures, mainly Australians and Americans, continue to report on deprivations in Timor, but their information is patchy, since the government does everything possible to keep visitors off the island. (Indonesia did, however, permit an international relief organization to undertake a mass feeding program in Timor between 1979 and 1981.)

Many Indonesians seem willing to admit, privately, that there has been great suffering in Timor. But they angrily deny suggestions that they intended to destroy the Timorese population, or that there is something especially noxious about the government's determination to control East Timor.

"You can say that Jakarta handled it crudely," a man who had been jailed by the current government told me. "You can say that the results were cruel. Clearly the Timorese have suffered. But the idea that there was any legitimacy to East Timor as a separate nation, that it was anything more than a colonial hold-over—you will not convince me, or many Indonesians, of that." Another man, who had studied in the United States, explained that Indonesia was "filling in the map," asserting its sovereignty over an enclave surrounded by its own territory, much as the United States had filled in the map of North America during the nineteenth century. The United States had been guided by the concept of Manifest Destiny—that it was God's will for one nation's flag to fly over uninterrupted territory from ocean to ocean—and, this man suggested, a similar idea of natural right propelled the Indonesians. No nation that had fought against Europeans for control of Irian Jaya—far more remote in geography and culture from the population centers of Java than is East Timor—was going to let a speck of territory near the center of its archipelago set itself up as a separate state.

This does not necessarily make the Indonesians' action right in an era when the principle of self-determination is loudly proclaimed. It does not lessen the devastation that the warfare caused. In the view of many foreign diplomats, the U.S. could have done far more than it did to distance itself from the carnage. (Henry Kissinger visited Jakarta, and is widely assumed to have blessed the government's decision, the day before Indonesian soldiers landed on East Timor.) But American influence on this decision may easily be exaggerated. In a recent review of his book Toward a New Cold War, I mentioned Noam Chomsky's contention that the U.S. could have prevented the invasion of East Timor, since it supplied most of the equipment that the Indonesian army used. Having spoken with Indonesians on this "sensitive" subject, I now believe that the Indonesian army would have invaded Timor no matter what we or anyone else said about it, even if each Indonesian soldier had at his disposal no weapon other than his sacred dagger, the kris.

Presented by

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.

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.


What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In