Indonesia: An Effort to Hold Together

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

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.

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.

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.

The stated goal of the government's every action is, of course, development—the creation of new wealth for Indonesia's people. Its fields of oil and natural gas give Indonesia a big head start over many other developing countries; the question is whether this advantage will merely buy momentary affluence or will become the basis of sustained prosperity.

In the fifteen years since the nation said good-bye to Sukarno, Indonesia has made substantial economic progress. The local currency, the rupiah, was dwindling away to nothing in the middle sixties, a natural consequence of an inflation rate that reached 640 percent in 1966. By 1981, according to the government, the inflation rate had fallen to 6 percent. The output of the Indonesian economy grew by 10 percent, after inflation, in 1980 and has now "slipped" to between 6 and 7 percent a year, a level that would be classified as a boom in the United States.

Indonesia keeps discovering new oil fields—at the rate of several dozen a year—and a major part of the archipelago is yet to be explored. In Sumatra, it is developing some of the largest natural gas fields in the world. Vast coal deposits have been found in Kalimantan and elsewhere. Indonesia has also launched a campaign to promote its non-oil exports, including tin and rubber, local handicrafts, and such products of light industries as those that have brought wealth to Singapore and Malaysia.

In all of its development efforts, from the search for oil to the clear-cutting of jungle, Indonesia has welcomed the participation of major private firms—initially from the U.S. and Western Europe and now increasingly from Japan. It works hard, and with considerable success, to present itself to Western investors as a growth market for the future. But it is hardly a laboratory for free enterprise, since the economy is "private" without being "free."

In reaction to Sukarno's loose approach to public finance, which involved erecting monuments and enacting benefits and then printing rupiahs to pay the bills, the New Order turned to a by-the-book managerial system. It has invested faith—or at least power—in a cadre of economic technocrats, many of them educated at Berkeley or elsewhere in the United States, who methodically apply the theories of import substitution and export development that they learned in graduate schools. Their specialty is the long-range, overall economic plan, known as the Repelita. The technocrats are also fond of adjusting the market through protectionist regulations.

Under the technocrats' guidance, Indonesia, by 1973, first taxed, and then altogether prohibited, the import of fully assembled cars; the idea was to force foreign manufacturers to build their assembly plants in Indonesia. (Many Japanese manufacturers went ahead and did so. American manufacturers, considering the market too small to bother with, did not.) Similarly, in the late seventies, the government issued a schedule under which the export of raw timber would be restricted and ultimately forbidden. If the Japanese, who were the main customers, wanted wood from the forests of Kalimantan, they would have to build sawmills in Indonesia and then export finished lumber. But a man who was visiting Kalimantan at the time told me that the rivers were choked with logs, newly illegal as exports, that were left to rot in the water.

Among the regulations imposed on Indonesia's economy, a large number concern "weak economic groups," often referred to as pribumi. Pribumi literally means the indigenous population; the category exists to distinguish them from Indonesians of Chinese ancestry. The Chinese—as even those whose families have been in Indonesia for four or five generations are called—make up about 3 percent of the population but almost totally dominate the private, "free" business activity in the country.

The economic success of the Chinese is yet another source of cleavage in Indonesian society, much as the Asian traders' dominance of commerce has been throughout East Africa. Because ethnic Chinese make up such a tiny fraction of Indonesia's population, their position is more precarious than that of their counterparts in Malaysia or Singapore. Government spokesmen solemnly proclaim, "We are all Indonesians," but daily life provides frequent counter-examples. In central Java, for instance, a university student conducting a tour of the mammoth Buddhist temple of Borobudur took time to explain to me the economics of the becak business. A becak (pronounced "bay check") is a bicycle-powered cart that serves as a taxi for the local population; to say that a man has become a becak driver is a shorthand indication that he has drifted to the big city from his village and has joined the army of the underemployed. The drivers, who seem to outnumber their potential customers, earn perhaps 200 rupiahs (thirty cents) when they can get a fare. And yet, the university student said, "they must pay 1,000 rupiahs rent for the becak to the Chinese man each day." He meant the story to illustrate the rapacity of the Chinese.

Anti-Chinese riots (and a few against the Japanese, who were brutal and unpopular occupiers of the country during World War II) break out from time to time. Suspicion of the Chinese infects Indonesia's international policies; this fearsomely anti-Communist country is less concerned about the Soviet Union's military menace than about China's. A frequent complaint regarding American foreign policy, usually expressed in tones of bewildered lament, is that the U.S. has been so swept away by its anti-Soviet fervor that it is walking naively into China's embrace. China is at least as great a danger as Russia, Indonesians say, and it is located nearby.

When Indonesians discuss the economic success of the Chinese, which they do neither eagerly nor often, they explain it as an aftereffect of three centuries as a colony of Holland. The Dutch relied on the Chinese as their clerks, middlemen, merchants, and junior administrators; meanwhile, the pribumi were the slaves on their plantations, growing their rubber and tea. "It was not like being a British colony," a man who had family connections among both the colonizers and the colonized told me. "There were universities in India in the 1800s. The Spanish built a university in Mexico in the 1500s. The Dutch built hardly any universities. They made it very difficult for us to go to high school. They did not train us for their civil service. We started from scratch at independence. Do you wonder that many people still feel a sense of inadequacy and inferiority toward Europeans and Chinese?" Others said that many Chinese sided with the Dutch during the struggle for independence, and now were reaping their just reward.

Whatever the origins of the difference, the result is that the Chinese as a group possess more of the tools for economic activity than do the pribumi. The Chinese, with limited opportunities in the government, apply their education mainly to business. But for other Indonesians, the focus of individual ambition often seems to be bureaucratic: the brightest of the young hope after their education to be clerks—or, more grandly, technocrats and officials—rather than entrepreneurs. When fortunes are found among the pribumi, they tend to be those of the political businessmen, the generals and government favorites who have converted their influence into sweetheart deals. The legislation favoring pribumi enterprises is a different version of the same thing. The ambitious young rightly deduce from these signals that they should aspire to connections and appointments rather than to innovations and the creation of new wealth.

"We need someone to wake us up, and first we must get rid of the silly idea of wanting to be government clerks," Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the novelist, wrote in The Atlantic in 1956. Several Indonesians told me that his warning was still appropriate; whether it would eventually be heeded, they were reluctant to guess.

More than that, they were reluctant to be discouraged by any such small-minded analysis of the hazards they might face. Their national experience was of things working out: they had escaped the Dutch, and the Communists; and the oil and gas fields they kept discovering had let them escape the fate of other developing countries. One man said, in a tone once common among Americans, "We have a saying: 'God smiles on Indonesia.'"

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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.

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