Report on Indonesia

Several months after Suharto has been appointed as acting president, Atlantic contributor John Hughes reports that "the honeymoon days ... are over."

By John Hughes

TWO years ago, Indonesian plotters stealing through the sultry tropical night in Djakarta seized and savagely murdered the Indonesian Army's top generals.

This attempted coup, on the night of September 30-October 1, 1965, touched off a dramatic series of events. The army struck back, grinding the Indonesian Communist Party into oblivion with ruthless efficiency. Many thousands of Indonesians were slaughtered in a nation-wide bloodbath. An obscure general named Suharto was catapulted into prominence. Indonesia was wrenched back from a headlong leftward slide in both domestic and foreign policy. And eventually Sukarno, the man who had cast his magic political spell across Indonesia for so long, was exposed, discredited, toppled.

All Fixed Up?

TWO years after the coup that started it all, Indonesia in many respects is a much happier and healthier country. But it would be folly to assume that because Sukarno has been ousted and the Communist Party has been vanquished everything has somehow been fixed up in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, there is in some American circles just this assumption. Washington is mesmerized by the Vietnam War. It is tempting in some quarters to dismiss the non-Communist giants of Asia, such as Indonesia, India, Japan, as low-priority areas which can tick along for the moment without major American concern.

Probably Indonesia will never again get American aid -- for which it has little to show today -- on the same massive scale as it did during the Sukarno era. But it certainly does need the care, attention, and sensitivity of American foreign policy makers.

Indonesia's basic problem now is to correct the massive mismanagement of two decades. Says one Western expert in Djakarta, "This country's economy is shattered as badly as any country's I've seen. It's like a land that's just come out of a major war." Clearly, the situation is not going to be transformed overnight. Nobody knows when Indonesia will have the patience to plod through this painful and frustrating period of rebuilding without the lid blowing off the country again.

The force which toppled Sukarno's "Old Order," as it is called these days, was an alliance between the army on the one hand and the students on the other, backed by many intellectuals. But with the unifying battle against Sukarno won, the alliance is exhibiting stresses, strains, and cracks. Popular reading among student leaders today is Man on Horseback, a book by an English university professor which discusses the perils of military government. Says one student leader, "I put it down, it excited me so much. I went to see a general I know and quoted him sections from it.

"He told me: 'Hah, you've been Westernized, reading that stuff.' I told him: 'No, I haven't been Westernized, I've been modernized.'"

Militarization

THIS little exchange illustrates the current wave of student disillusionment with what the students see as Indonesia's militarization. An ever lengthening string of ministries, ambassadorships, and plum government jobs are going to military men rather than to trained civilian professionals. The bulk of Indonesia's ambassadors abroad now are military men. At an increasing number of conferences there show up army officers who may be personally loyal to General Suharto but whose expertise in the matter for debate is limited. At one Djakarta conference recently, where foreign business men were examining Indonesia's agricultural requirements, the government representative was an army officer who requested the foreigners' indulgence because he had not held his post long, and anyway knew little about agriculture.

Whether the students would be so opposed to militarization if the government it produced were one of demonstrable virtue and efficiency is arguable. But much of what they see happening in government they do not like. Corruption is the big issue. In Indonesia, corruption is of course relative. A general I know, who is considered honest and who lives modestly, earns 2000 rupiah a month, about the equivalent of $13. But as he says: "Man, my electricity bill is a thousand rupiah a month." From somewhere he gets the extra which makes it possible for him and his family to live with electricity.

General Suharto himself is considered incorruptible, as are the student heroes among the generals around him. But other generals in his entourage have suddenly blossomed with big houses and imported Mercedes-Benz cars after appointment to positions of influence in which kickbacks and bribes are proffered and presumably taken.

Making Money

MEANWHILE the simple foot soldier in the Indonesian Army earns about $2 a month in pay. If, however, he rents out his weapon to a criminal in need of it, he can make about $16 a day. Some soldiers do rent out their guns, with no questions asked. Others themselves use their guns to terrorize and hold up householders and shopkeepers for money and valuables. Much of the time, Chinese traders are the victims.

Aside from this criminal enterprise at the individual level, well-organized cliques and factions within the armed services are deep in smuggling rackets which cost the country vast sums in loss of revenue. Raw materials, particularly rubber from Sumatra, are shipped out by the boatload under military protection to Singapore and Malaysia. Manufactured goods come back, all without passing any customs officer's eye. Some sources say the profitable smuggling business is the reason for Indonesia's delay in restoring diplomatic relations with Malaysia and Singapore. Says one of these sources, "The military boys need another year's illegal activity to make their packet before normal relations end it all." Whether this is true or not, General Suharto himself has frequently and publicly gone on record against corruption and smuggling. One of his key generals, a student hero named Sarwo Edhy who formerly commanded the crack paracommando regiment, has been appointed military commander in North Sumatra, with orders to smash the smuggling business in which military men are implicated.

But the students are not convinced that enough is being done fast enough. Says one of Suharto's own political advisers, "The students came riding into prominence on a wave of moral indignation [to overthrow Sukarno]. They feel they wouldn't be true to themselves if they didn't criticize what they see going on now."

Bus Stops and Austerity

TO the outsider who returns to Indonesia every few months there has, of course, been visible progress since Suharto assumed power. Instead of the carefree old chaos at Kemajoran International Airport there are now neat little channels for incoming passengers. Throughout the capital the worst potholes are being filled and some streets are being resurfaced. Street curbs are being whitewashed. The great festering canal which runs through the center city is being dredged and cleaned up. Instead of the haphazard old stop-as-you-like bus system, there are now specific, labeled bus stops. There is a road-safety campaign. There are racks of little hand paddles painted with "Stop" signs, for pedestrians crossing the main streets. And one day recently even the governor of Djakarta, Major-General Ali Sadikin, was out painting zebra crossings on the highways.

On the economic front, General Suharto has done about as well as can be expected. He is not an economic expert, but he listens to the bright young economists, many of them American-trained, whom he has grouped about him. There is the sort of argument about his economic policies in which professional economists legitimately engage. Some people, for instance, charge that he has made money so tight at home that this is curbing production and vital exports. But there is general agreement with his austerity program, which has cut back inflation from 650 percent last year to a probable 65 percent this year. The currency is moving toward stabilization, and the gap between official and black market exchange rates is narrowing.

Suharto has been in full and formal control only since March, 1967, when Sukarno was officially deposed and Suharto became Acting President. From the beginning he has been careful to make it clear he is no miracle worker, merely a simple, honest soldier who, with some reluctance, has accepted his present responsibilities. But though he promised no miracles, he now is nevertheless running into his heaviest criticism since he assumed office. His critics do not want him toppled. "He's the best we've got," says one of them, "and nobody's suggesting he should step down." But they want him to do better than he currently is doing. Either Suharto will have to bow to the criticism, responding with specific concessions and compromises in the face of public demands, or he will have to turn to more coercive measures, using the authoritarian powers which certainly are available to him, to crack down on students, newspapers, and other critics.

For the moment, Suharto seems to be trying to unite his followers behind a campaign against the Old Order in Indonesia. This, he seems to reason, is a good safe issue on which everyone can agree. But it is a dead issue too, and the students keep returning to the embarrassingly live issues of corruption and inefficiency in government.

Sukarno himself is no longer any real political threat. The army has no intention of bringing him to trial. Instead he is allowed to putter around the dusty market in Bogor, some forty miles from Djakarta, prodding the bananas and melons. Gone are the big presidential limousines, the motorcades with screaming sirens, the hand-tailored presidential uniforms, the golden presidential standard. Now Sukarno dresses in a sport shirt and slacks, travels by Volkswagen, and lives in a pavilion on the grounds of the presidential weekend palace at Bogor.

Soon he will move into the private house being built for him at Bogor and there he will continue his rustication under the discreet surveillance of General Suharto's military police.

It is true, however, that his name is used in an attempt to stir up opposition to Suharto. Despite his disgrace, Sukarno was after all the father figure of the Indonesian revolution. Although his picture is now banned from public display, it is on the walls of many homes still, particularly in central Java, his old political stronghold. Even General Suharto's parents-in-law are said to have a picture of Sukarno on their wall, not in any spirit of challenge to Suharto, but presumably as a manifestation of that sense of respect which lingers in the breasts of many Indonesians for what Sukarno once was and might have been.

A New Left

SEEKING especially to trade on this sense is the left wing of the PNI, the Indonesian Nationalist Party, which Sukarno created. Without Sukarnoism the party hardly has a platform But it has sought to recruit into its ranks the hidden remnants of the now defunct Communist Party and to challenge the New Order.

In the current political climate in Indonesia, that might not seem a particularly promising tactic. Yet as one observer points out, the PNI has been a "way of life" to many people in central Java for forty years. And with the eclipse of the Communist Party, it is probably the strongest individual party currently organized.

Because of the PNI's lingering hold, general elections called for 1968 by the MPRS, the Provisional People's Consultative Congress, or highest constitutional authority, will not be held. Suharto, with the consent of the Congress, will postpone them, and ironically this postponement will not offend the students and intellectuals who are demanding' greater progress toward democracy. Indeed, some of them have publicly requested this postponement.

The reason is that they need more time to get their own political organizations under way, and to hammer out an agreement with the army on the extent of military influence in any new legislature. If elections were held now, it is possible that the PNI, despite its own major problems, might make large gains in central and east Java, where it has long been rooted.

But if the students and intellectuals are not particularly critical of Suharto's plan to postpone the elections, they are critical of a series of presidential statements and edicts, the effect of which has been to hamper the emergence of new political parties. A former vice president of Indonesia, Mohammed Hatta, seeks to form a new Islamic political party but has been thwarted by Suharto's rulings. Adam Malik, the able foreign minister, has been involved in attempts to get a new socialist front launched. But partly because of Malik's preoccupation with foreign affairs, partly because of difficulties with other groups involved, and partly because of rulings deterring the emergence of new parties, nothing has so far come of it.

Dictatorship?

SOME Indonesians point to such developments as telltale clues that their country is already sliding toward military dictatorship. Supporters and confidants of General Suharto argue strongly, however, that he is not cast in the mold of an authoritarian and has consistently opted for constitutionality and legality throughout the whole long process of Sukarno's removal.

What does seem clear is that for Suharto the honeymoon days of early office are over.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1967/12/report-on-indonesia/306661/