INDONESIA is a nation of about three thousand islands spread over an area larger than the United States. Java is overpopulated and must import both food and consumer goods. The outer islands are underpopulated but have almost all of the oil, rubber, copra, tobacco, tin, and other products that earn the foreign exchange needed to support Java. The culture is far from homogeneous; some authorities count as many as fifty ethnic groups and about two hundred languages and dialects.

The complicated social, geographic, and economic structure demands a political formula that de-emphasizes the diversity of the parts in favor of the unity of the whole, but unfortunately Indonesia has had just the opposite, and the result has been stagnation and government by indecision. Under a modified system of proportional representation, voters cast their ballots for parties instead of individuals. The parties are assigned a quota of seats based on their percentage of votes, and they then appoint men to fill these seats. Because of this, politicians tend to give their primary loyalty to a party rather than to a constituency, and the parties tend to represent religious, class, or professional groups rather than any large cross section of society.

There are six Muslim parties, and no one can state exactly what is the ideological difference between them. There is also a Catholic party and a Protestant party and even a Policemen’s party, as well as parties such as the Proclamasi, which is a combination of five parties. In the twelve years since proclaiming its independence, Indonesia has had seventeen cabinet changes. Many of these came during the four years preceding the formal transfer of sovereignty by the Dutch in 1949, a good indication that Indonesian politicians could not sink their differences even during the patriotic war against the Dutch.

Of all the major capitals of Asia, Djakarta remains the most unchanged from what it was in 1940. New buildings are few. The most obvious new structure is a sports stadium, which spoils the appearance of the huge Independence Park in the center of the city. Every third day the electricity is turned off from 6 to 9 P.M. for sections of the city on a rotation basis. Water is also scarce and most of the people bathe and wash their clothes in the muddy canals that drain the city.

The squeeze on the Dutch

Foreign companies, especially the Dutch ones, have controlled the nation’s economic life, and Indonesian hatred of these companies runs deep. Dutch colonial rule was perhaps the most unrelenting of all of the colonial governments of Asia; Indonesia was simply a place to be exploited. The Dutch ruled indirectly through minor princes and village headmen, whose main responsibility was to get as much wealth out of the people as possible. The peasants were forced to deliver almost all of their produce beyond their own needs and were dragooned for service on the plantations, roads, and irrigation canals.

After the granting of sovereignty, the first impulse of the Indonesians was to throw all foreigners out. But this was impossible, since there were almost no trained Indonesians to replace them. Instead there developed a policy of squeeze — a sort of reverse imperialism designed to deny the foreign companies almost all profits short of bare subsistence.

Taxes have multiplied, and government mediation boards have granted wage increases and, at times, fantastic fringe benefits. Indonesian oil workers get a 45-day paid furlough with travel allowance every six years, in addition to the normal two-week annual vacation in the intervening years. This was granted in reply to their demands for something comparable to the home leaves of foreign employees. In some of the rubber estates of north Sumatra, the foreign companies must supply workers with a soccer field and equipment.

Before the war, Indonesia supplied three fifths of the demand for petroleum products in the Asian market east of Burma. The market has more than doubled since then, and Indonesia now meets only one third of the demand. The main reason is that a ban was imposed in 1951 on new exploration for oil fields and new development of known resources. This was supposed to be temporary, pending the enactment of a new mining law. But the effect has been to hamper Indonesian production.

Since the oil companies earn about 25 per cent of the nation’s foreign exchange and pay about 10 per cent of the country’s entire tax revenue, many Indonesian leaders realize that a long step toward easing financial troubles would be taken merely by allowing the oil companies to expand. However, since the foreign companies are equated with imperialism, it would be near political suicide for a party to advocate something that could be construed by its opponents as favoring the foreigner. The result is indecision.

Divided country

No real solution of the economic troubles is possible until Indonesia first solves its political problems. These are personified by President Sukarno and former Vice President Mohammad Hatta. Both are in their middle fifties, both believe in socialism, and both spent about nine years in exile because of their leadership of the struggle against the Dutch. But there are marked differences between them.

Sukarno was born in Java and educated entirely in Indonesia. He never personally experienced democracy and saw only the autocracy of the Dutch. Sukarno lias undoubtedly been the most popular man in Indonesia; to the Indonesians he is the living symbol of Indonesian nationalism.

Hatta was born in Sumatra and educated in the Netherlands, where he learned that democracy has real meaning even though the Dutch failed to practice it in Indonesia. Hatta draws his political strength mainly from the outer islands, which fear “Java centralism.”

Sukarno says democracy has failed in Indonesia. In a speech he delivered on the occasion of the twelfth anniversary of Indonesia’s declaration of independence, he said, “It is obvious that we have neither become stronger nor more secure under a system that we have called democracy. . . . The Indonesian nation and people have been misused by their leaders in the rock and roll of unrestrained chatterbox democracy which does not recognize discipline or guidance.”

Much has been made of the fact that Sukarno began talking of a guided democracy after touring Russia and Red China. The Communists undoubtedly had a strong influence on him, but he is primarily a man of his own culture. The Indonesians, especially the Javanese, do not admire what they consider the coldly materialist and individualist life of the West. Their ideal society is expressed by the phrase gotong rojong — a society of mutual assistance.

A casual traveler driving through the Javanese countryside sees a dozen men, the sun glistening on their bare backs, working together preparing a field for cultivation. Obviously they all do not own the tiny plot; they are men who have come together to help a neighbor. This is the only indigenous tradition of government; a communalistic tradition in which a man’s primary responsibility is to serve a group rather than himself.

How much guidance?

When Sukarno says democracy has served the nation ill, he is speaking the truth. Even Hatta admits that democracy in Indonesia needs guidance. The point on which they disagree is this: In which direction will Indonesian democracy be guided? And this is where the Communists discolor the picture.

The Communists are led by able and energetic Dipa Nusantara Aidit, who became secretary general of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1954 at the age of thirty-one. He hitched his party to Sukarno’s coattails and enthusiastically supports the idea of a guided democracy. The Communists got about six million votes in the 1955 parliamentary elections and ranked as equal among the four largest parties.

Sukarno then tried to force a coalition government that would include the Communists. When he could not get his way, he began advocating an extraparliamentary “national council,” to be composed of all classes and parties, including the Communists. Hatta resigned as vice president in December, 1956, saying, “I refuse to cooperate further. Let the President pursue his own policies. We will see what happens.”

Growing strength of the Army

The results were not long in coming. Army colonels set up full-scale autonomous governments in central and south Sumatra and in north Celebes, while other colonels established semi-autonomous commands in the Atjeh region of north Sumatra, the Tapanoeli area of east Sumatra, and at Amboina in the south Moluccas. These Army movements are as confusing as everything else in Indonesia.

The Indonesian Army, like Topsy, just grew during the struggle against the Dutch. There was little unified command; the local units represented regional interests and fought isolated guerrilla actions. When the outer regions complained of economic neglect, the local garrisons were in full sympathy.

As early as 1954 there were reports that the Army was smuggling copra out of north Celebes, and as economic conditions deteriorated throughout the country, smuggling became more open and more widespread. The colonels used the money to buy military and civilian goods and also began building barracks, schools, and roads. Hatta’s resignation was not the cause of the Army movements but rather the final nudge to a series of complicated developments that had long been in the making.

It is an exaggeration to call these movements revolts. The colonels and their troops remain on the regular Army payrolls and swear allegiance to the principle of a united Indonesia, which they admit is represented by the person of President Sukarno, however much they disagree with his political philosophies. And they do disagree; they are strongly anti-Communist and have suppressed the Communists in their areas. The colonels insist mainly on an end to corruption, more governmental efficiency, and more foreign exchange to buy imports for their areas. They are increasingly having their way.

Army censorship

The Army has cloaked its activities behind a strict censorship. Under an emergency order, newspapers may not print news about military activities except from official sources — and official statements are always brief and vague. Newspapers which have defied the order have been closed down and their editors detained without trial. Because of the tight censorship, it is impossible to get a clear picture of most day-to-day developments. Even Indonesians are not told what is happening. The attempt on Sukarno’s life is a case in point. The Army made some arrests but would not say who was arrested.

Meantime, the Indonesians reserve their threats of violence for the Dutch and let off steam by staging demonstrations to protest the continued Dutch hold on West New Guinea. Ethnically, the Indonesians have no more natural right to rule the Papuans of New Guinea than do the Dutch. But the Indonesians fear that the Dutch may someday use New Guinea as a springboard to jump back into power in Indonesia. The Dutch themselves have done little to mitigate Indonesian fears. The Indonesians cannot hope to drive the Dutch out of West New Guinea by force, but they can confiscate Dutch property in Indonesia,

None of the major groups has anything to gain by Sukarno’s death. The Communists need him as a shield against the orthodox Muslims and the anti-Communist Army leaders in the outer islands. In turn, the outer island leaders know they cannot exist independently and need Sukarno as a link with the masses of Java. Many responsible Indonesians wish Sukarno had less power, but they also know that the choice may be between Sukarno and chaos.