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Indonesia's Search for Order
March 14, 1998

The decision on March 11 by the 1,000-member People's Consultative Assembly was unanimous: President Suharto would lead Indonesia for a seventh five-year term. The Assembly's show of unity notwithstanding, the fallout from the Asian financial crisis has hit Indonesia -- the world's fourth most populous nation -- with potentially catastrophic force. Two million Indonesians -- the majority of them in the capital, Jakarta -- are expected to lose their jobs in the coming year. In February riots broke out in eastern Java over increasing food prices. Now students are demonstrating on the campuses of at least thirty universities.

Fearing a slide into chaos, the Clinton Administration recently sent Walter Mondale to Jakarta to urge President Suharto to carry out the economic reforms stipulated by the International Monetary Fund in return for the $43-billion emergency bailout it approved this winter. The international focus on Indonesia's economy has brought closer scrutiny of the country's perennial failings, which include corruption, the suppression of political dissent, and the persecution of ethnic Chinese. Fueled by the region's worst drought in fifty years, rampant man-made fires in Sumatra are, for the second time in two years, laying a poisonous pall over Southeast Asia. The plight of East Timor -- invaded, occupied, and incorporated into Indonesia in 1976 -- has not improved. And there is Suharto himself. Once hailed as a hero, both in Indonesia and the West, the seventy-six-year-old former general now seems more given to backsliding than to bridging the strait between a troubled past and a still-promising future.

Four articles on Indonesia that have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly over the years show how little the challenges facing Indonesia have changed since its creation -- despite internal revolutions and periodic ideological realignments in Southeast Asia. In "Problems the Country Faces" (June, 1956) Sutan Sjahrir, a former leader of Indonesia's independence movement, reviewed his country's past and discussed the challenges of the post-colonial era. While admitting that "the total picture Indonesia now presents ... is not encouraging," he looked to the stability provided by the desa, or village, as the basis of Indonesia's ultimate social and economic success.

In 1965 a failed Communist coup (depicted dramatically in an Atlantic Report from the January, 1966, issue) led to bloody reprisals by the military -- and to the rise of Suharto, who at the time of the uprising was an obscure general commanding the army's strategic reserve. Backed by student leaders as well as the military, Suharto's "New Order" government began amid high hopes for stability and prosperity which were never realized in full. Only months after Suharto was appointed as acting president, John Hughes wrote, in a "Report on Indonesia" (December, 1967), that "the honeymoon days ... are over."

In "Indonesia: An Effort to Hold Together" (June, 1982) James Fallows outlined the forces that were shaping Indonesia's political system, and described the principal tenet not only of Suharto's long rule, but also his predecessor Sukarno's: "guided democracy." Even in conversations with Indonesians critical of the government, Fallows discovered an acceptance of the military's stewardship as a necessary fact of life.
"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."

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