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A History of Modern Indonesia.

A History of Modern Indonesia, by Adrian Vickers. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005. xiv, 291 pp. $70.00 US (cloth), $24.99 US (paper).

Adrian Vickers' History of Modern Indonesia began life as a third-year History course at the University of Wollongong in Australia. As such, it caters best to undergraduate students, providing an introductory survey of Indonesia from the late-nineteenth century up to 2004. For the specialist, Vickers' opening description of Indonesia as the fourth-largest country in the world by population, with 220-million people sprawling over 19,000 islands traversing an area as wide as the United States, will read as cliche. For others, it may serve as an indication of the importance of a little-known country.

Indonesia was a creation of colonialism, a "girdle of emeralds" that was the glory of the Dutch empire. As such, it lacks a single national narrative. Official histories have come under attack since the fall of General Suharto's dictatorship in 1998 set Indonesia on the democratizing road. Rather than the official stories, Vickers chooses as his guide the dissident writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Nationalist histories tell stories of Indonesians becoming aware of themselves as a people in the colonial era, mobilizing people by telling them for the first time that they were "Indonesians" rather than simply "natives," winning their freedom from Dutch rule, and then building up a new state. The use of Pramoedya's writings as guide, Vickers argues, lets his book integrate this national history with everyday lives. This combination of political, economic, and cultural histories reflects Vickers' trans-disciplinary Asian Studies thrust.

The study of Indonesian history is still shaped by J.S. Furnivall's work Netherlands India, which posited a dual economy of Dutch-dominated cities and hinterlands producing sugar, coffee, rubber, and other resources for the global market, alongside a native society with its traditional structures intact. Similarly, Vickers describes the high colonial period, first from the urban and then from the indigenous rural perspective. In Indonesia as elsewhere, he suggests, tradition confronted modernity, with the clash shaping anti-colonial nationalism. Cities were the cauldron of modern nationalism. Even the idea of "Indonesia" was a new invention of the nationalist movement in the early twentieth century. For Indonesian nationalists, the modern enticed and drew them, with local traditions simultaneously repelling them and providing inspiring examples of resistance.

Dutch rule ended with the Second World War, as Japanese forces expelled them and employed jailed nationalist leaders to administer Indonesia. At war's end, nationalists declared independence. The 1945-49 Indonesian Revolution saw the new nation crystallize in its resistance to Dutch attempts to recolonize the Indies. Vickers acknowledges the centrality of this event in Indonesian history, while giving due weight to the findings of recent histories, which view the period as a series of local revolutions united by national symbols and leadership. The independence settlement left Indonesia with a mixed legacy of forward-looking hope and bitter disappointment. This legacy informed the 1950s parliamentary democracy period, which saw clashes between those concerned to build the state through "rational" economic development, and those like President Sukarno who were better able to "give Indonesians the sense that they were simultaneously cosmopolitan participate in a new world and a people firmly rooted in their own traditions" (p. 115).

Sukarno proved to be the masterful weaver of the nation from disparate fabrics. By the late 1950s he had consolidated power as the supreme figure in a "guided democracy." In 1965-66, he was toppled by General Suharto, who inaugurated a "New Order" regime based on military power, terror, and the promise of rapid economic development. Vickers rejects the regime's stories of resolute military action heading off a communist coup attempt, used to justify the killings of hundreds of thousands of people and the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands more, including Pramoedya. In this reading, the military emerges more as oppressor than saviour.

Vickers' portrait of the New Order accepts its record in economic growth, while pointing to problems of uneven development, and the continued suffering of ordinary Indonesians left only with scraps from the table of progress, like the low-income women whose labour ran the textile mills of Jakarta. Suharto emerges not as the smiling and apolitical "Father of Development," but as a consummate politician leading a corrupt patrimonial state. The regime, he argues, was not holding back militant political Islam, but rather tried to manipulate it to stay in power. It created a Jihad Command even while suppressing moderate Muslim political parties. The ultimate result of processes set in motion to control Islam was the Jemaah Islamiyah bombers. Suharto fell amidst the 1998 Asian crisis. Local identity politics, suppressed rather than addressed under Suharto, reemerged as the "uneasy obverse of globalisation" (p. 209). Despite democratic elections, the Indonesian political elite remains a product of New Order politics. Thus Vickers ends on the note that so many Indonesians feel today: uncertainty.

Stories of everyday life plainly worked in the classroom, and they add colour to the story Vickers is telling. He makes little effort to lead the reader deeper into Indonesian history, however. Specialists used to blijvers and Pancasila will find his untranslated references to "stayers" and "five Principles democracy" jarring. Nevertheless, Vickers has written a useful book that provides an entertaining and mostly informative account of a country whose history should be better known.

Daniel Webster

University of Toronto
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Author:Webster, Daniel
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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