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Indonesia: the end of the Suharto era.

President Suharto resigned on May 21 1998. When General Suharto first became Indonesia s president in 1967, Charles de Gaulle was President of France, Chairman Mao ruled China, Lyndon Johnson was the US President, and Harold Wilson was the British Prime Minister. All of these leaders are now dead. Along with Cuba's Fidel Castro, Suharto was one of the world's longest serving heads of government.

This article puts the Suharto era in context. It recalls the history of the country and its search for unity. It then looks at Suharto's rise and career, and finally his downfall. The article concludes with an assessment of how he is likely to be viewed by history.

Indonesia is the stunted giant of Southeast Asia. With over 200 million people, it is the world's fourth most populous country and the largest country in Southeast Asia. But its potential strength has not been achieved. Its post-independence history has been characterized by turbulence, repression and corruption. Until 1997, it was making great economic progress, but at considerable political and social cost. Indonesia's national motto is 'Unity in Diversity'. Its history and present policies all have a bearing on or are influenced by the need to maintain national unity.

Indonesia consists of 17,000 islands (3,000 of which are inhabited). Its east-west axis is the equivalent of the distance between London and New York. It is located on one of the main sea routes running though Asia and into the Pacific. The Indonesian islands have had a variety of visitors and rulers over the thousands of years, many of whom have left their distinctive characteristics. The early Asian traders not only sought commerce but, beginning well over a thousand years ago, Hindu priests accompanying the traders sought converts.

The Hindu and Buddhist cultures were overcome by the spread of Islam from the 14th century onwards. This religion, too, came from traders looking for spice and carrying a new faith. Indonesia is the largest (per capita) Islamic country in the world, with about 10 per cent of the world's Muslims. Its faith is characterized by a large degree of tolerance of the non-Islamic communities. The next religious overlay was Christianity, brought by the Portuguese in the late 15th century.

Each invader up to this time did not try to create the country of 'Indonesia' as such but was content with having access to and control of small bits of it. While Indonesia is, therefore, an old country in terms of its original inhabitants and impact on the international trading systems it is not old in terms of being a unified Southeast Asian political whole.

The Dutch, who first reached Indonesia in the late 16th century, ultimately had more success in gaining political and economic control over what is now Indonesia. They made substantial profits. For example, 31 per cent of Dutch national income in the 1850s came from the 'cultivation system' in Java in the nineteenth century. (The old international reputation of the Spice Islands' wealth is illustrated by Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage: he arrived in the Americas but he was actually seeking a quicker route to the Spice Islands).

But the Dutch had problems of colonial revolts. From the Java War (182530) to the Aceh War (1873-1903), the history of the Dutch East Indies in the nineteenth century was one of bloodshed. The revolts continued into the 20th century, with communist uprisings in 1926 and 1927.

World War II and the Japanese occupation marked the effective end of Dutch control. Independence was declared on 17 August 1945 by Indonesian nationalists. The Dutch did not recognise it and made a futile, if brutal, effort to regain control. On 27 December 1949, the Dutch surrendered sovereignty to the Republic of Indonesia.

Achmad Sukarno (1908-70), founder of the Indonesian Nationalist Party in 1927 and the leading figure in the fight for independence, was the first president (1945-67). He was a charismatic and inspiring figure, with his own blend of Marxism, nationalism, Islam and traditional Javanese concepts. He was one of the founders of the Third World bloc in international politics.

Six prominent Indonesian Army generals were killed by rebellious soldiers on the night of September 30/October 1 1965. The Army retaliated by killing leading members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), which was the longest established Communist party in Asia and the largest Communist Party outside the Communist bloc (USSR, Eastern Europe and China). This led to a wave of violence, in which an estimated 600,000 people were killed and a further 1.5 million imprisoned. The 1965 coup and successful counter-coup remain the subject of great controversy. Besides the continuing debate over the precise number of people killed, the major questions are whether President Sukarno was involved directly in the coup (as a way of establishing control over the Army), whether General Suharto had prior knowledge of it and allowed it to go ahead as a way of compromising the PKI and providing an excuse for the PKI's destruction, and what role the PKI itself played.

After October 1 1965, Sukarno's control waned quickly. Though he had been proclaimed President for life, the new military rulers effectively removed him from power in 1967. He was formally deposed in March 1968 and died in June 1970.

President Suharto came to power on a wave of terror based on mass violations of human rights, especially of those people alleged to be communist. By shifting his country into a more anti-communist stance, he hoped to obtain foreign aid from governments (especially the us) which were anti-communist, as well as enticing transnational corporations into the country by promises of cheap, stable labour. His plans paid off because Indonesia received considerable foreign investment.

Suharto's Indonesia used to be a good place to invest. He enticed foreign investment by ensuring that labour conditions were harsh and pay rates were low (most Indonesians made less than US$2 per day and lived in appalling conditions). Trade unions were weak and government officials co-operative (providing the bribes were large enough). There were few environmental restrictions. Indonesia became a centre for export manufacturing. Companies from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US produced such items as garments, sports shoes and radios for the international market.

But all this economic progress came at a high political and social cost. Elsewhere in the world, economic change has brought about demands for political and social change. The Indonesian experience was no different. There was a twofold pressure building up; first, the risk to social harmony because of the growing gap between rich and poor and, second, the push from more affluent members of society to have a say in how the country was run.

Capitalism is a good way of generating wealth but a poor vehicle for distributing it. Thanks to modern technology, people now know they are poor. In all previous eras, people were poor but did not know it. Poverty meant limited mobility and so limited scope for seeing the world beyond their immediate location. Now radio and television in the villages and slums have brought the world to them. People in Third World countries see how Americans live (thanks to Dallas). Americans may not take the programmes too seriously but poor people in Third World countries do - and they ultimately expect to enjoy the same standard of living.

Indonesia had to create 2.3 million jobs a year for new entrants to the labour market. Indonesians increasingly lived in an urban environment saturated by advertisements for the good things of life which they knew they stood little chance of obtaining. More than 48 per cent of urban dwellers in Jakarta (which has over 10 million residents) had no access to clean water, primary health services and other social services.

Meanwhile, there was a growing middle class but a closed political system. As people get richer, so they want more say in how their country is governed. When the belly is full, the brain starts to think. There was no outlet for this demand for change and no charismatic leader with organizational skills to lead the charge. There were vicious clampdowns on dissenters.

President Suharto's Indonesia was a dictatorship but not an absolute one because Indonesia is such a vast and complex country. He had to juggle the competing demands of the defence forces (ABRI) which wanted stability, with the economic technocrats who wished to deregulate and privatize the economy, with the economic nationalists who were worried about foreign control of the economy, with religious groups (particularly Islamic ones) who were worried about the decline in traditional morality owing to the importation of western mores, with regional tendencies to secede from Indonesia (such as the Muslims in Aceh). Meanwhile, Suharto was also having to look after the extensive financial interests of his family and close associates.

Suharto looked increasingly out of place in modern Southeast Asia. Many of the surrounding countries had, in recent years, shed authoritarian governments and moved towards democracy, notably the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

Every leadership change in the Indonesian archipelago has come through violence. Before colonization by the Dutch, the regional kingdoms fought each other for power. The Dutch imposed their role with force. They, in turn, were evicted from the country by a guerrilla campaign. President Sukamo fell from power in the midst of extensive communal violence.

The country continued to lack a system for the smooth transition of power. As exiled Indonesian political activist George Aditjondro pointed out: 'In Indonesia, we don't have general elections, we only have elections of generals'. The 1,000 member Indonesian Parliament had only 425 seats in the lower house open for popular election. The other 75 seats in the lower house were reserved for the armed forces (75) and there were 500 presidentially-appointed members in the upper house.

The Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) had a dual constitutional function: both to protect the country from military attack and to be directly involved in setting its political direction. The defence forces were the country's political backbone. They were both military and business people, with individual officers owning extensive interests in all industries.

Indonesia's only two legal alternative parties had a limited role. One opposition party was the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia (PDI), whose most visible leader was Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of President Sukarno. She was ousted in a government-engineered political coup in June 1996. Her father's period in office was hardly tranquil but his name carries a great deal of prestige: nationalist leader in the struggle for independence, first president, and champion of the Third World bloc. As people became further removed from the turbulence of his era so there was a greater nostalgia for him. Megawati entered politics in the mid-1980s and became PDI leader in December 1993. Since then, but especially since her overthrow in 1996, she became an even more visible critic of the Suharto Government and its lack of progress towards democratization.

The other Party is the Muslim-backed United Development Party (PPP), which was established in 1973 after the Government determined that the mainstream Islamic political parties should merge into a single organization. The PPP has had mixed political fortunes. A rallying point for dissent in many Third World countries have been the fringe Islamic parties. They can address their male adherents regularly each Friday at the mosque, promising them a better way of life if the adherents will support them. In earlier decades, the main opponents of Third World governments such as Indonesia were the communists. Now they are Muslims; Communist parties are in decline in many Third World countries - or are banned, as in Indonesia. Suharto could not ban Muslims from congregating. But the Government did try to monitor their behaviour.

There is a continuing debate about why the 'Asian economic miracle' of the 1980s and early 1990s became the 'Asian economic meltdown' in 1997. Some blamed the accelerated rush for economic growth. Others blamed the 'crony capitalism' with ruling elites being corrupt and looting their countries. Others blamed the inrush of too much speculative capital. The Asian bubble burst first in Thailand, then in South Korea and then Indonesia. By mid-1998, most Asian countries had moved into a recession.

Indonesia had to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for financial assistance. The IMF has a standard recipe for 'rescuing' countries: cutbacks in government expenditure, reform of the financial system to make it more transparent (that is, with less corruption), reduction in government subsidies, and devaluation of the currency. The economic chaos and the IMF reforms all contributed to great social instability. (In Asia, 'IMF' is said to stand for 'I am Fired'.) There was seething resentment at the people who were rich (particularly the Indonesian-Chinese) and there were acts of violence and rape.

However, Suharto thought he could weather this storm as he had so many others. Many overseas commentators grudgingly agreed with him. In December 1997 I was in London to promote my new publication on Indonesia and in BBC interviews I argued that Suharto would not survive this turmoil. There was little support for that viewpoint; Suharto was seen as the great survivor.

But he could not survive the increasing turmoil in his country. He was, ironically, aided by the divisions within the opposition and the lack of an obvious opposition leader with broad support. The divisions prolonged his time in power but could not guarantee it.

Suharto will probably not be treated well by history. He was implicated in the 1965/6 massacres. His time in office was marked by human rights violations and corruption. Although there was considerable economic growth for three decades, the wealth was not distributed well, poverty remained and his own family looted the country's wealth. Finally, he stayed in power too long and did little to create a democratic system to ensure the smooth transition of power. He may have been one of the world's longest political rulers but he was not one of the most popular.

Dr Keith Suter is President of the Centre for peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. He is the author of East Timor, West Papua/Irian and Indonesia (London: Minority Group, 1997).
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Author:Suter, Keith
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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