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Will Indonesia survive Suharto?

by Jeff Kingston

INDONESIA BEYOND SUHARTO, edited by Donald Emmerson. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999, 395 pp., $26.95 (paper).

Can Indonesia succeed in returning the troops to the barracks? Can it afford not to? Recent rumors of an impending coup against President Abdurrahman Wahid, moves by the president against some top military officers, and suspicions of military involvement in instigating unrest in the archipelago, highlight the importance of understanding the political role of the armed forces in post-Suharto Indonesia.

The Indonesian armed forces under President Suharto (1966-1998) have claimed a dual role, that of defending the nation from nonexistent external threats and “. . . also from domestic dangers of any kind, military, political, socioeconomic, cultural or ideological.” This “dwifungsi” doctrine has been the basis for an interventionist and dominant role of the military in Indonesian politics, but within the military there are deep divisions about the wisdom and need for retaining this carte blanche for political machinations.

Suharto’s new order regime is history. Although he and his protege, B.J. Habibie, are gone and new freedoms have been espoused with exuberance by the masses, there is concern and evidence that elements within the military are not inclined to shed the authoritarian patterns of the New Order.

Many military leaders regard themselves as the best and brightest, and see the military as the key stabilizing institution in Indonesia’s volatile polity. They are also acutely aware of how unpopular the military is and the rising chorus of demands for ending dwifungsi and making soldiers and officers pay for the outrages they have committed against the Indonesian people. In the absence of any guarantees against prosecution and retribution, will the military submit to civilian rule?

Donald Emmerson, a leading U.S. political scientist specializing in Indonesia since 1967, accuses Indonesia’s military leaders of responsibility for the mayhem that engulfed East Timor following the referendum on independence held there in August 1999. He argues that the military created and controlled the militias that wreaked havoc and murdered several thousand proindependence supporters.

In his view, Gen. Wiranto, head of the armed forces at that time, was “proactively complicit” in the butchery and arson inflicted on this long-suffering people and thus should be held accountable for the carefully planned excesses that sought to render null and void the democratic aspirations of the Timorese. This view parallels recent findings by an Indonesian government inquiry and those of a United Nations commission that has recommended that the U.N. Security Council approve a human-rights tribunal for East Timor.

In addition to Wiranto, five other top generals were named for possible criminal prosecution in the surprisingly hard-hitting Indonesian report, setting the stage for a confrontation between the military and the government. Wahid has demanded Wiranto’s resignation from the Cabinet, but the coordinating minister for political affairs and security has demurred.

The civilian government would prefer the U.N. not to hold a tribunal out of fear that the perpetrators would then wrap themselves in the flag, stoke the embers of nationalism and shift anger toward “foreign interlopers.” This tactic was employed in the choreographed demonstrations outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta last September to protest the U.N. deployment of Australian troops in East Timor.

Holding the military accountable for atrocities in East Timor will be no easy task for Indonesia’s nascent democracy and weak coalition government. Justice in East Timor will lead to calls for accountability in other hot spots such as Aceh, Papua (Irian Jaya), Lampung, Jakarta and who knows how many other locales where the troops have run amok.

Gus Dur, as Wahid is known, is a deft politician and has surprised skeptics by wrong footing the military on a number of issues, but it is too early to assume that democratic forces will prevail. The massive business interests of the military are a considerable source of clout and raise questions about how far the military has penetrated the fabric of civil society and what exactly is meant by the popular slogan, “return to the barracks.”

In a bid to bolster their position, security forces have fanned the flames of separatism and unrest and watched the conflagration race out of control. Having set a process of polarization in motion, pitting Muslim against Christian, poor against the privileged, can the military salvage the situation? And, if the security forces do manage to put out the fires they started, will the government have to agree to some quid pro quo on amnesty?

The accumulated pressures that built up under the repressive rule of Suharto, stoked by the recent economic crisis, suggest considerable political uncertainty and the potential for prolonged chaos in the fourth-largest nation in the world. “Indonesia Beyond Suharto” provides an excellent basis for understanding the recent turmoil and the problems confronting a nation trying to rebuild the distorted and oddly atrophied civil society that is Suharto’s legacy.

The book is divided into four sections — polity, economy, society and transition with a total of 11 chapters by 10 authors, most of whom are from the United States or Australia. The initial nine chapters provide an assessment of Suharto’s New Order and provide essential background reading for understanding the challenges that face Indonesia as it begins the 21st century.

William Liddle argues that the New Order has left behind a fragile polity riven by fissures attendant to the complex class structure caused by uneven economic development. He is right in warning about the potential for unrest among the industrial working class on Java. It is no comfort that they have not yet been part of the government’s security problem because prospects for an improvement in working conditions and an end to widespread flouting of minimum wage laws appear remote.

Robert Hefner’s chapter on religion appears rather optimistic about the prospects for religious tolerance given the horrors in recent months involving Christians and Muslims. There is ample evidence to raise doubts about his conclusion that “. . . the most striking and persistent general feature of religious life on these islands is their inhabitants’ sense of obligation to live, and learn to live, with one another.” However, his main point that fears of a fundamentalist, intolerant Islam in Indonesia are controverted by prevailing patterns is well taken, as is his assertion that the desire for personal and political freedom is a powerful and reassuring contagion in contemporary Indonesia.

Kathryn Robinson’s chapter is handicapped by academic prose, but does elucidate how globalization has affected Indonesian women. She writes, “Sexualized images of femininity in the media delinked intercourse from reproduction, empowering young women with autonomy from familial authority but also advertising new standards of attraction and seduction that amounted, in effect, to new forms of control. Capitalism brought large numbers of putatively docile young females into factories in rural Java. This shift challenged the confinement of women within patriarchal families and the equation of femininity with domesticity, but it also entrenched gender inequality in the workplace in violation of Indonesian laws.”

The final two chapters by Donald Emmerson focus on the transition to the post-Suharto era. He presents a detailed account of the complex political and economic developments in 1997-98 that led to Suharto’s resignation, a low key event that one of the author’s antiregime informants described as sex without orgasm. He paints an ugly picture of how the pilot fish of the New Order tried to reinvent and distance themselves from Suharto, thus playing a role in toppling him. Emmerson argues, however, that the economic crisis was the critical factor in the sooner-than-anticipated exit of a strongman who had, at some cost, delivered stability and growth. Once the economy went into a tailspin, the repression characteristic of the stunted polity he created provoked a backlash he did not survive.

The final chapter on East Timor draws on Emmerson’s experiences as a election monitor for the referendum held there in August 1999. It is a grim piece of reportage about the costs of having a military unwilling to submit to civilian rule and the need for accountabilty, both for justice and to nurture the habits of democracy.