Glimpses of Indonesia after Suharto


THE POLITICS OF POST-SUHARTO INDONESIA, edited by Adam Schwarz and Jonathan Paris. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1999, 120 pp.. $17.95
MILITARY DOCTRINES AND DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION: A Comparative Perspective on Indonesia’s Dual Function and Latin American National Security Doctrines, by Jun Honna. Discussion Paper Series #22, Regime Change and Regime Maintenance in Asia and the Pacific. Canberra: Australia National University, 1999, 62 pp.

“The Politics of Post-Suharto Indonesia” is a timely and useful collection of essays on Indonesia that will help readers better understand the implications of the recent elections and the extraordinary challenges facing Indonesians as they try to recover from the economic tsunami unleashed in Bangkok in July 1997. These five essays, four by U.S. specialists on Indonesia and one by a prominent Japanese Indonesia hand, survey the generally unfamiliar terrain of Indonesia’s political economy. They succeed in presenting a succinct and accessible analysis.

John Bresnan, an influential Indonesian specialist in the United States, reconstructs the evolving U.S. and IMF policies and interventions aimed at stabilizing the Indonesian economy from October 1997 until the end of Suharto’s rule in May 1998. In his opinion, the oft-criticized IMF policies were probably the best that could have been hoped for under the circumstances.

For Bresnan, the crisis and policy disarray that ensued suggests the need for more expertise among policymakers on Indonesia and indeed any country in which a significant intervention is required. In addition, he raises concerns about the vulnerabilities generated by volatile short-term capital flows and asserts that, “Private capital markets are not self-correcting without potential costs that are unacceptable in the new global community.”

In dealing with the aftermath of the economic crisis, Bresnan calls on the U.S. to “be more generous in helping Indonesia deal with its unprecedented economic and social problems than planned U.S. resources will permit.” The U.S. should assume greater responsibility for alleviating the suffering of the swelling ranks of impoverished Indonesians by providing substantial food assistance.

In addition, he suggests that the U.S., Japan and other G-7 governments need to structure a solution to Indonesia’s private foreign debt and promote restructuring in the banking sector. It is clear that sustainable recovery requires a purging of the patterns and practices of kleptocracy that thrived in Suharto’s Indonesia, a task better left to Indonesians backed by the support and leverage of aid donors.

“Islam and Nation in the Post-Suharto Era,” written by Boston University’s Robert Hefner, is perhaps the most compelling chapter in this collection because it dispels some common misperceptions about the impact of religion on Indonesian politics.

Hefner points out that the caricature of a monolithic Islam served up in Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” bears no resemblance to the reality in Indonesia. In recent years, there has been a remarkable revitalization of the Muslim community, but there is a considerable range of Islamic visions and rival political traditions. Hefner elucidates the reasons for the Islamic revival in the 1980s and offers splendid, straightforward insights on the changing role of Islam in the Indonesian polity as it lurches toward the 21st century.

For those who fear a resurgence of fundamentalism, it will be comforting to learn that “Nowhere in the Muslim world have Muslim intellectuals engaged the ideas of democracy, civil society, pluralism, and the rule of law with a vigor and confidence equal to that of Indonesian Muslims.” Hefner points out that in the final years of the Suharto era, a revitalized Islam has played a key role in nurturing values supportive of an open civil society. In his view, “the divide between modernist and neotraditionalist Islam will remain a conspicuous feature of the Indonesian political landscape.”

One need only consider the ongoing debate among Muslims concerning whether a women is fit to serve as president to gauge the contentious complexity of Islamic political views and witness the progressive impulses of key Islamic leaders in defending Megawati Sukarnoputri’s right to hold office.

William Liddle, a political scientist at Ohio State University, concurs that Islam remains divided between those, “. . . who define their political interests in religious terms; and Muslims who do not, together with non-Muslim Indonesians.” He seems to be on less firm ground in arguing that, “[President Bacharuddin Jusuf] Habibie has managed to win considerable, if tentative, legitimation for his incumbency as a transitional president.”

In the recent elections, President B.J. Habibie’s party, Golkar, did better than most analysts expected, but saw its percentage of the vote slip from nearly 70 percent in the previous election to an estimated 20 percent.

According to Kyoto University’s Takashi Shiraishi, the role of the military in the Indonesian polity will remain crucial. He agrees that the military’s image has been tarnished by its central role in the New Order, but does not agree that a lack of vision and leadership will constrain its political role in post-Suharto Indonesia.

It is a damning legacy of the Suharto era that the military is the most important and powerful institution in Indonesia. Shiraishi points out that this structural power is crucial and will enable the military to sustain and exercise considerable political influence. In his view, “the military leadership understands that the era of repression and state-sanctioned terrorism is over.”

This does not mean a return to the barracks, however. With a monopoly on coercive power, control of the intelligence community and a tradition of functioning both in the security and sociopolitical realms, a diminished military role is unlikely. Indeed, given the enormous economic and political challenges facing Indonesia, transformed civil-military relations evolving over time may be more fruitful than a full retreat of the military from the central role it has played, for good and bad, in civil society. Indonesia needs time to overcome the institutional distortions left behind by Suharto and in this sense the military can help foster conditions that will facilitate institution building.

The process of balancing the role of the military in a time of transition are the focus of an excellent study on the Indonesian military by Jun Honna, a recent Ph.D. from Australian National University. Having conducted extensive interviews with military officers in the last few years, few analysts are in a better position to analyze the dynamics of the military’s role in Indonesia.

This excellent study probes the ongoing doctrinal transformation in the Indonesian military and how this will shape its future role. Certainly one of the urgent tasks of the government will involve reshaping civil-military relations in a manner that will contribute to regime democratization.

Submission to civilian authority will not come easily to the old guard and will be a process that bears watching. Certainly the prospect of the military’s retreat to the barracks will be influenced by the government’s intentions regarding the excesses of the past and present.

Honna argues that “the legacy of human-rights violations and the revision of military missions are the two issue-areas of greatest potential conflict between the new civilian government and the military, and contain serious dilemmas for democratic civilians.” The resolution of similar problems in Latin America discussed in this paper provide some basis for cautious optimism about the prospects for eventually asserting civilian control in Indonesia.

The ongoing tragedy in East Timor, where the military is undermining U.N. efforts to peacefully resolve the issue of independence or integration at the ballot box, presumably against the wishes of the current president, is a less encouraging sign. By arming local anti-independence militias and providing them with logistical support, the military is challenging a key government policy initiative and wreaking havoc among a people who have suffered far too long from the army’s sanguinary inclinations.

In a nation sprinkled with hot spots of smoldering tensions exacerbated by “pacification” campaigns, reining in the military is a major challenge to civilian authority. The longer such problems persist, the harder it will be to cut a deal on amnesty and reconciliation.