‘New Order’ was an old nightmare


INDONESIA: The Long Oppression, by Geoff Simons. London: MacMillan/ N.Y.: St. Martins, 2000, 289 pp. $35.

Indonesia is just beginning the long process of coming to terms with and overcoming the consequences of three decades of dictatorship under President Suharto. His New Order regime was dominated by the military and, despite efforts to put a democratic gloss on proceedings, the government was authoritarian and frequently violent.

To understand the problems facing Indonesia under President Abdurrahman Wahid, one needs to appreciate just how devastating and debilitating have been the consequences of prolonged misrule, repression of civil society and institutionalized looting by the elite.

It will take many years and considerably more patience than has been evident thus far for Indonesia to make even modest headway in dealing with the legacy left by Suharto’s brutal kleptocracy.

Amid the shameless maneuvering of opportunists in Indonesia and gratuitous criticism by some foreign pundits, it is worth recalling that Gus Dur, as the president is popularly known, is not a miracle worker. It is miraculous, however, that Indonesia has not imploded, given the forces working against it, endemic corruption and the gutted mechanisms and institutions of government needed to tackle its daunting agenda of recovery and reconciliation.

The great danger is that democracy will be discredited because the government has been unable to cope with the forces of disintegration bequeathed by the New Order.

With regional violence and the threat of ethnic religious conflicts pulling the nation apart, there will be a temptation to call the military back in to restore a veneer of stability. This would be akin to calling on the arsonist to put out the fire.

During the New Order period, the military played a prominent political role, institutionalized in the system known as “dwifungsi.” The reform movement that toppled the New Order in 1998 and paved the way for free and fair elections in 1999 focused on returning the troops to the barracks.

Wahid has successfully outmaneuvered the military and succeeded, far more quickly and comprehensively than anyone could have hoped, in making headway on this front. However, in the last parliamentary session, the military played its cards adroitly, winning the right to maintain its appointed seats in the Parliament and also receiving immunity from prosecution for human-rights abuses committed both under the New Order and since Suharto’s ouster.

“Indonesia: The Long Oppression” details this gruesome and extensive record of abuses and the international complicity that facilitated systematic excesses. This is a disturbing and depressing portrait of a military regime running amok and never running out of guns, ammo and loans supplied by its overseas partners. Geoff Simons focuses on the role of the United States and Britain in bolstering the thugs and crooks who ran Indonesia. But Japan also deserves credit, given its leading role in providing prolonged and generous aid, loans and investment.

Suharto’s New Order benefited from the Cold War double standard: The U.S. and its allies agreed to look the other way to avoid holding noncommunist regimes to the same level of accountability and standards applied to “enemy” nations in the communist camp. Pol Pot committed genocide, while Suharto was an important ally with some unfortunate habits.

The extensive involvement of the U.S. government in the coup d’etat that brought Suharto to power — and led to massacres of purported communists that claimed over 500,000 lives — is not yet fully understood. There are many doubts concerning the New Order regime’s official version of the 1965 coup that led to the ouster of President Sukarno and his eventual replacement by Suharto.

Until recently, Indonesians were taught that Suharto “saved” the nation from a communist coup engineered by Beijing, but this version of events does not enjoy much international credibility. Simons draws on analysis that implicates the U.S. and suggests that Suharto himself orchestrated the violent events of 1965.

It is interesting that Indonesians are only now coming forward and writing their own versions of what happened and who was doing what to whom. Under the New Order, it was too dangerous to openly question the government’s version of events. Even now, critical details remain missing as memories, diaries and archives have not yet yielded all of their secrets.

But it takes time to disinter the past; in Japan, it has taken the 11 years since the death of Emperor Showa to produce a critical and comprehensive account of his active participation in, and responsibility for, the tragedies Japan inflicted in Asia between 1931 and 1945. Thus, armed with patience and hope, but armored with the experience of disappointment, one can look forward to a fuller accounting of Indonesia’s months of terror in 1965 and 1966.

Simons reminds readers why the gaffes, false starts and ineffective policies of the current government should never be the basis for returning to the repressive policies of the past. These praetorian policies never offered more than a short respite from unrest and in doing so sowed the seeds of long-term instability. The fruits of what was dubbed Suharto’s “terrorist state” are being harvested in Aceh, West Papua, the Moluccas, Kalimantan and East Timor.

Simons also accuses the international community of blatant hypocrisy in aiding and abetting flagrant violations of internationally accepted human rights for far too long.

He writes, “It was common knowledge that the Jakarta regime was keen to continue with a general repression of the civilian population: a policy involving arbitrary police and army powers, ‘disappearances,’ unfair trials, prolonged detentions without access to legal representation, torture and extrajudicial executions, the suppression of free speech, the harassing and beating of the opposition, the abuse of women and the gross exploitation of labor.”

The Suharto regime came into power with bloody hands and committed numerous atrocities against the Indonesian people throughout its reign of terror. The invasion and occupation of East Timor claimed close to one-third of the population. As a parting gift, the military organized militias in 1999 that implemented a well-planned scorched-earth policy and continue to terrorize the Timorese as they try to rebuild their shattered lives.

West Papua, previously called Irian Jaya, has also endured military brutality and environmental degradation in its role as host to vast mining operations. Simons argues that the nexus of greed and oppression embraced by corporations, their governments and the Indonesian regime — what he terms “international gangster capitalism” — has exacted a high toll on communities and the environment throughout the archipelago.

The plight of West Papuans exemplifies the corrosive effects of this exploitation. Reports of widespread torture, massacres and detentions of political prisoners by the military and police, included here in grim detail, barely register on the radar screen of the global media, an abandonment Simons suggests is par for the course.

Yet, for all its well-intentioned, passionate advocacy on behalf of the long-suffering Indonesian people, “Indonesia: The Long Oppression” is a seriously flawed book, seemingly written in haste and generally unmarked by thoughtful reflections on the material.

The narrative sinks beneath the weight of frequently underinterpreted and ineffectively organized research. The section on the colonial past is far too densely packed with information for nonspecialists to make sense of, and far too perfunctory and simplistic for specialists. The writing is often incoherent and undigested, as if the author had quickly compiled a great deal of relevant material on notecards and then decided to see how much of it he could stuff into the text.

This is disappointing, because Simons’ subject is an important and neglected one. Here and there, his insights and conclusions are compelling and welcome, indicating that some judicious editing could yet rescue this monograph and render it a useful country profile.

Despite the drawbacks, readers will still gain a better appreciation of why Indonesia is in such desperate straits today and why the magic wand of democracy has not suddenly bestowed peace and prosperity on a nation still being besieged and plundered by its military.

It will take time and resources to nurture civil society and institutions and patterns of good governance that were stifled by a regime that enjoyed sustained international support. One can only hope that recognition of this complicity will motivate the international community to do far more to help Indonesians overcome their collective nightmare.