INDONESIAN DESTINIES, by Theodore Friend. Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2003, 628 pp., $35 (cloth).
INDONESIA: People and Histories, by Jean Gelman Taylor. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, 420 pp., $39.95 (cloth).

These two books complement each other nicely and contribute greatly to our understanding of Indonesian society. They are also timely in that Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic nation and a volatile democracy rocked by secessionist struggles and terror bombings; both authors help explain the roots and context of contemporary problems.

Theodore Friend’s book is an intimate, opinionated, gossipy and stimulating read that focuses on post-World War II developments up until the end of 2002, while Jean Gelman Taylor provides a fresh and insightful overview of Indonesian history that stretches from misty origins until the end of the 20th century.

“Indonesian Destinies” is divided into three sections — Sukarno, Suharto and Succession — with more coverage on more recent events.

Friend describes Sukarno, Indonesia’s revered founding father, as “a great man leading a giant nation under grueling conditions” who attracted to himself “six would-be assassins, seven wives of different standing, and numerous other bed partners.” Unfortunately, “The worse the sufferings of the Indonesian people became, the more eloquently and comprehensively he ranted about revolution. Sukarno needed to feed his people. But instead of filling their stomachs, he tried to inflame their imaginations with wayang heroes from the mythic past and cumbersome intellectuality about continuing revolution.”

Suharto fares no better and is described as “a mass murderer, assuring power through fear.” According to Friend, the bloody massacres of 1965-66 that claimed some 500,000 lives were carried out under the aegis of the military and often involved Muslim youth groups. He exonerates the U.S. Embassy and CIA of orchestrating the coup that toppled Sukarno and led to the military takeover under Suharto without offering a convincing refutation of those who implicate the United States.

Suharto may have fed his people and helped reign in the birthrate, but nepotism, corruption and environmental devastation, along with atrophied institutions and habits of civil society, are his sorry legacy. Many of the troubles plaguing Indonesia today are a consequence of the misguided policies, harsh authoritarianism and kleptocracy that marred the New Order era (1967-1998).

Friend provides riveting background and behind-the-scenes information related to Suharto’s resignation and the succession aftermath. His detailed account of the denouement is leavened with intrigue, humor, anecdotes and colorful descriptions. We travel with him, listen to the stories of ordinary people and eavesdrop on conversations with the high and mighty. He covers issues such as the independence of East Timor and separatist campaigns in Aceh and Irian Jaya.

We learn about and spend some time with political leaders such as Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid) and Megawati Sukarnoputri, who have led, with decidedly mixed success, the transition to democracy. We also encounter the difficulties in trying to revive a withered civil society.

Taylor’s superb study reveals a historian at the peak of her craft and in command of the field. She presents a welcome and compelling revision of established orthodoxies and has crafted what will certainly be the text of choice for the next generation of Indonesianists. Her fascinating inclusion of nearly 100 capsules — brief asides on issues relevant to the surrounding text — adds considerably to the narrative. They provide illuminating glimpses into topics ranging from rice, time, public kissing and killing squads to famous figures.

She points out that: “Historians of Indonesia often refer to the Islamic concept of equality of believers as a powerful reason inducing conversion in the four hundred years of Islamization of the archipelago . . . . But the argument is not tenable for three main reasons.

“First, it is based on the presumption that individuals in those centuries had a concept of equality of humanity within society and yearned for it. Second, it goes against the Koranic teachings that accord a higher status to Muslims over nonbelievers, men over women, and owners over slaves. Third, the argument ignores the history of Islam in which the fatwahs (rulings) proclaim submission of subject to a Muslim ruler as a religious duty.”

Other prevailing myths, assumptions, imagined verities and stereotypes are similarly gutted in this provocative revisionist abattoir. When she discusses war, it is not about orders of battle, but about the destroyed lives and homes of commoners, the emergence of sex workers and trade disruptions in addition to career and technological advances. In assessing the economic consequences of colonialism she rejects the accepted view of passive peasants victimized by capitalism by emphasizing how many responded in dynamic ways to the new opportunities.

As for the Japanese interregnum, she says “the demands for sacrifice, displays of loyalty to Japan’s emperor, emphasis on military culture, and scorn for civilian government directed against segments of the population, generated a climate of fear, but also excitement and possibility, especially for young Indonesian men.”

Scrolling forward, she points out that favoritism is still the name of the game as the monopoly on toll booths on the nation’s highways and roads, once held by the Suharto family, is now matched by the monopoly on gas stands held by the husband of President Megawati.

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