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Does the recent crisis in Indonesia indicate that democratizing a nation too rapidly will lead to disorder? The crux of the issue involves the effectiveness and limitations of authoritarian and military control that guarantee stability.

The Soviet Union enjoyed stability, at least on the surface, under Josef Stalin. After its collapse, one form of chaos after another has hit Russia, as exemplified by Chechnya’s move to gain independence. Nor do I completely disagree with the view that China would have fallen into chaos if the Beijing government had refrained from sending tanks to quell prodemocracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 89 and instead moved toward democracy. China is undergoing political change, but it is too early to tell whether these changes will create stability or confusion.

The larger a country and the more diverse its ethnic composition, the more difficult it is to achieve a smooth transition from rule by force to democracy.

Indonesia is made up of more than 17,000 islands spread over a distance equivalent to that from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States. It is inhabited by 200 million people of diverse ethnic origins.

Physical force exercised by the military has been instrumental in maintaining Indonesia’s unity, as the armed forces have nipped separatist plots in the bud. The primary role of the Indonesian military, therefore, has been to contain dissident moves rather than to defend the nation from outside attack.

For a time after Indonesia gained independence in 1945, its people were enraptured with nationalism under the leadership of their first president, Sukarno. When the Cold War confrontation spread to Southeast Asia, a bitter struggle for power erupted between the military and the communists. The Sukarno regime collapsed after the military won that struggle.

His successor, Gen. Suharto, ruled with authoritarian power under the pretext of “dictatorship for national development.” Although the economy expanded, the military achieved stability by depriving the people of freedom; that created dissent. The economic crisis triggered by the 1998 Asian currency crisis led the citizens to blame the government for their miseries, putting an end to Suharto’s three-plus decades of rule.

The Indonesian people also expressed strong distrust of and hatred toward the military, which repeatedly violated basic human rights in an effort to prevent the secession of East Timor and Aceh.

The present regime, headed by President Abdurrahman Wahid and Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, has strengths and weaknesses. One of its strengths is that Wahid represents Muslims, who account for 88 percent of the population, while Megawati is popular as the eldest daughter of Sukarno, a national hero. Thus, both are qualified to lead. The fact that both hail from Java is to their advantage, because the Javanese have traditionally formed a powerful faction in Indonesian politics.

Such strengths can become weaknesses, however. The Muslims in Indonesia are divided into diverse groups, and it is unlikely that they will continue to give unified support to Wahid in the future.

Sukarno is popular among older generations as a hero of Indonesia’s independence, but his charisma no longer has much impact on younger generations who lead the reform movements.

Also significant is the fact that those living in regions other than Java resent a central government ruled predominantly by the Javanese, and that is a factor behind secessionist movements in various parts of the country. In Aceh, in particular, resentment against Java is deep-rooted, as the residents there sought to form a separate country when Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch.

As Indonesia becomes democratized, the political role played by the military shrinks. As a result, the country is losing its centripetal force and is fracturing.

When Indonesia won independence from the Dutch, East Timor was a Portuguese colony. Indonesia annexed it by force during the Suharto regime. When that government collapsed, East Timor left Indonesia. The case of Aceh is not that simple. Aceh’s independence could mark the beginning of the total disintegration of Indonesia.

Given that Indonesia consists of numerous islands inhabited by people of diverse ethnic origins, it is doubtful whether the republic is qualified to remain united. It is difficult to find a common feature to serve as a unifying glue.

If it is difficult to maintain national unity through dialogue, the country may, for the time being, have to rely on undemocratic actions on the part of the military, whose reputation remains tarnished by human-rights violations. If that is the case, the military would assume an important role once again. Therefore, one is tempted to believe rumors that the religious conflicts in the Maluku region are being instigated by the military.

The international community’s reaction to the situation in Indonesia has varied. Australia has bluntly criticized the Jakarta government, while the United States has softened its stand against Indonesia’s human-rights violations. Japan has refrained from criticizing Indonesia, at least on the surface.

Tokyo is worried that outright denunciation of Jakarta could put the entire country in a state of chaos and trigger human-rights violations throughout Indonesia as well as neighboring countries.

Under these circumstances, no nation has been able to suggest a way to guarantee national unity in Indonesia.

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