Indonesia as inferno
Tropical paradise and brutal dictatorship, from Sukarno to Suharto and now B. J. Habibie, Indonesia and its people are fighting for their right to democracy. Can we ignore their call for help?
By Ignacio Ramonet
We know the seductive side of Indonesia, the “tropical paradise” celebrated by writers in colonial times and talked up in travel brochures today: the “Malay archipelago”, the “spice islands”, the “mythical land of pepper, cloves and nutmeg”, Sumatra, Borneo, Java, Bali, the Celebes, the Moluccas, the islands on the line, names that hold out the promise of escape, adventure, the pleasures of exploring an exotic world.
But beneath its enchanting exterior, Indonesia is a land of extreme violence traceable perhaps to 330 years under Dutch rule, a history of pitiless massacres, deportations and bloody revolt, a despotic colonial regime that collapsed like a house of cards after the hard years of Japanese occupation and the end of the second world war.
Independence was declared in December 1949 and in 1955 President Sukarno organised his famous Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, which was attended by the Egyptian, Indian and Chinese leaders, Nasser, Nehru and Chou En-Lai, and confirmed his position as a champion of anti-colonialism. The conference marked the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement, a grouping of third-world countries that refused throughout the cold war to side with Moscow and even less with Washington.
Sukarno brought into his government members of the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (the Partai Komunis Indonesia or PKI) which had 18 million sympathisers at the time. With the Vietnam war at its height, the United States was not best pleased and the troops too were restive. Everyone sensed that 1965 would be “a very dangerous year”, as film director Peter Weir subsequently put it. In October, the balloon went up when the army accused the communists of plotting a coup.
General Suharto was in charge of the crackdown. A wave of murderous madness swept the country. Over a period of months furious crowds, spurred on by the military, hunted down members of the PKI in a pogrom of appalling dimensions: “They were beaten to death or had their throats cut; the bodies were thrown in the river or buried in mass graves the victims had themselves been forced to dig” (1). Half a million people were summarily executed in this way. The army killed the leaders and deported more than 2 million communists to remote penal colonies.
In 1966, on the heels of this fearful massacre, General Suharto established his “new order”, a ferocious, nepotic and corrupt dictatorship, warmly welcomed by Washington and the Western powers, which immediately offered massive financial aid.
The reason for this burst of enthusiasm was Indonesia’s prime strategic importance. With a population of 202 million, it ranks fourth in the world in demographic terms (after China, India and the United States). It is also the leading Muslim state in terms of the number of believers. It is four times as big as France, its territorial waters cover an area of 5.4 million square kilometres (twice the size of the Mediterranean) and it controls the main shipping lanes between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, among the busiest in the world. And it is also a major producer of oil and gas.
With the benefit of Western aid, annual growth reached 6% in the course of the following 30 years. There was a 13-fold increase in per capita income, the number of people living below the poverty line fell from 60% to 13.5%, life expectancy rose to 63 (compared with 41 in 1960), exports increased by a factor of 34. In short, it was not unreasonable to speak of an “economic miracle”. Indonesia was cited as one of the new “tiger economies” of Asia and dreamed of joining the four “dragons”: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. The first to benefit from this expansion – based on wholesale exploitation of raw materials and destruction of the environment – were the ruling elite, starting with the Suharto family, whose personal fortune is estimated at $40 billion.
The violence continued during the “miracle” years, in towns in Java where thousands of petty criminals were killed by military “death squads”, in Irian Jaya (West New Guinea) where the people are still being arrested, tortured and butchered, and in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony taken by force in 1975 and held in one of the bloodiest wars of the century, in which some 200,000 people (a quarter of the population) have died.
When the 1997 crisis hit Indonesia, the economy collapsed faster and more violently than elsewhere, sweeping the dictator away with it. General Suharto resigned on 21 May 1998 after riots, put down by the army, in which more than 2,000 people died. The number of people living below the poverty line has trebled in the past year to 80 million – 40% of the population.
The dictator’s successor, B J Habibie, will probably be swept away in his turn (like Marcello Caetano who succeeded Salazar in Portugal, or Ramiz Alia who took over from Enver Hoxha in Albania). We are witnessing the collapse of one of the most shocking regimes in the world and it is to be hoped that General Suharto, like General Pinochet, will be called to account for his crimes before an international criminal court, as the students are demanding.
Indonesia is again calling for help (2). Can we fail to show solidarity with its people in their struggle to restore democracy and free their country at last from the inferno of autocratic rule?