young HONEST INDONESIAN LEAVE THE COUNTRY TO STUDY A BROAD with the dream of following them into permanent emigration, when Suharto finally died on 27 January 2008, the President presided tearfully over the funeral, worked things out with Suharto’s children, who own many tv stations, so that no ‘negative’ reports on the dead man would be aired, and ordered flags all over the country to be half-masted for a week. Luckily, in many places this order was scornfully rejected.

Cloaks of faith

A second major legacy relates to the political parties and their competitors. Like many military men, Suharto despised such parties and, as we have seen, corrupted and castrated those that he tolerated. Other than that, he paid them no attention. Since the legal parties were completely marginalized and had no influence on policy, they bore their impotence without attracting much in the way of political support or funnelling social protest. Under these conditions, people soon realized that the only institutions which Suharto was usually cautious about suborning or directly suppressing were those based on religion. After all, one of the ideological banners under which the slaughter of the Communists had been organized was the primordial battle against atheism. Suharto’s religion was a characteristic Javanese syncretism of Islam, Hindu-Buddhist mysticism and shamanistic animism—but this was usually concealed from the public.

Christians, though a small minority, had high educational qualifications— a heritage of colonial-era state favouritism and missionary energy. Generally sycophantic, eager for protection against phantom Muslim fanaticism, they were useful to Suharto’s cynical ideological campaign for national ‘unity’. But they also had crucial support in Rome, Western Europe and, above all, the us. Catholics were not a real problem, since their power was largely based in Java, and their hierarchical leadership was easily bought off or cowed. Protestantism was a very different story. In the colonial period, Protestant evangelism had its main successes with minority groups in remote or upland regions, which were divvied up among different sects with different overseas sponsors. Hence even in the colonial period Protestantism became closely associated with Outer Island ethnicities, creating separate ethno-cultural ‘churches’ for the Toba Bataks, the Karo Bataks, the Ambonese, the Toradjans and so on. It is telling that the largest-circulation newspapers in Jakarta under the Suharto regime were controlled by Catholics and Protestants: the most easily intimidated and therefore the most tolerated. It was not long before the obsequious Catholic Kompas was quietly mocked as Kempes (flat, like a tyre), and the Protestant Sinar Harapan (Light of Hope) as Sirna Harapan (All Hope is Gone).

As for the vast Muslim majority, Suharto closely followed the advice of the panjandrum of Dutch colonial Islamic studies, C. Snouck Hurgronje (who had had the courage to go to Mecca disguised as a pilgrim): give them everything they want that is not political. Hence, until the 1990s, Suharto donated enormous sums for the building of high-tech mosques in the bourgeois neo-Arab style, schools, charities and subventions for airplane pilgrims to the Holy City, while brutally repressing any manifestations of political Islam.

Today, any serious visitor to Indonesia should visit the beautiful old mosque in Surabaya dedicated to Sunan Ampel, said to be one of the nine founders of Islam in the country. It is located in the centre of the old town, next to the traditional Arab and Chinese quarters. Visitors will find a civilized warning posted against disturbing the peace of many tired and hardworking neighbours. This mosque is, to my knowledge, the only significant one in the country that still uses the beautiful unmediated human voice for calling the faithful to prayer. Everywhere else, and this is another Suharto legacy, the calls to prayer are made fortissimo with the help of high-amp loudspeakers, and often lazily taken from tapes.

The relative immunity of religious institutions from Suharto’s increasing insistence on his own form of Gleichschaltung had consequences that he failed to predict. All kinds of political, economic, ethnic and even criminal interests which, under other circumstances, would have gravitated to political parties clustered round different religious denominations. The late Suharto period thus saw the emergence of something unimaginable before he came to power: Protestant street-thugs, Catholic extortionists, Muslim mercenaries. After his fall, the consequences became bloodily evident. Protestant Ambonese hoodlums who had long controlled part of Jakarta’s brothels, bars and gambling dens were evicted by Muslim gangsters loudly proclaiming Muslim morality. [10] Forced to return to Ambon, the defeated Protestant hoods convinced almost all the local Protestants that they had been victims of Muslim aggression.

Meantime, the corrupt, but quietist, colonial-era local Protestant Church was being undermined by fanatical American and German evangelical missionaries, who provided much-needed social services but insisted that Islam was the work of Satan. The outbreak of cruel religious conflict in the Moluccas, which had never experienced anything of the kind before, was initiated by a Protestant massacre of an entire Muslim village—no surprise that this was not reported in the Western press. No surprise either that the alliance of gangsters with fanatical Protestants led sizeable numbers of other gangsters and fanatics to ‘come to the rescue’ of their fellow-Muslims. The police and military, who should have prevented the bloodshed that followed, often broke up along religious lines. The result was a savage local civil war in the Moluccas, from which no one but gangsters profited.

Arms and assets

Suharto rightly believed till the very end that the one Indonesian institution capable of felling him was the Army. After the massive purges of 1966–67 he could be sure of the loyal support of a now completely anti-communist officer corps, composed mainly of people of his own generation—‘veterans of the Revolution’. Still, he took extra precautions. The most striking of these was a budgetary allocation policy which in no way sufficed for a modern military, especially one in power. (At various points in the 1980s and 90s, senior military officials would even say in public that the budget covered only about one third of their needs.) This also provided plausible evidence to foreign reporters, scholars and, of course, officials that democracy was up ahead, somewhere along the yellow-brick road. The financial solution was ingenious and had its roots in the short period after 1949 when Indonesia was a constitutional democracy. The country was desperately poor after the ravages of the Depression, the Japanese Occupation and the revolution, and the demands on a series of weak governments were substantial. Some provincial military commanders, headed towards warlord status, began to create their own hidden budgets by protecting smugglers, controlling local export revenues and practising extortion, especially of Chinese entrepreneurs who nonetheless found these commanders useful at the price. We have earlier observed Suharto getting into this game in the mid-1950s.

The big change, however, came in the year 1957. The very free elections held in 1955 had shown that no political party was able to win more than one quarter of the electorate, but about 77 per cent of the vote went to four large parties, three of them based on the heavily populated island of Java. These three were a so-called secular nationalist party, a ‘traditionalist’ Muslim party and the Communist Party, while the fourth, a ‘modernist Islamic’ party, was strong above all in non-Javanese areas. That the two (usually) mutually hostile Islamic parties could not together win even a small majority in a country which is nominally 90 per cent Muslim points to the real peculiarity of Indonesia in today’s Islamic world.

Prior to the generally peaceable political arrival of Islam in the mid-15th century—eight hundred years after the Prophet and his immediate successors had achieved astounding military successes in the Near East and on the Mediterranean littoral—Old Java for centuries had been culturally dominated by an eclectic mix of Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and local animism. Virtually all of the grand monuments which earn Indonesia a substantial tourist income are pre-Islamic. The arrival of the Dutch at the beginning of the 17th century helped block any thoroughgoing Arab-Muslim transformation. Thus even today the Javanese are divided between (mostly urban) ‘modernist’ Muslims who have no patience with syncretism and superstition, ‘traditionalist’ Muslims (mostly rural) whose outlook is both nationalist and syncretic, and ‘statistical’ Muslims who are circumcized, married and buried according to Muslim rites, but whose real faith still shows strong traces of Old Java’s religious outlook. In 1955, the secular nationalists and the Communists competed for the votes of the ‘statistical’ Muslims, while active Muslim voters were divided between traditionalists and modernists.

The post-election cabinet was necessarily unstable, weak and incapable of halting the spread of Outer Island warlordism which increasingly took on local ethno-linguistic features. Behind the scenes, the cia, alarmed by the Communists’ surprising electoral strength, and by President Sukarno’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, was looking towards a major rebellion which would get rid of Sukarno and bring about an Army-backed right-wing regime. In March 1957, the country was put under martial law. In the autumn negotiations between the centre and the Outer Island opposition broke down.

At the same time, Sukarno, increasingly enraged by Dutch obstinacy in hanging on to West New Guinea, with American support, decreed the nationalization of all Dutch enterprises and the eviction of almost all Dutch citizens. The High Command, using its martial-law powers, took over the huge welter of Dutch factories, banks, export–import firms, mines, shipping and plantations, and promptly moved to immobilize the Communist-dominated trade unions attached. In one blow, the Army thus seized almost the entire ‘advanced’ sector of the economy, and made use of these resources to win the civil war that broke out at the start of 1958, despite heavy cia assistance to the rebels. Most of these enterprises were parcelled out, and either mismanaged or effectively looted, making a major contribution to the economic crisis that undid Sukarno’s Guided Democracy.

As noted above, Suharto had far more resources to dispense than his predecessor, while the Army’s overwhelming political power helped it to build a huge, ramshackle economic empire independent of the national budget, often with the cooperation of favourite Chinese tycoons. It was, however, not an effectively centralized empire, since the Army was organized territorially, right down to the village level, and each predatory level created its own sources of funds. Furthermore, most sizeable private enterprises were forced to accept ‘security units’, ostensibly to protect them from scarcely existing labour unrest, but actually as agents of systematic, hierarchical extortion.

But this was by no means all. For the first two decades of Suharto’s rule, military officers were ‘parachuted’ into all the state ministries and parastatals, and most important positions in the territorial civil bureaucracy were occupied by generals and colonels. The armed forces had a large, Suharto-selected bloc in Parliament, and dominated the electoral machine, Golkar, which always won elections without difficulty. Perhaps most important of all, the officer corps was essentially above the law. Not a single senior officer was ever put on trial for corruption or abuse of power, let alone for murder.

Yet, as we have also seen, by the mid-1980s the last of the revolution’s veterans had retired, replaced by former cadets from the Military Academy. They had adapted fully to the regime, but failed to produce a single moment of ‘glory’, and not one of the new generation of generals enjoyed any independent public prestige. After Suharto’s fall, and Habibie’s ending of the old order’s strict censorship, the mass media began to be filled with devastating stories of military malfeasance and brutality.

The popular anti-military movement was briefly strong enough to get rid of the appointed military bloc in Parliament, and restore much of the bureaucracy to civilian hands. [11] But other legacies of Suharto have remained. The officer corps is still largely above the law, the territorial organization of the Army has not been undone and, after enormous losses in the 1997 financial crisis, the soldiers have clung still more fiercely to their extra-budgetary enterprises. But the drastic decline in the Army’s prestige and the mediocre quality of its leadership appear to rule out for the foreseeable future any return to military rule.

National amnesia

Since the cultural legacy of Suharto is a vast and complicated matter, it makes practical sense to focus here on just two crucial policy initiatives. The first and most important was the introduction of a new spelling system for the national language, inaugurated in 1972–73. Officially, this policy was justified as a way to open up a common print market with Malaysia. But the real motive behind it was to mark a decisive break between what was written under the dictatorship and everything written before it. One had only to read the title of a book or pamphlet to know whether it was splendidly modern, or a derisory residue of Sukarnoism, constitutionalism, the revolution, or the colonial period. Any interest in old-orthography materials was automatically suspicious. The change was sufficiently great that youngsters could easily be persuaded that ‘old’ printed materials were too hard to decipher, and so not to be bothered with. [12]

The effective result was a sort of historical erasure, such that the younger generation’s knowledge of their country’s history came largely from the regime’s own publications, especially textbooks. Needless to say, the decades of anti-colonial activity against the Dutch largely disappeared. The revolution was renamed the War of Independence, in which only soldiers played significant roles. The post-revolutionary period of constitutional democracy was abruptly dismissed as the creation of civilian politicians, aping Western rather than Indonesian ways. All this had some comical aspects. For example, the brave but hopeless Communist rebellion against the Dutch colonial regime in 1926–27 was described as the first of a series of treasonable Communist conspiracies culminating in October 1, 1965.

In the decade after Suharto’s fall, some tentative rewriting of textbooks has occurred, but in general inertia prevails. Many once-banned books have been republished (anachronistically, in the Suharto spelling), but the market for these books is basically limited to students and intellectuals. The general ignorance of the past is probably greater than at any time in the last century.

The second, related, policy concerns Indonesia’s Chinese minority. Very soon after October 1, the regime’s media claimed that the masterminds of the failed ‘Communist coup’ had received a large clandestine shipment of arms from the prc, and that Party chairman D. N. Aidit had acted at the behest of Peking. There followed the sacking of the Chinese Embassy and the suspension of diplomatic relations until 1990. Under Sukarno, the only substantial political organization for the Chinese minority, known as Baperki, had been a strong supporter of the President, who enjoyed excellent relations with Peking. Baperki had also allied itself with the Communist Party and leftwing secular nationalists. This body was now prohibited, many of its leaders were imprisoned, and a significant number of ordinary Chinese killed.

Suharto followed this up by banning Chinese schools, any use of Chinese calligraphy, and the near-compulsory changing of Chinese personal names to more Indonesian-sounding appellations. Needless to say, the rationale for all this was that the Chinese had to be better assimilated and become like other Indonesian citizens. But in reality the Chinese were almost completely excluded from political power. Discrimination was rampant and systematic in the universities, the civil service and the armed forces. Over the 32 years of the dictatorship, only one Chinese ever became a cabinet minister, and this figure, appointed only two months before Suharto fell, was a notorious crony.

On the other hand, on the economic–financial side, Suharto surrounded himself with a small group of Chinese tycoons who, in addition to acting as his bagmen, built huge and successful business empires. (Some of these people, sniffing the wind, began transferring their assets to Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and elsewhere several years before the Crash of 1997.) The policy suited the dictator’s book, since he both respected Chinese acumen and knew that Chinese wealth could not be converted into dangerous political power. ‘Native’ Indonesians were another story.

Below the level of the cronies, the Chinese, facing exclusion from most other options beyond private medical and legal practice, concentrated energetically on commerce and swelled the ranks of an already timid middle class. The concentration became so great that the old stigma of being ‘economic animals’ became partly internalized. Yet there were a few impressive exceptions: Soe Hok Gie, a prominent student opponent of the Communist Party and of Sukarno’s authoritarian populist rule, was the one and only person in the late 1960s to denounce in public the massacres of 1965–66; the Protestant lawyer Yap Thiam Hien was so courageous in defence of human rights that he ultimately became a national icon. Dede Oetomo, on returning from graduate study in America, was brave enough to announce that he was ‘gay’, and over two decades tirelessly worked to help hiv/aids victims and to enhance the civic rights of gays, lesbians and transsexuals. The playwright Riantiarno dared to compose and stage politically coloured plays and musicals, though these were soon shut down. Nonetheless Suharto’s policies made the Chinese more vulnerable than ever to popular envy and hatred, and Suharto’s fall was marked by savage anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta and the old royal city of Surakarta.

After Suharto? Politically the Chinese have no vehicle of their own, though they are financially important to all the large parties today. Only two Chinese, to my knowledge, have become cabinet ministers. The more important of the pair, Kwik Kian Gie, was quickly dismissed because of his personal honesty and blunt attacks on corruption, in general, and the activities of the tenacious Chinese cronies in particular. Discrimination is still rife. Young Chinese know even less about Indonesian history than their ‘native’ counterparts, and that goes for the history of the Chinese in Indonesia as well. Many parents, still traumatized by their experiences under the Suharto regime, try to send their youngsters overseas to study, often with the dream of following them into permanent emigration. One remarkable development, however, is that there has been no significant anti-Chinese riot over the past ten years, which have otherwise seen a great deal of inter-ethnic and inter-religious bloodshed. I think that the ironic explanation is that the Chinese minority, maybe 1 per cent of the population and scattered around the archipelago, is too small to matter in the open electoral politics where these larger conflicts are involved; under Suharto, with his tight control over the public sphere, the Chinese were regarded as the least dangerous targets for social anger and resentment.


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