Indonesia: An Unfinished Nation


Max Lane, Unfinished Nation: Indonesia before and after Suharto, Verso, 2008.

Unfinished Nation: Indonesia before and after SuhartoThere was a time when everyone seemed to be talking about Indonesia.  Well, they were talking about it on Joe Duffy and Pat Kenny at least, and that’s as near as makes no difference in this country.  As East Timor voted to extricate itself from a quarter-century of Indonesian rule in 1999, the two big shots of Irish radio devoted what seemed like acres of airtime to events on the other side of the world — thanks largely to the work of Tom Hyland and the East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign in putting the Timorese struggle for independence on the political map.  When Indonesia finally withdrew from its unwilling colony, the leaders of the Timorese liberation movement were keen to note the solidarity they’d received from this country at a time when the big powers of the West were backing the occupation and supplying the weapons to enforce it.

East Timor’s liberation came in the wake of a popular revolt that brought down Suharto — one of the worst tyrants of the last century, who took power in a bloodbath that claimed over a million lives — and established a more open political system.

Since that peak of interest at the turn of the millennium, Indonesia has largely slipped off the current affairs radar.  The indifference might be thought a little surprising.  Since 9/11, we’ve seen plenty of well-intentioned if sometimes patronising attempts to “understand Islam” better, so the world’s most populous Muslim country is surely worth keeping an eye on.  Anyone who’s interested in figuring out how nationalism works will find a perfect case study in this extraordinarily diverse nation-state, with its thousands of islands and hundreds of languages.

The lack of attention surely owes much to the prevailing winds of political thought.  Suharto didn’t fall out with his Western sponsors, so it never became convenient to highlight atrocities committed with the active support and participation of Washington and London.  For those who insist on taking a benign view of US-UK power, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, Indonesia is a tough morsel to swallow.  And those of similar disposition who present revolution against capitalism as the source of all the great evils of modern history will be reluctant to admit that a counter-revolution in defence of capitalism can produce its own horrors.  If your own way of thinking doesn’t bend so crassly with the breeze, you’ll find Unfinished Nation to be an excellent primer on modern Indonesian history, with some useful hints as to its likely future.

Independence to New Order

Lane begins by describing the birth of the independence movement under colonial rule in the early twentieth century, leading to the eviction of Dutch imperialism after the Second World War.  The key figure in that movement was Soekarno, who became the dominant personality of the new state’s opening act.  His nationalist organisation was shadowed by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the largest non-ruling communist party in the world (Lane estimates its membership in the 1960s to have been something in the region of 25 million).  This was a turbulent period of mass engagement and participation when a huge swathe of Indonesia’s population was directly involved in political activism and debate about the future of the country.  Lane suggests that an alliance was beginning to coalesce between Soekarno and the PKI around a platform of drastic social transformation.

That radical agenda posed a threat both to Indonesian elites and to those foreign interests Soekarno would have bluntly described as “Western imperialism”.  While Soekarno was nominally head of government, his supporters and those of the PKI had little influence within the state apparatus.  Crucially, their opponents dominated the top tier of the Indonesian army, and used that position to launch a counter-revolutionary coup in 1965.  It was followed by one of the biggest massacres of the twentieth century, directed against the supporters of the Indonesian left.  Between 500,000 and two million people were murdered in a reign of terror organised by the army and right-wing militias: “Many of those killed died horribly . . . they were decapitated, disembowelled, dragged behind a truck or otherwise cruelly killed.”

Surviving members of the PKI were banished to Indonesian gulags for years or even decades after the slaughter.  The party was banned and the history books re-written in Orwellian fashion according to the needs of the military regime.  Soekarno himself couldn’t be effaced so easily — he was, after all, the man who had declared national independence from Dutch rule — but his political speeches and writings were kept out of view.  Suharto, the leader of the coup, declared a counter-revolutionary Year Zero and dubbed his regime the New Order.  The erasure was so comprehensive that Lane confesses his difficulty in establishing the nature of the PKI-Soekarno alliance in its final years: the basic source materials are difficult to lay hold of, and the few PKI survivors have had little opportunity to reflect.  He doesn’t offer much by way of speculation as to how the disaster might have been avoided.

Needless to say, the coup was welcomed enthusiastically in the capitals of the West, preoccupied as they were with the growth of left-wing movements elsewhere in the region.  The US government did not merely condone the massacre, it actively supported it, supplying arms and intelligence to Suharto’s dictatorship so that it could complete its work as thoroughly as possible.  The same eager collusion was in evidence a decade later when the New Order annexed East Timor and began a quarter-century of genocidal occupation that wiped out one-third of the Timorese population.  Washington had given the thumbs-up to Suharto’s invasion in advance, and provided the weapons needed to crush the Timorese resistance.

Aksi and Revolution

The terror of the 1960s proved chillingly effective for the next three decades: apart from intermittent student protests and the occasional riot of the urban poor, the New Order was unchallenged as its dominant figures — from Suharto down, and including his entire family — proceeded to ransack the country in order to line their own pockets.  But all bad things must come to an end, and the 1990s saw the formation of independent trade unions and other popular organisations that began to challenge the regime.  Many of these organisations were nurtured by activists of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD), a leftist group whose perspectives have strongly influenced Lane’s thinking.  The accumulation of strikes and other disturbances that troubled the sleep of the New Order coincided with a split within the political class.  Suharto had attempted to conceal the nature of his regime by establishing a sham parliament with rigged elections and a house-trained pseudo-opposition.  Megawati Soekarnoputri — Soekarno’s daughter — assumed the leadership of a satellite party: when the commissars of the New Order intervened to remove her, she refused to accept their diktats, and supporters of Megawati used the 1997 elections as an opportunity to vent their anger in a way that hadn’t been seen since the coup.

Lane describes those elections as the first of three key moments in the Indonesian revolution.  The second came in May 1998, when student protesters in Jakarta demanded the resignation of Suharto.  As they watched hundreds of thousands of Indonesians join the protest, the notables of the New Order decided to abandon the tyrant and forced him to resign in favour of his vice-president.  This clumsy attempt to preserve “Suhartoism without Suharto” was challenged in November of the same year by a third wave of mass protest.  The PRD and other radical groups played a central role in organising this third wave, and even advanced the demand for a new political system based on “people’s councils”, to be elected by communities and workplaces across Indonesia.  But the initiative was taken by “those politicians at arm’s length from the centre of power, not immersed in the machinations of suppressing the mobilisations, and who had some analytical capacity”.  These included Megawati, Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais.

Rais denounced the proposal for “people’s councils” with a careful piece of misdirection: “This is very dangerous, because people are being told not to believe in the process of democracy, elections are belittled, and then parties will not be needed and people will just rely on mass strength, on muscle.”

In fact, as Rais understood perfectly well, it was the radicals calling for popular councils who were also demanding elections as soon as possible.  What he really feared was that elite politicians like himself would be “belittled” by a system that transferred power to grassroots level.  Rais, Wahid and Megawati issued a joint declaration calling for general elections but insisting that “everyone should return home and stop complicating the situation”.  The protests came to an end, and pressure for a radical break with the New Order was dissipated.

When elections were held, Suharto’s GOLKAR party retained much of the infrastructure it had built up over three decades of monopoly rule, and the army lurked obtrusively in the background.  Abdurrahman Wahid became the new president, but after his reforming zeal proved too much for the elite to bear, he was deposed by an alliance of GOLKAR (which wanted to protect its unearned privileges), the army (ditto), and Megawati (who wanted to be president herself at any cost).  Wahid was supported by the PRD but could not defend his position because of his own political limitations:

He had the worst of both worlds.  His perspective on political liberalization, including the legalisation of communism; his attempt to bring other liberals into the government from outside the established political parties; and his support for the most outspoken reformer inside the armed forces set him against all parties that had supported his election as president.  But neither did he put forward a platform that could galvanise popular support.  His economic policies, involving imposition of IMF-prescribed austerity policies, was a barrier to winning popular support.  Most crucially he consistently pulled back from using mass mobilisation as a means of organising and demonstrating public support for his presidency.

The Next Round

Why were these elite politicians, who had done little or nothing to build the aksi movement that deposed Suharto, able to seize control of the protests and defuse their potential?  Lane sees this outcome as a legacy of the New Order’s repression.  The massacres of the 1960s — and the obliteration of historical memory that followed — had broken the continuity of the Indonesian left.  The PRD itself was tiny in relation to the Indonesian population (or the PKI with which it was often compared).  It was able to punch well above its weight in 1997-8, but the leftists couldn’t match the influence of Megawati and co when the latter tried to bring the movement off the streets in November 1998.  The demand for people’s councils, while admirable, was too far ahead of the curve.

He also refers to the Indonesian social structure as an obstacle blocking the formation of an organised mass movement.  The country’s manufacturing base is limited, and most of the urban workforce remains “overwhelmingly comprised of a semi-proletariat with uncertain employment in a huge ocean of small enterprises, with miserably low productivity and with the concomitant low incomes”.  Big factories that offer the most promising conditions for union organisation are comparatively rare.  As a result, political activism is more likely to be found in the neighbourhood than in the workplace.

In one of the book’s most striking passages, Lane notes the popularity of Chinese sword-fighting stories in the popular culture of the urban poor, and suggests that the social conditions of those floating in the “huge ocean” of small-scale employment leave a strong imprint on their habits of thought:

It helps reinforce a sense of politics where the role of the individual leader, the personality, plays a predominant role.  This is the kind of popular culture in which they participate — the world of the sword-fighter hero — and it is also the nature of the day to day socio-economic reality they experience.  Life as a semi-proletarian, working in a variety of different small enterprises, means they are not dealing with anonymous corporate owners, but often with owners who are friends or relatives, as much as with totally unknown people.  Whether their employers are ratbags or easy to get on with plays a big role in their experience.  This experience can reinforce a psychology brought in from the village where patron-client relations exist.  It is, therefore, not surprising that among big sections of this sector Megawati Soekarnoputri became a symbol of leadership that could mobilise millions of people.

Lane’s explanation of the outcome at the turn of the millennium seems very convincing.  It would be unrealistic to expect that the legacy of Suharto’s regime could be overcome all at once.  Even so, the aksi movement achieved remarkable things, and has laid down solid foundations for the next round of the struggle for democracy in Indonesia.

More on Indonesia:

Ed Walsh, Irish Socialist Network.  This article was first published in Irish Left Review on 20 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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