American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 2000

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By Theodore Friend

About the author
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Also in this issue:

Ronald Palmer, on Indonesian Politics and the Military, 1997-1999, in From Repression to Reform?:
"While Indonesia is nominally a democracy — indeed the third largest democracy in the world — it is still in the grip of forces of repression that will make the process of further far-ranging change very difficult."

Elsewhere in this issue:
Warburg 2000 Conference
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Further to the attention paid in this issue of American Diplomacy to Indonesian affairs, there follows the text of the author’s testimony before the House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, February 16, 2000.

I FEEL PRIVILEGED TO BE ASKED to contribute to this committee’s ongoing exploration of the situation in Indonesia. This committee, having last week pursued matters as they are improving in tragically afflicted East Timor, is wise, allow me to say, to confront now the issues of democracy, development, security, and human rights that Indonesia, with its 212 million people, represents.

As the committee is aware, but Americans generally may not realize, if you superimpose the Indonesian archipelago across the USA, it would reach from New York City to Seattle. It has 80 percent of our size of population in 20 percent of our land area. It has three times as many people as the Balkans, and more people than the Arab Middle East. But it has not usually generated as much trouble as the Balkans and only produces a fraction of the oil of the Middle East. So we as a people have been slow to see Indonesia’s global importance: now the third largest democracy in the world and the only Muslim democracy besides Turkey. Because Indonesia envelops the sea lanes between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific and is the largest geopolitical factor in Southeast Asia/Southwest Pacific, the destiny of its democracy is vitally important to the region, to American values, and to our interests.


What holds Indonesia together? It took the Dutch three hundred years to hammer it into one colony. Along with the UN, we supported the latter stages of the national revolution, to independence in 1949. What has held Indonesia together since? An ideal of a national democracy, many peoples becoming one. A national language, spread by national education. An army. And the presidency. Across half a century there were only two presidencies. Sukarno for twenty years, and Suharto for more than thirty.

Sukarno held things together by force of personality, by balancing nationalism, religion, and communism; by distracting confrontations with Malaysia, the Dutch, the UN, the US. By ignoring development and theorizing perpetual revolution. All that collapsed in an attempted coup and the ensuing murder of hundreds of thousands of communists in 1965.

Suharto held things together with the Army, first of all. With development secondly — not only economic, but social. Indonesia’s story since the late sixties is one of great gains in life expectancy, in literacy, in per capita income (from under $100 to beyond $1,000 before the Asian financial crisis slashed it), and in all social indicators. Many lesser developed countries achieved such gains, but Indonesia’s were still impressive. The achievement was threatened, however, and the regime undermined itself by over concentration of power at the top, and amoral greediness in the first family and its cronies. Add to that repression of thought, speech, and assembly; tightly rigged elections, loosely rigged business dealings, and false-front foundations; the use of senior army officers as territorial business magnates and as state enterprise executives; and use of ordinary troops as political police. All this, we know, broke down in riot in Jakarta, 13-15 May 98, with 1200 dead. Suharto yielded to enormous pressure from a combination of students, NGO and middle class activists, and moderate Muslim leaders. International financial forces, represented by the IMF, held back money because hard-won agreements had not been observed. Private capital took flight. In the end Suharto’s own parliament and cabinet deserted him. His army quietly warned him they could not save him. And so he retired with dignity, and more legal/financial protection than he deserved.

It took seventeen months to get in a democratically elected successor. How is Abdurrahman Wahid, known as “Gus Dur,” going to hold the country together? Some pessimists and strategic risk analysts predict imminent bloody disintegration. I don’t agree, and I certainly believe we should support cohering forces. Why? Gus Dur is Indonesia’s first president whose values with regard to gender rights, ethnic fairness, and religious inclusivity most Americans would agree with. He is the first president of Indonesia who understands and believes in modern democracy, rule of law, and business transparency. For these reasons he means a tremendous amount to Indonesia. His success with his own people should mean a tremendous amount to us. At the same time we must understand tendencies toward social hysteria among a people suffering high unemployment, severely lowered income, and limited opportunities. The miseries of the Indonesian people are sandwiched between two thick slabs of bread — one the bread of hope, the other the bread of patience.




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