October 1, 2004


INDONESIA: LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE (Amir Taheri, October 2, 2004, Benador Associates)

At the time of Suharto's fall the Indonesian economy was on the verge of collapse, with the state heading for bankruptcy. I met countless members of the recently created middle class who had suddenly been thrown down the social ladder by the economic meltdown. The nation's currency had become as worthless as paper money in a game of Monopoly. Everywhere one went symbols of Suahrto's corruption were in evidence. The airport where one arrived belonged to his daughter. The taxi that took you to the hotel was run by a company owned by his brother. The petrol station where the taxi filled up belonged to Suharto's son. The hotel where you stayed belonged to the president's son-in-law. One could almost spend one's whole life in that country without leaving the Suharto family property circle.

There was worse.

In several Indonesian cities we ran into Al Qaeda style militants, sporting bushy-beards and wearing the uniform-like qamis, parading like conquering armies. The Indonesian military was divided between the "reds", that is to say the nationalists, and the "white", that is to say the Islamists. In the empty hotels, where a few foreign journalists gathered with locals to share their respective brands of pessimism, all the talk was about the artificial nature of Indonesia as a state: a an archipelago of 17000 islands, of which 13000 are inhabited, with a population of almost 200 million divided into a dozen ethnic and religious communities, and speaking many different languages and dialects. The whole edifice of the state was falling apart. One day we even walked into the so-called "high security" prison to have tea with Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the East Timor rebels who could, theoretically at least, have walked out with us.

Many scenarios were discussed at the time, each worse than the other. One was that Indonesia would disintegrate into many mini- states. Another was that the army would stage a coup and slaughter hundreds of thousands as it had done in the 1960s. A third scenario envisaged an Islamist take-over that would drive the ethnic Chinese, who provide the backbone of the Indonesian urban economy, out of the archipelago.

Well, none of those happened. And Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, is beginning to emerge from decades of corrupt dictatorship followed by weak government and national self-doubt.

How did Indonesia escape the fates that many had envisaged?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 1, 2004 11:39 PM

There is a civil war in Aceh. There is a genocide against Christians going on in Ambon. There is a genocide against animists and Christians in Irian Jaya. There is violence against Hindus in Bali. The Laksar Jihad openly recruits followers. The Saudi funded religious schools continue to preach hatred and terrorism. Violence against Chinese merchants resembles the treatment of Jews in Tsarist Russia.

This is hardly a success story unless we are really defining deviancy down.

Posted by: Bart at October 2, 2004 7:37 AM

Those are simple border questions. Indonesia will have to devolve several of them into states as it was forced to in East Timor. It's no different than the British in Ireland or the Israelis in Palestine.

Posted by: oj at October 2, 2004 7:49 AM

The mistreatment of Chinese merchants exists all over the country.

Posted by: Bart at October 2, 2004 10:52 AM

While there are simple, border questions involved, the violence and craziness within Java would have to be explained otherwise

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 2, 2004 2:42 PM

Questions of who governs where aren't genocide, unless we committed genocide against the South in the 1860s/

Posted by: oj at October 2, 2004 4:10 PM

Yes, the Union did commit atrocities against the South, and needlessly so.

By 1890, most of them would have been begging to be re-admitted to the Union. It might have led to the grimly amusing spectacle of an intra-Confederacy civil war.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 3, 2004 9:03 PM