Subject: SPI: oped on Indonesia
Date: Mon, 04 Jan 1999 11:55:29 -0500
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Letters to the editor can be send:



While many are preoccupied with the impeachment of President Clinton and the military intervention in Iraq at the expense of almost everything else, Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous and largest Muslim nation, is at risk of falling apart.

In economic disaster, with unparalleled ethnic, geographical and linguistic diversity, with its leadership uncertain at best, this country with its enormous strategic interest for the United States is on the brink of going over the edge.

"Mata gelap" is the Indonesian expression literally translated as "dark or unclear eye." It means the mental state of frenzied killing that marked the transition from the Sukarno to the Suharto eras in the 1960s, which cost an unknown number of civilian human lives, generally estimated at exceeding half a million. Already, in the turmoil surrounding President Suharto's downfall last May and the interim presidency of Indonesia's first non-Japanese leader, B.J. Habibie, who is from Sulawesi (formerly called Celebes), the number of dead in the inward-turning frenzy of minority persecution has been reported to go into four figures. When Henry Kissinger asked me last January, as someone born in Indonesia, whether there would be a backlash against the ethnic Chinese in the country's economic travails, I told him it was, unfortunately, highly likely. It happened and it continues.

Clifford Geertz, the first social scientist admitted to the mathematically closed circle of Princeton's Institute of Advanced Studies, best known for Einstein's work, wrote something in the 1960s about Indonesia in his book "Agricultural Involution" that remains particularly pertinent: words to the effect that when a culture ceases to stabilize or evolve outward, it continues its evolution by becoming internally more complicated. No one would wish to contemplate an "Indonesian involution" today. Yet the signs are in the wind.

Headlines about deaths in Jakarta resulting from attacks on a mosque, allegedly by Ambonese, the retaliation against Christians and counterattacks by Christians should wake us up. The Ambonese are a people from the small island of Ambon among the many southwest of Irian Jaya in the eastern part of Indonesia's 3,000-mile-wide archipelago. They had been given three things by the Dutch in their forced abandonment of their former colony shortly after the end of the World War II: Christianity, a hollow promise of independence in return for their service in the Dutch colonial army and, eventually, resettlement in The Netherlands, a promise that could obviously not be kept.

The many who chose that option remained in a closed community, continuing their claim to independence from Indonesia. And there, in support of that claim, they ambushed a passenger train and caused a confrontation with the Dutch military forces. They are just one of Indonesia's minorities, one with a special history.

Apart from the persistent predicament of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese, there are the Acehnese, who inhabit the country's westernmost Sumatran province, or "special region" in deference to their history of war against all outside rule. Then, of course, there is the still unresolved question of Portugal's former colony, East Timor, as well as that of the aspirations of the distinct people of Irian Jaya, bordering independent Papua New Guinea. And, oh yes, lest it be forgotten, there are clashes among Muslims and people accused of practicing witchcraft. The Dutch novelist Couperus, who was best known for his novel "The Silent Force" on Javanese mysticism and magic, would be having a heyday today.

How much of all this do we understand and how well are we prepared for what might happen? Indonesia's elections are scheduled for next summer. Former president Suharto's personal finances, drawn from his accounts while in office, are under investigation. There is a siege of student protests that would even have him hanged.

We have invested a great deal, and rightly so, in the country, its leaders and its institutions. One of my friends at the World Bank has called the Ford Foundation's investment in fellowships for promising Indonesian economists, who later became known as the "Berkeley Mafia" and members of President Suharto's cabinet, "the best investment we ever made." We helped Indonesia, to the great chagrin of the Dutch, on its way to independence under President Sukarno. The Dutch, all along the way, resisted and took advantage of its very size, diversity and insularity in attempts to fragment it. It should not be forgotten that in December 1949 at the The Hague Round Table Conference, when sovereignty was granted to the former Dutch colony, it was granted to a federation of the United States of Indonesia, with the exception of what is today its province of Irian Jaya, only to become the single Republic of Indonesia we now know eight months later. Almost 50 years later, even Indonesia's interim president has warned of "the disintegration of the nation" if protests continue.

We must, as a top priority, prevent such fragmentation. Indonesia's recent history is too rich with the misfortunes of going "mata gelap." The key is to know and understand the Indonesian history and mentality, and to let our policy, the World Bank's and the IMF's, to the extent that we influence them, reflect such understanding.

Above all, we must remember Indonesia's history and how, miraculously, it held together as a nation and one which, without any excuse for its well-known human rights abuses, managed for three decades to diminish the number of its poor. There is progress on the front of human rights under Habibie's post-Suharto presidency. All ground gained may, however, be lost in a far worse scenario if U.S. policy is not informed by the singular characteristics and history of the country.

Our priority, therefore, must be twofold:

-- First, to take all measures in our power to alleviate the plight of the many caught in the economic crush: the urban poor and those in Indonesia's thousands of scattered small towns and villages - the cost of basic foods, fuel, shelter, transport and cloth must be made affordable. This is not the moment to preach about our values in such terms as nepotism and corruption and hold assistance hostage to them. The World Bank's recently released report casting blame on the IMF and the Treasury Department for exacerbating the Asian economic crisis is not enough, and misses the point of its fundamental social and political consequences.

-- Second, looking ahead at next summer's elections, we should never forget that to back the wrong horse in Indonesia is a gamble paid in blood by many others. The country's history, and especially that of its Javanese kingdoms, is there for anyone to read. Let us not be remiss, despite our domestic problems, in this simplest of tasks, reading the history and today's signs in the wind, in Indonesia.

NOTES: Robert Van Leeuwen is a visiting scholar at the University of Washington where he is writing a book on new approaches to humanitarian and political action. He served with the Ford Foundation in Indonesia and subsequently as a senior official with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Back to January Menu
Main Postings Menu

Postings of Human Rights Violations in Timor