Indonesian politics under a misconception


Indonesian Politics Under Suharto: Order, Development and Pressure for Change
By Michael R.J. Vatikiotis
Routledge, 1993. 220pp. $39.95
Reviewed by Max Lane

This is the first book for many years aimed at the general public and attempting to give a comprehensive overview of Indonesian politics during the 1980s and early '90s. Unfortunately, the book is poorly argued, riddled with cultural stereotypes and fatally flawed by a lack of historical perspective.

The author was the Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent in Indonesia for four years in the 1980s, but we get no more in the book than readers of FEER might have picked up in Vatikiotis' articles.

The one useful contribution of the book is the sketchy but reasonably accurate description of the emergence of the split between President Suharto and the officer corps of the armed forces.

Vatikiotis outlines how Suharto has progressively civilianised his cabinet, the various ministries and the provincial administration. He describes Suharto's alliance with the major Chinese business conglomerates, which has become far more important than his relationship with the armed forces. He discusses the officer corps' increasing resentment at being left to put out the fires for those really running the show.

Vatikiotis also points to this division as a potential source of instability as a struggle emerges over who will decide how and when Suharto — now 72 years old — should go and who should replace him

However, in elaborating on this conflict and its broader social setting, the book reveals an ignorance of Indonesian history and thus a reliance on racial stereotyping and contradictory analysis when explaining Suharto's power.

On the one hand, Vatikiotis outlines the enormous finances that Suharto has at his disposal through the yayasan system. Under Indonesian law, yayasan — foundations — can operate as financial institutions but do not have to pay taxes or open their books to anybody.

Suharto stands at the head of numerous yayasan, some of which receive regular and compulsory donations from all of Indonesia's civil servants. The country's fifth biggest private

bank, Bank Duta, is, for example, owned by three foundations, all of which Suharto heads. Vatikiotis also points out that over 16% of all government expenditure on development projects is organised through the special presidential funds.

This much Vatikiotis gets right: Suharto has enormous power to buy off people. Beyond this, however, he attributes Suharto's ability to rule to so-called Javanese cultural acquiescence to authority.

How has Suharto been able to keep Indonesia together for the past 25 years? The answer is usually along the lines of "a common interest in maintaining harmony", "the startling reification of Javanese cultural values of respect and politeness towards those in authority", "Javanese culture has encouraged a passion for tolerance, and distaste for extremes". All this leads Vatikiotis to the conclusion that the rule of the strong man is, for most Indonesians, "at the bottom of their hearts", the only system that is likely to work.

His over-emphasis on the influence of Javanese culture involves a gross under-emphasis on the role of violence and terror in Suharto's system of rule. Two examples will suffice to show this.

Vatikiotis hardly discusses at all the significance of the slaughter of 1 million members and supporters of the Indonesian left in 1965 and the banning of all the country's largest political organisations.

Indeed, while acknowledging that all the country's political organisations were dismembered in 1965, he also states that in 1965, "The New Order sold itself to the people as the very instrument of harmony". He later says that "Intellectuals embraced the military ... because the only alternative, it seemed, was anarchy".

This and similar statements ignore the fact that the people and their mass organisations were the victims of the most enormous "disharmony" and "anarchy" as hundreds of thousands of them were slaughtered. Talk of "intellectuals" supporting the army also ignores the fact that the country's largest organisations of intellectuals, namely, the Peoples Cultural Institute, the National Cultural Institute and the Indonesian Scholars Association, were all banned and most of their members either killed or jailed.

In discussing more contemporary developments, Vatikiotis also underestimates the strength of democratic currents. He continually asserts, for example, that the student and farmer protests that have emerged since 1989 are the result of

deliberate army encouragement. Nowhere does he offer any hard evidence of this.

His basic assumption is that pro-democracy activity cannot emerge and survive in the New Order without it being a creature of the army itself. The arrests, detentions, torture and killing of protesting farmers in the Kedung Ombo region, for example, are all dismissed as apparently either non-existent or insignificant. Vatikiotis argues rather that the farmers were supported by the army. This would be a big surprise to them.