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Indonesia in democratic transition

Malaysiakini - July 22, 2004

James Wong Wing On – Indonesia, Malaysia's giant neighbour to the south, is more than a frequent source of haze, illegal migrants, maids and terrorists.

Like China and India, Indonesia is an influential neighbour of Malaysia. Also like China and India, Indonesia's influence on Malaysia has not been only confined to cultures, languages, ideologies, popular fashions and religions, but also foreign policies and conduct of international relations.

Given the geographical propinquity between Malaysia and Indonesia, the many people-to-people contacts and inter-governmental relations are long-standing, multi-faceted as well as very emotive.

Historically, the first Malay-Muslim polity in Peninsular Malaysia was founded in Malacca in about 1400 by the fugitive prince Parameswara who fled Palembang in Sumatra after a failed power struggle. Many other peoples in what is now known as Indonesia had since followed suit for all kinds of reason and purpose. Chinese and Indians also came to trade, work or settle in Peninsular Malaysia at almost the same historical period.

During the colonial period, the influx of the peoples from Indonesia (then called Dutch East Indies) as well as China and (British) India continued with even larger scale, making Peninsular Malaysia one of the most cosmopolitan society at the beginning of the 20th century. Also, while the colonial authorities co-operated to suppress anti-colonial ideas and activities, many people from Indonesia, China and India also networked with each other in the area to strive to free themselves from British and Dutch colonial rules.

After the fall of Singapore in the Pacific War, many Chinese businessmen and intellectuals who opposed Japanese militarism like Tan Kah Kee and Lim Bo Seng first sought refuge in Sumatra before proceeding to India, the great bastion of freedom and resistance in the Pacific War where the Allies' headquarters for Southeast Asia and the China-Burma Theatre (CBT) was located.

During the Japanese occupation, Sumatra was merged with Peninsular Malaysia to form one administrative zone ruled militarily from Singapore which was renamed Syonan or "Light of the South".

Passions of hope and fear

The Indonesian armed struggle for independence against Dutch colonialism in 1945-1949 had tremendous ideological or ideational, political and intellectual impacts on Peninsular Malaysia, accelerating the growth of modern Malay ethno-nationalism, particularly its left-wing which advocated, rightly or wrongly, a union between Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia.

Meanwhile, the growth of Marxism-Leninism in the form of the Indonesian Communist Party, and of Islamic politics expressed ideologically through the Jakarta Charter group which advocated the setting up of an Islamic state also stirred up the passions of hope and fear in Peninsular Malaysia.

In 1963-1966, the Sukarno government initiated diplomatic and military opposition to the formation of Malaysia, alleging it to be a Western grand design to contain Indonesia and its anti-Western allies like the former Soviet Union, People's Republic of China and North Vietnam. The Indonesian opposition, known as the Confrontation, saw a then secret war being waged in Sarawak and Brunei between the Commonwealth forces of Britain, Australian and New Zealand on one hand, and Indonesia-sponsored irregular forces, special operations operatives and fifth columnists on the other.

In September 30, 1965, a bloody coup allegedly staged by the Indonesian communists and their sympathisers in the armed forces and counter-coup reportedly mounted by Suharto and his military unit effectively ended the reign of Sukarno and heralded the beginning of what is termed the New Order regime.

In the aftermath of the coup and counter-coup, thousands of Indonesians, including many ethnic Chinese, were massacred for allegedly being communists or leftists. The new regime also began to ban all Chinese-language schools, newspapers and publications as well as public expression of ethnic Chinese identity, including the use of personal names written or pronounced with Chinese characters.

However, the Suharto regime ended the Confrontation against Malaysia and re-established bilateral relationships between the two countries.

Up to the mid-1980s, the Suharto regime admittedly brought some improvements in economic growth and management of the Indonesian economy.

But, at the same time, the regime and the Indonesian armed forces cracked down on not only communist and leftist but also pro-Western liberals and Islamic dissents and violently suppressed any expression of what were construed or misconstrued as separatism in Aceh and Irian Jaya. In 1975, the Indonesian armed forces invaded and occupied East Timor, a Catholic-predominated former Portuguese colony, until 1999.

Despite his authoritarian rule and abuses of human rights, the Suharto regime was believed to be tolerated by the West and its friends and allies like Malaysia because of his anti-communism and also the strategic importance of the Muslim-predominated Indonesia in the Cold War in Asia.

Unable to tolerate

From the mid-1980s, however, the corruption and abuses of power of the Suharto regime, his wife, sons and daughters and " friends", including many Chinese Indonesian cronies like Bob Hassan had became so blatant that not even the West and pro-Western liberal elements within the regime and certain segments of the armed forces could tolerate anymore.

Gradually, the strength of dissidents and reformists grew underground culminating in the outbreak of widespread street protests in 1998 which eventually forced Suharto to step down ignominiously after 32 years of authoritarian rule.

The culmination of the dissident and reformist movements was certainly given impetus by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis which saw the take-over of the Indonesian financial system by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the popular outbreak of anger and resentment against the corruption, cronyism and nepotism of Suharto, his family and cronies as well as his regime.

Amidst the dramatic changes in 1997-1998, Indonesian Chinese were again terrorized in riots of looting, killing and rape. Although all racial prejudices, stereotypes and riots are wrong without qualification, the question of why the atrocities were so easily instigated or provoked still deserves deeper and more honest self-reflection by all.

To his credit, the rather controversial successor to Suharto, former President BJ Habibie, personally strived to assuage fear in the Chinese Indonesian community in the aftermath of the riots. Later, Habibie also revoked some discriminatory measures against Chinese Indonesians and endorsed, against the opposition of the far-right ethno-nationalists, the 1999 UN-sponsored referendum for East Timorese to decide on the status of their homeland.

The task of national reconciliation has since been followed up by another two presidents, namely Abdulrahman Wahib and Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's daughter.

As the result of the 1998 regime change, Indonesia has been undergoing many political, social and economic reforms, including the de-politicisation and professionalisation of the armed forces and police as well as restoring press freedom and human and civil rights for all, including Chinese Indonesians.

However, there are also continuities like the determination to preserve the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of the original Indonesian state from Sabang to Marauke, and to defend the freedom and tolerance of religion against extremism and fanaticism in the largest Muslim country in the world.

To understand Indonesia in democratic transition with deeper insights and broader perspective, this writer spoke to a leading and world-renowned Indonesian intellectual, Dr Dewi Fortuna Anwar, in an e-mail interview.

The always forthright political scientist and foreign policy adviser to former president BJ Habibie did not hesitate to share her thoughts and perspectives on even delicate subjects like Indonesia's relations with the United States, China, Australia and China as well as sensitive questions on Indonesian Chinese, East Timor, terrorism and the interpretations of Islam.