An interview with Michael G. Vann by Daniel Finn
After the fall of Indonesia's US-backed tyrant Suharto in 1998, many Indonesians hoped that their country was on a path to genuine democracy. Two decades later, wealthy crooks and war criminals from the Suharto era are still deeply entrenched in power.
After seizing power in a military coup in 1965, the Indonesian dictator Suharto presided over one of the twentieth century's bloodiest massacres, wiping out the country's left-wing movement. He went on to invade East Timor in the 1970s and inflict genocidal repression upon its people. Meanwhile, Suharto and his family became fabulously wealthy through corruption on a grand scale.
Throughout this history of killing and kleptocracy, US presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton backed Suharto to the hilt. His regime eventually fell after the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, but Indonesia's transition to democracy has been stifled by the power of the old guard. Its current president, Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, hailed as a breath of fresh air when he was elected in 2014, has ended up placing infamous war criminals from the Suharto era in top government posts.
Michael G. Vann is a professor of history at Sacramento State University. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin's Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.
When Suharto had consolidated his grip on power, what was the nature of system that he called the New Order? Was there any space for opposition to his rule in the political or cultural fields?
MV: The New Order was predicated on three pillars. Firstly, there was the big lie about the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI – the idea that the PKI had been trying to overthrow the government and establish a communist state in 1965, and that it was a threat to the Indonesian nation and the Indonesian soul. That big lie was constantly repeated.
Secondly, there was also the promise of development. Quite a bit of foreign capital came in. There were large developmental projects, particularly in construction and, later, tourism, oil, gas, mining, lumber, and many extractive industries. Not all of that wealth was evenly distributed – on the contrary, a very small, hyper-rich elite was created. But it gave some substance to the rhetoric that presented Suharto as a developmental authoritarian and the New Order as a developmental regime.
Thirdly, there was the kleptocracy. Those who were tied to the Suharto family and the TNI, the Indonesian officer corps, could use the economic growth of the New Order for their own personal benefit. The elite bought into the dictatorship.
For the general population, the New Order claimed that it was providing stability and tranquility. It really played up the chaos of the Sukarno years, saying, "You don't want to go back to the bad old days." No opposition was possible. Elections were very carefully managed. Suharto formed an alliance with the Golkar political movement, which essentially became his party. Elections were held quite regularly throughout the New Order period, but they were far from free and fair.
Meanwhile, the officer corps assumed a growing number of domestic responsibilities. They ran a number of businesses that provided them with lots of opportunities for graft. The TNI could enrich themselves, so they got to take part in the kleptocracy. They took over the responsibilities of the domestic police force: increasingly, it was the military that was in charge of day-to-day policing in cities around Indonesia. That gave a sense that there was an internal military occupation of the country.
After the crackdown on the PKI and the trade unions, there was also a crackdown on students. In the early 1970s, ethnic Chinese were targeted. In the early 1980s, there was a move against street thugs with the so-called Petrus killings (or "mysterious killings"): petty criminals were found murdered on the streets, with their bodies on display. In many ways, this prefigured what Rodrigo Duterte has been doing in the Philippines in recent years.
In the 1970s and '80s, the New Order moved against Islamist groups. Some of the remnants of Darul Islam, the oppositional Islamist movement, formed small cells. There were a number of terror attacks and hijackings, with speculation that perhaps Indonesian intelligence encouraged these attacks as a way of justifying military rule.
The New Order was saturated with Sinophobia, which worked like antisemitism in the European context, whipping up popular sentiment against Chinese businesses. Even though the Suharto regime was very closely tied to a number of prominent ethnic Chinese businessmen, it used anti-Chinese sentiment to get the middle and lower classes angry against the Chinese scapegoat for any economic problems. There was a series of anti-Chinese outbursts that were very similar to antisemitic pogroms in Europe.
The New Order promoted misogyny and the idea that a woman's place was in the home. This was part of a reaction to the culture war of the early 1960s. The state continued to propagate propaganda against the left-wing women's organization Gerwani, blaming feminists for the murder and alleged torture of the generals killed in 1965. Gerwani was banned, and anybody associated with it was in deep, deep trouble.
In its place, the regime promoted an organization called Dharma Wanita, which means "women's path" or "women's duty." It was an organization for the wives of Indonesian bureaucrats and officers, who would move up in the hierarchy of Dharma Wanita based on their husband's promotions. It was a question of institutionalizing patriarchy as a way to channel and redirect possible feminist sentiments from middle-class and upper-class Indonesian women.
Meanwhile, the New Order also engaged in a culture war against popular village culture. It deemed the vibrant culture of the countryside to be vulgar and maybe a little too popular and a little too closely linked to the PKI. The regime suppressed popular dance and song and promoted feudal court culture from Central Java, which was very conservative, very refined, and very restrained.
There was strict censorship of the press. You could not import Chinese printed material into Indonesia. Films were very closely censored. There was absolutely no sexuality in cinema, but violence was tolerated. This led to a golden age of Indonesian horror films in the 1980s. Horror was really the only possible creative outlet for Indonesian filmmakers.
I would also argue that this indicated the way in which the collective culture was processing the trauma of the mass murder of the 1960s and the various forms of repression in the 1970s and '80s. There was a huge boom in the popularity of heavy metal music as well. The Indonesian love for heavy metal is, I think, very much tied to this sense of processing trauma.
Another aspect of the New Order was premanism. The preman were the Indonesian street thugs and organized criminals. This could range all the way from small street gangs to groups like the Pemuda Pancasila, which was ostensibly a mass political organization of the far right. Its members served as some of the killers in 1965-66.
If you have seen Joshua Oppenheimer's film The Act of Killing, the Pemuda Pancasila featured quite prominently in their orange camouflage. They got a free hand in running street crime, so long as they pledged their support for Suharto and the New Order. There were also a number of strongmen brought from East Timor who had close ties to the Indonesian officer corps. They were used as muscle on the streets of Jakarta and as a political auxiliary for various purposes.
The leaders of the Suharto regime became fabulously wealthy. After Suharto was pushed out of power in 2004, Transparency International listed him as the world's most corrupt autocrat, with a fortune of somewhere between $15 and $35 billion. Ferdinand Marcos came in a distant second with only $5 to $10 billion. Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire could only manage a paltry $5 billion, putting him in third place.
The amount of money taken by the regime, its cronies, and the Suharto family was just astounding. Suharto's wife, who was officially known as Ibu Tien or "Mother Tien," was derisively referred to as Ibu Ten Percent, playing on the English words, because she would take a commission of 10 percent from every transaction for her own private gain.
How did the regime deal with the movements for independence in areas like West Papua and East Timor?
MV: First of all, the regime created the need for independence movements in those areas by invading and occupying them. Sukarno had initially occupied West Papua, the western half of the larger island of New Guinea. It was not ethnically Malay and not historically part of the precursors to the modern Indonesian state, but it was a Dutch colonial possession. Sukarno argued that as an anti-colonial figure, he needed to liberate all the former Dutch colonies.
The Dutch held onto West Papua into the early 1960s, until Sukarno and the Kennedy administration eventually forced them to hand it over to the Indonesian government. There was no real linguistic, cultural, or historical connection of this region to a government centered in Java. Suharto inherited West Papua when the New Order came to power. In 1969, he oversaw a clearly fake plebiscite where the Papuans supposedly overwhelmingly supported integration into Indonesia. This almost immediately led to the creation of the Free Papua Movement, or OPM.
For years, the OPM has engaged in small-scale attacks against targets like Freeport, an American holding that controls the world's largest gold mine. In response to the low-level activity of the OPM, the Indonesian Army has violently repressed the Papuan people and sealed off these provinces to any outside observers. For decades, the army was able to operate with impunity. We have only recently been getting information out of Papua due to the arrival of cell phones. Every couple of months, a cell phone video is leaked showing incredible atrocities in Papua.
The situation was arguably even worse in East Timor. The eastern half of this island, deep in the heart of eastern Indonesia, was a Portuguese colony until the early 1970s. It wasn't until the end of the Salazar dictatorship that the new post-dictatorship Portugal agreed to grant independence to East Timor.
Like West Papua, East Timor was not part of the greater Indonesian project historically, ethnically, linguistically, or in terms of religion. The people of East Timor at the time spoke either Portuguese or, more commonly, Tetum or other local languages. They were either Catholic or animist. They were not part of the larger Islamic community of Southeast Asia, or part of the imagined community of the Indonesian nation.
However, Suharto received the green light to invade East Timor from President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger. There was a meeting in early December 1975, at which Suharto made the argument to Ford and Kissinger that East Timor could go communist unless Indonesia invaded. Keep in mind what had recently happened in April 1975, with Saigon falling to the North Vietnamese Army and the Khmer Rouge seizing Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
In terms of the Cold War chessboard, Ford and Kissinger thought it was important to stop any further communist advances. They gave Suharto not just a free hand to invade East Timor but also military backing with weaponry and funding. There was bipartisan support for the Indonesian occupation of East Timor over the next couple of decades: the administrations of Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr, and Bill Clinton all gave military aid to the Indonesian Army for the occupation of East Timor.
The invasion was almost immediately genocidal. Estimates are that perhaps as much as 20 percent of the population of East Timor was killed during the occupation: this would be a figure of approximately 180,000 or 190,000 people. There was widescale repression of East Timor's language and culture, with an effort to "Indonesianize" the Timorese people by promoting Bahasa Indonesia, the national language. The Indonesian Army recruited local collaborators as strongmen to spy on and harass the opposition.
After the fall of Suharto in 1998, the Timorese were given a plebiscite to decide whether they wanted to remain part of Indonesia. In spite of the fact that the ballots were very tricky and misleading, and in spite of open intimidation from preman street thugs who were organized into motorcycle gangs, the people of East Timor overwhelmingly voted for independence.
Almost the next day, the Indonesian Army embarked on an orgy of destruction and murder. A significant portion of all the buildings in East Timor were damaged, there were killings in the street, and huge numbers of Timorese became refugees within their own country. This was revenge by the army for being kicked out after almost twenty-five years of occupation.
In northwest Indonesia, you have the province of Aceh. This was one of the last areas that the Dutch were able to conquer, and they never really pacified it, well into the early twentieth century. An independence movement began to form in the 1970s and '80s, the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, calling for regional independence or autonomy, and for the right to create a local government based on their interpretation of sharia law. It is a regional-cum-Islamist rebellion.
DF: What were the causes of Suharto's eventual fall from power in the late 1990s? Can we describe what happened at that time as an authentic revolution?
MV Suharto finally fell due to the economic collapse in Southeast Asia in 1997. During the Cold War, they talked about the domino theory of communist dominoes knocking each other over. In 1997, we saw the domino theory redux of capitalist dominoes with poorly constructed financial regimes knocking each other over. As the Thai baht spun out of control and loans came due, this impacted all the countries of Southeast Asia.
Arguably, the impact was most intense in Indonesia: the national currency, the rupiah, crashed, and fuel prices jumped overnight. Suddenly, Suharto's economic justification for the dictatorship was destroyed, and this pulled the rug out from underneath his legitimacy. Student activists, many of whom had been active before 1997, took to the streets and began to use the economic crisis to push for political change.
Some of Suharto's cronies, like General Prabowo Subianto, who would be a presidential candidate later on, took it upon themselves to disappear some of these student activists. We don't know exactly what happened to them. Several were murdered. It also seems likely that amid this chaos, Prabowo and some of the other elements in the Indonesian intelligence services deployed agent provocateurs who tried to provoke demonstrations. There was firing on student demonstrators.
The public violence against the student protests further destroyed Suharto's credibility. Very quickly, in the late spring of 1998, the house of cards came crashing down and he was forced out of power. Importantly, however, while Suharto was removed, his cronies – all those officers and bureaucrats who had made the regime possible – stayed in power. There was nothing like the de-Nazification of Germany – no process of "de-Suhartoization."
Indonesia went into this new era after 1998, which became known as Reformasi, with the same people in charge. They continued to promote ideas like the New Order's big lie about the Indonesian Communist Party. There was no reform of public education or the curriculum, so the same propaganda points were being taught in public schools.
Joshua Oppenheimer has made two wonderful films. Many people have seen The Act of Killing, but his follow-up film, The Look of Silence, has some very important scenes shot in a classroom. It was probably shot around 2010, 2011, or 2012. Indonesian schoolchildren were learning the same New Order propaganda that their parents would have been taught a generation earlier.
You can't call this a true revolution. Yes, it was a transition from military dictatorship to democracy, but the state was not purged. I think it runs parallel in some ways to what happened in Germany after the fall of the kaiser and the second German Empire in 1918, with the birth of the Weimar Republic. The leadership changed, but the judiciary and the officer corps were not purged, so you had loyalists of the previous regime in this new democratic situation.
Even though Suharto was removed from power and disgraced, his family maintained important economic and political connections. The Indonesian Army was supposed to go back to barracks after 1998, but the officer corps has been very reluctant to give up its wealth and power. It's debatable how much power they've handed over to the police of the Republic of Indonesia.
There have been numerous examples of the army fighting with the police in small towns, and even in some of the major cities, over things like the black market in gasoline, or bar fights that get out of control. There was an incident in 2013, when I lived in Yogyakarta, where there was a bar fight between soldiers from a special forces unit and a number of local police officers. It resulted in a death, and the police officers were arrested and thrown in jail for killing the soldier. A few days later, the special forces unit raided the prison and executed all the suspects.
There have been attacks on human rights activists. Probably the most significant was the murder of Munir Said Thalib, who won the Right Livelihood Award in 2000. He was investigating the kidnapping of activists by the Kopassus special forces, and his house was bombed in 2001. Then he was fatally poisoned on a flight to Amsterdam in 2004. It's very likely that Indonesian state intelligence was involved in some way in his murder. More recently, there have been attacks on activists working for the people of Papua.
The reactionary forces around the Suharto regime continue to operate in the new, democratic Indonesia with impunity. You can see the survival of premanism, with street thugs and organized crime groups that have ties to high-ranking politicians and can lend their muscle to support them. You can also see the survival of Tommy Suharto, one of Suharto's children, who became a very wealthy businessman under the New Order due to his family connections – at one point, he had a controlling share in Lamborghini.
As Indonesia moved into the post-Suharto era, there were various attempts to put Tommy on trial for corruption. He ordered the contract killing of one of the judges who was investigating him. Eventually, he was arrested after being on the run for months. Through a complicated plea agreement, he agreed to serve some time, but received an early release, so he was only in jail for a few years. There is even speculation as to whether or not he actually saw the inside of a jail cell, with rumors flying round that he spent his time in the presidential suite of the Hyatt Hotel in Jakarta or on golf courses.
There was a truly astounding moment, after Tommy had served his time, involving the in-flight magazine of Garuda, the national airline, one of the more banal publications of the Indonesian press. It referred to him as a convicted murderer. He sued on the grounds that he had not been convicted of murder, but rather of contract killing.
He won the lawsuit, received some monetary compensation, and forced the in-flight magazine to publish a retraction in every issue for a year or two. Tommy has tried and failed to enter politics, but he remains a political and economic player in Indonesia, despite his open track record of criminality and his connections to the New Order regime.
DF: What have been the most important developments in the politics of Indonesia since the fall of Suharto and the transition to the new system? Has the most recent presidency of Jokowi constituted a genuine break with the old political guard?
MV: In the first decade and a half of Reformasi Indonesia, you saw the continuation of the old political guard, with a number of candidates that were tied in various ways to the New Order. At one point, Sukarno's daughter Megawati was president. But she didn't share her father's radicalism and was very much part of the governing power structure.
Then there was a dramatic change with Jokowi, a candidate who came from outside the old guard. He had been the mayor of a medium-sized town in Central Java before he was elected as governor of Jakarta in 2012, which was a stepping-stone to the presidency. In 2014, he ran for president and won. This was greeted as a huge sea change because Jokowi seemingly had no ties to corruption.
The only real public scandals around him have involved two gifts of memorabilia from the band Metallica – he's a huge heavy metal fan. He was given a guitar used by one of the band members, then later he was given a box set of rare Metallica albums. When he was accused of corruption on account of this, he handed the guitar over to the people of Jakarta – it was put on public display, because this is a heavy metal – loving nation – and he paid the fine on the box of albums.
He seemed like a breath of fresh air, and some of my Indonesian friends saw him as an Indonesian Barack Obama – an outsider who breaks the mold. Today, I think that many of my friends still view him as an Indonesian Obama, because he has profoundly disappointed his most progressive supporters. He has had trouble taking action on corruption and making changes in Indonesia, primarily because the old ghosts of the New Order are still lurking about and are now increasingly tied to Jokowi himself.
His main rival in two presidential elections was the former general Prabowo, who had been disappearing students in 1998. He was Suharto's son-in-law, married into the family, although they divorced after Suharto's fall. He was trained at Fort Benning and used to run the special forces.
When he was a presidential candidate in 2014 and 2019, Prabowo made openly fascist statements, saying that some fascism might be good for Indonesia, and he would not hide from that label. In the most recent election, he had a campaign ad with a number of Indonesian heavy-metal rock stars that contained open fascist imagery.
It was an open question as to whether or not democracy would survive if Prabowo had been elected in 2014 or 2019. He challenged the results of both elections, provoking a constitutional crisis in 2014, and sparking deadly riots in 2019. Despite all of this bad behavior, Jokowi appointed him as minister of defense in 2019. Jokowi is clearly under tremendous pressure to work with the old guard.
There's another general still lurking about called Wiranto. He was Suharto's aide-de-camp in the late '80s and early '90s, and minister of defense during his fall. He ran the special forces when students were being disappeared, and he was in charge of the military during the withdrawal from East Timor and all the violence and destruction that accompanied it.
Both Wiranto and Prabowo have been charged with war crimes at various points, and they've been denied entry to the United States. Yet Wiranto has also received political appointments from Jokowi. He is currently chair of the presidential advisory council and has been brought into Jokowi's inner circle, even though he seemingly represents everything that his presidency was supposed to be fighting against.
In one of the most shocking moments, Jokowi gave an award, in August 2021, to one of the Timorese preman, Eurico Guterres, who had worked very closely with Prabowo, running the militias that terrorized the Timorese people. Jokowi awarded him the first-class star of service for his alleged bravery and courage in times of adversity. Even though this guy represents some of the worst violence committed by the Indonesian state, Jokowi is giving him medals. It's very clear that Jokowi is not free from the New Order's old guard – they're still controlling his actions.
DF: Is it meaningful to describe Indonesia today as being a true democracy? And if not, what kind of forces might be able to press for a more authentic democratization of political life in the country?
MV: My answer to that is a little cynical. Yes, it's a democracy, but one that's run by an oligarchy like other democracies in the world, such as those in Southeast Asia, or in the United States, where the influence of capital on political power is so strong.
What's really astounding, though, about Indonesian democracy is the way in which some of these figures seem to cross party lines, with strange alliances being formed, such as those between Jokowi and Prabowo. There was a lot of hope that the Indonesian government would be able to reform itself and take on corruption. But the commission for eradicating corruption, despite scoring a few victories, now seems to be gutted and ineffective.
Hopefully there's a new generation of better-informed and more critical youth. Although they're not getting critical education in the Indonesian school system. In some ways, the internet is serving them well, with access to more information on Suharto and the New Order. Obviously, there's just as much online material promoting Suharto, but with the younger generation of activists who are internet savvy, there are some grounds for optimism.
Some of the brightest hopes lie with the human rights lawyers who are taking on the worst abuses of the Indonesian state. Veronica Koman is currently working on issues in Papua, despite serious threats to herself and her family. But there's also been a resurgence of identity politics, in particular Islamic identity politics, which has been weaponized in the past few years.
One of Jokowi's main political proteges was a man known as Ahok, who had been the vice governor of Jakarta and then became its governor. He happened to be ethnic Chinese. A manipulated video clip was circulated that appeared to show Ahok committing blasphemy. Anyone who has seen the video could see that it was clearly edited, with his comments taken out of context.
Yet this led to a massive campaign against Ahok, and he was defeated when he ran for reelection as governor. After his defeat, he was sentenced to jail for blasphemy. The judges gave him a sentence that was longer than what the prosecutors had been asking for: this has had a chilling effect on anybody who dares challenge the Indonesian political system.
Max Lane, the great scholar and translator of some of the most important works of Indonesian fiction, has described Indonesia as the country without a left. This is very accurate, and until Indonesia can reestablish a left oppositional politics and a meaningful labor movement, Indonesian democracy is not going to be able to break free from the grip of the oligarchs.
About the author
Michael G. Vann is a professor of history at Sacramento State University and the author, with Liz Clarke, of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam.
About the interviewer
Daniel Finn is the features editor at Jacobin. He is the author of One Man's Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA.