Indonesia Reborn?


In the days after Suharto’s downfall this May, a huge construction pit in the middle of Jakarta, abandoned and filled with mud, was transformed into a remarkable, and illegal, amphitheater. A ragtag group of artists and activists decided they couldn’t resist the symbolism of the pit—the very image of boom times gone bust—as the perfect setting for their extravaganza of music and political theater. Down in the slime at the bottom of the pit, they set up a huge stage, and behind it they planted an enormous sign reading “Bongkar,” which means “Tear Down” in Indonesian. The idea, one of the organizers told me, is both to celebrate the fact that the old man Pak Harto, King Harto, is gone and to show their defiance since “Reformasi,” the movement to reform the entire system, has hardly begun.

We were standing down on the stage, and all around us thousands and thousands of mostly students—the foot soldiers in what already has been dubbed the May revolt—were clambering for spots along the sloping dirt sides of the pit. As night fell, a procession of dancers appeared at the top, and, lit by spotlight, slowly descended into the mud. Drums beat, a woman chanted, and the dancers snaked their way through the pit, falling and flinging mud and hugging black papier-mâché models of human bodies, meant to resemble the charred corpses of the looters who died in the May riots. Up on the stage, a loud rock band began playing a song dedicated to the six students shot at Trisakti University. “Pak Harto, you’re finished,” the band sings. “Pak Harto, forget it. But we really need jobs.” Meanwhile, the dancers crawled out of the mud, waving splattered red-and-white Indonesian flags and banners proclaiming “Reformasi.”

Morbid and intoxicating, the scene captured the mood of Indonesia. There is the charged air of the illicit, the colliding symbolism of a dirge and a demand for a new beginning, and the jubilant sense of accomplishment mixed with fear and foreboding. Suharto, who fancied himself both a Javanese king and an Asian Miracle-style leader, the father of economic development who watched his house of patronage crumble, the authoritarian patriarch increasingly despised by his subjects, is, astonishingly, gone. The euphoria of the May days, when students occupied the parliament and Suharto went on national TV to announce his resignation, passed quickly. “Suharto’s system hasn’t changed, only Suharto has changed,” a University of Indonesia student said when I ran into him after the “Bongkar” concert. “Habibie is Suharto’s boy and now he is president. How can we call that reform?” Like that student, many Indonesians believe their country is caught in mid-revolt—between the acts, and no one quite knows just where the play is headed.

For most outsiders, Indonesia is an obscure foreign place that suddenly popped up in the headlines this spring. Paul Wolfowitz, formerly the US Ambassador, once told Congress: “It is probably safe to say there is no country in the world as important as Indonesia about which Americans know so little.” Perhaps because it is so strange a country, there seems a need among Western observers to complete the story of the recent revolt, as if there is a way to tie up the loose ends left by the riots and the murky comings and goings of politicians, tycoons, Muslim leaders, and generals in the last three months. If the dictator goes, Westerners assume, then democracy will probably follow, and this strange place might become more like us.

But for Indonesians, there is no possibility of a tidy ending on their archipelago of some seven thousand inhabited islands strewn along the equator, in which over three hundred languages and dialects are spoken and a largely Muslim population lives amid a sizable number of Christians and Hindus and Buddhists. Suharto ran this religious and linguistic sprawl as an empire, with Java as the dominant center and all the differences kept tightly under wraps. Now it is a country up for grabs, and Indonesians are quite openly asking such questions as: What is our country after all? Will resentment of Java cause Indonesia’s outer edges to split off? Does East Timor belong? Without strongman rule, will we divide along religious lines, pitting Muslims against Christians, or along racial lines, pitting the overwhelming Malay majority against the Chinese minority, many of whom are commercially successful? Will the economic collapse—in which output has fallen by 80 percent—destroy us? Will political life be dominated by Islam, as Muslims discover their political voices after the silencing of the long Suharto years?

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who has spent decades watching and writing about it, calls Indonesia a would-be nation of nations, a collection of hundreds of different peoples and islands rather than just landscapes. “And what is needed to join them,” he writes, “is a story that convinces them that they belong, by fate and nature, politically together.”1 To have been in Indonesia this spring was to witness this search for a new story and to hear those whose voices often conflict in trying to create it.

Reformasi. It has become everyone’s byword, but no one espoused it quite so early or so successfully as Amien Rais, a political science professor turned Islamic leader who has become a Reformasi power broker.

The most outspoken of Suharto’s critics, he dared, along with another opposition leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, to object openly to Suharto’s decision this March to stay on for yet another presidential term (his seventh). As student protests gathered steam and the economy continued to collapse, Amien became more and more visible, hammering away at Suharto and his regime. Students, for the most part, see him as their champion. Some liberals and democrats, too, are drawn to Amien, seeing him as a populist Muslim with a mass following who also calls for pluralism and free elections. Suharto’s protégé and successor, B.J. Habibie, says he considers Amien a close friend. And then there are the generals with whom he has been busy cultivating good relations.

Not surprisingly, in trying to suggest a post-Suharto future, Amien has taken a big part in it for himself. How he chooses to play it may determine the influence of Islam in the new politics of Indonesia. Indonesia has about 175 million Muslims, 87 percent of the country’s population of 202 million, making it the largest Islamic country in the world. Yet this explains little. Village Muslims in sarongs practice an eclectic faith, influenced by layers of Indonesia’s pre-Islamic Hindu past and local folk beliefs, which differs widely from that of city believers, who often are more influenced by the Arab world and seek religious purity. Indonesia’s Muslims also are divided over the question of Islam’s role in political life. Some believe Islam and Islamic values offer the only way to unify Indonesia, and they seek Muslim political and economic dominance. A very few, influenced by the mullahs in Iran, imagine creating an Islamic state. Others want an open, pluralistic Indonesia in which Islam can flourish along with the other religions. Until now, like everyone else, practically all of them have adapted to the authoritarianism of Suharto’s New Order. But with the possibility of open politics, this contest of ideas will finally be tested in the real world, and leaders like Amien Rais will have to choose sides as Muslims find a political voice of their own.

One day in June Amien Rais was being presented with a Reformasi award by the students of the state university in Bogor, about an hour outside Jakarta, and I was invited to come along. Amien and his entourage (which includes six bodyguards, necessary to extricate him from the huge crowds he gathers) set out for Bogor early in the morning. Already, Jakarta was humid and the main intersections were choked with poor children hawking newspapers, playing toy guitars for change, or simply begging. Once we passed the glistening downtown skyscrapers and the revolutionary monuments built in Sukarno’s time, remnants of the May riots came into view: whole blocks gutted, glass façades shattered, and some shops left untouched because “Milik Pribumi” (i.e., owned by “native sons,” meaning not Chinese-Indonesians) was scrawled with spray paint over the doors. Nearby, in Jakarta’s Chinatown, you can still make out the threats that have been painted over on the doors of Chinese shops: “Chinese dogs,” “Kill the Chinese.”

By the time we arrive in Bogor, a hilly town cooler than the city, we are told some 10,000 students have already gathered under the huge dome of the university’s stadium. The mostly Muslim students have filled the stadium floor, dividing themselves by gender. Young men wearing the navy blue jackets of their school sit on the left, and young women, mostly in white headscarves (called ‘jilbabs in Indonesian) that wrap around their faces and flow down a bit past their shoulders, sit on the right. Amien is ushered up to a dais and sits there cross-legged before a microphone, looking out at the sea of students. A kind of give-and-take dialogue begins. A wireless mike is passed around and one young man stands up. He thrusts his fist in the air and starts chanting “Gantung Suharto! Gantung Suharto!” or “Hang Suharto! Hang Suharto!” Slowly the rest of the students join in and the din fills the dome. Amien, still sitting cross-legged, looks down at his lap and smiles but doesn’t join in.

Finally, he starts to speak and the chanting quiets. At fifty-five he has a boyish quality and a lilting way of speaking. “Rebuilding our country after Suharto may turn out to be harder than getting rid of Suharto,” he begins. Indonesia could become like Yugoslavia, torn asunder by ethnic hatred, or, he says, we could disintegrate like the former Soviet Union. The way out is through real political reform, free elections that will create a legitimate government. “Eventually we need to have a president directly elected like in America. But right now we need the freedom to create parties and elections for a new parliament.” As for Suharto, he says, we have a legal system that presumes innocence and we should let the legal system deal with him. “But maybe if he gave back 95 percent of his money—why not let him keep 5 percent for his old age, that’s all right—then maybe the Indonesian people, Inshallah, could find it in their hearts to have mercy on him.” The crowd laughs.

From the back of the stadium, another young man takes the microphone. “We Muslims have to be united,” he shouts. “We have to form a Muslim party. This is our time.” Though disturbing to many, this is a common refrain among millions of Muslims who believe they have been denied their rightful dominance. They say that just after independence in 1949, the Muslims were cheated by Sukarno, the first president, who teamed up with the Communists. The next great treachery occurred in 1965, when, after the willing involvement of Muslims in killing Communists and aiding Suharto’s rise to power, Islam was denied a political voice, and independent Islamic parties were forced to combine into a government-controlled party. All Muslim organizations were forced to show obedience to the New Order. In Suharto’s depoliticized Indonesia, where everyone was stripped of all political allegiances, those who longed for Muslim political power considered themselves the New Order’s primary victim.2 It can’t happen a third time, a currently heard refrain goes; now it is finally our time.

Amien interrupts. “Pluralism is our only answer,” he says. “The only way we can enter the twenty-first century is as a pluralist nation.” Then, he repeats his by now familiar line: “As a Muslim, of course I dream of Islam receiving the highest place, but as a citizen I dream of an Indonesia that we all build with democracy and social justice.” His audience, the veiled young women a part of the more orthodox version of Islam that has emerged in the last decade, sits in rapt attention; the students, like many other Indonesians, aren’t clear about what identities they want to adopt. A photographer from Bali leans toward me and whispers: “Amien Rais worries me. I don’t want to live in an Islamic country. He says he’s a pluralist. But is that just a way for him to get power? He sounds moderate now, but where does he want to take the country? A lot of us non-Muslims are worried. We’re waiting to see his true colors.”

Figuring out Amien Rais, and just how pluralistic and moderate he is, has become a preoccupation for many. He talks of the need for parties but he still has no party. He has come to exemplify the conflict that is at the core of post-Suharto Indonesia. He goes back and forth between espousing a vision of Indonesia’s future based on Muslim religious identity and one based on open politics, constitutionalism, and equal citizenship. Only a few months ago talk of real political competition among parties would have seemed fantasy in Indonesia, for Suharto would not permit political opposition and the government put dissenters in prison. But now that there is a chance of elections with new parties, leaders, as the photographer said, may have to show their true colors. This includes Amien Rais.

When he is not criss-crossing the country, appealing to the faithful for support, he lives in Yogyakarta, an old central Javanese court city. He is a professor of politics at Yogyakarta’s main university, Gadjah Mada, but he rarely teaches these days. Instead, Amien spends most days receiving visitors at his pink stucco house, which is attached to the Islamic kindergarten his wife runs. I visited him there before Suharto resigned and then immediately after.

I asked him about the evolution of his political ideas. He told me he grew up in Solo, another old Javanese court town, in a devout Muslim family which belonged to the more religiously pure urban strand of Islam. His mother was a teacher and his father worked for the Sukarno government’s department of religious affairs. Amien was a good student and received scholarships in the US, first at Notre Dame, where he studied political science, and then at the University of Chicago, where he got his Ph.D. “I studied Marxism-Leninism. I studied capitalism. I got to know the US. But I didn’t know much about Islam, so I went to Egypt.” He spent a year at Al-Azhar in Cairo, doing research for his Ph.D. thesis on the Islamic Brotherhood, the orthodox Muslim organization that resisted Nasser and Sadat and has since become more and more powerful. His thesis criticizes the assumption of Western political science that as societies become more modern and sophisticated, they inevitably become more secular. He writes that Islamic societies may challenge this assumption, yet he winds up concluding that the Islamic Brotherhood has nothing to offer as a model. He rejects the Brotherhood’s religious justification for violence and its conformity to Muslim orthodoxy, and he writes that the Brotherhood’s idea of an Islamic state solves none of the basic problems of political legitimacy. “Where is the source of legitimacy in an Islamic state? The Koran or the people? Who is the sovereign? The people or God?” Amien asks, and he concludes that the religious fundamentalism espoused by the Brotherhood fails to offer a guide for Muslims in the modern world.3

Looking back at his time in Egypt, he says it left him “confident that Islam is a universal religion.” But his time there also convinced him that today’s Muslims must defend the belief that modern politics, or the secular, is inseparable from the religious. He says he has never wanted an Islamic state in Indonesia; instead, he is seeking a society with Islamic values, although he admits he doesn’t know exactly what that means. This is Amien’s problem, and, in many ways, Indonesia’s problem. Amien’s search for Islamic values in politics has led him to alternate between making calculated alliances with secular leaders and issuing calls for moral renewal based on Muslim tradition.

When he returned to Indonesia in 1982, Amien reacted with carefully expressed anger to what he found. “Suharto had left Muslims behind, they were left out and had no political voice. I looked around and it seemed that Chinese and Christians had all the power,” he says. And it is true that the inner circle of rich Chinese businessmen who clustered around Suharto made billions in timber, oil, and real estate, while a Catholic ran the intelligence agencies used by Suharto to spy on, and arrest, leftist and religious dissidents. By the late l980s, Amien began working with other angry Muslim intellectuals, like his friend Imaduddin, who were engaged in a running battle with the military intelligence; many of them, like Imaduddin, were arbitrarily thrown in jail.4 Amien was not arrested but agreed with Imaduddin’s furious complaint that the central theme of Suharto’s New Order was to suppress the potential power of Muslims, forbidding them any independent political organization of their own. Then in 1990, Imaduddin told him that Suharto had had a change of heart and Imaduddin invited him to join the Association of Muslim Intellectuals, known by its Indonesian acronym ICMI, an organization Suharto had decided would be a useful vehicle to mobilize the support of educated Muslims.

Amien accepted, rose to public prominence because of ICMI, and became a protégé of ICMI’s patron, Habibie, who was at the time the minister for research and technology and, of course, close to Suharto. This association brought many good things to Amien: he had a column in the ICMI newspaper, Republika; he headed ICMI’s Council of Experts, which selected research projects that would get government support. He could now reach a national audience and did so particularly with his warnings of the “Kristenisasi” or “Christianization” of Indonesia. Most important, he became head of Muhammadiyah, the second-largest Islamic organization, with some 28 million followers—a group that sponsors centers for Muslim education and student groups designed to bolster Muslim pride and religiosity among urban young people. Muhammadiyah could offer jobs for the faithful, while always pledging loyalty to the regime.

Amien and the other ICMI intellectuals were in fact merely the latest addition to the groups around Suharto—dependent generals; Chinese merchants turned moguls; pribumi, or non-Chinese, businessmen, with their oil and timber concessions; bureaucrats, technocrats, bankers, and regional grandees. Everything still depended on Suharto. And as much as Amien and others in ICMI didn’t want to admit it, theirs was a subservient political movement, not a religious one. It had none of the theocratic goals that drove the Iranian revolution and its imitators in the Arab world.

But then, last year, Amien turned against Suharto. It became too clear to him, he said, that the problem was not the Christians and Chinese in Indonesia. Nor was gaining more power for Muslims an adequate goal. What had to be done was to get rid of Suharto and the authoritarian regime he had built. He says he could no longer stomach being used by Suharto, particularly since Suharto was on his way to ruining the country. “Indonesia changed and I changed,” he told me. “I don’t want to try to erase my past. But through my actions, I am slowly gaining the trust of Chinese businessmen and Christians.”


Goenawan Mohamad, a poet, a journalist, and in recent years a leading figure in the tiny circle of opposition intellectuals, was paying close attention to Amien Rais’s change of position. Goenawan, a liberal democrat, a modern, secular man whose interests are cosmopolitan and who is described by some of his admirers as Indonesia’s Václav Havel, seems to have little in common with Amien. But what drew them together was a shared antipathy to the system that Suharto had built.

Goenawan, a graceful, almost elfin Javanese, for twenty-three years ran Tempo, Indonesia’s most prominent newsweekly.5 He was a master of the compromises, the advances and retreats, of the journalist’s guerrilla war in an authoritarian state. In what Goenawan called an “exquisite exercise of arbitrary power,” Suharto closed down the magazine in 1994, pushing Goenawan into underground politics. Living in Suharto’s Indonesia became, he said, like living in an occupied city. The trick was to keep civilized life going in a sort of refugee community until the siege ended. With a group of journalists, artists, and intellectuals, Goenawan went about creating a center for internal exiles like himself on a Jakarta street named Utan Kayu. It was quickly dubbed “the Republic of Utan Kayu,” and was said to be inhabited by “Utan Kayu people.” It had a gallery, a theater, a café—the Café Tempo—and out of its offices came a stream of samizdat publications. Earlier this year, when students were demonstrating across the archipelago and Amien was calling for Suharto to step down, Goenawan and the Utan Kayu people already had created their own network of anti-Suharto activists.

We have to create a big tent. We have to get the students, Amien, Megawati, anyone we can,” Goenawan told me last March as we sat one afternoon at the Café Tempo. “We have to be ready when the crisis comes, when Suharto goes, so those of us who want democratic reform are strong enough to demand it.”

Goenawan and Amien made a political alliance based on the principle that if Indonesia’s future is to be democratic, no one will be able to dominate the country by virtue of ethnicity or religion. In view of the 87 percent Muslim majority, this meant that Muslims would have to accept the rights of non-Muslims. Goenawan, the secularist, needs Amien, the Islamic leader, if he and his band of democrats are to have any hope of becoming prominent in Indonesia’s new politics. Amien needs Goenawan to calm the worries of the photographer from Bali, as well as Chinese businessmen, Christians, and the many Muslims whose religious convictions differ from his own, whether they are advocates of a Muslim state or want to withdraw into their own schools and religious communities. In the last, wild days of Suharto, their peculiar alliance led to the formation of the People’s Council, known in Indonesian as MARA, one of the groups that called for Suharto’s ouster. Now that Suharto is gone—and many Muslims are calling for a Muslim party—they have to decide whether this alliance can evolve into a multiethnic, multireligious, pro-democracy party.

In the weeks immediately following Suharto’s fall, Goenawan was pushing hard for MARA to take advantage of the political free-for-all and form a party and demand new elections. “We are racing against time,” he said right after Suharto’s resignation. “We have to compete with the military, with Habibie, with the demagogues.”

Bambang Harymurti, an old colleague of Goenawan’s from Tempo days and now editor of the newspaper Media Indonesia, is skeptical about such an alliance. When a group of us had lunch together in June, Bambang warned Goenawan about being used by Amien. “What if he’s using the tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Bambang asks. What if he’s using the language of pluralism and democracy just as a tactic to gain power and then let the Islamic radicals take over?

He’s all we’ve got,” Goenawan said. “He’s using me, but I’m also using him. He’s not perfect. But no one is. Our only chance is if we can create new institutions so that no one person—Amien or a general—can ever have absolute power again.”

Goenawan concedes that Amien is under enormous pressure from many of his followers in Muhammadiyah. The “this-is-our-time school,” he said, does not approve of Amien’s talk of a new democratic form of politics that, in essence, would undermine their version of nationalism based on Muslim identity.

It’s true, I’m facing a dilemma,” Amien told me when I saw him again in Yogyakarta. “I agree with Goenawan that we should form a broad-based party, and we should do it quickly so we can force Habibie to hold elections. But I also have to make my people understand. There are a lot of them who are worried that I am working with secularists and non-Muslims. I have to persuade them that while it’s true that Suharto often ignored Muslims and they were left behind, Islam is not the answer to everything. It’s not the way to paradise on earth.”

Amien the would-be politician is evidently at odds with Amien the Islamic leader. He tells me that he disagrees with the notion of an Islamic party, mostly for pragmatic reasons, but also because in a conflict between authoritarian and democratic versions of nationalism, he’d like the democratic version to win. He often expresses his political ideas in moralizing rhetoric, and while he says he is a committed democrat, there is also a “gap”—a disparity of some “20 percent” he says—between his democratic values and his Islamic values. “The difference is about secularism and not getting carried away with the voice of the majority,” he says. “Take prostitution or abortion. Both of them are clearly against the Koran. If the parliament was to legalize either of them, I would have to speak against that. It is against Islam.”


The language of moral renewal is often heard in Jakarta. Students, young professionals, democrats, even the technocrats Suharto fired after the rupiah’s freefall (many of whom formed a reform group called “the Front of the Broken Hearts”) talk of the need for a new morality. In view of the decadence and state criminality of the late Suharto period, it is no wonder that moral rhetoric has such appeal. “A Stalinist system sitting atop Dodge City,” is the way an Australian expert on Indonesia, Richard Robison, describes the regime Suharto built.6

Much of the story of Suharto’s rise, from a little-known general to the head of a vast patronage racket that finally fell apart, has been concealed, and it will be a long time before all the details of his last days are known. But from the time he rose to power thirty-two years ago, when a botched coup by some pro-left generals was followed by a feverish anti-Communist killing spree, Suharto was a virtuoso in playing on fears that Indonesia would fall apart. He constantly insisted that he alone held the nation together—only he could bring about prosperity and stave off class warfare and Islamic extremism. Without him, Indonesia would again run amok.

For decades, Suharto’s formula of autocratic rule and often corrupt encouragement of business investment worked. Aid from the US and Western allies (the cold war was very good to him) as well as oil money enabled him to buy docility as he consolidated power. For Indonesians who did his bidding he would offer seats in parliament, shares in companies, oil and timber concessions, loans from banks, funds from his foundations. Favorites of the World Bank and of foreign investors eager to cash in on a piece of the Asian Miracle, Suharto and his technocrats watched as the money flowed in. A former economic minister, Radius Prawiro, in a book recently published in Jakarta, describes how the New Order’s economic success largely depended on foreign loans. At the beginning of Suharto’s rule, foreign debt was $3.2 billion. It’s $130 billion now.

At first, Suharto’s patronage system and the investments in Indonesia’s economy that he presided over depended on his relationships with such Chinese-Indonesian business tycoons as Liem Sioe Liong and Mohamad “Bob” Hasan. He gave them monopolies; they gave him cash when he needed it. The high-rises such men built were the first along Jalan Thamrin, the city’s main boulevard. Then, in the 1980s, came the shopping malls and the fancy hotels and also the toll roads owned by Suharto’s five children. Everything became bigger, gaudier, bolder. Suharto’s second son, for example, was given permission to build a sixteen-story hotel along the main boulevard. Defying the building codes, he built a forty-story hotel. Rules didn’t apply to Suharto’s children as they came to control not just the skyline but practically any deal they wanted.

Along with the easy money and the fast deals, Suharto’s patronage system relied on keeping the rest of the population quiet, with the help of a steady trickle-down effect during two decades of sustained and spectacular growth which earned Indonesia notoriety as one of the fastest-growing countries on earth. (The substantial reduction in poverty rates that both World Bank and US officials used to cite in defense of Suharto has now vanished. In July, government officials admitted that 50 percent of the population—some 100 million people—would be living in poverty by the end of this year, slipping back to 1976 levels.) There was also strict police control, surveillance of dissidents down to the village level, and harsh penalties for anyone who stepped out of line. Suharto’s Indonesia was full of barely expressed resentments, especially among Muslims.

It is astonishing how quickly it all collapsed. Suharto was called a Javanese king, and he was happy to have it known that he possessed wahyu, the divine light, the brilliant radiance, that signified a Javanese leader’s power. In a well-known essay, “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,” the Cornell scholar Benedict Anderson describes this power as the ability to maintain a smooth natural order—fertile, prosperous, and tranquil.7 By last year Suharto seemed to have lost his wahyu: there were raging forest fires on Borneo, a devastating drought, locusts on the island of Sumatra, a series of plane crashes, and, most devastating of all, the crash of the rupiah.

Early this year, perhaps as another sign of the king’s growing loss of power, a collection of the sons and daughters of the elite created by Suharto’s New Order began meeting to discuss the state of the country. They called their meetings the Thursday Night Chat Club, and they usually met in the opulent houses of their parents, scattered about Jakarta’s rich suburbs with their swimming pools and lush gardens. “We used to meet in discos on Thursday nights, but when the crisis started hitting us, we knew the New Order was falling apart,” says one of the Thursday night regulars. They invited speakers—activists who worked with the poor, environmentalists, even Goenawan—so they could ask why things had gone wrong. By May, the Thursday Night Chat Club had renamed itself the Young Professionals Foundation and the members were devoting their time and money to feeding the students who were occupying the parliament building. The day before Suharto resigned, a delegation of Young Professionals went to the parliament and held aloft their own banner: “Suharto, Go to Hell With Your Plan.”

Goenawan and Amien, as well as students and young professionals, disillusioned ministers, generals, Muslim leaders—all claim to have had a part in forcing Suharto out. And all of them are wrong, if you listen to Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s forty-seven-year-old son-in-law, who, many say, was plotting a military takeover during Suharto’s last days in office. “It all took place in Cendana,” he told me, referring to Suharto’s house on a street called Jalan Cendana in the center of Jakarta, where he has always held court. “It was like Kurosawa’s Ran. It was like King Lear. I was the only loyal son and I was the one who was banished.” Right up to the end, Suharto still controlled everything, Prabowo says, including his own banishment. Suharto wasn’t forced out as much as he relinquished power. Since he was able to control the way he left, Prabowo implies, the old man retains an ability to shape the future.

Within hours of Suharto’s TV address in May giving up power, Prabowo, who is married to Suharto’s youngest daughter, was relieved of his command of strategic forces in Jakarta (the same position his father-in-law held when he took over in 1965) and sent off to run a military staff college in Bandung, a hill town about a three-hour drive from Jakarta. For three days, Jakarta buzzed with rumors that Prabowo—commander for years of a specially trained military force of several thousand troops—was dispatching tanks and troops to surround the palace, that he was threatening Habibie, that he was about to kill his rival Lieutenant General Wiranto, the head of all the military forces. None of this happened, Prabowo told me in mid-June.8 Our talk must remain an informal chat, he said, because he does not want to seek, nor does he think he would receive, the necessary official permission. But he is in full uniform, his green khaki jacket covered with medals and each shoulder studded with stars.

Suharto’s eldest daughter, known as Tutut, decided her brother-in-law was plotting against her father and turned the old man against him, Prabowo says; she accused him to his face of allowing the students to occupy the parliament and of maneuvering and plotting with a cabal of Suharto’s enemies. The night before Suharto resigned, Prabowo describes going to Cendana, where one of Suharto’s children called him a traitor. “I was flabbergasted,” Prabowo says. He then describes how, after the resignation speech, he went to see Suharto and knelt down and kissed the old man’s hand. “I said, ‘I have always been loyal to you, Bapak.”’ Suharto did not reply.

For all of his denials of treachery, Prabowo’s part in events surrounding Suharto’s resignation remains mysterious. What is clear is that he was associated with a collection of Islamic organizations dedicated to a Muslim-first ideology; he helped to create IPS (Institute of Policy Studies), a think tank for young Islamic activists, and he’s given support to groups whose rhetoric revolves around an aggrieved sense of Muslim chauvinism and a deep racial hatred of Chinese-Indonesians. One of the groups, KISDI (the Indonesian acronym for the Committee for World Muslim Solidarity), was formed during the intifada to show solidarity with Palestinian Muslims and has organized a national network whose members hold demonstrations denouncing those they consider enemies of Islam. Rage against Jews, Christians, Chinese, and the West is KISDI’s rhetorical mainstay.

I see them as friends,” Prabowo says of KISDI. “I try to be friends with all groups. They shouldn’t be considered outcasts. When they were chased like dogs by Benny Murdani,9 no human rights groups defended them. They have an inferiority complex and feel like they don’t even own their own country. The fact that 3 percent of the population owns 70 percent of the economy is the main problem of Indonesia. We have to talk about it, and I’m trying to create a dialogue about this.”10

I believe in genetics, do you?” Prabowo suddenly asks me. “I read that book The Bell Curve and it’s right. Intelligence depends on race.” Which race would he put on top, I ask him. “Yellow people,” he answers, smiling. “It’s just like Jews in Europe or the Parsis in India. We resent the Chinese because we know they outperform us.” Prabowo’s racist version of Social Darwinism is potent, and all too familiar—it isn’t far from anti-Semitic nightmares of a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. Prabowo’s alliance with KISDI, it seems, is partly based on his sympathy for the group’s racial ideas. It is an alliance that has helped transform KISDI from a marginal group to a player in Indonesia’s new politics.

In March, when I first met the head of KISDI, Ahmad Sumargono, he was late for our meeting because he was at the promotion ceremony of “his best friend,” who turned out to be Prabowo, then taking over his short-lived command of the strategic forces. I waited for Sumargono at his office where, notwithstanding his anti-Chinese political rhetoric, he works for an Indonesian-Chinese conglomerate that has been building new residential suburbs on the edges of Jakarta. One of Sumargono’s colleagues showed me the model of the development and said that it’s mostly rich Chinese who buy houses here. “It’s 80 percent Chinese,” she whispered, although we were alone in the room. In addition to running KISDI, Sumargono is the company’s land acquisition manager, which means he buys land from Muslim farmers or workers and then builds houses for Chinese on it.

When Sumargono arrived, he said at once that Muslims will have to take over after Suharto, and that having friends like Prabowo meant that his dream of an Islamic nation was finally getting closer to reality. “We know that in order to change things in Indonesia, you have to have the military on your side. That’s why we like Prabowo so much. He has the same vision; he is a good Muslim,” he said.

The day I spoke with Sumargono, he’d been invited to preach to the employees of Indonesia’s Justice Ministry, and he asked me to come with him. While we drove there, he told me that Chinese and Jewish speculators were responsible for the economic crisis. “A lot of our problems have been caused by the Chinese and now the IMF and the Chinese are working together to control us,” he said. Once we approached the ministry, he explained that I’d have to walk the last several blocks. Startled, I asked why. “I am a good Muslim,” he said, “and good Muslims can’t ride in cars with women they aren’t related to.” He’d wanted me to come but didn’t want anyone to see me in the car, and he had come up with the perfect solution: he would drop me off and I’d walk the last bit. (When I arrived at the Justice Ministry, the security guards, all army officers, told me I had to leave.)

The next time I saw him, in June, Sumargono said that having Habibie as president was “like a dream come true.” “It is our hope that Habibie and Islamic power will be our future,” he told me, adding that he’s sorry Prabowo has been pushed aside but confident that he’ll come back. In meetings throughout the country, Sumargono has been trying to form a Muslim party and promoting his form of nationalism in which Muslims come first, before Chinese-Indonesians. “Our biggest problem is those leftists,” he says, his shorthand for the Utan Kayu people and others interested in forming a pluralist political party. Of course, it is not surprising that someone like Sumargono and the ideas of KISDI would both flourish now; the idea of a nation grounded in religion—in rituals and creeds that offer a spiritual identity—holds a special appeal during times of crisis.

Which version of Indonesia will win out? A lot depends on President Habibie, a man who depended on Suharto for everything, including his presidency, and who is now staking a claim in the creation of Indonesia’s new politics. Early in July, Habibie gave a remarkable speech to the nation laying out his plans for dealing with the economic crisis and then asking Indonesians to fast twice a week, from dawn to dusk, in order to save rice.11 It was a sign of just how desperate things are, but it was also Habibie showing his Islamic credentials. Habibie, as it happens, already fasts twice a week; and so, it could be said, he was asking his fellow Muslims to join him in sacrificing for the nation.

In an overwhelmingly Muslim country, it makes sense that a leader would invoke Islamic language when he speaks of enduring a national catastrophe. But Indonesians—including Habibie, Amien, and the advocates both of democracy or of a “this is our time” Muslim ascendancy—are in a race against time. If partisans of an anti-Chinese sectarian nation win out, then Islam will acquire pervasive political power, and democratic politics and the very idea of equal citizenship will be seen as dangerously divisive. Their proponents may well come to be seen as public enemies.

Indonesia has been through this before. There was a short period in the 1950s when Indonesia had parties and elections, but little by way of democratic politics. Ideologues of revolution were pitted against defenders of the Muslim faith.12 For many, this period leaves a bad taste, as though it was a dress rehearsal for the purges and killings that were to come in 1965. “When the massacres finally arrived, they seemed, as do most popular convulsions—taking of Winter Palaces, stormings of Bastilles—a postscript to a story long in the writing” is the way Clifford Geertz describes this tumultuous period.13 For the next thirty-two years, Suharto and his New Order denied Indonesians any political voice. Now, like those in the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia or Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism, Indonesians have to decide whether to revive the poisonous roots of their past or to allow new, contentious methods of governing themselves to emerge. In a land where a sense of political community doesn’t exist, proponents of national identity based on race or religion are more likely to win.

The Reformasi leaders are aware of this possibility. They constantly debate what to do. Should they go back to the streets, demand elections, and push Habibie out? But if they choose that path, will it be seen as an attack on a Muslim leader, further deepening the cleavages among Indonesians? Will the generals—who have long insisted that the military is the protector of the nation and has a “dual function” as preservers of political conformity and military peace—retreat from the stage and let new politics begin? And then there is the shadow of Suharto, who sits in Cendana with all his money, listening to his parrot chirping “Good morning, Mr. President.” Is he capable of buying influence and protecting his children’s holdings, or even attempting a comeback?

Meanwhile, on occupied East Timor, demonstrations continue. Habibie has met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bishop Belo, a defender of the rights of the East Timorese, and has promised to withdraw some troops and to discuss more autonomy for the island Indonesia brutally annexed in 1976. But many East Timorese demand independence, which in the eyes of the government is tantamount to starting the process of dismantling the nation—and so a bitter standoff continues. And on Irian Jaya—the Indonesian part of New Guinea—students and residents have taken to the streets demanding independence: two people have been killed so far.

The World Bank and then the IMF have resumed the flow of bailout loans to Indonesia, but the economy is such a wreck that it is hard to imagine when it will recover. On top of the poverty and job losses and inflation (60 percent and rising), Indonesia, for the first time in decades, faces a rice shortage. Fasting will hardly solve the problem.

Indonesia, though, may avoid being ravaged by racial anger and sectarianism if an experiment like Goenawan’s and Amien’s can be tried. There are certainly many Indonesians who hope it will be. But at the moment Amien is hesitating. For all his speeches on pluralism and the necessity of democratic politics, and for all his assurances to Goenawan that he wants to form a multireligious party, Amien still hasn’t quite committed himself to the democrats. In early July, some reformers announced they’d formed a coalition to keep up the pressure on Habibie for new elections. They did so just before Habibie won another victory—his own man, State Secretary Akbar Tanjung, is now in charge of the government party, Golkar; and this means that there is little chance that the parliament can challenge Habibie before he calls elections next year. Meanwhile Amien stalls for time. He says he has to talk things over with his Muhammadiyah people. “We won’t decide anything until things settle down and the political map is clear,” he tells reporters.

Not so long ago, Goenawan was talking to a group of young journalists and student activists who voiced suspicions about a coalition including Muslim leaders like Amien and former technocrats tainted by having worked for Suharto. “We have no experience in politics. We have to start from scratch like people did in Eastern Europe. You have to tone down your idealism and learn to negotiate and compromise,” he said, speaking of the days ahead. “If we go the sectarian route, Indonesia has no future. But if we create a democracy, and Muslims lead the way, it will be an exciting experiment. If we don’t grab this chance, it will be our fault and we shouldn’t be forgiven.”—July 15, 1998

  1. 1

    After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist (Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 27.

  2. 2

    See Adam Schwarz, A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia in the 1990s (Allen and Unwin, 1994), especially pp. 162-193.

  3. 3

    The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Its Rise, Demise and Resurgence,” submitted to the University of Chicago, Department of Political Science, March 1981, p. 143.

  4. 4

    See V.S. Naipaul, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Random House, 1998), pp. 3-20. The chapter on Imaduddin appeared in The New York Review, June 11, 1998.

  5. 5

    Goenawan’s essays from Tempo were published in a collection called Sidelines, translated by Jennifer Lindsay (Jakarta: Lontar, 1994).

  6. 6

    James T. Siegel explores this rich connection between criminality and Suharto’s state in a strange little volume called A New Criminal Type in Jakarta: Counter-Revolution Today (Duke University Press, forthcoming in September).

  7. 7

    Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Cornell University Press, 1990), pp. 17-77.

  8. 8

    On July 14, seven members of the elite military unit Prabowo commanded were arrested in connection with the abduction and torture of political activists earlier this year. The investigation appears to be implicating Prabowo himself.

  9. 9

    General Murdani, a Catholic, ran Indonesia’s military intelligence during the 1970s and 1980s. His name has become shorthand for political oppression of Muslims.

  10. 10

    Chinese-Indonesians actually make up close to 4 percent of Indonesia’s 202 million people, and there are estimates that they control close to 70 percent of the country’s private businesses. Most Chinese-Indonesians are Christians although a small percentage are Buddhists.

  11. 11

    History has shown that many great people, like composers, painters, and scientists, did not care much for food because they wanted to concentrate on their work. They made great discoveries because the blood in their brains flowed smoothly,” Habibie was quoted as saying in The Jakarta Post, July 7, 1998.

  12. 12

    See David Bourchier and John Legge, editors, Democracy in Indonesia: 1950s and 1990s (Melbourne: Monash University, 1994), a collection of essays on the legacy and influence of the 1950s period.

  13. 13

    After the Fact, p. 7.