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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.

  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.

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