President Suharto
President Suharto; drawing by David Levine


This past fall Indonesia was more frequently mentioned in the American press than ever before in its history. First, the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to an Indonesian bishop and an exiled human rights activist who had both worked to promote the rights of the people of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that Indonesia has brutally occupied since 1975. Some weeks later it was revealed that John Huang, a Taiwan-born employee of the Democratic National Committee and a former Commerce Department official, had raised millions of dollars for the Clinton campaign from the Riady family of Indonesia, who own a twelve-billion-dollar conglomerate called Lippo Group, for which Mr. Huang earlier had worked. It soon unfolded that James Riady, the son of the family patriarch, had become acquainted with Clinton in Arkansas in the 1970s and that he and his father have since had many dealings with the Clinton administration in Washington on behalf of Lippo Group’s interests.

What was striking about most of the stories on Indonesian political influence in the US was how little was said about Indonesia itself, its president, his business allies, and the growing opposition to his regime. Indeed, a strange indifference seems to affect the American press when it comes to writing about what is, in fact, the largest Islamic country in the world, with some 197 million people, more than any other nation except China, India, and the US. One of the most horrible massacres of the twentieth century took place in Indonesia in 1965-1966, with conservative estimates of the number of victims ranging up to 500,000, and even more. President Soeharto, under whose authority the killings took place, has ruled unchallenged for thirty years, longer than almost all other world leaders today. Yet he is rarely discussed in the American press.

Americans may have heard about the charms of the island of Bali, but few would know that Bali is but one of the more than 13,500 islands stretching across 3,000 miles that make up the multiethnic Indonesian state, where more than three hundred languages are spoken, with a form of Malay serving as the official language. It is common to see the label “Made in Indonesia” on clothes sold by US companies, but few Americans know that Indonesia, rich in oil, natural gas, and timber, and named by the US Department of Commerce as one of the ten largest emerging markets in the world, has had impressive economic growth under Soeharto.

Perhaps the Indonesian government wants to avoid attention. Soeharto, who seized power in 1965 immediately after a failed, allegedly Communist coup and a successful military counter-coup, is a remote and uncharismatic leader. While he is distrustful of the outside world, his fierce anti-Communism has brought him unwavering Western support during the past thirty years and enabled him to pursue repressive domestic policies. It is in his interest that the actual story of the 1965 coup and the murder of hundreds of thousands of Communists and leftists that followed—forbidden topics for Indonesians—has been virtually forgotten in other countries.

Yet Indonesia will not remain anonymous for long. As its trade with other countries increases, the repressive policies of its government will raise practical questions about its stability as well as concerns about its suppression of human rights. Anti-government riots in Jakarta at the end of July “severely soured…investor sentiment,” according to the Far Eastern Economic Review.1 The riots were followed by a harsh police crackdown on independent activists, which continues to this day.

I was in Jakarta in September as part of a delegation of American writers, journalists, and publishers that traveled under the auspices of the Association of American Publishers. The purpose of our visit was to meet with Indonesian publishers, writers, and academics, and to discuss with them issues of free expression, in order to gain a better understanding of the political situation in which the July riots broke out and assess the extent of the crackdown that followed. We expected to meet with Indonesian officials, too, but while we were there our appointments with them were canceled one by one. Still, we had many meetings with nongovernmental groups and took part in a two-day seminar at a mountain retreat several hours from Jakarta. The seminar, called “Experiments in Freedom,” was attended by some forty-five Indonesian intellectuals, including writers, academics, publishers, and journalists, many of whom talked to us at length, often in private.

A theme that kept emerging in our talks was that Indonesia exists in a state of political suspension because of the veil of secrecy surrounding Soeharto’s2 takeover from his predecessor, Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. There are many forbidden topics in Indonesia today, but nothing is more dangerous than to raise questions about whether the Indonesian Communists engineered the failed coup of 1965, as the government alleges, or to discuss the killings of suspected Communists that followed. Although the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was completely wiped out by the massacre in 1965-1966, and world communism itself collapsed at the beginning of this decade, the Indonesian government still invokes “the Communist threat” to justify its continuing repression.


Whether or not the past comes back to haunt him, Soeharto refuses to face the central political problem in the country today: who will succeed an aging, and possibly ailing, president who, at seventy-five, gives every indication that he wants a seventh term in 1998. He appears not to recognize his own mortality or the need to prepare for a peaceful transition.


Soeharto came to power proclaiming a “New Order,” a government dedicated to developing the economy and to establishing stability, welcome prospects for a country in economic and political chaos. The New Order adopted the idea of Pancasila, meaning “five principles,” a vague notion which dates back to 1945 and the postwar struggle against the Dutch, and turned it into an ideology to which every Indonesian is now expected to subscribe. The Pancasila principles are: belief in one God, national unity, humanitarianism, social justice, and democracy, all of which are to be achieved through “consensus.” The government interprets Pancasila as it sees fit, and has made it into a powerful tool of control: any criticism of the government may be considered as “undermining Pancasila” and can be the basis for a charge of subversion.

Soeharto’s New Order allows no room for public participation in politics, and has even made “politics” a dirty word. The group called Golkar, in effect the governing party, is described as a “functional group” rather than as a political party, and is supposed to represent everyone. When it was first formed in 1967, Golkar incorporated hundreds of other “functional groups” representing peasants, workers, businesses, etc., but these groups gradually faded away and Golkar became the instrument of the military and the bureaucracy loyal to Soeharto.

In similar fashion, the nine existing political parties were forced to amalgamate in 1973 into two newly created parties: the United Development Party, composed of a number of Muslim groups, and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), made up of Sukarno’s old nationalist party and several small Christian parties. Party leaders are approved by the government and expected to endorse its policies. In 1984, Soeharto proclaimed that all organizations, including the existing political parties, must adhere to Pancasila as their sole ideology. David Jenkins, an Australian journalist writing at that time, summed up the political situation as it had developed:

Soeharto stood at the apex of the pyramid; his appointees sat in each of the key executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government…. His writ extended into every department and into every state-run corporation; it reached down, if he chose, to every village…. In short, he had established himself as the paramount figure in a society in which deference to authority is deeply rooted. 3

In his recent book the Indonesia expert Adam Schwarz writes: “Jenkins’s description has stood the test of time…. [Since then] Soeharto has, if anything, made himself still more unassailable.”4

Indonesian citizens are expected to refrain from political activity, except for once every five years when, in what the government calls a “festival of democracy,” they elect the sitting parliament. There is also a People’s Consultative Assembly, which meets once every five years to elect the president and vice-president. The parliamentary elections are carefully controlled by the president’s office, which manipulates the parties and the voting districts to make sure that the parliament is dominated by Golkar, which in turn is controlled by Soeharto. The parliament, in which minor grievances can be aired, serves as window dressing for the authoritarian Soeharto regime. It does not draft legislation and has no say in domestic or foreign policy, except to approve bills submitted by the executive. The parliament’s five hundred members make up half of the People’s Consultative Assembly, with the other half chosen by Soeharto, the military, regional bodies, and the political parties. Soeharto, who maintains veto power over both Golkar and the military, thus controls the presidential elections as well: he has not been challenged or opposed in any of his six consecutive elections to the presidency.

After the president, the military command is the most powerful force in Indonesia. Like the president, many high government officials are military officers. Soeharto has used the army not just to suppress rebellion but to infiltrate and control all aspects of civil society. The army has an intricate structure that parallels that of the government and predates Soeharto’s rule; it is formalized by a doctrine known as “dual function” (dwifungsi).5 The army sees itself as having non-military responsibilities as well, and it participates openly in politics both nationally, with seventy-five (formerly one hundred) seats set aside for it in parliament, and locally, where military officers in the provinces are used to prevent any unwanted political activity, rounding up dissidents and putting them in local jails.


Muslim groups have traditionally been treated warily by the military as a potentially strong political force. The largest group by far is Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), led by Abdurrahman Wahid, which claims some 40 million members and, since 1984, has formally kept a discreet distance from politics, engaging in social and religious activities such as development projects in rural Muslim areas and publishing work on the distinctive Indonesian roots of Islamic thought. Wahid is trusted by non-Muslims because he has said that Islam should stay out of politics and that the state should stay out of religion. But he himself is a skillful politician, constantly trying to maneuver so that the NU, the country’s largest mass organization, is in a strong political position.

In 1990 Soeharto began courting Islam by creating the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) under the leadership of B.J. Habibie, Minister for Research and Technology, who has been one of his favorite officials in recent years. Although Habibie claims that ICMI is not a political organization, there is much confusion over its purpose: it is variously seen as an effort by Soeharto to counterbalance the importance of the military, as a way of providing Muslims with a voice in government, as a means of coopting the more critical Muslim leaders, and as a force to balance Wahid’s organization. Although the country is nominally almost 90 percent Muslim, Islam in Indonesia has traditionally been more moderate than in many other Muslim states. ICMI has no popular following, and many people told me that if Soeharto were to go, Habibie would lose his influence.


The Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), the smallest of Indonesia’s officially recognized political parties, has not had much success in the heavily rigged elections. It won 15 percent of the vote in 1992, after a campaign in which it took some unprecedented positions, such as asking for a limit on presidential terms and hinting at the desirability of running more than one candidate for president. Instead of automatically nominating Soeharto, as was the usual practice, the party met to discuss presidential candidates before the People’s Consultative Assembly was convened. The party’s leader, Suryadi, was then subjected to intense pressure from the government and the military and was forced to back down and immediately nominate Soeharto. Suryadi’s capitulation did not satisfy Soeharto, however. When the Democratic Party reelected him as leader in July 1993, the military, citing procedural irregularities, forced a new election, expecting to get a candidate more to their liking. But reformers in the Democratic Party drafted Megawati Sukarnoputri, the forty-nine-year-old daughter of Sukarno, as their candidate to be the new leader of the party, a much more disturbing prospect to the government than Suryadi had been.

Although her father was far from a democratic leader, he has come to be revered in retrospect by many, especially by those born after 1965, as the father of Indonesian independence. The mystery surrounding the coup that overthrew him and his departure from politics in the 1960s has contributed to the aura that now surrounds his name and, by extension, that of his daughter. Megawati is also a close friend of Abdurrahman Wahid, head of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, although they claim not to be political allies.

The government exerted heavy pressure to avert Megawati’s election as party leader, but this backfired, causing a commotion in the press and protests by other politicians and by some influential retired military officers as well. The government was not only forced to allow Megawati’s election at the end of 1993, but it had inadvertently boosted the Democratic Party as a party of change. It made Megawati into a symbol around which dissenters could rally, including the urban poor, a small but growing group of radical leftists, intellectuals seeking more freedom of expression, and a quickly growing middle class that wants some say in the political process and an end to the corruption of the first family, whose members and cronies control vast business empires, thanks to favors bestowed by the President.

Megawati, who, by most accounts, lacks her father’s charisma and, by some, his political savvy, is described as sincere, honest, and courageous. She has become increasingly outspoken. In June 1996, with next year’s parliamentary elections in prospect, she declared, “If we wanted to we could bring millions of people into the streets of every major city and town in the country, but we have decided not to do this at this time.” The government and the military, increasingly alarmed by her challenge, engineered an “extraordinary congress” of the PDI in the North Sumatran city of Medan and paid delegates to attend. On June 22 Megawati was ousted as the party’s leader and replaced by Suryadi, her predecessor, who was quoted as saying that he did not want the party to become “the enemy of the government.” Megawati has since filed suit in the courts to reverse the decision, but in September, when the list of PDI candidates for next year’s elections was submitted, her name and the names of most of her party faction were omitted. Without an “official” party to back her, Megawati cannot run for president.

Two days before she was replaced, on June 20, some 5,000 supporters took part in a demonstration in Jakarta to protest the “extraordinary congress” in Medan and carried banners that proclaimed “Megawati for President.” Some were beaten up by the police, who forcibly dispersed the rally. About 150 of her supporters refused to leave the party headquarters in a fashionable residential neighborhood in Jakarta, and held an open forum there for about a month, despite warnings from the military. Then, on the morning of July 27, police and army-backed thugs charged the party headquarters, and, in the fighting that ensued, dozens of Megawati’s supporters were injured. Many were arrested. As news of the raid spread, hundreds of people poured into the streets in what appeared to be a spontaneous demonstration. According to press reports, a five-hour standoff ended when elements of the crowd turned violent and assaulted the police in a well-coordinated attack, which then led to a riot by the anti-government mob, in which more than twenty buildings were burned or seriously damaged, including a bank, several office buildings, a military office, an insurance office, the headquarters of the department of agriculture, and several automobile showrooms. There were no reported police casualties, but at least five people were killed, at least 149 were injured, and dozens were missing once the riots subsided. The army has since been ordered to shoot demonstrators on sight.

Different descriptions emerged of the group that turned the demonstration into a rampage: some said they were government-hired thugs; others blamed the violence on extreme leftist groups. Megawati herself tried to distance herself and her supporters from the most violent elements among the crowd, attributing the burning of buildings to groups that had taken advantage of the confrontation. One of Megawati’s colleagues expressed concern that the chaos would discourage foreign investors, while the Far Eastern Economic Review6 reported that the military leaders worried in advance about the effect on the stock market of its planned raid on PDI headquarters and for that reason staged it on a Saturday. The market slumped nevertheless.

More than 200 people were arrested in Jakarta at the time of the riots, many of them innocent bystanders. Some were detained incommunicado for up to four days; others were tortured. One hundred twenty-four Megawati supporters involved in the initial sit-in were formally charged with assault and disobeying police orders and were brought to trial in October. On November 27, nine were acquitted and 115 were found guilty of disobeying orders, sentenced to the time they had already served in custody, and released. As a matter of principle, they are appealing the guilty verdict.

The government, true to form, made communism the bogeyman. “They have sought to topple the government,” said Sports Minister Hayono Isman. “The July 27 incident proved that communism is still a threat.” The police then began hunting down members of a tiny, leftist, student-led organization—the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) and its student, worker, and cultural affiliates—accusing them of being the instigators of the riot and vilifying them as the Communist Party incarnate. The PRD, founded two years ago, is decidedly left of center and committed to mass action. Its leader, Budiman Sudjatmiko, twenty-seven years old, says that his group is social-democratic, not Communist. He denies that it engineered the riots, and no evidence has yet been produced to show otherwise. The PRD has actively supported the idea of Megawati as a candidate for president, but Megawati says that she has no connection with the PRD and had never even heard of Mr. Budiman until after the riots.

The PRD, which claims only 800 members, has some 125 activists, according to the Indonesian armed forces chief for social and political affairs, Lt. Gen. Syarawan Hamid, who was quoted as saying of them in The New York Times: “There aren’t too many but they are very militant. If they are left alone, they will grow.”7 During the last few years, the group, in fact, has had remarkable success in organizing workers and the urban poor in cities across Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi in a series of strikes and demonstrations, some of which involved as many as 20,000 people. The government prefers to explain this phenomenon by citing the devious methods of Communist organizing, rather than acknowledging the deep unrest that has enabled a small, inexperienced group to bring so many people out in protest.

According to Human Rights Watch/ Asia, at least thirty-nine PRD members had been arrested throughout the country by mid-September, many of whom did not participate in the July 27 events.8 All of the arrested PRD members are student activists in their twenties, and some of them have been tortured in prison. When PRD members could not be found, their relatives and friends were picked up by the police. The parents of Budiman Sudjatmiko, the PRD leader who is now under arrest, were forced to denounce him on television.

The only prominent person arrested so far has been Mochtar Pakpahan, the leader of Indonesia’s only independent trade union federation, but his relations with the PRD are not clear. He and nine of the PRD leaders were charged with subversion, a charge that could, though probably will not, carry a death sentence. As I write, the trials are scheduled to start in Jakarta December 12. Three other PRD activists are still being held in Surabaya.

The authorities appear to be looking for a prominent dissident who can be portrayed as the intellectual inspiration for the PRD group. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s leading writer, who spent fourteen of his seventy-two years imprisoned for his leftist views, has been questioned several times since the riots because he accepted a prize from the PRD. “They [the police] were looking for a way to make me the mastermind of the PRD,” he told me. “I told them: it’s better to take an award from them than to take repression from you.”

In similar fashion, the police began threatening the poet Goenawan Mohamad, former editor of the banned news weekly Tempo and chairman of a new independent election monitoring committee known as KIPP.9 Mohamad has been summoned three times for questioning, and many Indonesians I spoke to are worried that this well-known and courageous intellectual may be made a scapegoat for the July events.

The effort of the Soeharto government to intimidate dissenters through interrogations and harassment extends well into civil society, affecting a wide variety of nongovernmental organizations, the press, student groups, and intellectuals, scores of whom have been called in for questioning. The semblance of a pro-democracy movement that began to rally around Megawati is thus being discredited. When I was in Jakarta in early September I was present at a meeting where some twenty nongovernmental organizations complained to the National Human Rights Commission that since the July 27 riots, their offices had been raided and their members were being hounded and detained.


University students and faculty in Indonesia are subjected to compulsory courses on the history of Soeharto’s New Order; these courses are taught by visiting lecturers, who are either military officers or among the few intellectuals trusted by the regime. A man I met at the seminar told me what happened to him in 1989, when, as a twenty-four-year-old student at the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology, he took part in a peaceful demonstration against “the politicization of student life”—a demonstration provoked by a lecture at the university, given by the Minister of Internal Affairs. The student was arrested, tortured, sentenced to three years in prison, expelled from the university, and subsequently unable to get a degree. Describing how he was tortured, he told me: “Every time I gave an unsatisfactory answer, they beat my friend, who was sitting next to me. It was horrible, much worse than being beaten myself.”

In addition to being subjected to lectures on official ideology, professors and students are not allowed to read a wide range of materials that are banned by the authorities. A journalist at the symposium I attended estimated that some two thousand books have been banned since the start of the New Order. The authority for banning now rests with the attorney general’s office, and the topics include such broad categories as “disturbing national security,” “insulting God,” and “conflicting with Pancasila.” Among the books that have been banned are those that criticize Indonesia’s politics and policies, and those that deal with Marxist, Leninist, or Communist thought. Sometimes books with unobjectionable content are banned because of their authors’ politics, as is the case with some of the novels of Pramoedya, who is Indonesia’s most famous living writer. Materials that bear Chinese characters are forbidden, which, one professor wryly commented, has been “a great loss to Chinese studies in Indonesia.” Also banned are books on sex education and books dealing with religion and with capitalism. Researchers who want to use the National Archives need permission from several ministries: “Sometimes we also need approval from the intelligence agency and first have to tell them who our parents are.”

On the Indonesian campuses, I was told, while many students are estranged from Soeharto’s regime, they are cautious. Study groups meet to discuss Marxist ideas but do so in secret. I was told about a group of young lecturers at the University of Indonesia who considered writing an appeal for more humane treatment of the people detained after the July 27 riots, some of whom were their own students. They decided not to do anything, because, one of them told me: “We freaked out and started having nightmares. One false step and our careers were over. We imagined what would happen to us, what could happen…”

Students who are related to Communists—even as nephews or great granddaughters—are automatically under suspicion. And, as one scholar told me,

A postgraduate education in a foreign institution, let alone in a notorious institution such as Cornell, and a concentration—say, in American studies—where you can read ideas of extreme liberation or individualism, can make you guilty of ideological impurity. Maybe you happen to have a wrong message for a wrong audience at the wrong time, with some not very enlightened intelligence officers too enthusiastic to please their supervisors…. The random, irrational, absurd game of chance …can make an intellectual a bit insecure….”10

Academics were quick to point out, however, how inconsistent and inefficient the authorities are. For example, students and teachers are able to get hold of a good many books and publications that government officials would disapprove of if they were aware of them. “The government is repressive but at the same time it is very inefficient,” I was told. “So there’s our academic freedom.”


Inefficiency is only a partial explanation of the confusing mixture of freedom and repression in Indonesia. It also appears that the authorities, short of a total crackdown, are unable to suppress a growing desire for free expression on the part of courageous dissidents who are willing to risk their freedom by testing the limits of repression.

People are prosecuted for “undermining Pancasila,” yet many intellectuals freely mock Soeharto’s use of these principles. Books may be banned, but they are in great demand and are sold in out-of-the-way places at four times their original price. Although publishers risk losing their investment when one of their books is banned, there are some who continue publishing controversial books to test the censorship. Two popular magazines and a newspaper were closed for “irresponsible” reporting in 1994—including Tempo, Indonesia’s leading news weekly—but outspoken articles continue to appear in the press. “When Tempo was closed,” a journalist told me, “its staff was scattered to other papers. You can learn a lot if you read a dozen papers every day.” In 1994, after Tempo was shut down, an independent journalists’ association was formed, and it continues to function, although four of its members are in prison and its general secretary is in hiding. There is even an “underground” (i.e., unregistered) magazine, Suara Independen, written in Indonesia but ostensibly published in Australia, which is regularly sent to subscribers. Suara Independen, I was told, has a print run of 8,000 and a readership of 300,000.

The intellectual and political atmosphere in Indonesia, even in this time of increased pressure from the government, seems lively, even combative. “The government is very unpopular,” I was frequently told. One of my colleagues, who traveled extensively outside Jakarta, reported that virtually everyone she spoke to was talking freely about the coming elections, about Megawati, about Soeharto’s plans for a successor. With some 11,000 nongovernmental organizations, of which between thirty and thirty-five are concerned with some aspect of human rights, the government’s current attempts to suppress a vigorous civil society seem doomed.

“We are consistently inconsistent,” a leading journalist told me. “Indonesia is in a state of confusion in which freedom and control coexist!” He explained that people do not know where they stand because “we depend on one man. He’s seventy-five years old. It’s hard to know what’s on his mind. Guessing about him is our national pastime…. The government doesn’t have a clear answer. Everything has to go through him. He keeps control by being silent…. Please, don’t quote me on this.”


After thirty years in power, Soeharto remains the mystery he was before 1965, when he was a relatively obscure major general just below the top echelon of command. At that time the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was the third largest in the world, with some two million members. President Sukarno was the popular leader of the first independent Indonesian state, which was founded in December 1949 after a four-year guerrilla war with the Dutch. Under Sukarno, Indonesia had a short-lived and imperfect parliamentary democracy. Then, in July 1959, Sukarno dissolved the Konstituante, or Constitutional Assembly, a body set up to draft a permanent constitution, and reinstated the 1945 constitution, which provided for strong executive powers. He consolidated his new policy of “guided democracy,” in which power was concentrated in the president’s hands, and the country became increasingly undemocratic, with dissident citizens allowed no safe outlets of expression.

Among the factors influencing Sukarno were an attempt on his life in late 1957 and regional rebellions, including one in West Sumatra in 1958 by military officers who received logistic and military support from the CIA.11 Intensifying his nationalist position still further, Sukarno became increasingly leftist and anti-Western, while Indonesia’s relations with China and the Soviet Union became closer. In March 1963 the parliament declared Sukarno “President for Life.” In November he became prime minister as well. On March 24, 1964, he told the United States to “go to hell with your aid.” In January 1965 he quit the United Nations when Malaysia, with which it had territorial disputes, was admitted as a member.

Meanwhile, relations between the military and the Communists became increasingly tense, especially when the Communists, protected by Sukarno, began to organize their own armed forces. The Indonesian Communist Party, with close ties to Mao’s China, was becoming increasingly powerful in Indonesia. There was a growing number of Communists and Communist-sympathizers in the government and in the army as well.

According to the Soeharto government’s official version, the Communist Party (PKI) attempted a coup on September 30, 1965, in collusion with an alleged Communist agent, Lieutenant Colonel Untung, commander of one of the battalions of Sukarno’s palace guard. Six generals and a lieutenant were kidnapped and all were brutally killed. Major General Soeharto then assumed command of the army, and the coup plotters were quickly defeated. The official history claims that Sukarno gave Soeharto free rein to bring order to the country; in March 1967 Soeharto became acting president and, in 1968, president.

In reality, Sukarno was forced to yield power to Soeharto and was held under house arrest until he died in 1970. His version of what happened was never made public. But many theories about the coup persist in Indonesia. Private discussions of the events of 1965 are frequent and vivid. Many of the people I met believe that the coup was an internal army affair led by some left-leaning, disaffected, middle-ranking army officers—Lieutenant Colonel Untung, Colonel Latief, and Brigadier General Supardjo—who claimed that a CIA-backed “Council of Generals” was planning a coup against Sukarno. They acknowledge that members of the PKI, including its leader D.N. Aidit, were informed of the impending coup and tacitly supported it; but they believe that the initiative came largely from disaffected army officers. Whether these officers were working in collusion with Sukarno, or were, as they claimed, trying to protect him, remains one of many unresolved questions. It is significant that when Lieutenant Colonel Untung broadcast his new government lineup during the short-lived coup, Sukarno’s name was missing. Soeharto, who subsequently arrested thousands of “unreliable elements” within the military, has nevertheless always played down the involvement of the military in the coup in order to concentrate the blame solely on the Communists.

Why was Soeharto, who commanded the army’s strategic reserve forces and had direct communication with military units throughout Indonesia, not included among the generals who were to be kidnapped? Perhaps because he was close to the alleged coup plotters—Untung and Latief—who had served under him and were his personal friends. Many independent historians agree that Colonel Latief met with Soeharto just hours before the generals were kidnapped, and, at his trial in 1976, Latief testified that he had informed Soeharto of the impending coup. But Soeharto did not participate in the coup, nor did he try to prevent it. Instead, he took command of the army after the army chief, General Yani, was murdered and put down the badly prepared rebellion in less than twenty-four hours.12 A few weeks after the coup the Communist leader Aidit was shot to death in central Java by the army officer who arrested him.

As for the officers involved in the coup, some were tried and executed soon afterward, others were held for twenty years before being executed, and six are still being held, some with death sentences pending. Latief remains in prison today, serving a life sentence. His version of the story, if true, reveals Soeharto as a man bent on power, pretending to play along with the plotters so that he could emerge on top himself.

Soeharto quickly filled all key positions in the army with officers loyal to him. He also launched one of the most vicious purges in modern history. According to a CIA study,

In terms of the numbers killed the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1930s. In this regard the Indonesian coup is certainly one of the most significant events of the 20th century, far more significant than many other events that have received much greater publicity.13

The vast pogrom aimed at eliminating all Communists and Communist sympathizers took place mainly in the countryside, where the army, together with local Muslim youth organizations and vigilantes armed and incited by the army, attacked peasants and villagers suspected of Communist ties, using guns, bayonets, machetes, and knives. Many ethnic Chinese were also murdered. Victims were disfigured and decapitated, their bodies thrown into rivers. The number of victims was so vast that officials in Surabaya in East Java reportedly complained to army officers that the rivers running into Surabaya were choked with bodies. According to conservative estimates, some 500,000 people died, 1,820,000 people were arrested, and tens of thousands were sent to prison or concentration camps. The PKI was completely eliminated.

The role of the CIA in this operation, if any, remains murky. Clearly it was in the interests of US foreign policy to see Sukarno removed and the Communists suppressed. As an Indonesian who lived through the events of 1965 pointed out: “If the CIA wasn’t involved, they should be fired.” But attempts to investigate the possible CIA role are impossible within Indonesia, and those who have made inquiries in the US under the Freedom of Information Act have found that the relevant documents remain classified. One way or another, the US government immediately supported the Soeharto takeover, supplying aid and arms that were used in the Communist slaughter. Francis Galbraith, then deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy, sent a dispatch a month after the killings had begun, saying that he had made it clear to a high-ranking Indonesian army officer that “the embassy and the US government were generally sympathetic with and admiring of what the army was doing.”14 If the US government in any way objected to the killings, there is no evidence of it.

Soeharto’s New Order instituted economic reforms and welcomed Western capital investors. Relations with China soured. The results of the 1965 coup made it a “model coup” in certain circles. A scholar of Latin American affairs whom I met in Indonesia told me that the far left and others in Chile at the time of the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende referred to the Chilean coup as “Operation Jakarta.”


Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, is a sprawling city on the move. Huge skyscrapers and luxurious hotels have been constructed everywhere, and one sees elegant shops amid the remnants of urban slums. The city shows a noticeable lack of any planning, and its maze of roads and impossible traffic jams heighten the sense of economic energy. Soeharto has unquestionably advanced the country economically, thanks to booming oil revenues in the 1970s, some of which were used to develop roads, electricity, telephone service, schools, and medical facilities. He launched successful agricultural programs and subsidies that, combined with a family planning program, made Indonesia, once a major rice importer, self-sufficient in rice. By deregulating the economy in 1988, he encouraged private development, and the impressive growth of the Jakarta Stock Exchange made Indonesia a significant international economic force. In 1995, Indonesia received $4.5 billion from foreign investors, including such US companies as General Electric, Mobil, Dresser Industries, and Hughes Aircraft.

“Absolute poverty,” as defined by the World Bank, decreased in Indonesia from 70 percent in 1965 to 15 percent today. The annual income per capita, $50 in 1950, is now $960, with economic growth averaging 6 percent a year. Indonesia’s per capita income is still considerably below that of Thailand, but three times that of India, with which Indonesia was roughly parallel economically in 1950. Growth has brought predictable problems: a radical disparity between rich and poor and overcrowded living conditions, especially in Jakarta and its industrial outskirts, where one fourth of the urban population of Indonesia lives. The government has been encouraging people to move to sparsely inhabited islands.

Corruption presents a growing obstacle to continued economic growth. It pervades the system, both on a petty level throughout the bureaucracy and on a large scale that enables businessmen to pay under the table for lucrative government contracts or major financing from state banks. Soeharto is surrounded by a small group of industrialists consisting of his own children (four of the six are heavily engaged in business, often competing with each other for various deals) and other business cronies who are mainly ethnic Chinese. They run huge conglomerates including just about everything—oil, gas, lumber, agriculture, plastics, highways, television, advertising, petrochemicals, banks, fertilizers—and they want Soeharto to stay in office as long as possible to protect their interests.

Although ethnic Chinese make up about 4 percent of the population, they have made themselves economically indispensable, controlling about 70 percent of private industry. One of the favored group, Liem Siol Liong, has, with Soeharto’s patronage, become the richest businessman in Southeast Asia. Mochtar Riady is another businessman of Chinese origin whose success derives from exchanging favors with people at the top. The attempts by the Riadys to ingratiate themselves with President Clinton is typical of the way they set up connections that will show Soeharto they are being helpful to the regime as well as to themselves. Their connection to Clinton enhances their importance at home.

Soeharto, meanwhile, continues to have problems with East Timor, the former Portuguese colony that was invaded and forcibly annexed by Indonesia in 1975 and remains under Indonesian military occupation, although the United Nations still does not recognize it as a part of Indonesia. Tens of thousands of people have been killed since the occupation, victims of atrocities and of forced relocation leading to mass starvation, and an insurgency movement continues there. Some estimates of the number of the victims go as high as one third of the population. The extent of the repression is not fully known because the military command immediately imposed a blackout on news and still tries to prevent journalists and human rights monitors from visiting the region.

At first sight, prospects for political change in Indonesia do not seem great. Soeharto’s circle of advisers has become smaller and smaller; he is said to take advice from no one and seems determined to stay on. Most of the people I spoke to seem to believe that the military leaders will take over once the president finally goes and that they will appoint a successor to their liking. Still, such predictions seem at odds with the atmosphere of hopeful excitement that I found in Jakarta when I was there this autumn.

“These are exciting times,” a young actor said. His belief that “change is in the air” was a common theme among intellectuals I met. Despite the recent crackdown, many seemed fired with anticipation, with a sense that something was about to happen. “After all, no one believed that the Berlin Wall would fall. Things can change.”

A journalist, one of the more cautious people I met, at first talked skeptically: “Indonesian society is not ready for change; people are not hungry or angry,” he said. But then he became more outspoken: “A growing number of people are dissatisfied. There’s a new, more prosperous generation, a middle class. They’ve enjoyed development, now they want a political voice. There are thousands of NGOs in Indonesia now. They hand out pamphlets. They have underground printing presses. They circulate rumors and jokes against the government. They’re providing outlets for the pent-up desire to change things.” Even a member of the official National Human Rights Commission said: “There is an opening up. People won’t accept the situation of five years ago.”

Many people, however, fear that change will be violent, especially because Indonesia has never confronted the horrible bloodbath of the Sixties, which was accomplished with the active cooperation of citizens who took part in the killing. There has been no national “truth commission” to ascertain the facts, no attempt to determine accountability. More than a few Indonesian intellectuals told me they feared that because Indonesians do not understand the dark forces that possessed the country at that time, there could easily be a recurrence.

Two men in their seventies whose political lives span the Sukarno-Soeharto era, but whose politics are radically different, had surprisingly similar views of the future. The writer Mochtar Lubis, an anti-Communist and a former political prisoner under both Sukarno and Soeharto, told me: “Our generation is past. There’s a new generation coming in, much better educated than my generation, educated abroad. They are now in position. That’s where my hope lies for the future. In that sense I am optimistic.” And the leftist writer Pramoedya remarked: “Those in power are lining up for their graves. The future of Indonesia is in the hands of the young. It is our only hope.”

They were, of course, describing the young, active members of the civil society that has been making its presence felt in the current campaigns for free expression in Indonesia. Denied a political voice, they are still the most outspoken part of an inchoate—and uncounted—political opposition. Mr. Soeharto would be wise to give them the political freedom and legal channels through which to express themselves. When change finally comes to Indonesia, it is hard to imagine that these activists will not insist on having a part in their country’s future.

December 12, 1996

This Issue

January 9, 1997