Another Year of Living Dangerously?

Another Year of Living Dangerously?

Mini Teaser: Indonesia's crisis could cause the strategic upending of Southeast Asia. American policymakers may need to act quickly and wisely to prevent a security nightmare.

by Author(s): Rajan Menon

Indonesia's now-familiar piles of corpses and streams of refugees
are also visible in Kalimantan. Encouraged as in other instances by
government programs to relieve Indonesia's most crowded islands and
to provide labor for foreign investment projects, Madurese migrants
poured in, some 100,000 in the 1980s alone. Kalimantan's Dayaks and
Malays saw the arrivistes make economic gains and take government
jobs. Jakarta's efforts to develop Kalimantan might have gained Dayak
and Malay support, but insensitivity to property rights, the
environment, and established social arrangements focused local
attention on the unequal distribution of gains and the loss of
control to outsiders. When the New Order began to teeter, spasms of
violence gripped central and west Kalimantan. The latest episode of
bloodletting occurred in the town of Sampit in February and March.
Dayaks decapitated Madurese, displayed their heads on staves, and
burned their homes and businesses to the ground. Tens of thousands of
Madurese fled to other parts of Kalimantan; 60,000 others escaped the
island aboard Indonesian navy vessels.

Kalimantan's orgy of bloodletting is not a simple product of
religious and ethnic hatred, although that emotion is certainly
present. As in Aceh and West Papua, social transformations with
internal and external origins and the fall of Suharto's regime
provided the context. Moreover, Christian and Muslim Dayaks joined
Muslim Malays to attack Muslim Madurese. Although the unrest in
Kalimantan and in Lombok and Sulawesi (also scenes of clashes between
Muslims and Christians) highlights the central government's
feebleness and could speed Indonesia's collapse, secessionism is not
the main motif in these areas. But the nascent nationalism in Riau
province, Indonesia's Malay heartland, is more worrisome in that

Riau is Indonesia's largest oil producing area and a major site of
Singaporean investment, yet it is one of Indonesia's poorest regions,
with 40 percent of its four million people living in poverty. The
familiar combination of cultural distinctiveness and the feeling that
local wealth does not benefit local people is incubating an angry
nationalism in Riau. The implications of secession spreading to Riau
are enormous--and not just for Indonesia. Unrest in Riau has already
led to a sharp reduction in oil production by Caltex Pacifica
Indonesia, owned by Chevron and Texaco. Furthermore, Riau covers a
large swath of Sumatra's littoral that overlooks the Malacca Strait,
the world's most important shipping channel, which is made narrower
by thousands of Riau's islands that clutter its southern end.

The State of Failure

A state capable of knitting concord from discord, implementing (not
merely proclaiming) reform, and restoring order is what Indonesia has
needed to stanch the economic crisis, secessionism and communal
butchery that increasingly threaten to undo it. Alas, such a state is
precisely what Indonesia has lacked. What it had from October 1999 to
July of this year was a tragicomic government personified by
President Abdurrahman Wahid. Virtually blind, frail and given to
inconsistent Delphic utterances, he became the feckless leader of an
entropic government.

Erudite, a proponent of tolerance and long a respected religious and
political leader, Wahid personified the aphorism that the road to
hell is paved with good intentions. To preserve Indonesia, he offered
ceasefires and autonomy to rebellious regions. The offerings failed
to appease separatists, but they did convince the military and both
Islamist and nationalist parties that he was destroying the country
on the installment plan. Indeed, Wahid's political instincts were
peculiar, and sowed confusion. To end Aceh's war, he proposed a
referendum, but later depicted the idea as a personal opinion. He
decreed that the Morning Star, West Papua's long-illegal banner of
independence, could be flown, but only below the Indonesian flag. He
continued visiting the Middle East and North Africa as Madurese were
being slaughtered in Kalimantan, saying that the chaos was under
control and had been exaggerated.

The popular support Wahid enjoyed upon taking up the presidency was
eventually shredded by the weakness of Indonesia's economy and the
pandemonium that is its politics. Charges of incompetence and
allegations of corruption led to censure by the parliament, which
summoned a session of the MPR in 2001 to remove him, advancing the
conclave from August to July once Wahid threatened extreme measures.
With the armed forces and the police refusing to support him, Wahid's
threats to declare an emergency, suspend parliament and call new
elections proved mere bluster. He stood friendless in Jakarta's
political arena and was replaced by Megawati Sukarnoputri, with whom
his relationship can most charitably be described as having been
frosty. Wahid's political demise was a foregone conclusion--to
everyone but himself--and his efforts to cling to office by
threatening martial law and hinting at demonstrations by his
supporters combined pathos with political psychosis.

But Indonesia's summer struggles were far more than petty intrigue.
They could have turned violent, making Indonesia a war zone at both
its periphery and its center. All of the principals had (and still
have) zealous followers ready to mobilize on their behalf and
paramilitary units willing to fight. Neither Megawati nor her
Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), had forgotten that
the MPR made Wahid president even though his National Awakening Party
(PKB) won only ten percent of the seats in parliament in the 1999
elections, compared to the PDI-P's 30 percent. Megawati also has a
paramilitary group, Satgas pdi-p, the Red Bulls. The 35 million
members of Wahid's Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) saw him
as an icon under assault and those within Banser, NU's paramilitary
arm, had pledged to die for him. In East Java, Wahid's home region,
his supporters attacked the offices of rival parties and threatened
their leaders while parliament convened for its censure motions. The
country was on edge, and Wahid's defense minister warned of the
dangers of a military coup. It is one thing to have Indonesia's
far-flung provinces in rebellion; one can imagine a truncated, yet
still substantial Indonesia enduring minus some of its most
rebellious provinces. But civil war in Jakarta could well have
finished off the country, as it nearly did in 1965-66, Indonesia's
infamous year of living dangerously.

With Wahid's peaceful departure at the end of July, Indonesia dodged
a bullet. Wahid was finished once the military leaders condemned his
plan to declare an emergency. But their conduct sprung less from
democratic punctiliousness than from the cold-eyed calculation that
Wahid was doomed. The military had little reason to rescue him. They
blamed him for aggravating separatism. They considered his
willingness to discuss investigations into past military misconduct
in Aceh and West Papua as both insulting and dangerous, not least
because a dragnet could ensnare many senior officers. They regarded
his plan to allow the provinces greater control over revenues as
tantamount to emasculating the state.

Yet the military leadership bears much responsibility for Wahid's
inability to control the armed forces. They joined senior police
officers and rallied behind Indonesia's police chief when he refused
to quit after Wahid fired him. They worked through Megawati to
scuttle Wahid's choice for army commander. The security forces in
general are widely thought to be organizing or supporting
paramilitary groups, and Laskar Jihad's ability to sail to Maluku
fully armed, despite presidential directives to prevent its passage,
fed such speculation. Many Indonesians believe that the military has
failed, as in Kalimantan, to stop violence with dispatch in order to
promote clamor for a strong hand. Such speculation is testimony both
to the aura of crisis in Indonesia and to the enormous political
power the military has long held. That power has derived from its
reserved bloc of parliamentary seats, Suharto's practice of assigning
officers to top posts in the provinces, and the territorial command
system that makes the army central to the governance of outlying
provinces and districts. These practices were slated to end, and thus
the military had much to lose--and much to protect.

Megawati's advent offers Indonesia a chance for a fresh start. But it
would be foolhardy to assume that Wahid was the nub of the problem.
The economy remains in a parlous state, separatism is rampant,
bombings are a daily occurrence, the state's inability to provide
order has spawned vigilantism in places like Lombok, and the military
has emerged politically stronger from Wahid's ouster. The world must
wish Megawati well, but her background provides little basis for
confidence that she can end the plotting, create consensus, implement
economic reforms or avert fragmentation. She entered the Indonesian
political arena only in 1993, with her lineage as Sukarno's daughter
being her greatest asset. She is short on hands-on experience and has
articulated no clear plan of action. She has a large popular
following and, because of that, more support in parliament than
Wahid, from whose blunders she has presumably learned. But the
kingmakers who sacked Wahid are the very ones who maneuvered to
choose him over her in October 1999.

Megawati's popularity among poor Indonesians may make economic austerity harder to enact. Nor is it clear that she can break the back of the vested interests that are powerful, wealthy, entrenched and hostile to reform. A staunch nationalist, heir to the creation of her father and a critic of far-reaching autonomy, she may unleash the army against separatists. But that would only hasten disaster and probably kill Indonesia's democracy in the process. Moreover, Wahid's fate shows that the military remains politically potent. What it did to Wahid, it could do to Megawati. No matter who is at the helm, the problems eating away at Indonesia have a long history and defy quick solutions. Megawati is not destined to fail, and her first major speech to the country on August 16 was surprisingly strong and well received. But the euphoria and relief accompanying her accession to the presidency, while understandable, are no excuse to let wishes father thoughts.

Essay Types: Essay