Indonesian Dj Vu - Shadow Dance Reprise

At the time of writing this column, President Suharto clings to uneasy power in an Indonesia overtaken by despair and turbulence.

But events in the capital of Jakarta are eerily similar to those 32 years ago when Suharto ousted Indonesia's legendary leader, President Sukarno.

Now, as then, long-simmering discontent has exploded in violence. Now, as then, the Chinese minority has been the target of much of the violence, but the real target is the ruling regime. Now, as then, the spearhead of the political offensive against the regime is made up of students, demonstrating in the streets in their thousands. Now, as then, the army has not used its full force to crush the students. Now, as then, many of the students are the sons and daughters of army generals secretly sympathetic to their cause. Now, as then, the country's ruler is maneuvering desperately to retain control. Now, as then, the army is the key to his survival.

Whether the outcome of 32 years ago is to be repeated today with Suharto's formal ouster remains to be seen. What does seem evident is that although some figurehead role may be devised for him, the era of his rule is coming to an end.

The violence has been too extensive for business to continue as usual. Pictures of the carnage in the streets, and of fleeing foreigners, have been flashed around the world. Indonesia has become economically and politically isolated. Washington is disillusioned with Suharto. Though Western news organizations may have given short shrift to Indonesia for years, the public perception is now widespread that Indonesia has lost its way.

While the army, as it did 32 years ago, can determine the outcome of events today, there is one difference. In the 1960s, President Sukarno brought Indonesia to such financial ruin by his maladministration that generals were earning $30 a month and running businesses on the side to survive.

Under Suharto, the Indonesian economy has prospered, and with it the lot of many senior army officers. But the new prosperity has not filtered down to the masses.

Thus the generals face a dilemma - how to restructure their country and usher in new leadership without undermining their lucrative perks.

The resolution to all this will probably evolve in a peculiarly Indonesian, and especially Javanese, way. Thirty years ago, the army could easily have seized President Sukarno and executed or exiled him overnight. But the drama of his ouster was played out over a period of months. Those who took part in it told me at the time that there was no table-thumping or confrontational shouting by the generals. Rather, there was suasion, nudging, maneuvering, and encouragement of student demonstrations in the streets to maintain the threat of anarchy. Suharto, then a general who had taken control of the army after an abortive communist coup attempt, was criticized by some for allowing the transition to take so long.

But he is a man steeped in mysticism, a longtime consulter of soothsayers, and he wanted graceful change in disposing of Sukarno, who for all his faults was the father of Indonesian nationalism.

Almost certainly, the mysticism and the soothsayers continue to play a role today as the president ponders his tactics and future.

What we are likely to see is a traditional Indonesian shadow dance as Suharto and his generals maneuver and orchestrate his abdication from real power.

Thus the question is what comes next? The army will not surrender its role as political kingmaker. Will some as yet unknown military man simply succeed Suharto and continue his policies?

We must hope not.

Indonesia has lagged behind South Korea, the Philippines, and the rest of Southeast Asia, in twinning political freedom with economic development. Surely, after 30 years of lost opportunity, Indonesia deserves a fling with democracy.

But the military is unlikely to cede power directly to a fragmented political opposition with no experience in ruling.

What we need now is a recognition by Indonesia's power structure of a basic rule of governance, namely that economic well-being and political freedom go hand in hand. The first cannot succeed without the latter.

That should trigger the movement toward democracy that Indonesians long for.

* John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won the Pulitzer prize for his coverage of Indonesia in the 1960s.

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