Indonesia's Second Chance

Some 30 years ago, a little-known general named Suharto saved Indonesia from political crisis and dragged it back from the brink of violent disintegration.

In 1998, the question is whether Suharto can exercise the same skill, shrewdness, and courage to save Indonesia from economic crisis and the specter of disintegration. It's a second chance for Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, to achieve the prosperity and greatness that has eluded it since it won freedom from the Dutch in 1945.

The man who brought Indonesia to its nationhood was President Sukarno, a charismatic but morally corrupt revolutionary. For two decades, he cast the spell of his political magic. But, because of mismanagement, the economy failed to develop, and Indonesia was plunged into poverty and hunger. Sukarno became increasingly anti-Western, found comfort in communism, and became a client of the Soviet Union and an ideological ally of China.

In 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party, in complicity with low-level dissident military officers, attempted a coup against the largely pro-Western leadership of the Indonesian Army. Seven top generals were targeted for capture, dead or alive. Three were killed when they resisted. Three were captured, tortured, and later killed. One escaped injured, but his daughter was killed in the firefight.

The plotters neglected to include the commander of KOSTRAD, the Army's strategic reserve, on the list of those to be eliminated. Of humble origin, Suharto had worked his way up through the Army's officer corps. In the revolutionary fight against the Dutch, he rose from battalion commander to brigade commander. In 1962, he was given command of operations against the Dutch in West New Guinea. A year later, he was appointed commander of KOSTRAD.

General Suharto was not at home the night his colleagues were murdered. He had taken his son fishing. When he returned to his house the next morning, he found it in confusion amid reports of the generals' capture, a communist coup under way, and uncertainty about the role and whereabouts of Sukarno. He drove to KOSTRAD headquarters, where the pattern of events began to emerge. Suharto rallied other officers, announced he was taking over leadership of the Army, and confined all troops to barracks until he could sort out friend from foe.

In the months following, the Army swept across Indonesia, purging tens of thousands of communists and communist sympathizers. Many surviving generals assumed Sukarno would declaim against the plotters. When he didn't, the process began that would end with his ouster. The generals maneuvered to circumscribe his power, and the Army encouraged massive street demonstrations against him. Jakarta, the capital, was on the brink of anarchy. Sukarno was presented with an ultimatum by the generals and ceded power to Suharto. The process, which took months, was conducted with skill and subtlety.

Now, after 30 years of Suharto's rule, Indonesia is transformed but has not fulfilled its promise. Rich in oil, timber, minerals, and metals, the economy has prospered, but not much of that wealth has gone to the upper and middle classes, and it certainly has not filtered down to the masses living at subsistence level. Corruption is rife. President Suharto's family members and cronies have been particular beneficiaries. Confidence in Indonesia has eroded. Indonesians are restless. There is discussion about whether Suharto should run again when his term expires in March.

Last week, President Suharto signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that would initiate tough reforms to put Indonesia on a stable economic course.

Can he survive, or will he be edged out as he edged out Sukarno three decades ago? The Indonesian shadow dance that will determine the answer is under way, with the Indonesian military a significant performer. What is clear is that the Indonesian people deserve a better fate than their leaders have given them since independence.

* John Hughes won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Indonesia in the 1960s.

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