Values, Faith May Plug Indonesia's Volcanic Crisis

Riots feared as crisis in economy hits. But Muslim, Javanese ways may help create calm.

It's not what Indonesians expected to hear before a national religious celebration.

First, inflation is suddenly double digit. Then, the usual one-month salary bonus at this time won't likely be handed out. And, oh by the way, at least a million jobs may be terminated.

Such news has turned Indonesia into a trembling political volcano on this archipelago of 200 million people.

Across a country that is about 90-percent Muslim, celebrations are planned this weekend to mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Activities circling the Idul Fitri holiday are similar to Christmas, with gift giving, feasting, and family reunions.

Hoping to avert potential unrest, the government took steps Jan. 27 to reform ailing banks and companies in hopes of reviving an economy in free fall (see story at right).

But analysts expect religion to also play a major role in keeping the peace on a potentially turbulent political and social stage.

Islamic leader's key role

Abdurrahman Wahid, who leads Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, is a moderate voice respected by various religious and political leaders, wealthy intellectuals, and the poor.

Before falling ill earlier this month, he was trying to join his 30-million-strong Nahadlatul Ulama with two other opposition leaders to form a common approach to pressure President Suharto to step down after 32 years in power instead of seeking another six-year term in March.

"Wahid holds the key to political stability in the country," said Marzuki Darusman, head of the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights. "He is the crucial factor in the overall equation of an umbrella alliance of some sort."

And that is quite important in a nation where people have no little power, outside the government, to guide them through troubled times. It is especially worrisome to secular-minded Indonesians bearing in mind that one of Suharto's potential successors, B.J. Habibie, heads a less-tolerant Muslim organization.

Ethnic diversity

Indonesians inhabit 9,000 islands and comprise 300 ethnic groups. It is the world's largest Muslim nation but a minority follows Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and animist faiths. There is also a small but economically powerful Chinese community who have often been the target of violent resentment.

Lashing out at minorities is one thing, but the Javanese - the dominant ethnic group - traditionally shy away from speaking out against their leaders. That is partly why Suharto has managed to stay in power for three decades and why the recent calls by intellectuals, ex-generals, business leaders, and others for him to step down are particularly remarkable.

"Basically, Javanese values are very unfriendly towards being frank, being forthright, being open, being critical of other people's actions," Darusman said.

But some intellectuals reject stereotyping the Javanese, saying they are as modern as Indonesia itself, having become more culturally homogeneous in the expanding global economy. The archipelago is no longer a nation of rice farms and clove plantations. Glittering skyscrapers define the Jakarta skyline; malls with marble floors house designer boutiques.

The Javanese don't mind, however, being stereotyped as nonviolent and a people who shun emotional outbursts.

"Indonesian people are used to calm," said Dewi Noviriani, a lawyer with the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute, a non-governmental organization. "The people here remained calm even though the government closed 16 banks and only gave them a small amount of rupiah," the local currency.

When Javanese erupt

But the common belief is that when anger does erupt it does so with ferocity as people seek to vent pent-up emotions. That is part of the reason people are so fearful of potential unrest stemming from political tension and economic hardship as the government implements belt-tightening measures to benefit from a $40 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Already, sporadic riots have broken out, brought on by food shortages, high prices, and resentment against wealthy Chinese merchants, a small minority.

Even the military has joined in rebuking the Chinese, warning business leaders against taking hard currency out of the country and calling in their spokesman, Sofjan Wanandi, an influential businessman, for questioning in connection with a bomb blast in the capital Jan. 18.

Wanandi used to be an outspoken government critic. But he emerged from his meeting with the authorities on Jan. 26 adamantly denying any connection with a banned political group linked to the blast, saying he was "afraid to talk about politics."

Instead, he called on all Indonesians and ethnic Chinese to bring money back if they have spirited it abroad and to work together to overcome the economic crisis.

"The situation is so bad I can tell you now that we have to be united," he said. "There's no other way. We have to unite not only in economy matters but also in political matters ... be united just for the sake of the survival of Indonesia."

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