Southeast Asia has been a costly reminder to Americans that the significance of a country and the attention it receives are separate matters. In the 1960s American commitments, losses and protests greatly inflated the importance of South Vietnam to the United States. Illustrating the opposite distortion in the 1980s is Indonesia, a vast and resource-rich archipelago that remains unknown to most Americans.

Indonesia’s visibility will increase in the years to come. Not because of prolonged headline-generating instability: Indonesia is not a Philippines in the making. Not because of rapid economic growth: Indonesia is less likely than Thailand or Malaysia to become, after Singapore, the second successfully industrializing Southeast Asian country. And not because of big-power ambitions: although it aspires to the status of a major power and occasionally feels constrained by the need to cooperate with its smaller neighbors, Indonesia is not preparing to abandon or override the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

What will make Indonesia better known is its success or failure in selecting someone to replace General Suharto, who has been president for nearly two decades and whose mandate is scheduled for another five-year renewal in March 1988. Indonesia must also adjust to the end of the OPEC-driven joyride in oil and gas, Indonesia’s main exports, whose slack prices have forced the government to devalue the rupiah, cut domestic spending and add to its already substantial burden of foreign debt. Meanwhile, autonomist groups in East Timor and Irian Jaya, regions that were coerced into joining Indonesia, and fundamentalist Muslims, who resent living in a heterodox society under a non-Islamic state, are testing the ability of the central government to implement the national motto, "Unity in Diversity."

The New Order, as Suharto’s regime has been called, retains considerable resources. Not least among these are the president’s own political skills and the proficiency and reputation of the technocrats on whom he relies for economic advice. A political format resilient enough to have lasted two decades has a good chance of surviving for another two. All the more reason to pay attention to this important but little-known country, in order to understand in advance the political and economic transitions it is preparing to undergo. That understanding can, in turn, lessen the chance of an inappropriate response should events in Jakarta put Washington on the spot.


If in the creation of a regime one can read a scenario for its future replacement, what happened in 1965-66 when Suharto took power from Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, augurs ill for the serenity of the next succession. Within the army an attempted coup was reversed and used to justify a massive countercoup that left hundreds of thousands of leftists dead or detained. Because it capped a history of instability and showed what damage intramilitary violence could do, the birth trauma of the New Order warrants review.

The trauma began in Jakarta early on October 1, 1965. Six high-ranking anti-communist generals, including the army commander, were seized and killed at the behest of dissident officers acting in a degree of concert with the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Ostensibly led by an army lieutenant colonel named Untung, the conspirators seized the Jakarta radio station and broadcast an indictment of their superiors, one that could be repeated by future coup-makers against the present military regime if it is not careful.

"Power-mad generals," said the rebel announcer, quoting Untung, "have neglected the lot of their men." They "have lived in luxury, . . . insulted our women and wasted government funds." They "must be kicked out of the army and punished." "The army is not for generals," Untung continued; it belongs to "all the soldiers" who are "loyal to the ideals of the revolution of August 1945."

August 17, 1945, is the sacred date in Indonesian nationalist history, when Sukarno proclaimed the independence of the republic. On the next day he became its first president, and for the next five years he would lead what became known as the "1945 revolution"—a chaotic series of military and political campaigns, interspersed with negotiations, aimed at stopping the Dutch from reacquiring their former colony from the defeated Japanese.

In 1948 in the city of Madiun on Java, the densely populated and politically pivotal island where some three-fifths of all Indonesians live, a revolt brewed within this revolution. Leftist Indonesian forces occupied the city and its radio station and broadcast denunciations of the leadership of the republic. The militants were especially angered by the plans of officers with backgrounds in the Dutch colonial army, notably a divisional commander named Abdul Haris Nasution, to rationalize and professionalize the republican armed forces. The leftists viewed such officers with suspicion as elitists who might be scheming with the Dutch to demobilize and disband the revolution’s true protagonists—young, radical and anti-capitalist.

For most of the top leaders of the PKI, who had not participated in the uprising, the coup d’état in Madiun created a painful choice: to side with Sukarno and betray their party’s own left wing or to back the rebels and betray the republic. Already too deeply committed, the party joined the uprising and was severely beaten. Nasution’s division recaptured the city, killing many Communists in battle, executing others after capture and purging leftist dissidents from the army.

With moderates more firmly in control of the fledgling republic, the United States could support it more readily. Their own anticolonial history and their growing conviction that the Dutch could not win militarily were additional reasons for the Americans to favor negotiations toward Indonesian independence. Holland eventually ceded all of its ex-colony save the western half of New Guinea. No longer seriously contested from the outside, a unitary Republic of Indonesia was established on August 17, 1950, with Sukarno still in charge.

Over the next 15 years the Indonesian government tried and abandoned parliamentary democracy, put down religious and regional challenges to central authority, and finally moved leftward, propelled by Sukarno’s increasingly strident brand of nationalism and the recovery and growth of the PKI into the world’s third largest communist party.

By 1964-65 Sukarno’s regime was in full disarray: radical posturing and political instability reinforced diplomatic isolation, and all three accelerated economic decline. Abroad, Indonesia renounced Western aid, walked out of the United Nations, withdrew from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and lined up with Maoist China on an axis from Jakarta to Beijing. At home, production fell and inflation rose. When Java was hit by famine and Western observers predicted still worse times ahead for the economy, Sukarno shouted at them in English over national radio, "Go to hell!" In the same speech he pictured his political enemies eagerly awaiting his death in order to take his place. It seems clear from the context that he had in mind the chance of an anti-communist military coup.

In August 1965 Sukarno fell ill. Rumors circulated that he might die. If he did, who would fill the vacuum? Left and right worried lest the other side move first.

In what purported to be a preemptive strike to protect Sukarno from a military coup of the kind he had alluded to, Untung’s group moved first, on October 1. The coup-makers claimed to have cleansed the army of counterrevolutionary generals who had been plotting, with help from the American CIA, to overthrow the president. A "Revolutionary Council" was announced and given supreme authority over the nation. Of the council’s 45 ostensible members (many of whom had not been consulted), half were military officers, including the chairman and vice chairmen; only four were civilian members of the PKI. Reinforcing the junior-against-senior-officer theme, Lieutenant Colonel Untung declared that henceforth the highest rank in the armed forces would be his own, and that all enlisted men and noncommissioned officers throughout the military who were willing to support his movement would be promoted one rank—two ranks for those who had actually participated in that morning’s "purge" of the generals.

Untung got no further. It was General Suharto’s turn to move. He rallied the army, neutralized dissident troops, blamed the Communists, banned their party, hunted them down, dismissed the cabinet and isolated Sukarno. By ridding it of leftists and Sukarnoists, Suharto revamped the People’s Consultative Assembly, empowered by the constitution to elect the president. The body that had named Sukarno "president for life" in 1963 replaced him with Suharto as acting president in 1967 and as full president the following year. Sukarno died powerless in 1970.

Outside Indonesia there is a widespread misperception that most of the hundreds of thousands killed in the violence of 1965-66 were ethnic Chinese. A more plausible estimate is that among those who died the Chinese were underrepresented compared with their already small (three percent) share of the population. But the anti-communism of the times encouraged some Muslim hotheads to dust off the old stereotype of the Chinese as wealthy, disloyal infidels—an explosive image fusing class, national and religious prejudices. In cities and towns mobs hounded and killed Chinese, looting their shops and homes. Rumors spread that China had known in advance of Untung’s coup plans and had smuggled weapons into Indonesia to help him succeed. A series of attacks on the Chinese embassy in Jakarta led in 1967 to a suspension of diplomatic relations with Beijing that remains in effect today.

Analysts still disagree over where to locate the "true" source of Untung’s conspiracy: within the armed forces or within the PKI. Who was the instigator, who the scapegoat? Less plausibly, responsibility for what happened on October 1, 1965, has been assigned to Sukarno, the CIA and even Suharto himself. But if the prologue to the affair remains in doubt, its consequences do not. Suharto’s countercoup laid the basis of an authoritarian regime led by officers and technocrats preoccupied with political stability and economic growth and willing to work with the West. Suharto and the economy settled down to business, and both did well. The routine workings of stability and growth that made American business and government elites favor Indonesia caused Western news media to lose interest for lack of a story.


The annexation of formerly Portuguese East Timor in 1975-76 was only a partial exception to the rule of Indonesian invisibility.

The facts of the affair were harrowing enough: in August 1975 in a brief war between moderate and radical nationalist East Timorese, several thousand died. The Portuguese withdrew and the radicals prevailed. The Indonesians, having given notice that they would not tolerate an independent, leftist half-island state inside their own archipelago, rallied the defeated moderates, sponsored a political party advocating integration with Indonesia, and applied military pressure. In November 1975 radicals tried to create a legal fait accompli by proclaiming the Democratic Republic of East Timor and appealing for international recognition. In December the Indonesians invaded by land, sea and air, and they made the territory their 27th province the following year. The radicals took to the hills to start a guerrilla war that still goes on.

The fighting, and especially the famine and disease bred by it, may have reduced by a third or more the 650,000 people who lived in East Timor before the invasion. Yet in relation to its scale the tragedy occupied little American television time or press space. U.S. media in 1975-76 were preoccupied with the fall of Indochina and the flight of its refugees.

As for Washington, realpolitik dictated that it look the other way. In retrospect, before its annexation by Jakarta, East Timor was a small, doomed anachronism—comparable to Goa before New Delhi swallowed that Portuguese enclave in 1961. As Henry Kissinger observed in 1975, Washington had "enough problems of greater importance" elsewhere not to make an issue of East Timor. In Washington’s eyes the half-island was in any case better governed by Indonesia than by a leftist "democratic republic." Nor did Jakarta’s policy of denying or managing the access of foreign journalists to East Timor facilitate exposure of what was going on.

More obscure still is what Australian journalist Robin Osborne has called "Indonesia’s secret war" in Irian Jaya, the province of eastern Indonesia that western New Guinea became. Compared with what happened in East Timor, the fighting in Irian Jaya has been more sporadic, less intense and spread out over a longer period. At the heart of the unrest lie grievances of the indigenous Papuans against Indonesian rule.

Although militarily East Timor has been more of a problem to Jakarta than Irian Jaya, the latter holds greater potential for future trouble. While the land border of East Timor makes counterinsurgency easier by enabling Indonesian troops to enter from their own soil, Irian Jaya’s much longer land boundary facilitates insurrection. Unlike their Timorese counterparts, refugees by land from Irian Jaya find themselves in another country, Papua New Guinea, where someday they may be able to create bases in support of anti-Jakarta guerrillas on the Indonesian side, especially should a future government in Port Moresby decide to support their aims.

The line through New Guinea splits a loosely "Melanesian" zone overlapping Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. The geographic, demographic and linguistic barriers to creating a pan-Melanesian identity are enormous. Scattered across a swath of Pacific waters, from eastern Indonesia through the Solomons and Vanuatu to Fiji and New Caledonia, the Melanesians—broadly defined—account for less than one tenth of one percent of the world’s population yet speak as many as a fourth of the world’s languages. Some 800 distinct languages are spoken on the island of New Guinea alone.

Irian Jaya’s mountainous terrain favors guerrilla operations, but it inhibits the growth of a transtribal "West Papuan" identity, let alone a New Guinea-wide Papuan or transinsular Melanesian one, needed to popularize the revolt. The leaders of Papua New Guinea have not been eager to antagonize their giant neighbor or to cultivate a refugee-based insurgency that could grow out of control. If they are not checked, however, Indonesian repression and maltreatment—including Javanese feelings of superiority over a less "civilized" population—could broaden the base of Papuan resistance. A pan-ethnic identity need be no less deeply felt for having modern-political rather than traditional-cultural origins.

Anti-Javanese sentiments in Irian Jaya should also be viewed in demographic context. In terms of the flow of its population, Indonesia resembles the top half of a wheel. Java, Madura and Bali are the tightly packed hub from which migrants move along spoke-like air and sea corridors to and from a rim of "outer islands," the largest of which are Sumatra, Kalimantan and Irian Jaya. The density of settlement and scarcity of land at the hub compared with the rim have impelled Jakarta to resettle slightly more than a million families at some 250 sites around the archipelago since 1969.

This "transmigration" has fueled the insurgency in Irian Jaya by giving flesh to Irianese fears of Javanese colonization. More recently, ecological damage done by transmigrant settlements has attracted criticism from abroad. The resulting attention, however modest, has helped to publicize conditions in the province, and that has marginally improved the rebels’ ability to make their case overseas. But the impetus to transport new families from hub to rim has weakened under the pressure of falling oil prices, which have led to major cutbacks in Jakarta’s budgets for transmigration. The World Bank, long an assiduous lender for such projects, has been persuaded to pay more attention to the environment, and that has further reduced the priority on moving more people. As the growth of the controversial program is slowed, its recruiting advantage to the insurgents will decline.

Neither East Timor nor Irian Jaya has the potential to secede from Indonesia in the foreseeable future. But the location, ethnic makeup and frontier status of the larger half-island suggest that Indonesian governments to come may find it easier to have erased an artificial border on Timor than to defend one on New Guinea.


In a nation so vast and varied the integration of periphery with center is a structural problem to be resolved only in the long run. Of more immediate concern is the economy, whose record of growth is being jeopardized by weak prices for Indonesian exports.

Up to now, economic development and political stability have been the New Order’s strongest suits, in contrast to the decay and chaos of the Sukarno years. Between 1965 and 1968 Indonesia’s annual inflation rate was brought down from 600 to ten percent, and the government’s budget deficit cut from 64 percent of expenditures to zero. From 1965 to 1985 per-capita GNP rose on the average by 4.8 percent per year—faster than in any other Southeast Asian country save Singapore. By 1982 the World Bank could reclassify perennially "low-income" Indonesia as a "middle-income" country.

Political clout, wise decisions, foreign loans and OPEC prices have been the interlocking keys to the economic success of Indonesia’s New Order. Without sufficient authority and will, Suharto could not have reversed Sukarno’s beggar-the-economy policies. Mandated and protected by Suharto, Western-trained technocrats could resurrect the market and reopen the economy, safe from the political risk of being seen to impose fresh austerities on an exhausted population while enticing foreign investors with easy terms. In the absence of such drastic steps foreign donors, lenders and investors would not have rallied so massively in support of the new government. Nor would Indonesia’s Western and Japanese backers have been so willing to commit themselves had Indonesia lacked oil and gas, or had OPEC (Indonesia is its sole Asian member) not boosted world prices to a record high of $34 per barrel or equivalent in 1981.

These connections also worked in reverse, from oil back through policy to politics. Suharto’s Indonesia has not been immune from the profligacy that hydrocarbon windfalls tend to induce in their recipients. Under the free-spending leadership of Suharto’s old friend and army colleague General Ibnu Sutowo, the national oil company, Pertamina, bypassed the technocrats to borrow at commercial rates huge sums for dubious purposes. The resulting debt balloon—$10.5 billion—burst in 1975 when the company defaulted on a loan from a Texas bank. Sutowo was eventually fired and the technocrats were called in to clean up the mess. The affair cost Indonesia dearly, but at least it strengthened the economists’ position and discouraged the grandiose overoptimism that Sutowo had come to personify.

Corruption remains widespread, but petroleum dreams have not replaced sound policies in Indonesia. Knowing that oil and gas were in finite supply and their prices artificially high, the technocrats sought to use the bonanza to develop agriculture and industry and diversify exports. Returns on hydrocarbons enabled the government to import and subsidize the fertilizers and pesticides and to finance the irrigation networks needed to make best use of the new high-yielding varieties of rice—a politically crucial food in which the country became at least temporarily self-sufficient.

Roads, schools, clinics and markets were built and repaired and people were employed. Enhancing the long-term worth of these measures was a successful family planning program that benefited from President Suharto’s strong commitment to reducing the population pressure on future generations. By attending to the rural areas, where three-fourths of all Indonesians still live, the government created a growing constituency of villagers who had more things to buy, more places to go and more choices to make for themselves and their children.

It is not that economic development has made the government uniformly popular. While helping some people, modernization has endangered others, notably those whose labor could be displaced by machines. Rather, by promoting the countryside’s transformation, the government has become indispensable to a kind of life—modern life—that villagers understand to be the future. In this sense the legitimacy of the New Order reflects less the personal popularity of the men leading it than the prudence of the peasants caught up in it. For all his charisma, Sukarno could be ignored; he delivered mainly speeches. Suharto delivers the goods.

Or at least he used to. Dragged down by falling oil prices, the annual rate of growth in real GDP gave up six points between 1981 and 1985, decelerating from 7.9 to 1.9 percent. In 1986 the economy stopped slowing down, but oil and gas revenues fell by almost half from the previous year, and the country’s current-account deficit more than doubled. New foreign investment declined. Suddenly there was much less left over for the urban middle class, including their politically conscious sons and daughters on college campuses.

The roller-coaster price of oil reminded Indonesians of the risks of participating in the world capitalist system. Had he been in power, Sukarno might have reacted to his country’s misfortune by excoriating the West, perhaps even suspending the repayment of foreign debt. Instead, Suharto moved quickly to reassure foreign lenders and investors by making administrative and economic reforms. In 1985, for example, to clean up the legendary corruption and inefficiency of Indonesian ports, the sensitive business of inspecting goods and assessing duties was turned over almost entirely to a Swiss company, the Société Générale de Surveillance. According to one foreign shipping executive: "Now goods move in about three days; it used to take as much as three weeks."

In 1986 Indonesia took additional steps to make its exports more competitive and its economy more attractive to foreign investors. The rupiah was devalued by 31 percent against the U.S. dollar. Previously restricted from holding a majority of the shares in a joint venture, a foreign partner could now own up to 95 percent for five years if it agreed to add to its investment by an amount that the Indonesian partner could not afford and if the increased investment enabled the venture to export at least part of its production—a clear trading of local control for foreign exchange. Import duties and restrictions on a range of goods were reduced or removed.

Further steps were taken in 1987 to deregulate foreign trade, and for the first time Suharto cut government spending. Civil service salaries were frozen and many rupiah-financed projects shelved. Funds earmarked for development were reduced by 22 percent, and the cuts into specific programs were even deeper—transmigration by 54 percent, for example, and fertilizer subsidies by 70 percent. Nor did Suharto exempt the defense budget, cutting in half spending on new facilities and programs for the armed forces and freezing military salaries.

But retrenchment is not enough. To cover the shortfall, the government has had to increase its foreign debt. In June 1987 the United States, Japan, the World Bank, the IMF and more than a dozen other Western countries and multilateral organizations met again as the Inter-Governmental Group on Indonesia (IGGI) to review Indonesia’s progress and commit funds to its future. From $536 million in 1969, IGGI’s annual vote of confidence in Indonesia had nearly quintupled to more than $2.5 billion in 1986. In 1987, responding to Indonesia’s difficulties and Suharto’s belt-tightening, the donors committed almost $3.2 billion in aid and loans. Although the strong yen inflated the real gain to Jakarta, on paper Indonesia’s creditors had upped their assistance by one-fourth in a single year.

The size of such credits compared with the softness of oil and gas prices have helped to make Indonesia the fifth-largest Third World borrower, burdened with a debt service ratio of about 40 percent—double the 20-percent danger mark that economists used to cite. At the end of 1986 Indonesia’s foreign exchange reserves were enough to cover only five months of imports. Yet Suharto refused to press for rescheduling of his country’s debt.

Added to the budget-cutting, devaluation and other austerities that Suharto was imposing on Indonesians, his efforts to attract and reassure foreigners might have seemed politically unwise—even suicidal. Why, on the eve of a national legislative election in April 1987, did the president and his technocrats make themselves vulnerable to portrayal by nationalists as sacrificing public welfare to appease foreign banks?


One answer is that the president felt he had to. His creditors were too indispensable, and he was too convinced of the need to avoid the failings of Sukarno, whose nationalistic posturing and fiscal overindulgence had done such damage to the economy in the 1960s.

Another answer is that Suharto did not have to worry about opposition to his policies. In all three preceding national legislative elections under the New Order, in 1971, 1977 and 1982, the government’s political vehicle—Golongan Karya (GOLKAR), meaning Functional Groups—had received a consistent majority of 62 to 64 percent of the vote. In 1987, despite the bad economic news, GOLKAR won a record 73 percent.

The poll could be dismissed as a meaningless exercise in self-congratulation by an undemocratic regime. At stake in 1987 were 400 seats, with an additional 100 to be filled later by presidential appointment. The 500-seat legislature would then be doubled in size, again by appointments in professional and other categories, to create a 1,000-seat People’s Consultative Assembly that would meet and name the president in March 1988. Theoretically GOLKAR could lose all 400 contested legislative seats and still get Suharto renamed president by a margin of 200 votes.

But from an Indonesian perspective, the very fact that the election is not a serious test for the regime helps to oblige the regime to take the contest seriously. Precisely because everyone expects the government to win, it is under great pressure to do so. By this odd but operative logic, New Order elections turn out to be tests of legitimacy after all.

The figure of 73 percent for GOLKAR has not been massively miscounted to show a big win. Unlike elections in the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos, polls in Indonesia under Suharto have been predetermined not in the reckoning of votes but in their solicitation. Indonesian civil servants are expected to support the authority of the government that employs them; some do so sincerely, some with reluctance, some from fear. The general population is pressured to vote GOLKAR by village, district and provincial heads hoping to improve their careers, enhance the claims of their constituencies on government resources, or both; again, some voters comply willingly while others feel constrained.

GOLKAR’s record victory in 1987 does not mean that nearly three-fourths of all Indonesians, acting as individuals, freely preferred the government to its opposition. But it also does not mean that the 62.4 million who voted for GOLKAR were coerced into doing so against their will. What the results of the election demonstrate is the sheer authoritative nature of Suharto’s regime and the absence of a workable alternative.

One unworkable alternative is the creation of an Islamic state. There are more Muslims in Indonesia than in any other country. Westerners who learn this fact but do not know Southeast Asia may wonder whether the future of Indonesia is Iran.

The answer is no. The Islam that first filtered into the archipelago centuries ago had already been colored by its interaction with South Asian Hinduism, Buddhism and mysticism, with which it continued to acculturate in its new maritime home. The resulting syncretic legacy sustains to this day—especially among the politically crucial Javanese—a tolerance of creedal differences as mere variations on the underlying unity of all faiths, including Islam. Islam did become politicized in precolonial sultanates, against the Christian-colonial Dutch, and as the sacred law that Muslim leaders sought to implement, peacefully and by force of arms, in independent Indonesia. But apart from requiring that the president be Muslim, the constitution remained non-Islamic, the rebellions were put down, and the disunity of Islamic politicians made them easier for Sukarno and Suharto to co-opt.

From a peak of 48 percent of the vote in the 1955 legislative election, political Islam fell to fluctuating within a range of 25 to 30 percent in the contests of 1971, 1977 and 1982. In the run-up to the 1987 election the Nahdatul Ulama, the largest Muslim political association in the country, withdrew from the Islamic opposition Development Unity Party. NU members were freed to decide between GOLKAR and the third alternative, the Indonesian Democracy Party, an amalgam of secular-nationalist and Christian minority groups. Without its mainstay, the Development Unity Party was reduced to an all-time electoral low of 16 percent. Meanwhile crackdowns on preachers accused of using Islam to incite hatred of the authorities reminded Muslim dissidents of the cost of openly challenging the regime.

Whoever eventually replaces Suharto may try harder to woo the Islamic community, with funds for mosques and other gestures, following the president’s own example. The repression of fundamentalists could stiffen their resistance. But there is no ayatollah waiting in the wings, and the stage is distinctly non-Iranian. Whatever drama of succession will unfold in Indonesia, it is most unlikely to have a theocratic ending.


President Sukarno tried and ultimately failed to balance the state on three ideological legs: nationalism, religion and communism. When Suharto took over he destroyed and outlawed communism, and by 1987 he had, in effect, also retired religion as a legal political actor. As for nationalism, in reopening and reindebting Indonesia to the capitalist West, that part of Sukarno’s triad too would seem to have been abandoned.

On what then does the New Order rest?

Economic growth is an obvious reply, and to that end foreign support has been and remains invaluable. Military aid has also been important. U.S. training, weapons and planes, for example, continue to strengthen Indonesia’s armed forces. In 1988 Jakarta hopes to purchase advanced F-16 fighter aircraft—Indonesian resources and American sales credits permitting.

But former Minister of Mining Slamet Bratanata’s remark to a New York Times reporter that American aid in particular "has kept this Government in the saddle for 20 years" is an exaggeration. U.S. assistance was crucial at the beginning of the New Order, but Japan and the multilateral banks have also played leading roles. Since 1984 Washington has reduced its aid by more than a third. Its contribution to the 1987 IGGI package, for example, was less than a third the size of Tokyo’s. By fiscal year 1987 U.S. aid to Indonesia had declined to $99 million—88 percent economic, 12 percent military—and the appropriation for FY 1988 appeared likely to be pared down again. Bratanata also ignored the role of oil.

In any case, whether driven by foreign aid, oil prices or smart policies—or a combination of these and other things—economic growth does not by itself explain the longevity of the New Order. The distribution of the benefits of growth has been uneven, and those who have enjoyed them do not necessarily attribute their good fortune to the government, nor determine their loyalty solely according to material considerations. A more complete accounting for the New Order’s stability would have to include the habit of compliance, or at least acceptance, built into Javanese political culture—an advantage that would in principle help to sustain any authoritative regime.

Nor should the role of nationalism in all this be dismissed. Economic growth has boosted the national pride of many Indonesians, which has helped to legitimate the regime. A government that limits the after-tax income of foreign petroleum companies to 15 percent of the market value of the oil they extract—12 percent for Caltex—is not a patsy of the multinationals. (In 1966 the foreigners’ share was 35 percent.) Where Sukarno struggled for self-reliance without the West, Suharto has tried to achieve it by using the West. Indonesia as a whole is better off materially now than it was under Sukarno, and Indonesians can take pride in that, not for self-interested reasons but as citizens of a nation with a future.

Alongside these supports, coercive deterrence is another pillar of the New Order. Beginning with the annihilation of the PKI in the 1960s, Suharto has shown himself willing to use force against his opponents. When unrest on campuses flared in the 1970s, students were targeted. In the 1980s, especially since the hijacking of an Indonesian airliner by Islamic militants in 1981, defiant Muslims have become the authorities’ chief security concern. Trials and sentences and several executions have served as warnings against subversion.

Paralleling these crackdowns have been closures of domestic newspapers and magazines. Of the publications forced to disband in the 1960s and 1970s most were suspected of complicity in violent events, notably the killing of the generals in 1965 and a murky outburst of mob violence against Japan and ethnic Chinese that took 11 lives and caused great damage in Jakarta in 1974. The authorities argue that a free press must not be allowed to whip up class, ethnic or religious tensions that a multicultural society cannot afford. But what made these incidents especially sensitive was their association with conflict inside the military.

Press closings in the 1980s—not to mention the warnings and the self-censorship—have been ordered to protect the population from radical Islam and, more controversially, to shield from exposure and criticism a pattern of lucrative cooperation between the government and favored businessmen, including members of the president’s own family. Economic reporting that could have been construed to allude to such connections caused the banning of Indonesia’s largest afternoon paper, Sinar Harapan, in 1986.

The foreign press too has been affected. In 1986 a series in The Sydney Morning Herald on the Suharto family fortune so angered the president that he ordered the Australian press out of Indonesia. Australian reporters and The New York Times were denied on-the-spot coverage of President Reagan’s visit to Indonesia later in the year. In July 1987 Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent Shim Jae Hoon reported the banning of another major domestic daily, Prioritas, only to find that his own visa would not be renewed.

Military discipline is the final and most essential leg upon which the New Order rests. The attempted coup of 1965 in Jakarta, like the one in Madiun in 1948, taught Suharto to guard against two things: communist conspiracy and army disunity. Military rebellions in the late 1950s, when officers in the regions challenged their commanders in the capital, reinforced in the experience of army leaders the importance of unity within the armed forces.

The New Order has shown it can survive a slowdown in economic growth. Instruments of coercion and habits of acceptance inhibit the potential for mass unrest. But if the military splits, so will the regime, because the armed forces form its core.

For convenience, the problem of ensuring a cohesive and loyal military can be mapped on two axes, horizontal and vertical. On the horizontal plane, other things being equal, the larger the size of the armed forces the more subject they are to factionalism—intercultural, territorial and between services. If, to oversimplify, the rebellions of the 1950s expressed intramilitary tensions between centralist Java and the regionalist, Islamicist and ethnically anti-Javanese outer islands, the attempted coups of 1948 and 1965 illustrated differences in recruitment and orientation among territorially organized army units on Java itself. Also facilitating Untung’s conspiracy was the extent to which the PKI had gained sympathy among air force and navy officers, which enabled the plotters to operate from Halim air base on the outskirts of Jakarta.

To achieve horizontal cohesion Suharto reduced the size of the armed forces, amalgamated territorial commands, strengthened the primacy of the army over the navy and air force, and rotated officers to ensure their loyalty to the center and not the region where they happened to be assigned.

Success in maintaining horizontal cohesiveness could have jeopardized intramilitary unity on the vertical dimension between ranks and generations. Streamlining the command structure reduced the array of positions to which junior officers could aspire. Suharto lessened this pressure while facilitating military control over government by entrusting normally civilian positions in his administration to armed forces personnel, active or retired. In 1986 officers filled two-fifths of the posts in the higher central bureaucracy, including presidential aides, ministers and top ministerial staff. Military men have been named as ambassadors, governors and district heads and have replaced village heads purged in the anti-communist sweep of the 1960s. Officers also occupy appointed seats in parliament—now reserved for personnel on active duty.

By fortifying government in this manner, Suharto skillfully implements what the Indonesian armed forces call their "dual function": to shape the state while defending it. He has shown no intention of civilianizing his government, and it is difficult to imagine his successor, assuming he is a military man, doing so except under pressure.


The prolongation of Suharto’s tenure as president will not in itself generate such pressure. In March 1988, as previously noted, the People’s Consultative Assembly is expected to extend his presidency for another five-year term. In the run-up to this quinquennial event, political temperatures in Indonesia typically rise, as the focus shifts from GOLKAR to the president himself. Demonstrations may occur, as they did in Bandung in 1986 when hundreds of university students greeted visiting French President François Mitterrand with chants of "Liberté!" But in late 1987 there was still no reason to think that Suharto’s presidency would not be renewed on schedule.

Who will eventually replace Suharto is a taboo subject in Indonesia. Early in 1987 General Sudharmono, the chairman of GOLKAR and a possible choice for vice president, ruled out discussion of the succession until after 1992. The question will arise sooner should the president fall seriously ill. If he is still in power in March 1993, when his fourth term expires, Suharto will be 71 years old. But he appears to be in good health.

In November 1986 Suharto did remark in a speech accepting renomination by GOLKAR that if in 1988-93 he should be judged incapable of fulfilling his presidential duties, "please release me quickly without much ado." In such an event the vice president would presumably take over until the assembly could meet to name a successor.

Perhaps that scenario could unfold "without much ado." But military officers would be tempted to maneuver behind the scenes. Students could be drawn to the streets, possibly to demand the direct election of a new president. Meanwhile, presumably, Muslim leaders would be trying to improve the chances of a successor more sympathetic to political Islam.

Could Suharto avoid instability and protect his reputation by designating his own successor now, well in advance of the transition? That option has drawbacks: by disappointing those within the army who hoped to be chosen but were not, it could jeopardize military unity—the one crucial precondition of the New Order and the lesson of Madiun in 1948 and Jakarta in 1965. By preempting the People’s Consultative Assembly, not to mention the electorate as a whole, it could trigger opposition on campuses, especially in Jakarta and Bandung, where Western democratic values have taken hold. Yet it is almost impossible, short of a coup, to imagine Suharto abstaining from a role in the selection of his successor. The most likely prospect is that he will make up his mind very late in the game, probably but not necessarily in consultation with trusted colleagues in the army.

Much will depend on the support that Suharto enjoys when the transition does finally come. Instructive in this regard are events elsewhere along the Pacific Rim. In South Korea a rather unpopular military president’s attempt to designate his successor triggered mass opposition by students, workers and elements of the urban middle class. In the Philippines another authoritarian ruler became so isolated that he was overthrown, leaving in his wake an unstable civilian democracy and a deeply divided military threatened by communists and Muslims alike. In Mexico, on the other hand, the head of a long-ruling party was able to maintain his prerogative to name his replacement, prolonging the life of a semi-authoritarian regime.

The trouble with the "Mexican solution" is that it presupposes more political pluralism than the New Order has been willing to allow. And GOLKAR lacks the historical legitimacy of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party. In Indonesia the armed forces strengthen the regime, but they also limit its ability to evolve along democratic lines.

Counterbalancing these concerns are some encouraging signs. Compared with its performance in previous elections, in 1987 the military appears largely to have resisted the temptation to intervene on behalf of GOLKAR against the two opposition parties, though perhaps only because their weakness made it unnecessary. One of the two, the Indonesian Democracy Party, was able to call for less regulation of foreign trade and more power for the legislative branch. Large photographs of Sukarno and speeches by the late president’s daughter Megawati elicited shouts of approval from crowds at the party’s rallies. Within GOLKAR, and even among military officers in parliament, voices could be heard recommending modest steps toward economic and political liberalization. The New Order is not a Western-style democracy by any means, but it does allow for some internal give and take, and that flexibility could prove crucial when the test of succession finally occurs.


Even if power is transferred peacefully from Suharto to someone else—probably a Javanese, almost certainly a general, necessarily a Muslim—the country’s size and resources will in the long run guarantee greater awareness of the archipelago among Americans.

The most bullish projection for Indonesia has been made by the consulting firm Forecasting International. The company packed 64 variables into a computer model, ran it for 41 major nations, and concluded that no country on the list will improve its stability, economy, security, unity and influence faster than Indonesia: from 22nd place in 1984 Indonesia should race past West Germany, France and Singapore to reach seventh place sometime between 1989 and 1995, possibly during Suharto’s next term. In bearish contrast is the 99th place assigned to Indonesia in Euromoney’s expert-consensus ranking of nations according to their economic prospects through 1988.

These are extreme predictions. But in between them, on a zigzag trajectory of its own, invisible Indonesia will make its presence known.

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  • Donald K. Emmerson is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the author of Indonesia’s Elite: Political Culture and Cultural Politics.
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