Courtesy Reuters

Will Indonesia Survive?


Anyone skimming recent Western reporting on Indonesia could be forgiven for assuming that the world's fourth most populous country is on the verge of disintegration. The recent secession of East Timor is unlikely to cause a chain reaction, however. The geographic and cultural patchwork of Indonesia may shrink, but it is not about to unravel.

A vast archipelago through whose waterways pass two-fifths of world shipping, Indonesia has recently undergone a series of political reforms that could eventually lead it to become that rare thing, an Islamic democracy. Its size, location, and natural resources make it a potentially formidable obstacle to any Chinese attempt to gain hegemony over Southeast Asia. The scale and diversity of the Indonesian economy enhance its importance for the larger region and make urgent its resurrection from the Asian financial crisis. Whether Indonesia will survive in something resembling its present form is thus a topic of concern well beyond the South Pacific.

Since its economy began to fail in 1997, Indonesia has witnessed several thousand deaths from political violence. This number will mount as unrest continues. But although the toll is tragic, it is not enough to destabilize a country of some 216 million people. And although separatist movements have gained ground in several outlying provinces, they do not yet command enough resources or support to impose their will on the government. The country's periphery is restive, but the provinces remain Jakarta's to lose.


Many observers who forecast Indonesia's disintegration see East Timor as both omen and model. Indonesia's 1975-76 invasion and annexation of the eastern half of the island of Timor was finally reversed in 1999. The East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for separation from Indonesia in U.N.-supervised balloting last August, and Jakarta ratified the divorce the following month. The U.N. Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) has been charged with preparing the territory for independence.

But East Timor is a very small place -- not much more

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