Things May Be Bad, But Don't Get Nostalgic for Suharto

 

By Salil Tripathi

 

 The bomb blast that destroyed the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta last week is a stark reminder that Indonesia's years of living dangerously are far from over. From the riots in May 1998 to the Bali bombing of October 2002, it has been a relentless saga of violence and chaos, including the brutal scorched-earth policy pursued by army-supported militia in East Timor, continued killings in Aceh and the burning of churches. During that period, Indonesia has had three weak presidents, corporate scandals have erupted periodically and fragile democracy has been under constant threat.

So is it time to get nostalgic for former President Suharto? Tempting as this may be for those new to Indonesia, Theodore Friend's expansive book, "Indonesian Destinies" (Belknap Press, 628 pages, $35) should disabuse anyone of that notion.

  The book is scholarly without being pedantic, personal without being mawkish, comprehensive without getting lost in details, and critical without losing compassion. Mr. Friend knows Indonesia well. The former president of Swarthmore College and of the Eisenhower Fellowship Program has a long connection with Southeast Asia. Given Indonesia's overwhelming strategic importance, his book has appeared not a day too soon, with the bomb blast in Jakarta last week giving it fresh urgency.

 Indeed, there have been some excellent books about Indonesia. But before Mr. Friend's addition, Indonesia lacked a comprehensive work that gave the collected wisdom about the country a personal touch. At over 600 pages, "Indonesian Destinies" is undoubtedly long. But with over 17,000 islands and  200 million people -- including the world's largest number of practicing Muslims -- the nation demands a book of this scope.

  Mr. Friend has divided his book into three parts, which could loosely be described as the old order (the Sukarno period), the new order (the Suharto period), and the disorder of the post-Suharto era.

The Sukarno period is described in considerable detail, in particular Indonesia's first president's role in forging national identity -- and placing the country on the world's map.

 

Compared to Sukarno, who courted and then spat on allies and adversaries, and told donor countries "to hell with your aid," Mr. Suharto appeared gracious, and made Indonesia seem reasonable. But his graciousness only extended so far: He never accepted aid or assistance on anything less than his terms. When the Netherlands, for instance, protested Indonesia's handling of the East Timor crisis in 1991, Mr. Suharto refused aid from a Dutch-run intergovernmental aid group. Instead, he waited until a more accommodating French-led group emerged, and then it was business as usual.

  The complex Suharto period gets more extensive treatment. There is much to admire in that period, including the lifting of millions of families above poverty line. But that must be viewed alongside the corruption, collusion and nepotism that eventually brought the regime down. Mr. Friend does not answer some of the questions that have plagued long-term Indonesia watchers:

What accounts for the greed? Where did the billions go, and how could they so suddenly disappear? What the author offers instead are excellent portraits of the complex characters of the Suharto era, including business leaders, politicians and academics. During the span of his four decades of travels in Indonesia, Mr. Friend has met almost everyone that matters, except the Suharto children and some businesspeople close to the ancient regime.

Mr. Friend gives due credit to the Suharto era for Indonesia's economic progress. In 1996, Indonesia's per capita income had passed the $3,000 mark, literacy had continued to rise, foreign investment kept coming in, the Jakarta Stock Exchange boomed, new skyscrapers sprouted up, and Indonesian businesses, particularly those owned by ethnic Chinese, were emerging as major players on the regional, if not global, stage. Indonesia was a proud member of the Class of 1993 -- the year the World Bank christened East Asian growth as an economic miracle.

By the mid-1990s Indonesia had become an important member of the Islamic Conference and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and it hosted the summits of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The country was even talked about as a potential permanent member of an expanded and reformed United Nations Security Council. Nothing, it seemed, could go wrong for Indonesia.

  And then everything did. The crisis started when companies, assuming a semi-fixed exchange rate, started taking out short-term hard currency loans to pay for businesses and assets. This grew into a major economic catastrophe when the rupiah collapsed, and with it, the creditworthiness of Indonesia's overextended businesses and banks. Business and politics were so inseparable in Indonesia that a banking crisis inevitably became political, and the Suharto regime crashed.

 

Indonesia's current state is at least partly due to its inability to clean up the mess and undo the damage to the nation's polity and sense of self from the Suharto era. With businesses dependent on contracts the first family doled out, and with the army emaciated and denuded of leadership, Indonesia, a culturally rich country of astonishing diversity, faced spiritual emptiness. In stepped the Jihadis, funded by Saudi Arabia -- Laskar Jihad and Jemaah Islamiyah, with their alien ideology attracting young Indonesians who had not benefited from the Suharto years. The extremist influence succeeded because in Suharto's period, the social contract between the ruling class and the people failed.

  True, in those 32 years Mr. Suharto provided food and equipped the young with basic education and the promise of factory jobs. But Mr. Friend also reminds us of the president's bloody baptism in the 1960s, where perhaps one million Indonesians died in mass carnage. Furthermore, his rule was punctuated by periodic upheavals: the Tanjung Priok riots in the 1980s, the Tasikmalaya riots of the 1990s, and the ruthless cruelty his army displayed in Aceh, Irian Jaya and East Timor.

Mr. Suharto never allowed for a system in which the young could let off steam and create a civil society. The success of these violent movements shows the ultimate failure of the development model Mr. Suharto pursued.

  At a reception, a retired Indonesian civil servant asked Mr. Friend the following question: "How can we, such a gentle and lovable people, be so murderous to each other?" The author writes that he could not give him an answer. After all, Indonesia is too complex for a glib response, and Mr. Friend does not offer one. Instead, he lets the facts speak for themselves, and allows us to make up our own minds about the land of fallible heroes who can be cruel -- and brutal villains who've done some good.