The life of Indonesia is a tale of discovery, oppression and liberation, so it’s both impressive and perplexing to see the nation’s history displayed in a hokey diorama at Jakarta’s National Monument. The exhibit even includes Indonesia’s first inhabitant, Java Man (Pithecanthropus erectus), who crossed land bridges to Java over one million years ago. Java Man then became extinct or mingled with later migrations. Indonesians today are, like Malaysians and Filipinos, of Malay origin and are the descendants of migrants that arrived around 4000 BC. The discovery in 2003 of a small skeleton, nicknamed ‘the hobbit’, in Flores added a new piece to Indonesia’s – and, indeed, the world’s – evolutionary jigsaw.
The Dongson culture, which originated in Vietnam and southern China around 1000 BC, spread to Indonesia, bringing irrigated rice-growing techniques, husbandry skills, buffalo sacrifice rituals, bronze casting, the custom of erecting megaliths, and ikat weaving methods. Some of these practices survive today in the Batak areas of Sumatra, Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, parts of Kalimantan, and Nusa Tenggara. By 700 BC, Indonesia was dotted with permanent villages where life was linked to rice production.
These early Indonesians were animists, believing all objects had a life force or soul. The spirits of the dead had to be honoured, as they could still help the living and influence natural events, while evil spirits had to be placated with offerings and ceremonies. As there was a belief in the afterlife, weapons and utensils were left in tombs for use in the next world.
By the 1st century AD, small kingdoms, little more than collections of villages subservient to petty chieftains, evolved in Java. The island’s constant hot temperature, plentiful rainfall and volcanic soil was ideal for wet-field rice cultivation. The organisation this required may explain why the Javanese developed a seemingly more feudal society than the other islands. (Dry-field rice cultivation is much simpler, requiring no elaborate social structure to support it.)
How Hinduism and Buddhism arrived in Indonesia is not certain. The oldest works of Hindu art in Indonesia (statues from the 3rd century AD) were found in Sulawesi and Sumatra. One theory suggests that the developing courts invited Brahman priests from India to advise on spirituality and ritual, thereby providing occult status to those in control.
Trade, established by south Indians, was another likely religious inroad. By the 1st century AD, Indonesia’s location on the sea routes between India and China was proving integral to trade development between these two civilisations. Though Indonesia had its own products to trade, such as spices, gold and benzoin (an aromatic gum valued by the Chinese), it owed its importance to its geographical position at the crossroads of sea trade.
The Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Sriwijaya rose in Sumatra during the 7th century AD. It was the first major Indonesian commercial sea power able to control much of the trade in Southeast Asia by virtue of being located on the Strait of Melaka. Merchants from Arabia, Persia and India brought goods to Sriwijaya’s coastal cities in exchange for goods from China and local products.
The Buddhist Sailendra dynasty and the Hindu Mataram dynasty flourished in Central Java between the 8th and 10th centuries. While Sriwijaya’s wealth came from trade, Javanese kingdoms like Mataram (in the region of what is now Solo) had far more human labour at their disposal and developed as agrarian societies. These kingdoms absorbed Indian influences and left magnificent structures such as the Buddhist monument at Borobudur and the Hindu temples of Prambanan.
At the end of the 10th century, the Mataram kingdom mysteriously declined. The centre of power shifted from Central to East Java and it was a period when Hinduism and Buddhism were syncretised and when Javanese culture began to come into its own. A series of kingdoms held sway until the 1294 rise of the Majapahit kingdom, which grew to prominence during the reign of Hayam Wuruk from 1350 to 1389. Its territorial expansion can be credited to brilliant military commander Gajah Mada, who helped the kingdom claim control over much of the archipelago, exerting suzerainty over smaller kingdoms and extracting trading rights from them. After Hayam Wuruk’s death in 1389, the kingdom began a steady decline.
The first Islamic inscriptions found in Indonesia date from the 11th century, and there may have been Muslims in the Majapahit court. Islam really first took hold in northern Sumatra, where Arab traders had settled by the 13th century.
From the 15th and 16th centuries, Indonesian rulers made Islam the state religion. It was, however, superimposed on the prevailing mix of Hinduism and animism to produce the hybrid religion that is followed in much of Indonesia today.
By the 15th century, the trading kingdom of Melaka (on the Malay Peninsula) was reaching the height of its power and had embraced Islam. Its influence strengthened the spread of Islam through the archipelago.
By the time of the collapse of the Majapahit kingdom in the early 1500s, many of its satellite kingdoms had already declared themselves independent Islamic states. Much of their wealth came from being transhipment points for the spice trade, and Islam followed the trade routes across the archipelago.
By the end of the 16th century, a new sea power had emerged on Sulawesi: the twin principalities of Makassar and Gowa, which had been settled by Malay traders and whose commercial realm spread well beyond the region. In 1607, the explorer Torres met Makassar Muslims on New Guinea.
Marco Polo and a few early missionary travellers aside, the first Europeans to visit Indonesia were the Portuguese, who sought to dominate the valuable spice trade in the spice islands of Maluku. Vasco da Gama had led the first European ships around the Cape of Good Hope to Asia in 1498. The Portuguese had captured Goa in India by 1510, Melaka in 1511, and the following year they arrived in Maluku. Their fortified bases and superior firepower at sea won the Portuguese strategic trading ports stretching from Angola to Maluku.
Soon the Spanish, Dutch and English sent ships to the region in search of wealth. Although they had taken Melaka, the Portuguese soon could not control the growing volume of trade. Banten in West Java became the main port of the region, attracting merchants away from Melaka.
Of the newcomers, it was the Dutch who would eventually lay the foundations of the Indonesian state, though their initial efforts were pretty shoddy: an expedition of four ships led by Cornelius de Houtman in 1596 lost half its crew, killed a Javanese prince and lost a ship in the process. Nevertheless, it returned to Holland with enough spices to turn a profit.
Recognising the great potential of East Indies trade, the Dutch government amalgamated competing merchant companies into the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC; United East India Company). This government-run monopoly soon became the main competitor in the spice trade.
The government’s intention was to bring military pressure to bear on the Portuguese and Spanish. VOC trading ships were replaced with armed fleets instructed to attack Portuguese bases. By 1605 the VOC had defeated the Portuguese at Tidore and Ambon and occupied the heart of the Spice Islands.
The VOC then looked for a base closer to the shipping lanes of the Melaka and Sunda Straits. The ruler of Jayakarta (now Jakarta) in West Java granted the VOC permission to build a warehouse in 1610, but he also granted the English trading rights. The VOC warehouse became a fort, relations between the VOC and English deteriorated, and skirmishes resulted in a siege of the fort by the English and the Jayakartans. The VOC retaliated, razing the town in 1619. They renamed their new headquarters Batavia.
The founder of this corner of the empire was the imaginative but ruthless Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Among his ‘achievements’ was the near total extermination of the indigenous population of the Banda Islands in Maluku. Coen developed plans to make Batavia the centre of intra-Asian trade from Japan to Persia, and to develop spice plantations using Burmese, Madagascan and Chinese labourers.
Although these more grandiose plans failed, he was instrumental in obtaining a VOC monopoly on the spice trade. In 1607 an alliance with the sultan of Ternate in Maluku gave the VOC control over the production of cloves, and the occupation of the Bandas from 1609 to 1621 gave them control of the nutmeg trade.
VOC control grew rapidly: it took Melaka from the Portuguese in 1641, quelled attacks from within Java, secured the Sumatran ports and defeated Makassar in 1667. The VOC policy at this stage was to keep control of trade while avoiding expensive territorial conquests. An accord was established with the king of Mataram, the dominant kingdom in Java. (Despite having the same name, this Islamic kingdom had nothing to do with the Hindu Mataram dynasty.) This accord allowed only VOC ships (or those with permission) to trade with the Spice Islands.
Unwillingly at first, but later in leaps and bounds, the VOC progressed from being a trading company to being a colonial master. From the late 1600s Java was beset by wars as the Mataram kingdom fragmented. The VOC was only too willing to lend military support to contenders for the throne, in return for compensation and land concessions. The Third Javanese War of Succession (1746–57) saw Prince Mangkubumi and Mas Said contest the throne of Mataram’s King Pakubuwono II. This spelled the end for Mataram, largely because of Pakubuwono II’s concessions and capitulation to VOC demands.
In 1755 the VOC divided the Mataram kingdom into two states: Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo). These and other smaller Javanese states were only nominally sovereign; in reality they were dominated by the VOC. Fighting among the princes was halted, and peace was brought to East Java by the forced cessation of invasions and raids from Bali. Thus Java was finally united under a foreign trading company whose army comprised only 1000 Europeans and 2000 Asians.
Despite these dramatic successes, the fortunes of the VOC were soon to decline. After the Dutch–English War of 1780, the VOC spice-trade monopoly was finally broken by the Treaty of Paris which permitted free trade in the East. In addition, trade shifted from spices to Chinese silk and Japanese copper, as well as coffee, tea and sugar, over which it was impossible to establish a monopoly.
Dutch trading interests gradually centred more on Batavia. The Batavian government became increasingly dependent on customs dues and tolls charged for goods coming into Batavia, and on taxes from the local Javanese population.
Smuggling, illicit trade by company employees, the mounting expense of wars in Java and the cost of administering additional territory acquired after each new treaty all played a part in the decline of the VOC. The company turned to the Dutch government at home for support, and the subsequent investigation of VOC affairs revealed corruption, mismanagement and bankruptcy. In 1799 the VOC was formally wound up, its territorial possessions seized by the Dutch government, and the trading empire became a colonial empire.
Around 1830, Dutch control was at a crossroads. Trade profits were in decline, the cost of controlling conflicts continued, and when the Dutch lost Belgium in 1830, the home country itself faced bankruptcy. Any government investment in the East Indies now had to make quick returns, so the exploitation of Indonesian resources began.
A new governor general, Johannes van den Bosch, fresh from experiences with slave labour in the West Indies, was appointed to make the East Indies pay their way. He succeeded by introducing an agricultural policy called the Culture System. This was a system of government-controlled agriculture or, as Indonesian historians refer to it, Tanam Paksa (Compulsory Planting). Instead of paying land taxes, peasants had to either cultivate government-owned crops on 20% of their land or work in government plantations for nearly 60 days of the year. Much of Java became a Dutch plantation, generating great wealth for the Netherlands. For the Javanese peasantry, this forced-labour system brought hardship and resentment. They were forced to grow crops such as indigo and sugar instead of rice, and famine and epidemics swept through Java in the 1840s. In strong contrast, the Culture System was a boon for the Dutch and the Javanese aristocracy. In the ensuing years, Indonesia supplied most of the world’s quinine and pepper, over a third of its rubber, a quarter of its coconut products and almost a fifth of its tea, sugar, coffee and oil. The profits made Java a self-sufficient colony and saved the Netherlands from bankruptcy.
Public opinion in the Netherlands began to decry the deplorable treatment of Indonesians under the colonial government. In response, the Liberal Period was initiated. From 1870, farmers no longer had to provide export crops, and the Indies were opened to private enterprise, which developed large plantations. As the population increased, less land was available for rice production, thereby bringing further hardship. Meanwhile, Dutch profits grew dramatically. New products such as oil became a valuable export due to Europe’s industrial demands. As Dutch commercial interests expanded throughout the archipelago, so did the need to protect them. More and more territory was taken under direct control of the Dutch government.
A new approach to colonial government, known as the Ethical Period, was introduced in 1901. Under this policy it was the Dutch government’s duty to further programmes of health, education and other societal initiatives. Direct government control was exerted on the outer islands. Minor rebellions broke out everywhere, from Sumatra to Timor, but these were easily crushed and the Dutch took control from traditional leaders, thus establishing a true Indies empire for the first time.
New policies were implemented, including the transmigrasi (transmigration) of farmers from heavily populated Java to lightly populated islands. There were also plans for improved communications, agriculture, industrialisation and the protection of native industry. Other policies aimed to give greater autonomy to the colonial government and lessen control from the Netherlands, as well as give more power to local governments within the archipelago.
These humanitarian policies were laudable but ultimately inadequate: public health funding was simply not enough, and while education opportunities for some upper and middle class Indonesians increased, the vast majority remained illiterate. Though primary schools were established and education was theoretically open to all, by 1930 only 8% of school-age children received an education. Industrialisation was never seriously implemented and Indonesia remained an agricultural colony.
France occupied Holland during the Napoleonic Wars and in 1811 the British occupied parts of the Dutch East Indies, including Java. Control was restored to the Dutch in 1816 and a treaty was signed in 1824 under which the British exchanged Bengkulu in Sumatra for Dutch-controlled Melaka on the Malay Peninsula. While the two European powers may have settled their differences, the Indonesians were far from happy with European control. There were a number of wars and insurrections during this time; the most prolonged struggles were the Paderi War in Sumatra (1821–38) and the Java War (1825–30) led by Pangeran (Prince) Diponegoro. The eldest son of the sultan of Yogyakarta, Diponegoro had recently been passed over for succession to the throne, in favour of a younger claimant. Having bided his time, Diponegoro eventually vanished from court and in 1825 launched a guerrilla war against the Dutch. The courts of Yogyakarta and Solo largely remained loyal to the Dutch, but many members of the Javanese aristocracy supported the rebellion. Diponegoro had received mystical signs that convinced him he was the divinely appointed future king of Java. News spread among the people that he was the long-prophesied Ratu Adil (the Just King) who would free them from colonial oppression.
The rebellion ended in 1830 when the Dutch tricked Diponegoro into a peace negotiation, arrested him and then exiled him to Sulawesi. The five-year war had cost the lives of 8000 European and 7000 Indonesian soldiers of the Dutch army. At least 200, 000 Javanese died, most from famine and disease. Diponegoro is commemorated throughout Indonesia by having a major street in most cities and towns named after him.
Although the Ethical Period failed to deliver widespread education, it did provide a Dutch education for the children of the Indonesian elite, and with that came Western political ideas of freedom and democracy. However, the first seeds of Indonesian nationalism were sown by Islamic movements.
Sarekat Islam (SI), an early nationalist movement founded in 1909 by Islamic traders, rallied Indonesian Muslims under the banner of Islam, initially to combat Chinese influence in the batik trade but soon widening its agenda to take a more radical anticolonial stance.
The Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia; PKI) began as a splinter group within SI. However, its members were expelled by SI and soon developed the PKI into Indonesia’s first fully fledged pro-independence party inspired by European politics. It was formed in 1920 and found support among workers in the industrial cities. In 1926 the PKI attempted an uprising, carrying out isolated insurrections across Java and West Sumatra. The outraged Dutch government arrested and exiled thousands of communists, effectively putting them out of action for the rest of the Dutch occupation.
Despite Dutch repression, the nationalist movement was finding a unified voice. In a historic announcement in 1928, the All Indonesia Youth Congress proclaimed its Youth Pledge, adopting the notions of one national identity (Indonesian), one country (Indonesia) and one language (Bahasa Indonesia). In Bandung in 1929, Soekarno founded the Partai Nasional Indonesia (PNI). It became the most significant nationalist organisation and was the first secular party devoted primarily to independence.
Soekarno was educated in East Java and Europe before studying at the Bandung Institute of Technology. Bandung was a hotbed of political intellectualism and Soekarno was widely influenced by Javanese, Western, Islamic and socialist ideals. He blended these influences towards a national ideology.
Soekarno was soon arrested and a virtual ban placed on the PNI. Nationalist sentiment remained high during the 1930s, but with many nationalist leaders in jail or exiled, independence seemed a long way off. Even when Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, the colonial government in exile was determined to hold fast.
The Japanese Imperial Army marched into Batavia on 5 March 1942, carrying the red and white Indonesian flag alongside that of the Japanese rising sun. The city’s name was changed to Jakarta, Europeans were arrested and all signs of the former Dutch masters eliminated.
Though the Japanese were greeted as liberators, public opinion turned against them as the war wore on and Indonesians were expected to endure more hardships for the war effort.
The Japanese gained a reputation as cruel masters, but they also gave Indonesians more responsibility and – for the first time – participation in government. The Japanese also gave prominence to nationalist leaders, such as Soekarno and Mohammed Hatta, and trained youth militias to defend the country. Apart from instilling in Indonesia a military psyche that has endured in Indonesian politics, these militias gave rise to the pemuda (youth groups) of the independence movement, many of whom would later join the Republican army.
As the war ended, Soekarno and Hatta were by far the most popular nationalist leaders. In August 1945 they were kidnapped and pressured by radical pemuda to declare independence before the Dutch could return. On 17 August 1945, with tacit Japanese backing, Soekarno proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Indonesia, from his Jakarta home.
Indonesians rejoiced, but the Netherlands refused to accept the proclamation and still claimed sovereignty over Indonesia. British troops entered Java in October 1945 to accept the surrender of the Japanese. Under British auspices, Dutch troops gradually returned to Indonesia and it became obvious that independence would have to be fought for.
Clashes broke out with the new Republican army and came to a head in the bloody Battle for Surabaya. The situation deteriorated when British Indian troops landed in the city. When General Mallaby, leader of the British forces, was killed by a bomb, the British launched a bloody retribution. On 10 November (now celebrated as Heroes Day) the British began to take the city under cover of air attacks. Thousands of Indonesians died, the population fled to the countryside, and the poorly armed Republican forces fought a pitched battle for three weeks. The brutal retaliation of the British and the spirited defence of Surabaya by Republicans galvanised Indonesian support and helped turn world opinion.
The Dutch dream of easy reoccupation was shattered, while the British were keen to extricate themselves from military action and broker a peace agreement. The last British troops left in November 1946, by which time 55,000 Dutch troops had landed in Java. Indonesian Republican officials were imprisoned, and bombing raids on Palembang and Medan in Sumatra prepared the way for the Dutch occupation of these cities. In southern Sulawesi, Dutch Captain Westerling was accused of pacifying the region – by murdering 40,000 Indonesians in a few weeks. Elsewhere, the Dutch were attempting to form puppet states among the more amenable ethnic groups.
In Jakarta the Republican government, with Soekarno as president and Hatta as vice president, tried to maintain calm. Meanwhile, pemuda advocating armed struggle saw the old leadership as prevaricating and betraying the revolution.
Outbreaks occurred across the country, and Soekarno and Hatta were outmanoeuvred in the Republican government. A Sumatran socialist, Sultan Syahrir, became prime minister and, as the Dutch assumed control in Jakarta, the Republicans moved their capital to Yogyakarta. Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX, who was to become Yogyakarta’s most revered and able sultan, played a leading role in the revolution.
The battle for independence wavered between warfare and diplomacy. Under the Linggarjati Agreement of November 1946, the Dutch recognised the Republican government and both sides agreed to work towards an Indonesian federation under a Dutch commonwealth. The agreement was soon swept aside as war escalated. The Dutch mounted a large offensive in July 1947, causing the UN to step in.
During these uncertain times, the main forces in Indonesian politics regrouped: the communist PKI, Soekarno’s PNI, and the Islamic parties of Masyumi and Nahdatul Ulama. The army also emerged as a force, though it was split by many factions. The Republicans were far from united, and in Java civil war threatened to erupt when in 1948 the PKI staged rebellions in Surakarta (Solo) and Madiun. In a tense threat to the revolution, Soekarno galvanised opposition to the communists, who were massacred by army forces.
In February 1948 the Dutch launched another full-scale attack on the Republicans, breaking the UN agreement and turning world opinion. Under pressure from the USA, which threatened to withdraw its postwar aid to the Netherlands, and a growing realisation at home that this was an unwinnable war, the Dutch negotiated for independence. On 27 December 1949 the Indonesian flag was raised at Jakarta’s Istana Merdeka (Freedom Palace) as power was officially handed over.
In the first years of independence, the threat of external attacks by the Dutch helped keep the nationalists united. However, with the Dutch gone, divisions in Indonesian society began to appear. Soekarno had tried to hammer out the principles of Indonesian unity in his Pancasila speech of 1945 but while these, as he said, may have been ‘the highest common factor and the lowest common multiple of Indonesian thought’, divisions could not be swept away by a single speech. Regional differences in customs, morals, traditions and religion, the impact of Christianity and Marxism, and fears of political domination by the Javanese all contributed to disunity.
Various separatist movements battled the new republic. They included the militant Darul Islam (Islamic Domain), which proclaimed an Islamic State of Indonesia and waged guerrilla warfare in West Java and south Sulawesi from 1948 to 1962. In Maluku, Ambonese members of the former Royal Dutch Indies Army tried to establish an independent republic.
Against this background lay the sorry state of the conflict-battered economy and divisions in the leadership. The population was increasing but food production was low and the export economy was damaged, as many plantations had been destroyed during the war. Illiteracy was high and there was a dearth of skilled workers. Inflation was chronic and smuggling was costing the government badly needed foreign currency.
On top of this, political parties proliferated and there were continuous deals brokered between parties for a share of cabinet seats. This resulted in a rapid turnover of coalition governments: 17 cabinets over 13 years. Frequently postponed national elections were finally held in 1955 and the PNI – regarded as Soekarno’s party – narrowly topped the poll. There was a dramatic increase in support for the PKI but no party managed more than a quarter of the votes, and so short-lived coalitions continued.
By 1956 President Soekarno was openly criticising parliamentary democracy, stating that it was ‘based upon inherent conflict’. He sought a system based on the traditional Indonesian village system of discussion and consensus, which occurred under the guidance of village elders. He proposed the threefold division – nasionalisme (nationalism), agama (religion) and komunisme (communism) – be blended into a cooperative Nas-A-Kom government, thereby appeasing the main factions of Indonesian politics: the army, Islamic groups and the communists.
In February 1957, with military support, Soekarno proclaimed ‘guided democracy’ and proposed a cabinet representing all the political parties of importance (including the PKI). For the next 40 years, Western-style, party-based democracy was finished in Indonesia, though the parties were not abolished.
In 1958, rebellions backed by the CIA, with support from the UK and Australian governments, broke out in Sumatra and Sulawesi. These were a reaction against Soekarno’s usurpation of power, the growing influence of the PKI and the corruption and mismanagement of the central government. They were also a reaction against Java, whose leaders and interests dominated Indonesia despite the fact that other islands provided most of the country’s export income.
The rebellions were put down by mid-1958, though guerrilla activity continued for three years. Rebel leaders were granted amnesty but their political parties were banned. Some of the early nationalist leaders, such as former prime minister Syahrir, were discredited or arrested.
Soekarno now set about reorganising the political system to give himself real power. In 1960 the elected parliament was dissolved and replaced by a parliament appointed by, and subject to the will of, the president. The Supreme Advisory Council, another non-elected body, became the chief policy-making body. A national front, set up to ‘mobilise the revolutionary forces of the people’, was presided over by the president and became a useful adjunct to government in organising ‘demonstrations’.
Soekarno had set Indonesia on a course of stormy nationalism. His speeches were those of a romantic revolutionary, which held his people spellbound. He united them against a common external threat, and konfrontasi became the buzz word as Indonesia confronted Malaysia (and its imperialist backer, the UK), the USA and, indeed, the whole Western world.
Soekarno believed that Asia had been humiliated by the West and that Indonesia remained threatened by the remnants of Western imperialism: the British and their new client-state of Malaysia, the hated Dutch who continued to occupy Irian Jaya (now Papua) and the Americans and their military bases in the Philippines.
First on the agenda was Irian Jaya, which Indonesia had always claimed on the basis that it had been part of the Dutch East Indies. An arms agreement with the Soviet Union in 1960 enabled the Indonesians to begin a diplomatic and military confrontation with the Dutch over the disputed territory, though it was US pressure on the Dutch that finally led to the Indonesian takeover in 1963.
In the same year, Indonesia embarked on konfrontasi with the new nation of Malaysia. The northern states in Borneo, which bordered on Indonesian Kalimantan, wavered in their desire to join Malaysia. Indonesia saw itself as the rightful leader of the Malay peoples and supported an attempted revolution in Brunei. The Indonesian army mounted offensives along the Kalimantan–Malaysia border and the PKI demonstrated in the streets in Jakarta.
The West became increasingly alarmed at Indonesia’s foreign policy. Foreign aid dried up after the USA withdrew its assistance because of konfrontasi. The cash-strapped government abolished many subsidies, leading to massive increases in public transport, electricity, water and postal charges. Economic plans had failed miserably and inflation was running at 500%.
Despite achieving national unity, Soekarno could not create a viable economic system to lift Indonesia out of poverty. What’s more, great funds were spent on symbols designed to celebrate Indonesia’s identity, including Jakarta’s National Monument and the massive Mesjid Istiqlal. Unable to advance from revolution to rebuilding, Soekarno’s monuments became substitutes for real development.
As konfrontasi alienated Western nations, Indonesia came to depend more on support from the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, from communist China. Meanwhile, tensions grew between the Indonesian Army and the PKI.
With the PKI and its affiliate organisations claiming membership of 20 million, Soekarno realised he had to give the communists recognition in his government. Increasingly, the PKI gained influence ahead of the army, which had been the main power base of Indonesian politics since independence.
‘Guided Democracy’ under Soekarno was marked by an effort to give peasants better social conditions, but attempts to give tenant farmers a fairer share of their rice crops and to redistribute land led to more class conflict. The PKI pushed for reforms and encouraged peasants to seize land without waiting for decisions from land reform committees. In 1964 these tactics led to violent clashes in Central and East Java and Bali.
Tension continued to grow between the PKI and the army. In a visit to Jakarta in April 1965, Zhou Enlai (premier of China) proposed the government build an armed people’s militia, independent of the armed forces. Soekarno supported this proposal to arm the communists, the army opposed it, and rumours of an army takeover became rife.
On the night of 30 September 1965, six of Indonesia’s top generals were taken from their Jakarta homes and executed in an attempted coup. Led by Colonel Untung of the palace guard and backed by elements of the armed forces, the insurgents took up positions around the presidential palace and later seized the national radio station. The group claimed they had acted against a plot organised by the generals to overthrow the president.
This exercise appears to have had little or no coordination in the rest of the country. Within a few hours of the coup, General Soeharto, head of the army’s Strategic Reserve, was able to mobilise army forces to undertake counteraction. By the following evening it was clear the coup had failed.
Exactly who had organised the coup or what it had set out to achieve remains shrouded in mystery. The Indonesian army asserted that the PKI plotted the coup and used discontented army officers to carry it out. Another theory claims it was an internal army affair led by younger officers against the older leadership. Certainly, civilians from the PKI’s People’s Youth organisation accompanied the army battalions that seized the generals, but whatever the PKI’s real role in the coup, the effect on its fortunes was devastating.
Soeharto orchestrated a countercoup, and an anticommunism purge swept Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands of communists and their sympathisers were slaughtered or imprisoned, primarily in Java and Bali. The party and its affiliates were banned and its leaders were killed, imprisoned or went into hiding.
Following the army’s lead, anticommunist civilians went on the rampage. In Java, where long-simmering tensions between pro-Islamic and pro-communist factions erupted in the villages, both sides believed that their opponents had drawn up death lists to be carried out when they achieved power. The anticommunists, with encouragement from the government and even Western embassies, carried out their list of executions. On top of this uncontrolled slaughter there were violent demonstrations in Jakarta by pro- and anti-Soekarno groups. Also, perhaps as many as 250,000 people were arrested and sent without trial to prison camps for alleged involvement in the coup.
Estimates of the post-coup death toll vary widely. Adam Malik, who was to become Soeharto’s foreign minister, said that a ‘fair figure’ was 160,000. Independent commentators estimate the figure to be closer to 500,000.
Soeharto took over leadership of the armed forces and set about manoeuvring Soekarno from power. Despite the chaos, Soekarno continuedas president, and as he still had supporters in the armed forces it seemed unlikely that he would voluntarily resign. However, on 11 March 1966, after troops loyal to Soeharto surrounded the Presidential Palace, Soekarno signed the 11 March Order giving Soeharto the power to restore order. While always deferring to the name of Soekarno, Soeharto rapidly consolidated his power. The PKI was officially banned. Pro-Soekarno soldiers and a number of cabinet ministers were arrested. A new six-man inner cabinet, which included Soeharto and two of his nominees, Adam Malik and Sultan Hamengkubuwono of Yogyakarta, was formed.
Soeharto then launched a campaign of intimidation to blunt any grass-roots opposition. Thousands of public servants were dismissed as PKI sympathisers, putting thousands more in fear of losing their jobs.
By 1967 Soeharto was firmly enough entrenched to finally cut Soekarno adrift. The People’s Consultative Congress, following the arrest of many of its members and an infusion of Soeharto appointees, relieved Soekarno of all power and, on 27 March 1968, it ‘elected’ Soeharto as president.
With Soekarno’s ‘Guided Democracy’ no more; the governing label became ‘The New Order’. Soeharto set to mending rifts with the West by changing tack on foreign policy and attracting foreign investment. Democracy was paid lip service in the 1971 general elections with Soeharto’s Golkar Party a sure bet: other parties were banned, candidates disqualified and voters disenfranchised. Predictably, Golkar swept to power. The new People’s Consultative Congress included 207 Soeharto appointments and 276 officers from the armed forces.
Soeharto then enforced the merger of other political parties. The four Islamic parties were amalgamated into the Development Unity Party (PPP) and the other parties were formed into the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI).
With the elimination of the communists and the establishment of a more repressive government, political stability returned to Indonesia. A determined effort to promote national rather than regional identity was largely successful, but often it was at considerable cost to the population. Infamous examples were the 1975 invasion of East Timor and the brutal treatment of separatist guerrillas in Aceh and Irian Jaya. Smaller scale dissent was also managed through a culture of intimidation and imprisonment.
Thanks mainly to an oil boom and new strains of rice (‘the Green Revolution’), the lot of many Indonesians improved considerably under Soeharto. But while life became more tolerable for the poor, the rich became much richer. Corruption was rife at all levels of society, and Indonesian business culture came to revolve around kickbacks and bribes. The most obvious recipients of the new wealth were Soeharto’s business associates and his family. They acquired huge business empires, along with prime government contracts.
Grass-roots grumblings increased along with disparity of wealth. The political opposition, particularly the PDI, grew in stature and popularity. So much so that in 1996 the government helped engineer a split in the PDI, resulting in its popular leader Megawati Soekarnoputri (Soekarno’s daughter) being dumped. PDI supporters rioted in Jakarta, but it was only a taste of things to come.
An ageing Soeharto made noises about retirement, but without an obvious successor (and with the local and international business community so used to Indonesia’s brand of crony capitalism) the government reaffirmed his leadership.
All was to change when the 1997 Asian currency crisis spilled over into Indonesia, savaging the country’s economy. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) pledged financial backing in return for reforms such as the abolition of government subsidies on food and fuel, the deregulation of monopolies (such as the clove monopoly controlled by Soeharto’s son, Tommy) and the abandonment of grandiose government-sponsored industries, many of which were also controlled by ‘Soeharto Family Inc’.
Rising prices resulted in sporadic riots as the people, already hard hit by the monetary crisis, looted shops owned by the minority ethnic Chinese, a significant business class that became the scapegoat for this sudden loss of faith in the economy.
Foreign debt and inflation continued to skyrocket, many banks collapsed, companies faced bankruptcy and millions lost their jobs. The swiftness and scope of the human tragedy is difficult to comprehend. Substantial progress in reducing poverty – for so long the pride and excuse of authoritarian government – was rapidly reversed. In just one year the number of Indonesians living below the poverty line jumped from 20 million to 100 million (nearly 50% of the populace).
At the same time, Soeharto was up for re-election. This was a foregone conclusion but, as never before, critics from the Islamic parties, opposition groups and especially student demonstrators demanded that he step down.
Soeharto’s re-election in February 1998 seemed to at least promise political certainty, and the government moved towards fulfilling IMF demands. The rupiah stabilised but demands for political reform continued as students demonstrated across the country. Initially, these demonstrations were confined to campuses, but in April violent rioting erupted in the streets of Medan, then other cities. Adding to the hardship and furthering unrest, the government announced fuel and electricity price rises, as demanded by the IMF.
Throughout the turmoil the army reiterated its support for the government. Tanks and army trucks appeared on the streets, but demands for Soeharto’s resignation increased. Student demonstrations would not go away and on 12 May, with Soeharto away on a visit to Cairo, soldiers swapped rubber bullets for live ammunition and shot dead four students at Trisakti University in Jakarta.
Jakarta erupted – in three days of rioting and looting, over 6000 buildings in the city were damaged or destroyed and an estimated 1200 people died. Law and order collapsed. The army was often ineffectual as soldiers looked on, trying to portray the army as the people’s ally. Hardest hit were the Chinese, whose businesses were looted and destroyed – shocking tales of rape and murder emerged after the riots. Mounting evidence pointed to General Prabowo, Soeharto’s son-in-law, as having used military goon squads to spearhead attacks on Chinese shops and Chinese women. He did this to create a situation where Soeharto could once more ‘save the nation’. However, Prabowo’s plan backfired and, following Soeharto’s fall, he was dismissed from the army and sent into exile for a few years.
The riots subsided but anti-Soeharto demonstrations increased while the army threatened to shoot on sight. The country looked on, fearing massive bloodshed. Still Soeharto clung to the presidency, but with the writing on the wall, some of his own ministers called for his resignation. Soeharto finally stepped down on 21 May, ending 32 years of rule.
In May 1998 Vice President BJ Habibie was sworn in, and quickly set about making the right noises on reform by releasing political prisoners and promising elections. Habibie tried to cultivate an image of himself as a man of the people, but as a long-standing minister and close friend of Soeharto, his credentials were always going to be questioned.
The economy was still in tatters and the rupiah plumbed new depths, but Indonesia embraced a new era of political openness. The government talked about reformasi (reform), but at the same time tried to ban demonstrations and reaffirmed the role of the army in Indonesian politics.
The army’s reputation was severely tarnished. Not only had it started the riots by shooting students, then failed to contain the rioting, evidence emerged that military factions had indeed incited the rioting. The newly vocal press also exposed army killings in Aceh and the abduction and murder of opposition activists.
IMF money flowed into Indonesia but hardship ensued. Some people sold their meagre possessions to buy food while others simply stole what they needed. Old grudges resurfaced during these uncertain times and the Chinese continued to suffer as scapegoats.
In November 1998 the Indonesian parliament met to discuss a new election. Student demands for immediate elections and the abolition of military appointees to parliament were ignored. Three days of skirmishes peaked on 13 November when students marched on parliament. Clashes with the army left 12 dead and hundreds injured. Then disturbances took on an even more worrying trend: a local dispute involving Christians and Muslims resulted in churches being burned in Jakarta. Throughout Indonesia Christians were outraged, and in eastern Indonesia Christians attacked mosques and the minority Islamic community. Riots in West Timor were followed by prolonged Muslim-Christian violence in Maluku and Kalimantan. Instability was also renewed in the separatist-minded regions of Aceh, Irian Jaya and East Timor.
In early 1999, after continuous refusal to grant East Timor autonomy or independence, President Habibie did an about-turn and prepared a ballot. Despite such a laudable move, pro-Indonesian militia launched a bloody campaign of intimidation, with the tacit backing of the army. Nevertheless, 78.5% of East Timorese voted in favour of independence. Celebrations soon turned to despair as militia groups, orchestrated by elements of the Indonesian military, unleashed a reign of terror that killed up to 2000 unarmed civilians, displaced much of the population and devastated 80% of the country’s infrastructure. Three weeks later, an international peacekeeping force entered East Timor to restore order. Thousands of expatriate advisers and soldiers were flown in on massive salaries and allowances while the poverty-stricken Timorese looked on. The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) did bring stability to East Timor, and independence was officially celebrated on 20 May 2002.
Despite the ongoing instability, Indonesia’s June 1999 elections were largely a joyous celebration of democracy. In the first free election in over 40 years, Megawati Soekarnoputri was the popular choice for president, but her PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle) could muster only a third of the vote. The Golkar party, without the benefit of a rigged electoral system, had its vote slashed from over 70% to just over 20%.
Although Megawati received more votes, a coalition of other parties had the numbers to deny her the presidency, so on 20 October the People’s Consultative Assembly voted in Abdurrahman Wahid as the new president and Megawati as vice president. As head of Nahdatul Ulama (Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation), Wahid already commanded widespread support. However, his moves to reform the government, address corruption and quell conflict in outlying provinces were continually hamstrung by those who opposed such reform. Wahid’s effort to bring Soeharto to justice were hindered by a corrupt and timid judiciary, and claims that Soeharto was too ill to stand trial. Wahid’s effort to bring peace to such areas as Aceh, Irian Jaya (which he renamed Papua) and Maluku were not helped by an army that seemed to use the conflict as a justification of a continuation of their influence and political presence. Not helped by his failing health, Wahid’s 21-month presidency may be seen as a time when the wheels of reform began to turn, but were too often punctured by the powerful few who were set to lose so much as a consequence.
With a unanimous vote in parliament, Megawati Soekarnoputri was sworn in as the fifth president on 23 July 2001. Although stability was restored at the presidential level, her strategy of not rocking the boat meant corruption, human rights abuses and abuse of military power remained widespread. This, along with the threat to security reflected in the Bali, Marriott, and embassy bombings, hindered the prospect of foreign support and investment.
Indonesia’s first direct presidential elections were held in October 2004. Candidates continued to promise political reform and a crackdownon corruption, as well as making new promises to stamp out terrorism. The election became a battle between Megawati and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), the latter winning the final vote and becoming the sixth president of Indonesia. Although fronting the newly formed Democratic Party, SBY was already well known to voters. As a long-serving general, he had been regarded as a military reformist, but was also directly involved in the East Timor occupation. He was also Minister for Security and Political Affairs in both the Wahid and Megawati governments.
Under SBY, corruption remains endemic, terrorism remains a threat and the military, although no longer having automatic representation in government, still holds great sway over society. Despite some reforms and freedoms, political activism and dissent remains a risky pursuit as was shown when Munir, a human rights activist, was poisoned on a Garuda flight in 2005.
After the 2003 tsunami, SBY won favour by making sure foreign aid could get to the affected areas (including Aceh, which was still under martial law). He also took the initiative to restart talks with Acehnese rebels, which resulted in a peace deal in 2005. Whether these efforts have a lasting effect is uncertain.
But even almost 10 years after his downfall, it’s still apparent that Soeharto’s network of corruption, collusion and nepotism still lingers. Attempts to bring corrupt officials to justice have rarely eventuated in convictions, often because the implications of a serious crackdown would reach far into the current power structure. A 35-year, multibillion dollar web of state-supported corruption is a hard thing to untangle.