Knives out for Mr President

June 9, 2000

Economic problems and outbreaks of violence are giving the new Indonesian leader a bumpy ride, says Bill Watson.

When Abdurrahman Wahid took office as president of Indonesia last November he knew that the going would not be easy. As the months have passed, the political divisions that had been temporarily suspended have become sharper. Despite the ducking and weaving and the extraordinary acts of political contortion Abdurrahman is capable of, the sound of the knives being ground on the whetstone has set nerves jangling in Jakarta.

The most recent issue that has divided public opinion is the president's desire to rescind the decree outlawing communism in the country. Ever since the nation-wide massacre of communists in 1965, the one enduring shibboleth that has permeated the collective national psyche has been that communism is evil and bent on the violent overthrow of the state and the destruction of religion.

Abdurrahman's willingness to forgive and forget seems inexplicable to many Indonesians, especially since it was the Muslim organisation of which he was the acknowledged leader, the Nadhlatul Ulama, that had been so active in massacring the communists.

To some, Abdurrahman's plea for tolerance of communism is the expression of a genuine desire for greater democratic openness.

To his opponents, who are increasingly to be found among the middle-class Muslim urban elite that had initially supported him, Abdurrahman is simply trying to seek support among secular nationalists, including the well-known Indonesian writer of the left, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who have up to now been wary of him. Whatever the truth of the matter, Indonesia watchers have had no difficulty in recognising in current developments a recrudescence of the same political alliances so prominent in the period before 1965 but which had become less visible in the Suharto years.

Of more nationwide concern is the alarming spread of violent clashes between local groups in different parts of the archipelago, some arising from disputes between followers of different religions, as in Ambon, some between members of different ethnic groups, as in Kalimantan, and some simply between members of different village communities, as in Sulawesi. There has always been the potential in different regions in Indonesia for petty incidents to flare up into outbreaks of violence. What is, however, disturbing about the present rash of confrontations is the frequency, scale and distribution of the incidents and the apparent inability of the government to deal with the situation.

This has led some western journalists, relatively ignorant of Indonesia but conversant with Europe, to predict the Balkanisation of Indonesia and the unviability of a state so geographically dispersed and encompassing such diversity. Their prognostications seem to find support in the vocal demands of some regions for independence. The threat of the break-up of Indonesia is, however, much exaggerated. Initiatives being undertaken by the government to plan in the long term for a more federal arrangement in the country and in the short term to disburse a greater percentage of revenue earned from regional resources to the regions themselves, will be found by most of the provinces now clamouring for independence to be a satisfactory compromise.

Of more immediate concern are the sudden, unpredictable violent outbreaks and the growing intensity of ideological divisions that they seem to reflect. One much-touted explanation of the violence is that it has been deliberately fomented if not by ex-president Suharto himself, at least by those who are close to him. They certainly have the resources and a strong motive to provoke clashes.

By destabilising the country, they take attention away from the investigations under way to bring them to trial for corruption. This explanation does not account for why groups now appear so prone to violence and why, despite numerous cautions from their national and local leaders, they allow themselves to be so quickly provoked.

No single explanation can account for the situation. Undoubtedly the decline in economic opportunities and the rise of unemployment among a young, male urban proletariat has given rise to intense frustration, creating a situation where people are only too quick to take advantage of the smallest incident to express their feelings and create mayhem.

Another factor is the vacuum in policing as the now discredited military forces formerly responsible for law and order retreat to their barracks. Their place has been taken by a police force not yet sufficiently well-equipped and trained to deal with difficult situations. An example of what can occur in these circumstances was the confrontation at a university campus in Medan, Sumatra, in which police shot two students.

Another factor is the gradual erosion of the status of formerly respected local figures, religious leaders and teachers in particular, during the Suharto years. It was these leaders who could be relied on to calm tempers, give advice and command obedience. When it became clear that these figures were routinely ignored or even humiliated by local military commanders or government officials, they lost their standing in the community. Teachers have now become almost figures of contempt.

The picture is certainly depressing, but it is not so gloomy as the western journalists sometimes make out. Abdurrahman has a lot of support; his democratic credentials are excellent, and most Indonesians are sufficiently realistic to understand that the transition to accountable civil society after years of dictatorship is bound to take time and there will inevitably be bumps along the way.

Bill Watson is senior lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Kent and an Indonesian specialist.

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