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Opinion | Next | Prev


Democracy in Indonesia -- Dogged by rebellion

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

UNFASHIONABLE though it might be to say so, the contrast between Indonesia's turbulent change of guard and the orderliness with which power is transferred in India after elections highlights the difference between Dutch and British colonialism. It also d emonstrates that, contrary to what some Indians argue, a presidential system is not an automatic guarantee of stability.

The turmoil that Indonesia faced even last week was a warning of what happens when vested interests abort a revolutionary upsurge. Happily, the blind and ailing former president, Mr Abdurrahman Wahid, found a face-saving formula to step down, but his ini tial threat that two or three provinces would secede if he was forced out was a reminder that the multi-ethnic archipelago of 14,000 (17,000 according to some, though only about 3,000 are inhabited) islands, which is also the world's most populous Islami c nation, owes its existence to colonial accident.

Even Bahasa Indonesia, the unifying language in which Indonesia takes such pride, is not a nationalist achievement. It is another colonial legacy. Bahasa (for short) is the Javanese Malay that Dutch administrators used throughout the East Indies because, unlike the British in India, they did not want to spend money and effort on books, teachers and setting up schools to make Dutch the lingua franca. By making Bahasa independent Indonesia's official language, the charismatic Achmed Sukarno, who wrested i ndependence from the Dutch, ensured Java's continued supremacy.

This also helped to fuel separatist movements in such places as Irian Jaya, the former Dutch colony of New Guinea that Sukarno seized in 1962, and East Timor, which his successor, General Haji Mohammed Suharto, annexed in 1976.

Now half-way to sovereignty, the East Timorese doggedly refused to integrate because they had been shaped in the very different crucible of Portuguese colonialism. When she was campaigning for the presidency in 1999, Sukarno's daughter, Ms Megawati Sukar noputri, pandered to ultra-chauvinist sentiment by arguing that if there was a referendum in East Timor, there would have to be similar referendums throughout the islands since any decision affecting Indonesia's territory and borders had to bear the impr imatur of all Indonesians.

The recent upheaval was a continuation of the disturbances that brought down General Suharto who reinvented himself as a Javanese king (having married into the princely family of Sulu) and whose personal rule was credited with economic prosperity and adm inistrative stability, though it was riddled with corruption and nepotism. The manner in which Mr Wahid was chosen was not democratic, and rankled with young radicals who thought they were ushering in an era of transparent and responsive governance.

A modest, middle-aged housewife, Ms Megawati should have become president since her faction of the Indonesian Democratic Party secured the largest single group of legislative seats in the polls. In fact, a major impetus for the revolt against the Suharto regime was its attempt to exclude her from politics. She symbolised all victims of the government's political repression.

But under a hung-over constitution the president had to be chosen by a 695-member legislature in which the elected element was by no means the most powerful. Islamists, Gen Suharto's still powerful Golkar party and conservative representatives of the mil itary did not want to elect a woman suspected of liberal views. Some of them had helped Gen Suharto to overthrow her father in a 1965 coup that killed about 100,000 people, mainly ethnic Chinese, who were said to be Communists, and numerous senior army o fficers, and which enjoyed tacit American and British support. Others had amassed wealth under the regime.

They feared that her policies would be radical and that she would mount a witch-hunt against Suharto supporters. And so Mr Amien Rais, chief of the People's Consultative Assembly, helped Mr Wahid, whose Islamic National Awakening Party had won only a han dful of seats, to become president. Ms Megawati had to be content with the vice-presidency.

Justice was belated when Mr Amien and other supporters turned against their man, with Golkar spearheading charges of incompetence and embezzling $6 million. The police and public prosecutor cleared the former president last year of two graft scandals, bu t that made no difference to the opposition which wanted him out, and moved no fewer than three censure motions since January to compel Mr Wahid to resign.

These manoeuvres were necessary only because Indonesians are not used to constitutional democratic change. The blend of native monarchical absolutism and colonial autocracy legitimised presidential authoritarianism. In defeat, Gen Suharto and Mr Wahid be haved like deposed kings whose divine right was being challenged by the hoi polloi. They had no conception of accountability because the Dutch did not give Indonesians any taste of public responsibility or representative government.

Economic and social unrest underlay political machinations. The murderous campaign of pro-merger organisations that the authorities are suspected of financing partly explains why East Timor's independence is delayed. Muslim fundamentalists in Sumatra's A ceh province are demanding their own state. Massacres in Kalimantan (Borneo), rebellion in Sulawesi (the Celebes islands), and attacks on Chinese and Christians add to the uncertainty. There might have been some chance of absorbing discontent and violenc e if the economy had recovered from the 1997 meltdown which it has not.

No less important than economic recovery is the need to evolve sound constitutional processes that disperse power within the administration to achieve some balance, ensure that the chief executive is not hostage to particular lobbies, and enable peaceful change. Democracy may not wish away all these problems but it facilitates the search for solutions.

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