Indonotes

Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Month: May, 2012

Explaining the rise of the military in Indonesia in the 1960s

Military ‘Heroes of the Revolution’ killed in the events of 1965. Author’s photo, taken in Museum Dharma Wiratama, Yogyakarta

Comparisons with Indonesia’s neighbours can help explain the military takeover of 1965.

Since the fall of Suharto’s military regime in the late 1990s, the army has played a much diminished role in Indonesian politics. There is much debate on how powerful the military remains, and it is also quite possible to imagine it becoming more influential if there is a period of economic crisis, weakness and division amongst civilian politicians, and/or serious regional and ethnic conflict.

Taking a step back it is interesting to consider how the military came to power in the first place. In Indonesia (and amongst outside scholars) a great deal of controversy is focused on the events of 1965. The most thorough account of these events is provided by John Roosa, who finds that some elements of the PKI leadership along with some sympathetic military officers made a botched attempt to kidnap some of their key opponents in the military and pressure President Sukarno into giving them a greater role in government. The poorly executed plan saw three of the Generals shot, and one escape, with only three successfully captured. With their plans going to pot, they decided to kill the remaining three. Then, when they met up with Sukarno he would not give them his support.[1] Ultimately, Suharto outmaneuvered everyone, coming to power at the head of a military regime. Sukarno was sidelined. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was decimated in a blood letting that saw perhaps 500,000-1,000,000 killed.[2] The USA, happy to see PKI destroyed, provided small arms, communications equipment and lists of PKI members to be killed.[3] Muslim groups that had initially worked with the army to crush the PKI were soon marginalised as the military cemented its hold on power.

One may well wonder what would have happened if the plot had been better organised and the Generals all kidnapped as planned. Maybe Sukarno’s support would then have been forthcoming. It is not inconceivable that there could have ended up with something closer to a civil war than the massacres that took place.

However, I would argue that there were strong forces that conditioned the rise of the military in Indonesia. In this argument the key parallel is with Burma/Myanmar, which also saw a military takeover in the 1960s.

Key amongst the parallels between the two states were:

  1. Ethnically diverse populations brought together by a colonial state.
  2. Lack of an indigenous civilian elite combining independent socio-economic power with political dominance (in other word presence of ‘pariah’ economic elite – Indian and some Chinese in Burma/Myanmar, Chinese in Indonesia – that was excluded from political power).
  3. Lack of indigenous participation in government under colonialism (admittedly there were some concessions made in this direction by the British in Burma).
  4. Major but varied social change under colonialism.
  5. Japanese occupation causing severe social dislocation and encouraging militarisation of social/ethnic/religious conflicts building up under colonial rule.
  6. Cold war support for armies and aggravation of internal conflicts, requiring strengthening of armies for counterinsurgency.

Another interesting comparison is with the Philippines, where the military played a much less important role in politics than in Indonesia. The Philippines had experiences (ethnic diversity, major social change, insurgencies and military build up exacerbated by the Cold War) that in some ways parallel Indonesia’s historical trajectory. However, I would single out two key differences. One is the relative integration of economic and political power in the ‘mestizo’ elite that had mixed Chinese and Filipino heritage.[4] The other is the ability of this elite to entrench itself in power following the arrival of American colonialism, expanding their social and economic influence and capitalising on the opportunities offered by the elections the Americans instituted. In this way they were able to capture the coercive apparatus of the state and provide a much greater obstacle to military takeover than in Indonesia or Burma/Myanmar.[5]


[1] J.Roosa, Pretext for Mass Murder: the September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006).

[2] R.Cribb, ‘Problems in the Historiography of the Killings in Indonesia’ in R.Cribb ed., The Indonesian Killings of 1965-66 (Clayton: Monash University Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, 1990).

[3] B.R.Simpson, Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and US-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).

[4] W.G. Skinner, “Creolized Chinese Societies in Southeast Asia,” in Anthony Reid, ed, Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1996), pp.51-93.

[5] E.E. Hedman and J.T. Sidel, Philippine Politics and Society in the Twentieth Century: Colonial Legacies, Post-Colonial Trajectories (London: Routledge, 2000), esp. cpt 1-4.

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Some alternative perspectives on David Cameron’s Visit to Indonesia

David Cameron (from Wikimedia Commons, Photo by Remy Steinegger, shared under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License)

Despite being largely ignored by the British press, there was an outpouring of comment online from Indonesians in response to David Cameron’s visit to Indonesia. An analysis of the debate reveals a mixture of pride and scepticism.

David Cameron’s visit to Indonesia on 11th April as part of his Asian tour was rather overshadowed by his trip to Burma/Myanmar. When the British press did pay attention to Indonesia, some reports stuck largely to the official line, with David Cameron highlighting the economic opportunity Indonesia represented, and treating Indonesia as an example of the possibility of the coexistence of Islam and democracy.[1] More critical accounts tended to juxtapose Cameron’s praise of Indonesian democracy with some of its problems, including oligarchic rule, corruption, limitations on religious freedom, and an unaccountable military.[2] Based on these perspectives they had rather different views on news of a deal between the Indonesian airline Garuda and Airbus and Cameron’s promotion of British arms exports to Indonesia.

So what of Indonesian perspectives? There were some efforts made in the mainstream British press to incorporate Indonesian perspectives, but these were really quite limited. The Guardian included a couple of responses from students who saw Cameron’s speech.[3] The Independent covered a speech by the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in which he argued, somewhat uncomfortably for David Cameron, that in Indonesia a symbiosis of government and industry had helped recovery from economic crisis.[4] In the Guardian Deborah Orr worried about Cameron’s praise for Indonesia tainting it in the eyes of Islamic extremists.[5]

Yet although Indonesian views on Cameron’s visit were almost an afterthought in British press accounts, the proliferation of Indonesian online newspapers and the dynamism of the Indonesian blogosphere mean there is ample material available for analysis. Indeed, David Cameron’s speech at Al-Azhar university described Indonesia as ‘a country where more people use Twitter more intensively than any other nation on the planet’.[6] Those attending the speech were encouraged to ‘tweet your favourite line’.[7]

In this context, Twitter provides an interesting entry point to the wide range of responses to Cameron’s visit to Indonesia. Tweets that I came across (I translate a selection below) indicated a mixed reaction, combining pride with a decent degree of scepticism:

Public lecture by British PM David Cameron at Univeristy Al-Azhar Indonesia has finished. Knowledge he conveyed was really good

British PM David Cameron has a public lecture, issue of terrorism yet again 😐

Watching ‘stale’ lecture from Mr Cameron at Al Azhar University. #phony (gombal)

David Cameron public lecture as Al-Azhar, using lots of Indonesian in sentences praising Indonesia. When thing are complex like this have to take a subjective perspective.

British PM.. David  Cameron gives a public lecture at Al Azhar University, Jakarta @Metro TV pretty likeable.. and [in English] I’m proud of Indonesia.

There are limitations on how representative Tweeted responses will be of wider sentiment in Indonesia. Those Tweeting are likely to be younger and better off than most. However, Indonesia is full of Internet cafes (warnet) and you can get access for an hour for around the price of a glass of tea, meaning even those on modest means in urban areas can easily get online. In addition, as the speech was broadcast (with subtitles) on a national television channel, it had the potential to reach a wide audience.

Beyond Twitter, the diversity of responses also came through in the Indonesian language online press and blogosphere. Some Indonesian sources echoed Cameron’s message.[8] There was also appreciation of the ‘Indonesia mampu memimpin dunia’ (Indonesia can lead the world) motif in Cameron’s speech as well as Cameron’s care to avoid the impression that extremism was synonymous with, or exclusive to, Islam.[9]

However there was also a good amount of scepticism, expressed with a range of ways. Ismail Hasani of the Setara Institute argued in the liberal English language Jakarta Globe ‘Of course it was lip service, they know Indonesia’s reputation on human rights…  In terms of political liberties, we are doing OK, but our civil liberties are going nowhere.[10] Cynicism about Indonesian politics was sometimes combined with  a nationalist suspicion of western politicians. One blog argued that ‘‘Behind his praise, David Cameron touched on problems that may obstruct Indonesia’s development’, listing terrorism, conflict with minorities such as Ahmadiyah, human rights abuses and corruption. The blogger concluded that foreigners praise the Indonesian governmentbecause ‘it is profitable for them’.[11] One more radical blog derided Cameron as a ‘stooge (kaki tangan) of neocolonialism’ and lamented that Indonesians  ‘still inherit our genetics as slaves from our grandparents’, listening to Cameron ‘lecture’ Indonesians ‘as if he has forgotten’ that he was not leader of this country.[12] A more self-consciously Islamic response was offered by Muhammad Ismail Yusanto, spokesman for Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. He criticised the UKs relationship with USA and involvement in foreign interventions. He also contrasted democracy as popular rule as opposed to Islam, the rule of Allah. Yet many of his points echoed other, less self-consciously Islamic critics. Yes, Yusanto conceded, there has been a transition from the Suharto era, and there are now elections, but the change that occurred has not been ‘substantial’. Corruption, social conflict, poverty, disillusionment with the legal system are moving Indonesia away from a ‘just society’. Cameron’s words were ‘empty praise’, the ‘praise of a salesman to a prospective customer’  that if not watched out for will ‘lull us all’, and ‘close our eyes to facts of a number of very striking failures’.[13]

The scholar Benedict Anderson, drawing on the words of the Filipino nationalist Jose Rizal, used the phrase ‘the spectre of comparisons’ to capture the somewhat disorientating sensation of seeing the same thing from two different perspectives: ‘simultaneously close up and from afar’. There is definitely something of this sensation in reading British and Indonesian sources on Cameron’s trip to Indonesia. However, there is also a sense of standing  amid a cacophony of sometimes mutually unintelligible voices. My aim here has been to record a bit of that cacophany.