Indonesia: The End of the Suharto Era

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Indonesia: The End of the Suharto Era


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


President Suharto resigned on May 21 1998. When General Suharto first became Indonesia s president in 1967, Charles de Gaulle was President of France, Chairman Mao ruled China, Lyndon Johnson was the US President, and Harold Wilson was the British Prime Minister. All of these leaders are now dead. Along with Cuba's Fidel Castro, Suharto was one of the world's longest serving heads of government.

This article puts the Suharto era in context. It recalls the history of the country and its search for unity. It then looks at Suharto's rise and career, and finally his downfall. The article concludes with an assessment of how he is likely to be viewed by history.

Indonesia is the stunted giant of Southeast Asia. With over 200 million people, it is the world's fourth most populous country and the largest country in Southeast Asia. But its potential strength has not been achieved. Its post-independence history has been characterized by turbulence, repression and corruption. Until 1997, it was making great economic progress, but at considerable political and social cost. Indonesia's national motto is 'Unity in Diversity'. Its history and present policies all have a bearing on or are influenced by the need to maintain national unity.

Indonesia consists of 17,000 islands (3,000 of which are inhabited). Its east-west axis is the equivalent of the distance between London and New York. It is located on one of the main sea routes running though Asia and into the Pacific. The Indonesian islands have had a variety of visitors and rulers over the thousands of years, many of whom have left their distinctive characteristics. The early Asian traders not only sought commerce but, beginning well over a thousand years ago, Hindu priests accompanying the traders sought converts.

The Hindu and Buddhist cultures were overcome by the spread of Islam from the 14th century onwards. This religion, too, came from traders looking for spice and carrying a new faith. Indonesia is the largest (per capita) Islamic country in the world, with about 10 per cent of the world's Muslims. Its faith is characterized by a large degree of tolerance of the non-Islamic communities. The next religious overlay was Christianity, brought by the Portuguese in the late 15th century.

Each invader up to this time did not try to create the country of 'Indonesia' as such but was content with having access to and control of small bits of it. While Indonesia is, therefore, an old country in terms of its original inhabitants and impact on the international trading systems it is not old in terms of being a unified Southeast Asian political whole.

The Dutch, who first reached Indonesia in the late 16th century, ultimately had more success in gaining political and economic control over what is now Indonesia. They made substantial profits. For example, 31 per cent of Dutch national income in the 1850s came from the 'cultivation system' in Java in the nineteenth century. (The old international reputation of the Spice Islands' wealth is illustrated by Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage: he arrived in the Americas but he was actually seeking a quicker route to the Spice Islands).

But the Dutch had problems of colonial revolts. From the Java War (182530) to the Aceh War (1873-1903), the history of the Dutch East Indies in the nineteenth century was one of bloodshed. The revolts continued into the 20th century, with communist uprisings in 1926 and 1927.

World War II and the Japanese occupation marked the effective end of Dutch control. Independence was declared on 17 August 1945 by Indonesian nationalists. The Dutch did not recognise it and made a futile, if brutal, effort to regain control. On 27 December 1949, the Dutch surrendered sovereignty to the Republic of Indonesia.

Achmad Sukarno (1908-70), founder of the Indonesian Nationalist Party in 1927 and the leading figure in the fight for independence, was the first president (1945-67). …

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