The End of Indonesia's New Order

By Clad, James | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

The End of Indonesia's New Order


Clad, James, The Wilson Quarterly


After many years and much speculation, a long-anticipated moment in the life of modern Indonesia may finally be at hand. Until recently, the word transition summed up a simple but delicate question in this nation of 200 million people: who will become president once General Suharto, now nearing the end of his sixth five-year term, departs the scene? Defined this way, the problem of who-comes-next led to a simple question of when, leaving the how unasked. It suggested, moreover, that the most acute political problem facing this fast-developing Asian country arises only from uncertainty about the precise chronological moment when the 75-year-old Suharto either hangs up his spurs or drops dead, scepter still in hand.

In the aftermath of last July's two-day riot in Jakarta that left as many as 10 people dead and a number of buildings in ashes, the city's most serious violence in two decades, all such illusions have dropped into the dust bin: this city of 11 million people is now focusing intently on the how of Suharto's departure. (Like many people from the island of Java, Suharto uses a single name.) So is the world beyond. What happens in Jakarta will have profound consequences not only for Indonesia but for the rest of Asia, and much of the world beyond.

Indonesia's 13,600 islands stretch across four time zones and more than 3,000 miles, a distance greater than that separating California and New York. It is the world's fourth most populous country (and its largest Muslim one), a significant OPEC oil producer, an industrializing exporter of textiles, electronics, and other goods, and the chief pillar of Southeast Asia's prosperous stability. It sits, moreover, astride two crucial shipping routes; unimpeded passage through the Lombok and Malacca straits enables huge Persian Gulf oil tankers (and U.S. warships) to pass between the Pacific and Indian oceans. All of this may help to explain why a White House staffer burbled, "He's our kind of guy," to a New York Times reporter covering Suharto's visit to Washington, D.C. in November 1995.

Few in Indonesia think that Suharto, even now, will have any difficulty winning a seventh term as president in 1998, if he chooses to run. As in the past, a newly elected national assembly will gather after elections in 1997; then, in early 1998, the assembly will meld with scores of extra government appointees to form the supreme People's Consultative Assembly (the MPR), which will elect the president. Since 1967, Suharto has emerged the victor from each of these stage-managed convocations; it would be beyond all precedent for him to even face a presidential challenger. Yet it was precisely such a prospect that set in motion the events leading up to the July riots.

The immediate cause of the violence lay in Suharto's surprisingly clumsy efforts to marginalize Megawati Soekarnoputri, the 49-year-old daughter of his predecessor, Sukarno, and head of the hitherto tame, government-created Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). Under Megawati, the PDI had come to serve as a symbol for a variety of people and forces yearning for change in Indonesia: members of the growing urban middle class, industrial workers in Indonesia's booming export zones, restive Muslims anxious about Indonesia's rapid modernization, and a handful of organizations concerned with rural-urban income gaps, the destruction of tropical forests, and other issues. Megawati's real sin, however, might have been to hint that she might challenge Suharto for the presidency.

In the months before the July 1996 riots, Suharto moved to undermine Megawati, blocking her efforts to build up a serious PDI organization before the May 1997 parliamentary elections. Then the regime encouraged thugs connected to a rival PDI leader to evict Megawati's followers from the party's headquarters in Jakarta. That ignited the riots of July 27 and 28. In the eyes of her supporters and in most Western reportage, Megawati found herself increasingly compared to Southeast Asia's most famous women oppositionists - the Philippines' Corazon Aquino and Burma's Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. …

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