Indonesia's Splintering

By Kurlantzick, Joshua | The World and I, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Indonesia's Splintering

Kurlantzick, Joshua, The World and I

On a hot Southeast Asian day, Abdurrahman Wahid, the president of Indonesia, sat in front of the members of a leading university as one scholar after another praised him for his commitment to human rights. Wahid, who is essentially blind due to several strokes, was guided to the lectern. Once there, he gave a thoughtful, off-the-cuff speech, which was warmly received by the crowd, some of whom cheered him lustily.

The entire occasion was delightful--except that it took place in Bangkok, not in Jakarta or another Indonesian city. Several days after his glowing welcome at the Thai university, Wahid was back home, facing separatist rebellions, a debilitating financial collapse, and constant political backbiting, with parliament making every effort to get him to quit. Confronted with all these problems, what did Wahid do? He planned another trip abroad.

The largest Muslim country on earth, home to 224 million people, Indonesia stands at a crossroads. Secessionist tensions are tearing it apart, the economy is staggering under crushing debt, investors are pulling out, and brutal interethnic violence is taking its toll. Tough, even harsh, decisions need to be made to put this nation back on track.

If Indonesia falls apart, the impact on the region and even the United States would be enormous. By far the largest country in Southeast Asia, it is a linchpin of regional security. It sits astride the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's most important shipping lanes. An unstable Indonesia could disrupt billions of dollars' worth of sea traffic.

Widespread violence there probably would result in waves of refugees washing up in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, destabilizing the political systems and economies of those important U.S. allies. In addition, such unrest would disrupt important trade flows, for Indonesia is a major supplier of oil and natural gas to America and a key market for U.S. exports.

Less tangibly, if the country disintegrates into a cycle of violence, it would put in doubt the notion that Islam can be tolerant. Chaos might allow Islamic fundamentalists to make headway in the archipelago.


A free, democratic Indonesia could never be an easy place to govern. The massive country stretches across three time zones and encompasses hundreds of ethnic groups and languages. Irian Jaya, Indonesia's easternmost island, boasts over 700 language groups. Although the government has heavily promoted Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, many Indonesians do not speak it, and numerous residents of islands other than Java, the main population center, feel little connection to the country.

What's more, policies implemented during the Suharto dictatorship, which lasted from 1966 until 1998, exacerbated ethnic and economic fissures. To preserve the unity of the state, Suharto unleashed the armed forces on outlying provinces with separatist ambitions, places like East Timor, West Papua, and Aceh, a small, resource-rich province in western Sumatra. Given free rein, the military slaughtered thousands.

Meanwhile export-oriented economic policies, designed to help Indonesia catch up to fellow Asian "tiger cub" economies Malaysia and Thailand, benefited a small group of politically connected Javanese. These nouveaux riches funneled a percentage of their wealth back to Suharto and his family. As a result, Indonesia became one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

"You can't imagine how rotten the system was under Suharto," says Laksaman Sukardi, a leading reformer.

When Suharto wobbled in 1997 and '98, tensions that had been building for decades were unleashed. Mobs rampaged through cities, demanding punishment for the Indonesian strongman and wreaking havoc on property. The political unrest provoked inflation and forced down the value of the country's currency, the rupiah. When the devaluation of the Thai baht triggered the Asian financial crisis in July 1997, Indonesia's economy melted down. …

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