This had originally been planned for an English-language newspaper in 
Indonesia, but then got much too long. It was broadcast on some mailing
lists, particularly INDONESIA-L (10 Apr 99), ReformasiTotal (10 Apr
99), Indo-Chaos (10-11 Apr 99), Berita-I (11 Apr 99), SiaR List (23 & 
26 Apr 99)
[mounted 14 Apr 99; re-edited to correct typos, last update 28 Apr 99]


Waruno Mahdi

  1. Are the Self-Sustaining Faculties of the State Still Functioning? 
  2. What Did Ambon and Sambas Have in Common? 
  3. A Short Note on East Timor 
  4. Aceh, Irian Jaya, and the Armed Forces

For many weeks already, the international press has been wondering out loud, when Indonesia would fall apart. Policy makers around the world have been discussing scenarios to cope with an anticipated Indonesian meltdown.

This is, of course, not really surprising. The political crisis that was ushered in by mysterious kidnappings, the shooting of Trisakti students, and the apparently manipulated outbreak of violence May 12-14, 1998, has developed into a protracted state of national agony. It is a nationwide breakdown of civil order and communal solidarity, in which the violence in Ambon or the Sambas region only are two particularly spectacular episodes.

Observers and analysts are finding themselves swamped with a flood of phenomenologist data of a somewhat baffling nature. On one hand, it suggestively lends itself to being neatly sorted out into cliché pidgeonholes (ethnic, religious, and racial conflicts, generally subsumed under the Indonesian acronym SARA). On the other, this does not seem to lead to the kind of insight into underlying processes that would facilitate adequate policy formulations.

For, just to pick up a particularly contrastive example, why do muslim Malays in the Sambas area get along with (at least nominally) christian Dayaks, yet be in conflict with Madurese who are also muslims, and with whom they share an either settled rural or urban economic culture?

Our perception of Indonesian current history is perhaps still dominated by traditional views that have overlooked some important details in the process of emergence of this multi-ethnic national community. Apart from that, the preparedness to accept required sacrifices to solve problems understandably depends upon realising the seriousness of the situation.

The following essay inspects the various factors and tries to elicit some underlying tendencies, which will perhaps help understand the current developments.


Before going into the significance of the individual outbursts of violence, the implications of the political instability for prospects of a meltdown should perhaps be inspected under a more general aspect of the durability of the state itself.

Vladimir Lenin was a Russian revolutionary whose teachings one will perhaps consider with more skepsis after we have all seen the socialist state he set up crumble before our very eyes. Yet, one thing one will have to concede this leader of the bolshevist revolution: an uncanny feeling for timing. When is a state ready to plunge into revolutionary chaos like a ripe apple?

A "revolutionary situation", he once wrote, requires not only that the lower strata of society are no longer either capable or willing to live by the old order. It also requires that the upper strata too are no longer either capable or willing to abide by it.

The logic behind this unexpected proposition seems to be, that the state is equipped with elaborate mechanisms to contain even extremely eruptive social convulsions. A revolutionary, intending to topple the state, may only count upon those mechanisms to fail when a fundamental breakdown of solidarity within the upper social strata actually brings the mechanisms into disarray.

In how far this logic is valid in reality is not so important, if we are not planning to overthrow a state. Interesting for us is that it provides convenient comparative criteria for characterizing the functionality of self-sustaining mechanisms of a state.

The first of Lenin's two conditions for a "revolutionary situation" one may consider already fulfilled since months. Not only does rampant mass unemployment, severe poverty, and ever-widening areas of starvation bear testimony to this. The slightest sparks have been provoking violent explosions all over the country. People have stopped being receptive to appeals of public figures and religious leaders to abstain from violence.

This seems to be exactly what is causing anxiety among foreign observers noted at the beginning above. But these have not generally applied the second condition. What is with that? Well, the establishment too seems to have already been signalizing for months, in a small and also on a large scale, that it no longer necessarily feels bound to reason of state.

That the tapped phone conversation between President B.J. Habibie and attorney general Adi Ghalib was apparently leaked by own intelligence agents is only a trivial sign of disintegration of internal solidarity and dependability.

The notorious campaign of "ninja" death-squads in Banyuwangi cannot be grouped among the trivialities. It is one of a series of actions that are being ascribed to unidentified "rogue groups" believed to exist in the armed forces, of which the minister of defence claims not to have any knowledge. Apparently, competing lines of command are clandestinely reaching deep into vital sectors of the armed forces without insight or control of the central command.

At the same time, the army is deeply comprimized and demoralized by exposés of past excesses, and that part which remains within reach of the nominal central command seems not even to be always effective. It is increasingly hesitant and ineffective in coping with riots.

Just as alarming as rogue infiltration and disruption of army command hierarchies are persistent reports from credible sources that outbreaks of violence all over the country are being orchestrated by influential circles in the establishment. This is a fundamental abandonment of state-upholding mechanisms by a part of the establishment, aimed at destabilizing the state and at disavowing both the government and the armed forces.

More vicious attempts to disorganize state-upholding solidarity in the establishment is hardly imaginable. Nevertheless, one cannot say that Lenin's second condition is already fulfilled in Indonesia.

The massive economic growth during the last two decades preceding the crisis led to a considerable rise in significance of the middle class. Only a small part of it found access to the regime, e.g. when former president Soeharto allowed for an opening towards a part of the Islamic movement in the late 1980s. A small part also found representation in the regime by nestling into niches in the Golkar ruling party. But a major part identified with the opposition instead, and stood behind the movement which finally brought about Soeharto's downfall last year.

At present we can witness a factual solidarity of wide reaches of the middle class, politically represented either in the opposition movement, or in constructive factions striving with variegated degrees of success to extract themselves from a previous involvement in the regime. This tacit solidarity is factually maintaining continued functionality of the state, and is thus ensuring that Lenin's second condition is not fulfilled.

This can probably be seen as constituting one important indication, that Indonesia is in all likelihood not yet about to fall apart.

Two circumstances will determine the chances for continued stability in this respect. The first is whether the indicated civil solidarity will succeed in compensating the withdrawal from state-upholding solidarity of rogue elements of the outgoing regime in the long run. The second is the validity of the logic behind Lenin's proposition (this too is of course by no means guaranteed).

But apart from that, the country may break up geopolitically without a central meltdown. One way this could happen is, that the establishment becomes divided in its solidarity on principles of confessional, ethnical, or territorial adherence. The next sections will inspect the implications of the various outbreaks of violence for perpsectives of the country's falling apart.


Before that, some notes will perhaps be in place on the role of ex-president Soeharto, about whom the suspicion has been expressed that he is either inspiring or actually organizing the rogue elements in the establishment.

The severity of Soeharto's draconian style of government, euphemized as representing specifically "oriental" custom, purported to ensure the phenomenal economic growth during the two last decades before the crisis. One may question this, but to err is human, and the judgement of history has always tended to be lenient on ruffians who achieved success.

His subsequent downfall together with the collapse of the country's economy has meanwhile greatly diminished his perspectives for a favourable place in history. This he will probably have to blame on himself. Till up to half a year before his downfall, he could still have averted this by seeking reconciliation and cooperation with the opposition movement, and in this way opening the way for the reforms the country is still waiting to see realized. He could then have stepped down as a national hero.

Not only was this solution the only possible one by the basic principles of harmony and cooperation inherent in the country's constitution and in its basic principles of Panchasila. It was actually quite explicitly indicated to him at that time. That, of course, is now just spilled milk.

Soeharto's rule had been lined by a continuous series of violations of human rights, repeated campaigns of mass killings (after those of 1966-1967: the massacres in East Timor, the "Petrus" mysterious killings, the secret burials in Aceh, the massacres in Irian Jaya, etc.) and of long-term detentions without due process. One has sought to justify this by asserting that the victims had in some way endangered national stability. Complicity in the earlier mentioned rogue activities would now place Soeharto in the same category as those victims of repression by his own standards.


Outbreaks of violence of a type that has been generally handled under the rubrique "ethnic, religious, and racial conflict" (SARA) have been occurring throughout the country. The two most spectacular of these, in Ambon, Maluku, and in Sambas, West Kalimantan, have served as tragic landmarks in this protracted period of national agony.

That of Ambon was quickly dubbed as interconfessional: a conflict between Christians and Muslims. That on the Sambas was just as quickly characterized as interethnic: Malays and Dayaks versus Madurese.

In reality, both characterizations are not quite satisfactory. They fail to reveal the ultimate underlying source of the conflict, and for that reason do not conduce to venues for effective remedy. But more important for our present interest, they do not permit a candid appraisal of the implications of such outbreaks for either maintenance or disintegration of national unity.

In Ambon, it has been stressed again and again, Christians and Muslims lived peacefully side by side under traditional customs of communal solidarity. Only more recently arrived Buginese and Butonese muslim settlers, it is said, failed to integrate into that custom sphere. Even as violence between Buginese and autochthonous Ambonese polarized according to Muslim and Christian religious adherence, one still witnessed isolated instances of followers of one confession having their lives saved by a local majority of the respective other religion.

This already militates strongly against the assumption that religious differences lay at the bottom of the conflict. But above all, who has ever heard of a war between two religions, in which the leaders of both confessions were at peace with each other and calling upon their respective followers to stop hostilities since the very start.

In West Kalimantan, Malays and Madurese would seem to be very much closer to each other in stage of socio-economic development than either of the ethnic groups to Dayaks.Therefore, the fact that Malays in West Kalimantan, the main adversaries of the Madurese in the present conflict, should join forces with Dayaks (rather than side with Madurese to fight Dayaks) must immediately warn us, that we have not yet understood what it is that lies at the bottom of the conflict.

To understand what is really at the root of these conflicts, one should perhaps look back to Europe of the 15th to 17th centuries, when the continent was rocked by 30-, 80-, 100-years wars in which religious difference (Protestant versus Catholic) played an important role.

At that time, an increased weight of trade and handicraft empowered an increasingly prospering urban middle class to contest the supremacy of the aristocracy. Of vital importance is here the emergence of a new ethics that replaced an older tradition of savoir vivre by a principle of diligence and thrift with the aim of achieving a maximum surplus. It would become crucial in the reorientation of national mentality, finally refunctioning a rural population with rustical pastoral communal background into an urban labour force with industrial discipline. A second confrontation of these two "life philosophies" took place when the thus converted Europeans met upon not or not yet converted peoples of countries they colonized. This was aptly described by Mohammad Hatta, later one of the two proclamators of Indonesian independence and our first vice-president:

<<The Westerner focuses on yield. He sets priority on yield, and he strives to achieve the highest desired yield by exerting all his faculties. ... The Easterner focuses on energy. He sets priority on energy, and by implementing a minimum of energy he strives to achieve a maximum in yield. But as he uses up a smaller amount of energy, he ends up with a yield that is smaller as well.>>
 (translated from Moh. Hatta, "Rasionalisasi", 1936)   

This puts the fundamental difference in economic ethics in a nutshell. It lies between, on one side, the attitude of traditionalist ethics of rustical feudal or communal societies that economizes energy, investing only so much effort as is necessary for a comfortable subsistence, and on the other, that of mercantile ethics of individualistic industrial societies, which sets no ceiling on the targeted achievement, but requires continued perseverance, sometimes even at the expense of health and life quality.

That the latter ethical attitude is not a specific feature of European or Western culture was not generally realized at the time of Hatta's writing. But in the postwar period, a meanwhile more decadent West has been eyeing the in their view excessively industrious Japanese and other Asians with hardly disguised apprehension.

Indonesia experienced a socio-economic revolution similar to that in Europe, even approximately at the same time. However, it was disrupted much in the same way as the one in Italy and South France was when, unfortunately for the latter two, the main trade route from the Orient shifted from the Levant and Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, Cape of Good Hope, and Atlantic.

In Indonesia, the rise of Islamic merchant cities culminated in the defeat of the feudal overlord, the Empire of Majapahit, at the hands of the Sultanate of Demak. But further progress was brought to a halt as a result of the loss of the monopoly on spice trade. Demak succumbed, and was replaced by the Empire of Mataram which could essentially be considered as a reincarnation of Majapahit under conditions of Java having been meanwhile converted to Islam.

These developments have not failed to leave deep traces that are still very much extant even today. However, the industrious and enterprising element in the ethnic socio-economic landscape of Indonesia was mostly ignored in studies on the history of colonial Indonesia. One notable exception was the 1934 thesis (Leiden University) of Jacob Cornelis van Leur who likened the leaders of the Islamization of Java (Wali Songo, "the Nine Wardens"), with Calvinist leaders of the Dutch Reformation and struggle for independence from Catholic Spain.

Descriptions of Javanese mentality were otherwise restricted to observations on traditionalist communalist life style of the peasant village commons (desa) and feudal Central Javanese principalities. The no-nonsense directness and get-things-done spirit of coastal Pesisiran tradition remained obscure, just like the Islamic puritanism of the kaum putihan in the interior.

Even less known to the public was the continued maintenance of interinsular navigation by Makassarese, Buginese, and Butonese shipping, and by that of the Madurese. Business in the trade niches left unoccupied by the colonialists continued to be served also by various other peoples, e.g. Tidorese, Banjarese, coastal Minangkabaus (orang Padang) etc.

All these ethnic communities maintained in various degrees that mercantilist individualistic life attitude that was contrasted above with the traditionalist communalist style of egalitarian communities, village commons, and feudal societies. We have here a third recurrence of the mentioned confrontation of socio-economic culture. This time it is not between Easterners and Westerners as witnessed by Mohammad Hatta above, but between various indigenous peoples of Indonesia.

Encounters of the two life attitudes do not always lead to conflict. Communities with contrasting socio-economic motivation can and often do coexist peacefully, adopting complementary functions in systems with division of economic roles.

However, conditions of strong economic growth or rapid development can bring such systems into disbalance. The more versatile mercantilist individualist group is then at a great advantage. The frustration of the disadvantaged traditionalist communalist group, when "right way of life" loses in the face of economic success of "unseemly" over-perseverance, predictably engenders envy and hatred. At the same time, the successful group may tend to adopt a self-righteous pose of arrogance vis-a-vis their "lazy" counterparts (Europeans once lamented about "indolent" Asiatics. These, having recently found the tables turned, complained of "slack" or "soft" Westerners).

The subjective "drive" or moral rigorism to keep up a life of uncomprimising diligence and thrift, industriousness and strict economic discipline, is typically upheld through religion. In Europe it was e.g. Calvinism and Protestant puritanism. In Asia it has been Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, and Islam. Emergence of such socio-economic traditions are therefore usually accompanied by increased religiousness, and conflicts with communities with contrasting economic life styles will often take the form of religious conflicts.

The economic growth in Indonesia during the last two decades evidently led to considerable tensions between communities with contrasting economic attitudes. These tensions found no outlet under authoritarian conditions of government of the former regime. Rampant poverty resulting from the monetary crisis has now converted the smouldering unrest into veritable powder kegs, ready to explode at the slightest provocation.

Provocation by rogue elements may perhaps have given the fatal spark in Ambon, but the underlying tension that provided the force behind the violence must have already been building up for some time.

The Buginese are among the most perseverant traders in the Archipelago beside the Chinese, and this apparently lies at the basis of differences with the traditional society of both Christian and Muslim autochthonous communities of Ambon with their chiefdoms ("kingdoms") and communal custom.

The circumstance that the former were strictly Muslim, and that the first adversaries they clashed with in Ambon were Christian, caused the conflict to adopt the form of interconfessional violence. This has had a kind of inductive snowball effect, in that it set off ever widening waves of violence between Muslims and Christians. Indonesia, after three decades of suppression of all spontaneous settling of differences, a circumstance now aggravated by the economic crisis, is one single minefield of explosive tension, an ideal medium for the propagation of such waves of violence.

In West Kalimantan, The Malays and the Dayaks, though obviously adhering to widely different systems of socio-economic organization, both retain their respective communalist traditions.

Although the Chinese in Indonesia are reported at the opposite extreme of mecantilist individualistic life style scale, this is only true for a part of them. The Chinese of West Kalimantan, having been once brought here as plantation coolies, have meanwhile settled in distinct niches within the local system of division of economic roles.

The Buginese, already for some centuries the economically most expansive in the Archipelago, have been successfully operating in the waters of West Indonesia. A Buginese dynasty ruled in Aceh in the 18th century. In the foremost Malay sultanate of Riau-Johore (later: Riau-Lingga, after secession of Johore to the British in 1824), actual power was more often in the hands of the hereditary Buginese viceroy (Yang Dipertuan Muda) rather than in that of the Malay sultan (Yang Dipertuan Agung). Haji Ali, most prominent author of Malay works of the 19th century beside Abdullah Munsyi, was one such viceroy (i.e. he was actually of Buginese extraction).

On the coast around the Southeastern corner of Kalimantan they operate extensive shipbuilding facilities. In West Kalimantan too, Buginese have been operating successfully on the Sambas and the Kapuas rivers, particularly in the more recent past. Their sailing ships proved more effective than motorized watercraft, whose screws and rudders were particularly susceptible to damage by continuously shifting sandbanks (no repair facilities up river). But just like the local Chinese, the Buginese are well integrated in West Kalimantan.

The arid climate of Madura has not only caused Madurese to expand to neighbouring East Java and to lesser islands in the Java Sea. They have been a staunch Pesisiran community to be reckoned with in Javanese politics of the 18th and 19th centuries. Their sailing boats were even commissioned by the Dutch as patrol boats to fight piracy in the 19th century. Their trading vessels were regular visitors in prewar Singapore.

The problem with the local Madurese settlers in West Kalimantan seems to be that they are not operating here in their traditional role outside the homeland as active sailors and traders. They have been settled here by a state transmigration program as peasants. Nevertheless, they do not sport the kind of unassuming, non-competitive ethical attitude of e.g. the traditional village common (desa) of Central Java.

Whether in Europe or in Asia, communities with prevalently mercantile culture often tended to contrast with their more feudally or communally orientated neighbours by having a coarser "language" and less refined decorum, which tends to let them seem impolite, uncouth, or even insulting, depending upon the sensitivity of the counterpart involved. They are brought up to succeed as individuals, rather than to mind their place in a community with predefined roles and positions.

The government transmigration not only had its organisational deficiencies. Under conditions of rampant corruption under the regime, even that support that was earmarked for the transmigrants often got sidetracked into other channels. In this situation, one may expect Madurese settlers to use own resourcefulness in providing themselves with necessaries. This would predictably aggravate already tense relations to other local ethnicities.

To return to the initial topic, it seems to follow now, that both in Ambon and in Sambas, the underlying factor leading to the conflicts is probably the contrast between mercantilist individualistic and traditionalist communalist cultures.

This has a whole row of implications of either long-term or short-term effects. But with regard to the central question of national unity, the message is a reassuring one.

A greater part of Indonesia can be relatively easily divided into zones with single prevalent religion, either Muslim, Christian, or other. But it is hardly possible to divide it effectively according to prevalence of either mercantilist individualistic or traditionalist communalist culture.

The boundary runs through all the provinces. Even in Irian Jaya we find e.g. Biaks and Sentani on alternate sides of it. Many ethnic groups are themselves divided by that boundary (e.g. Javanese, Minangkabaus). In many places, variantly orientated communities cooperate in systems with division of economic roles. Some mercantile groups, e.g. Buginese and Chinese, are dissipated all over the country, and not always in clearly bound enclaves or exclusive settlements. And all major cities are of course multi-cultural smelting pots.

Finally, the contrast is not a binary yes-or-no oposition, but different communities occupy various notches in a scale of varying degrees of "mercantilization" or "individualization". We have already seen Buginese and Madurese in different roles in West Kalimantan. In East Kalimantan, Buginese and Banjarese (not to mention also Javanese) operate separately with distinct mercantile strategies, particularly e.g. in transactions with Dayaks of the interior, or also with the local Bulungan.

Therefore, no matter how much worse the situation may get, conflicts of the type that have ravaged Ambon and Sambas could perhaps, at the extreme, lead to total collapse of economic life, but, tragic and upsetting enough as such an outcome would be, it would not directly lead to the country's territorially falling apart. Not for this reason.

Seen in general, the very interested parties, the ethnic groups that have been above-averagely successful either through their mercantilist individualist life attitude (Buginese, Chinese, Coastal Minangkabaus, etc.), or through a formerly privileged access to education and thus preferential access to privileged professions (Javanese, Sundanese, Minangkabaus, Ambonese, Bataks, Menadonese, Chinese, Arabs, etc.) are spread all over the country, and are immediately interested to remain there. They would be the very last to want their respective home-areas to break-off from Indonesia or for the country to break apart.

Of course, the spirit of belonging together in one nation, the ideological seeds of which had already been sewn in the first half of this century, is now quite deeply embedded in public sentiment all over the country, and is not restricted to the ethnic groups mentioned above. And many people of all ethnic groups are involved in economic and social life on a nationwide scale. All this contributes to sustainment of the national unity.


There still remains one major potential source of national disintegration to be considered, that of provinces in which representative speakers of at least major parts of the population have called for separation from Indonesia.


This section will only briefly deal with East Timor. Though formally declared a province of Indonesia by this country's highest legislative body (the Peoples Consultative Assembly) in 1976, it had actually never been considered part of Indonesia before.

It was not included when, at the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Budi Utomo in 1918, Suwardi Suryaningrat (the later Ki Hajar Dewantara) for the first time formulated and substantiated the concept of a future independent Indonesia within the borders of Dutch East Indies.

It was not included, when representatives of Indonesian youth from various ethnicities pledged to one nation, one fatherland, and one language in October 1928.

It was not considered as part of the territory to be defended against an anticipated Japanese invasion when the most representative assembly of the Indonesian population ever to have been convened in colonial Indonesia, the Congres Ra'iat Indonesia, formulated its proposal to help defend the territory of Dutch East Indies in December 1939.

It was not included when the Committee for Preparation of Independence formulated the basic concepts that were to be embodied in the Republic of Indonesia proclaimed in August 1945, and that were to be reflected in the constitution published shortly after that.

It was not part of the country, for the independence of which Indonesians between Sabang and Merauke fought with their lives from 1946 till 1949, in some places also in subsequent years.

It was not included in the territory of the Indonesia that became member of the United Nations Organization in 1949, and it was not part of the Indonesia that hosted the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung and that contributed to the setting up of the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries.

In a letter dated June 17, 1974, the Indonesian foreign minister Adam Malik explicitly confirmed the right of East Timor for independence, and that Indonesia had no intentions to annex the territory.

The occupation of Balibo in October 1975, and of the rest of East Timor in December 1975, was in flagrant contradiction with the UN Charter as well as with the Five Principles of the Bandung Conference, both of which had been ratified by Indonesia. So, it was also illegal by Indonesian law.

The Bali Beach Hotel declaration of September 7, 1975, (also refered to as the Balibo Declaration) requesting inclusion of the territory into Indonesia, served as sole legal basis for the annexation. But the East Timorese signers of the declaration had never been legitimized as representatives of the East Timorese population. They had no mandate to offer their country for annexation. They were at that time furthermore completely dependent on the apparatus of the regime for their safety and freedom. At least some of them have meanwhile distantiated themselves from the declaration.

Thus, there are no real either legal or traditional grounds whatsoever for considering the territory a part of the geopolitical entity known as Indonesia, except that decision of the Peoples Consultative Assembly of 1976 based on false assumptions of a request of the territory for inclusion. One may therefore expect that the Peoples Consultative Assembly to be newly elected this June will repeal that misguided decision of 1976.

This would not constitute the loss of part of Indonesian, but a consolidation of Indonesia in its authentic identity and original boundaries. East Timor's reseparation from Indonesia would have nothing to do with a falling apart of the country. On the contrary, the occupation of the territory against resolute resistence of its population continuing till this day had converted Indonesia into a factual colonialist nation in total contradiction with the constitution. Release of the territory will finally return us to our true origins as a nation that fought for its independence against colonialism.

The regime had not only invested a great deal of material means to hold on to that territory, it also sacrificed the lives of some 20,000 Indonesian soldiers (no to mention some 200,000 East Timorese). As sad as this sacrifice may be, it does not justify continued occupation of East Timor any more, than the fallen Dutch soldiers of 1946-1949 justified continued Dutch occupation of Indonesia. It is unfortunately just one more of the many bitter legacies of the former regime, like the mass burials in Aceh, or the close to one million dead of 1965-1967 in Java and Bali etc.

The only real territorial loss in the whole process, is the forfeit of former Indonesian territorial waters south of Nusa Tenggara, which had been ceded to Australia in 1989 in exchange for Australian recognition of the annexation of East Timor. There, indeed, the regime had given away a part of Indonesia. Fortunately, nobody lived there on the sea, so no part of the population was sold out.


There is, of course, the question of overcoming the problems created by the 23-year Indonesian occupation. As a result of onesided staffing of medical and educational facilities by personnel from Indonesian West Timor and other islands of Indonesia there is a shortage of personnel. Many immigrants from Indonesia are also active in trade. But one will probably be able to compensate all this through return of exilees from Portugal and elsewhere which, if need be, one could temporarily reinforce with expatriate volunteers or aid-workers from lusitanophonic countries. There will probably not be much objection against the return from Bahasa Indonesia to Portuguese and Tetum.

Beyond that, there also seems to be sufficient supportive public sentiment in Australia to provide help through the transitionary period. East Timor will probably also be able to count on support from ASEAN. Offers have even already been heard from faraway Catholic Ireland.

A more serious problem derives from the prolonged period of quite exceptionally brutal repression, which has deeply traumatized the population. This will be sure to reflect in public life for a certain period of time, and tend to intensify internal political differences. But East Timor has the advantage of an overseeably small size and the planned close accompaniment by Portugal, Australia, and/or the UN through its critical initial period. The East Timorese leadership has repeatedly called attention to the necessity of a gradual transition to independence.


The most serious perspectives of a possible breaking loose of parts of Indonesia are not linked with violent unrest of the type that has shaken Ambon or Sambas, but with a desire for separation that has become vocal in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya.

Apart from currently effective direct reasons for separatist sentiments, there are historical preliminary conditions that "prepared the grounds" for such a development. The populations of both provinces already had by reason of their particular situation in colonial times not become as profoundly integrated as those of the other provinces.

Aceh had been the first country now incorporated in Indonesia to have actively upheld relations with the Netherlands (an Acehnese ambassador actually was in the Netherlands in the 17th century), but it was practically the last to be subjugated as Dutch colony (towards the eve of World War I). Having had a relatively developed tradition of literary and theological scholarship of its own before that, Aceh seems on the other hand not to have been integrated into the Dutch system of schooling as thoroughly as e.g. the neigbouring Batak lands, Riau, or Minangkabau country had been.

The remoteness and economic underdevelopedness of Western New Guinea (present Irian Jaya) led to only symbolic presence of Dutch colonial administration before the 20th century. The territory continued to be ruled as insignificant backwater all the way till World War II. After Dutch re-occupation in 1946, it was artificially separated from the rest of the colony for reasons that will become clear below, leading also to its being temporarily held back at formal transfer of sovereignty over the former colony to the independent government of Indonesia in 1949.

Nevertheless, aspirations for separate independence in both provinces had initially only been upheld by minorities resorting to armed actions. This has meanwhile become different. The respective calls for a separation are now coming from relatively large portions of the population, resorting to prevalently peaceful means of expressing their demands.

This leads to a first reassuring conclusion, that even if the further development should lead to separation of the one or the other of these provinces, this will probably not happen as a result of cataclysmic convulsions as suggested by developments in Ambon or Sambas. The problems there are quite unrelated to the ones in the presently considered provinces.

This nevertheless does not make such an ultimate outcome of separation any more welcome or desirable, particularly because the separated provinces have much more to lose than a remaining rest-Indonesia.

Irian Jaya is the least prepared to take on independence. No country is ideally prepared for independence at the moment of first acquiring it, of course, and must learn in the process. But Irian Jaya is far less prepared than e.g. either Indonesia as a whole was in 1945 or East Timor is today.

Large parts of the political movement are still pre-occupied with endearingly sympathetic visions which would only suffer a cruel awakening when confronted with the realities of independence. They leave the political class quite unprepared to endure and overcome the phase of political infighting that always accompanies new independence (like 1946-1948 in Indonesia, or 1974-1975 in East Timor). The country will probably also suffer from a much more lamentable initial inefficiency in economic management than is still reported for neighbouring Papua-New Guinea (or for Indonesia in the 1950s).

Irian Jaya is considerably more dependent on, and structurally or organically tied to Indonesia, than East Timor is e.g. as a result of onesided Indonesian staffing of medical and educational facilities and Indonesian engagement in transport and trade. Irian Jaya, furthermore, featuring a significantly greater degree of ethnic diversity than East Timor, practically only has one unifying language, Indonesian Malay which it shares with the rest of Indonesia. One will not be able to find linguistically adequate short-term replacements like for East Timor which is also unified in the use of Portuguese and Tetum.

Resorting to Dutch, the language of the former colonial master, is now hardly a realistic option. Withdrawal from local use of Dutch extends over 36 years. Although West New Guinea had in the 1940s been earmarked for later resettlement of Indo-Dutch and Eurasians from Indonesia (which is the reason why it was held apart, as noted above), those of them who wanted or had to leave Indonesia later chose instead to return to the Netherlands, or emigrate to the Americas or Australia. They are not available as volunteers for the transition through an initial phase.

Aceh seems much better prepared, and would mainly face standard difficulties all developing nations experience upon attaining independence. It also has the advantage of being ethnically compact, with several centuries of tradition in the use of both Malay and Acehnese as languages with written record. It would seem, therefore, to have the same fair chance as other such nations of either succeeding or failing to cope with the initial trial phase and breaking through to sustained development.

The main handicap in Aceh derives from the prolonged period of quite exceptionally brutal repression, which has deeply traumatized a strongly muslim puritan society, not given to relieving public sharing of suppressed stress. At the same time there is a long-standing slumbering feud between a traditional aristicracy and the clergy, which has remained unresolved, and will immediately surface upon achievement of independence. Last but not least, this most faithfully Muslim province of Indonesia is predictably susceptible to inroads of foreign radical Islamic influences challenging the prevailing more balanced domestic Muslim tradition. All this, but especially the traumatized state of public consciousness, will be a determining factor in initial independent political development.

One must also reckon with exploitation of initial political strife by supra-national companies. In both provinces, such companies were reported to have relied on the repressive apparatus of the regime in their dealings with local population. Under conditions of separate independence, influence of the companies would introduce an additional polarization between corporate-friendly and population-friendly policy.

Any alternative way of allowing the population of these two provinces to return to a worthy peaceful and democratic life must really be prefered to exposing it in the present traumatized condition to the test of political infighting that invariably accompanies new independence.

But even setting aside the circumstances listed above, which seem to let the perspectives of separate independence seem particularly hazardous, there still is one simple consideration. Already under relatively democratic conditions and lawful government, with adequate representation of interests of the provinces, particularly also regarding fair sharing of revenues, there would be no reason to want to negotiate the perilous cliffs of novel independence even without the aggravating circumstances listed above.

Indeed, a real separation from Indonesia is probably even now not the final will of the peoples of the provinces. The original reasons leading to popularity of separatist slogans in both provinces was the feeling of being discriminated. In Aceh, local business had suffered a great deal from unfair competition of favoured outside companies having or assumed to have special connections to the top. In Irian Jaya it is an even wider preferential employment of Indonesians from the other islands and insufficient educative opportunities to permit local people from qualifying. In both cases, return to democratic government by rule of law, applying effective measures to fight corruption, collusion, nepotism, and discrimination promises to alleviate the grievances.

But the urgent motive behind subsequent calls for independence in both provinces was the accumulated emotional hurt and repulsion caused by years of brutal repression of a most barbaric nature. The brutalities of the apparatus, provoked by small minorities waging an armed guerilla campaign, were mainly directed against peaceable civilians. The effect was only an increase in popularity of the respective rebellious minority.

Even initial successes of the movement for democratic reform had already sufficed to at first markedly relax the tension, even though newly opened opportunities for expression of opinion led to increased demonstration of separatist demands. The preceding silence had been a forced one, and it was the pent up emotions of three decades that was breaking into the open for air.

It was a necessary precondition for further settlement of the problems. And already a mild official apology from General Wiranto had the effect of drawing spontaneous reciprocal comments from the population in Aceh, that one still regarded oneself as Indonesian patriots. Particularly the Acehnese had all the reason to do so. They had been among the most resolute and spirited fighters for Indonesian independence in 1946-1949. Even in remote Dutch occupied Western New Guinea, local patriots had struggled for independence as part of Indonesia, before and after 1949.

Unfortunately, repressive actions of the military, quite in the tradition of the old regime, not only disavowed its own commander, but delivered a resounding blow to perspectives of a simple settlement of the conflict. Again, militaries shot at civilians, with resulting losses of life, in Aceh as well as in Irian Jaya.

This leads us to the actual center of the problem. It lies not in some or other conflict of interest between various ethnic groups, or in having been less strongly integrated during the colonial period. It lies in a condition of the armed forces in its quality as one of the organs of the state, integral to its mechanisms of self-sustainment discussed in the first section above. From a defender of national territorial unity, it has developed into the main factor or cause of the country's threatening to fall apart. All it's professed efforts to ensure unity are having the adverse effect of antagonizing the population beyond all limits.

In the first section it was noted that there has been an intrinsic shift in the establishment standing by to the state, and this has also been reflected in a marked opening towards democracy as manifested by leaping improvements in freedoms of the press, of organization, of expression, and perspectives of the coming general elections. The armed forces, it seems, has not yet moved along with this process beyond some lip service. They still think that shooting at peacefully demonstrating separatists, or sentencing to draconian prison terms, promotes national unity rather than undermining it.

The root of this missmatch between a state in reform and its armed forces lies in a fundamental difference between the role of the latter under the previous military regime and under a democratically reformed state. The issue of so-called "double function" (dwifungsi) of the armed forces is only subordinated to that central problem.

Under the Soeharto regime, the military held ultimate political sway. It had the last word in everything, all political and administrative bodies were dominated by the military. Not the armed forces served the nation, but the nation served the armed forces, that was the net result of the take-over of power by Soeharto in 1966 with regard to the function of the armed forces. The reform currently under process requires a full reversal of that inversion.

Without that fundamental change, the armed forces will be constantly bringing itself and the state as a whole in trouble. The best intentions on the part of Pak Wiranto will be in vain. As long as his men see themselves as the ultimate masters, his apologies can be countermanded at any time by a lieutenant who commands "fire!".

In the organization of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a new member must as a first step publicly admit to being an alcoholic, to being an addict of alcohol who is not anymore in command of himself. It is indeed impossible to cure oneself of this addiction without first accepting that one is an addict.

For the armed forces too, well meaning declarations of intention will not bring any change, because it will not succeed to repair its relationship with the nation, unless it is determined to repair its relationship to itself. It is not a task of public relations, it is a task of redefining its own identity. The longer it is ashamed of losing face, the longer it will be constantly losing its face in the eyes of the people.

It is only natural, that the armed forces command will be extremely hesitant in taking such a step. It will with certainty experience a phase of temporary disfunctionality or at least diminished effectivity.

However, this is already partly the case even without the fundamental reform of the armed forces. Happily, Indonesia is not threatened by external enemies. To the North we have befriended ASEAN countries as neighbours. To the South lies Australia which does not seem to be on its toes, waiting for an opportunity to overrun us. Quite on the contrary, we may probably count on all our neighbours to stand by us in a moment of weakness.

A temporary slackening of military alertness would perhaps animate hundreds or even thousands of Irianese or Acehnese to run into the streets and wave separatist flags. After a while, they will go home again, nurturing a warm feeling of pride to be citizens of a country were one may do such things. The problem in these provinces is not one of forcing law and order upon the population, but of return to law and order in government.

In the US, lots of people like to demonstrate the confederate flag, but there is no danger of the Southern states breaking lose. In the former Soviet Union, on the other hand, nobody dared to show separatist symbols or insignia for fear of severe repression. There, all the federal republics have now broken away.

Like the alcoholic who must seek support of fellow AA members, the armed forces will only succeed in curing itself, if it opens up to the nation and accepts support from democratic political parties in its reform. The best way to minimize the risk of letting the situation get out of control, is to appeal to the local population for help: ask them to help a repentent armed forces in its period of reformation to uphold peace. Particularly in Aceh and in Irian Jaya, this will have a very beneficial effect.

It is in the interest of the armed forces itself, and it is in the interest of the entire nation, and hence also in that of the political parties that hope to govern the nation, that the reform of the armed forces proceeds in an efficent and orderly, but also thorough manner, the sooner the better.

All over the world, people like to be proud of their soldiers, like to be confident that they are always there to defend their house and hearth. Indonesians too want an armed forces they can rely on, and which they can be proud of, all over the country, from Sabang till Merauke.

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© 1999 Waruno Mahdi.
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