Indonesia After Shuarto

In his brilliant and hilarious short story “Winding Road To Heaven,” Tongan writer Epeli Hau’ofa unwittingly described Indonesia: “And not so long ago, when five very, very important men discovered that they had together helped themselves to half a million dollars of public money to which they had no right to help themselves, they prayed for God’s forgiveness, they forgave each other, and they neither had to resign from their very important jobs nor return any money to anyone.” 

After the death in January of Indonesia’s former dictator from 1967-1998, Suharto, the Western mainstream media rediscovered the zeal with which it had supported the Indonesian dictator throughout his killing sprees of 1965-66 and the 25-year occupation of East Timor beginning in 1975. Interestingly, the Chinese media gave his rule a fairly accurate, if low key, assessment. People’s Daily commented on January 29: “Tens of thousands of people lined the roads in Jakarta and around Solo in Central Java, hoping to catch a last glimpse of the man who came from a humble background but ruled his subjects like a Javanese king. The body was flown from the capital to Solo, then driven to the family mausoleum at Giribangun, 35 km northeast of the city, close to the burial grounds of Solo’s kings.” 

People’s Daily coverage continued with paragraphs delivered tearfully by Suharto’s eldest daughter, Siti Hadijanti Rukmana, at the funeral: “Father is only human, who has weaknesses and strengths and is not exempted from mistakes. If he has done good, may Allah multiply the goodness. If he has made mistakes, may Allah forgive…. Ladies and gentlemen, if father has made any mistakes, please forgive him. Farewell father.” 

Suharto was forgiven by many others, as well: former leaders of Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, the entire top military brass of Indonesia, the business elites, the leaders of pro-business political parties, religious clergy (after all, he did kill hundreds of thousands of “atheists” and some religious movements gave him a helping hand during the massacres), Western governments that supported him from the beginning, most of the mass media at home, in most ASEAN countries, in the United States, Europe, and Australia, and, of course, his entire outrageously corrupt family.  

Like any good king, he left behind no real opposition, no alternative interpretation of his reign, and there are no demands to return the billions stolen from the desperate nation. Although most Indonesians have heard about Suharto’s massive corruption, they had also been told that during his reign the economy had improved. Some knew about the massacres in 1965-66, but the nation was fed propaganda about the communist coup and about how the army had saved the nation. There was no general awareness about the genocide in East Timor or the massacres in Papua—especially among the upper middle class and elites who had full access to foreign media. 

The great majority of Indonesians do not even realize that they and the nation remain desperately poor. Only elites travel abroad and they have little to complain about—with an underpaid and obedient labor-force of nannies, maids, drivers, gardeners, and cooks. Unmentioned is the fact that over 49 percent of Indonesians are surviving on less than $2 a day (according to the World Bank). Many local and international experts believe that in fact the great majority of Indonesians are poor or extremely poor. 

The Indonesian economic “success” had its basis in massive privatization of all of the nation’s rich natural resources. Suharto opened the door to multinational mining and oil interests, taking substantial fees for himself from every lucrative deal, amassing in the process what the UN and World Bank believe to have been over $40 billion. His hatred of the Communist Party (PKI), trade unions, intellectuals, and progressive forces generally guaranteed support from the U.S., which supplied him with the list of alleged members of PKI, as revealed in declassified U.S. government documents. The terrorizing and plundering of Aceh, Papua, and East Timor were not opposed by major Western powers as long as their companies had direct access to Indonesia’s natural resources.

Downtown Jakarta — photo by Sean Sprague-GlobalAware

Instead of developing an educated, research- and production-oriented nation, Suharto turned Indonesia into a supplier of raw materials and an assembly line for multinational companies. After 1965-66, up to 40 percent of teachers in some parts of the country were massacred; many others were imprisoned, leaving the Army to substitute in the classroom. Education remains one of the worst and most underfunded in the world. “Indonesia is aruably Asia’s least well-educated country, and the government is largely to blame,” reported Bill Guerin in Asia Times on August 31, 2006. “With 30 percent of its 242 million population school-aged, the world’s largest Muslim country ranks lowest among its Asian neighbors in terms of public education expenditure. This year China will spend 13 percent of its total national budget on education, India 12 percent, the Philippines 17 percent, Malaysia 20 percent, Hong Kong 23 percent and Thailand 27 percent. Indonesia’s education budget this year, in comparison, represents less than 10 percent of the government’s budget, while the draft budget for 2007 proposes a tiny upgrade to 10.2 percent of total national spending.”

One year earlier, statistics provided by the Economist showed that the country spends the third lowest amount in the world on education after Equatorial Guinea and Ecuador (in the latter, the situation is now rapidly improving with a new progressive government). After the 1965 military coup, books were burned (including those of world-famous novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer), film studios and theaters closed down, and culture almost disappeared. Most intellectuals either vanished or were silenced.

Indonesia sold off its forests, oil, and gas, but it was unable to produce almost anything that it could sell abroad. The Bandung-based civil airplane project simply failed: the twin engine short-haul aircraft never made it to international markets. The automobile industry assembed outdated foreign models, mainly Toyotas. The labor force was so badly educated, and corruption was so rampant, that in the end most foreign electronic companies moved elsewhere—first to Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, later to China and Vietnam. 

Once dreaming about competing with its neighbors, post-Suharto Indonesia in 2008 can’t even begin to keep pace with Vietnam, once one of the poorest and most devastated countries in Asia. 

All other indicators reveal Indonesia to be a social nightmare. “Hunger and malnutrition remain the most devastating problems facing the majority of Indonesians, particularly the poor,” Dr. Atmarita reports in a 2005 analysis of “Nutrition Problems in Indonesia.” “Hunger and malnutrition exist in some form in almost every district in Indonesia. At present, about one-half of the population is iron-deficient and one-third is at risk of iodine deficiency disorders. Vitamin A deficiency still affects around 10 million children. The prevalence of LBW [low birth weight] infants in Indonesia is in the range of 7-14 percent, even reaching 16 percent in some districts.” 

A brief visit to any state hospital in the country is enough to shatter any dream of social progress under Suharto and after. State hospitals have three classes (like the old European trains). The third class is for the majority, the poorest. Service is so appalling that relatives are forced to move in with the patient to keep him or her afloat. Free medicine becomes miraculously unavailable right after being prescribed. Relatives are then approached in the hallways by nurses or doctors offering the medicine for half or three-quarters of the market price. Bribes are openly extorted whenever surgery or tests are prescribed. As a result, the majority of Indonesians never enter hospitals or clinics. 

Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, and other large urban centers have almost no waste management. Garbage is “recycled” manually by scavengers, many of whom are small children. What remains is then burned, often in the middle of poor neighborhoods. According to a researcher at the Indonesian Academy of Science, only 30 percent of city dwellers have access to relatively clean water. Pollution and traffic congestion are reaching epic proportions. 

Suharto’s legacy — photo by Andre Vltcheck

While international visitors to Jakarta leave mostly in horror, the mass media continue to describe it as a “sprawling and modern metropolis.” There seems to be outright denial about the state of Indonesia and its capital. True, Jakarta is “one of the best golfing destinations” in Southeast Asia. But that’s precisely because public spaces have been cannibalized. Instead of building parks and playgrounds, luxury clubs have been built for the elite.

One turn from the main streets and the real Jakarta exposes its wounds: filthy narrow alleys, channels clogged with garbage, makeshift stores selling unhygienic food, children running barefoot; thousands of big and small mosques, but not one decent playground for children. Garbage accumulates at every corner and polluted air penetrates throat and eyes. Little girls are offering themselves for a pittance, while boys are sniffing glue from plastic bags. 

In 2006 (according to the UN) Indonesia became the most disaster-prone nation on earth. Not necessarily because it is on the “ring of fire” as mass media never tire of repeating, but because housing construction is of despicable quality. Each year, Indonesia destroys more forests than any other country in the world. Deforestation causes landslides and as a result thousands of people die annually as their houses slide into ravines. 

Another legacy of the Suharto era is infrastructure—one of the worst in Asia. Indonesian short sectors of motorways are overpriced and compete with Ceausescu’s Romanian highways in quality and length. All Indonesian airlines have been banned from flying to the European Union since 2007 because of their safety records—a terrifying number of accidents in recent years. Ferries are sinking at a much higher rate than even in Bangladesh. Ports are in disastrous condition. 

The train system has not been overhauled since the Dutch colonial administration. Trains are regularly derailed. Passengers trying to save money on fares occasionally fall to their death through the rusty roofs on which they are traveling. No Indonesian city has an acceptable public transportation system. Some, including Bandung (with three million people), are served only by a few dilapidated buses and private minivans. 

Despite outright denial from officials, Indonesia is experiencing religious tensions and intolerance, although Western mass media without exception calls the nation a “tolerant and moderate Muslim country.” Oppression of sentiments and movements promoting self-determination is epic. Despite that, many parts of Indonesia, including Papua, Aceh, Bali, Malukas, parts of Sulawesi and Nusa Tenggara, would probably opt for full independence, if their citizens were allowed to vote on the issue.

Whatever the problems confronting its citizens, the owners of luxury villas and condominiums in Central and South Jakarta have forgiven Suharto for stealing from the poor, for killing hundreds of thousands of citizens, and for bringing the nation to intellectual collapse. Leaders of the countries that were, in the name of freedom and democracy, savagely destroying Indochina in the time of Suharto’s rise to power have forgiven him too, with the bright exception of Helen Clark, labor prime minister of New Zealand. 

Not only was Suharto and his family forgiven; the current president of Indonesia quietly decided not to take up the offer made by the UN and World Bank to help Indonesia to repatriate the multi-billions of dollars that Suharto and his family keep in foreign banks. That’s endlessly generous—especially considering that Suharto and his family stole $35 billion. As 220 million people inhabit Indonesia, according to government claims, each and every person would have the right to receive almost $160 dollars if Suharto’s loot was equally distributed. 

It is doubtful that the surviving prisoners of post-1965 jails and camps have forgiven him or the family members who lost between 500,000 and 2 million relatives in anti-Communist, anti-Chinese, anti-atheist, anti-intellectual, anti-unionist massacres. 

Many poor Jakartans, some of them migrants from even more desperate parts of the country, like to brag about their city: “It has big golf courses and enormous buildings, shopping plazas and luxury cars.” Of course, they have never entered a golf course or ridden the latest BMW owned by corrupt officials. But they have been discouraged from analyzing the social structure of the society they grew up in. 

Indonesian elites will never criticize Suharto. He revised history in their favor. In 1965 he sidelined Sukarno and re-introduced feudalism, backed by the military and the West. Since 1965, we have been told that oppression is democracy, that poverty is development, that censorship is freedom of expression, that a collapsing nation is not collapsing at all, and that everything is forgiven and the nation is grateful to Suharto—the departing king of Java who saved capitalism, the nation, and this entire part of the world. 


Andre Vltchek is a novelist, journalist, and playwright. He is co-founder of Mainstay Press and editorial director of Asiana Press Agency. He also directed a documentary about Suhar to’s dictatorship.