General Suharto loses his way

January 12 2003 | by

In April 1996 Tien Suharto, wife of the President of Indonesia, General Suharto, died of a heart attack in a military hospital in the capital, Jakarta. She was buried with full military honours in her family mausoleum in Central Java, an extravagant building outshining the tombs of the local sultans.

Mother of the Nation

Tien Suharto was the power behind her husband’s throne, a meddling and unscrupulous woman who gave a new meaning to financial corruption. She was called Ibu Negara, Mother of the Nation, and she never let anyone forget that she, unlike her husband, was descended from royal stock. According to local belief it was she, because of her descent, who possessed the wahyu, or gift of power. Now that she is dead, her husband can no longer lay claim to it.

Over the past months, as the political and security situations have gone from bad to worse, the soothsayers have been predicting that Suharto will not contest the presidential elections in March 1998, and, indeed, that he will resign the presidency well before that date. What worries everybody is that he does not yet seem to have chosen his successor, and that there may soon be the same sort of unrest that preceded his own rise to power. Suharto, then an army general, took over after putting down the uprising provoked by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965. He was appointed acting-president in 1967, confirmed in 1968, and re-elected every five years since. While his rule has been harsh and repressive, his style of government, the New Order, gave the country a period of stability that had been missing under the preceding Sukarno regime.

A vast country

Indonesia is a vast archipelago stretching some 3,000 miles from the north-western tip of Sumatra eastward to New Guinea. It has a population of 200 million scattered among thousands of islands, with 300 races and as many religions. The majority are Muslim, and there are strong communities of Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. Sir Francis Drake passed through these islands on his circumnavigation of the globe in his ship Golden Hind, and in the eighteenth century they were colonised by the Dutch. After being overrun by the Japanese in the Second World War the islands were taken over by local nationalist and independence movements, and were finally united under the name of the Indonesian Republic in 1949.

Since then there have been two additions to the empire, Western New Guinea, now called Irian Jaya, in 1963, and East Timor, a former Portuguese colony which Indonesia invaded, occupied and annexed in 1975-6 as Indonesia’s 27th province. Both these acquisitions have been hotly contested.

Anxiety over East Timor

East Timor in particular has caused increasing concern to Suharto and his generals. The world seemed to have colluded happily enough in Suharto’s annexation of the island after the Portuguese had fled in 1975, and the harsh methods used in suppressing the rebellious islanders did not cause too much distress in the chancelleries of Europe. It was not until a film was shown of a massacre by Indonesian troops of up to 200 demonstrators in the churchyard of the Santa Cruz Church in Dili in 1991 that the world began to take notice. Since then, efforts have been made to get Indonesians and other interested parties – the Portuguese, who are still regarded as the legal tenants of the island, the East Timorese and the United Nations – to sit round a table and discuss a solution to the problem raised by Indonesia’s illegal occupation.

The world has at last become conscious of the great wrong done to East Timor, and of the huge losses, estimated at 200,000, or one quarter of the population, that the people have suffered. Indonesia has tried to rally other Asian nations to its support, most notably by disrupting Asia-Pacific conferences on East Timor in Manila in 1994 and Kuala Lumpur in 1996, but a recent poll of Asian businessmen showed that the majority favoured independence or increased autonomy for East Timor, whose Melanesian people, apart from being 80 per cent Catholic, are ethnically and culturally difference from Muslim Indonesians of Malay descent.

Nobel Peace Prize winners

The last straw for the Indonesians was the award, in November 1996, of the Nobel Peace Prize to two East Timorese – the resistance leader in exile, José Ramos Horta, who for many years has been the spokesman of East Timor in the capitals of the world, and Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo of Dili. The official citation recorded that the bishop tried to protect his people from infringements by those in power, and that he has been a constant spokesman for non-violence and dialogue with the Indonesian authorities. Indonesian anger at the awards war compounded by Bishop Belo’s reported words to a German interviewer: the Indonesian military treat us like scabby dogs... they are not open to argument. When we talk, they beat us. This was not the language the generals were used to hearing from the bishop (and it is very unlikely that the bishop, a prudent man, said anything of the sort) and it did nothing to lessen their anger. But it did no harm to Belo’s following in East Timor – when he returned from Oslo 200,000 people were at the airport to meet him.

Megawati resurgent

Indonesian unease over the past few months has given the impression that the very fabric of their society has begun to unravel. In the past year the regime has unleashed attacks against democratic movements more intense than anything since the ‘white terror’ against the PKI in the years after 1965. Many people have been arrested, and a series of subversion trials has begun. The crackdown came in the wake of the storming of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) headquarters on 27 July. The aim of the security forces was to capture the building from the supporters of Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the former president, Sukarno, and chairman of the PDI. Two days after the action, Suharto told his generals that behind the PDI there was the frightening spectre of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD), which he likened to the communist party, the dreaded PKI.

None of this makes sense. The PDI is, in fact a creation of the regime, established mainly to handle young voters, especially Christians, while the PRD is a small party set up by a band of young activists, of minor importance and little threat. The security authorities are probably angry that Megawati had replaced their own nominee, Soerjadi, as party leader, and may be concerned that both the PDI and PRD could take votes away from the government party GOLKAR in an election. They are probably more worried by the prospect of Megawati challenging for the presidency in the March 1998 election, a sort of Cory Aquino figure whose aim could be to bring down Suharto and his New Order. But the security authorities’ handling of the whole episode reveals a distressing tendency to shoot themselves in the foot.

Religious rivalry

There has been an undercurrent of religious rivalry running through many of these events in the past year. For some time the feeling has existed in Muslim circles that Muslims, although the vast majority, get worse treatment than Christians in the matter of jobs. It is especially worrying that in the past few months Christian churches and schools have been attacked and often burned in many parts of the country, including Jakarta and Surabaya. One of the worst instances was at Situbondo in East Java, where the population is 95 per cent Muslim, but where there are also a number of Christian churches. The trouble began when a young Muslim was sentenced to five years imprisonment for insulting the prophet Mohammed. Violence erupted, the defendant had to flee the court, and rumours quickly spread that he had taken refuge in a church. Within minutes twelve churches were blazing, and churches in neighbouring towns were also attacked. In one Pentecostal church, the pastor, his wife and three children were trapped in the blazing building and burned to death. In Surabaya, ten churches were set alight as rioters went from one to another. In both cases the fact that the torching and destruction happened so quickly suggests that all was organised well in advance. There are reports, too, that members of the security forces were responsible for many of the acts of arson.

Indications of official involvement in anti-Christian atrocities is particularly serious since links between the various religions have traditionally been good, thanks to the freedom of religion given by the Indonesian state ideology of Pancasila or Five Principles. The first of these is that there is only one God. All Churches that operate in Indonesia are required to pay at least lip-service to the Pancasila, and monotheistic churches have few difficulties placed in their way if they do so. There are signs that Pancasila has lost much of its potency as a state ideology – people are simply fed up with it – but it is still a legal requirement and Churches whose doctrines do not conform can find themselves in difficulties.

Treading softly

When Pope John Paul II visited Indonesia in 1989 he was forced to tread carefully. Anxious not to offend his Indonesian hosts and jeopardise the position of Catholics in Indonesia, he had to avoid condemnation of Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. He told Indonesians that Catholics wanted to live in harmony with Muslims: Religious diversity within the unity of Indonesia should not be feared, he said. But he advised bishops to speak out against violations of human rights, and was not afraid to condemn the practice of birth control in spite of propaganda for small families.

The Indonesians, on the other hand, saw his visit as an opportunity to score diplomatic and political points, and, since organisation of the visit was in their hands, were able to cock a snook at the Vatican, which, like the United Nations and Britain does not recognise the annexation of East Timor, by greeting the Pope’s arrival in East Timor with banners that welcomed him to Indonesia’s 27th province.

The New Order changeth

Suharto’s New Order is made up of a free market economy and a corporatist state that barely creaks along. When he is in trouble, Suharto reverts to what he knows best: straight military dictatorship, with all the trappings of torture, beatings, imprisonment without trial, disappearances, persecution of political opponents and curtailment of free speech. In present-day Indonesia this has been accompanied by a resurgence of Islamic revivalism, which has had an immediate effect on the hitherto favoured position of Christians in the country. The economy is working, but the gap between rich and poor is ever-widening, creating a dangerous underclass. The clumsy handling of so many sensitive issues in the past year suggests that the military and security authorities, whose power is considerable, have simply lost touch with reality, no longer know what they are doing, and cannot be relied on. It looks as though Suharto has not just lost his wahyu, but his way also.

Dida: Timorese in traditional costume during the pilgrimage of Saint Anthony’s relics in July 1996

Msgr. Carlos Belo, 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner and symbol of Timorese resistance to the illegal Indonesian occupation

The President of Indonesia, General Suharto (centre left) next to his wife, Tien, who died in April 1996

Updated on October 06 2016