Skip to main content

Indonesia may be at a more dangerous crossroad now than at any time in the last thirty years. When I was there last month, it was exploding in violence from one end of the country to the other. A virtual civil war was taking place in Ambon, in eastern Indonesia, with Christian and Muslim neighbors hacking each other with machetes and burning down each other's neighborhoods. In Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, major military operations were taking place to hunt down suspected independence agitators, with villagers, as always, the major victims. In West Kalimantan, communal violence between two ethnic groups, Malays and Madurese, was set off when a passenger refused to pay his bus fare. In East Timor, the unexpected moves towards independence have triggered an upsurge of clashes between pro-independence forces and pro-Indonesia civilian militias, armed and equipped by the Indonesian army.

Unrest is erupting as villagers confront corrupt officials, debtors go after creditors, indigenous people clash with migrants, and farmers confront commercial plantation personnel. Some of it reflects power struggles at a local or national level. Some of it reflects nationalist aspirations that the Soeharto government tried to smother. Some of it is spontaneous, and some of it appears to be provoked, but provocation only works where the basic kindling is there to begin with.

It is in this context that forty-eight parties, none with skilled or experienced leadership, have been approved to contest parliamentary elections in June. U.S. support for the electoral process is important, and it is critical that the elections take place on schedule, but it would be a huge mistake to see the elections as the key to solving Indonesia's problems.

1. The army
The dominance of the army continues to be a major obstacle to a democratic transition. Too often the army is portrayed as the only force capable of holding Indonesia together. But from Aceh to Irian Jaya, it is the army and its past and present abuses that are pulling it apart. How many seats the military retains in the parliament or how long it will take to gradually eliminate the army's role in social and political affairs is not the key question. In the short run, the question is how to prevent the army from making existing problems worse.

I can give you four examples. The army quite rightly identified widespread civil unrest as a serious security threat and one likely to intensify during the election campaign. Its solution, however, was to create a civilian militia, armed with the equivalent of nightsticks and given rudimentary training. The dangers of such a force should have been apparent last November when the army sought volunteers for a militia to protect the special session of the country's highest legislative body against threats from student protestors. Those who volunteered were overwhelmingly from conservative Muslim youth groups who saw any call for Habibie's ouster as tantamount to being anti-Islam. Militia members were almost by definition hostile toward the students, making a confrontation inevitable. For the elections, the civilian militia is to be called wanra, an acronym for "People's Defense." In Aceh, an area that was the target of counterinsurgency operations from 1990-98 and where the army is loathed for its abusive practices, the wanra volunteers are reported to be largely composed of transmigrants, or immigrants from outside Aceh, who are already resented by the local populace. In East Timor, the wanra members are very clearly pro-integration and anti-independence. Putting them on the streets to safeguard the peace during elections is only inviting more trouble.

A second problem is that the army tends to see all unrest through a counterinsurgency lens. The Indonesian army has no capacity to take on ordinary law and order functions. It was trained throughout the New Order to respond to internal security threats: the people as the enemy. In a situation of widespread civil unrest, this approach does not help. Sending soldiers to confront students in the streets of Jakarta last November proved to be a lethal error.

Even when insurgents are in fact involved, the army's response is still disproportionate to the nature of the threat faced. In Aceh last December, seven soldiers were dragged off a bus and brutally murdered by people suspected of working with Aceh Merdeka or the Free Aceh Movement, a political organization with a small armed wing. The incident was not treated as a multiple murder and given to the police to prosecute. It was treated as an act of war and triggered the sending of thousands of fresh combat troops to the region, including from units that already had a reputation for brutality in Aceh. The new military operations in turn gave rise not only to new abuses, including the murder of five detainees, but to a growing demand for a referendum on Aceh's future political status.

A third problem is that just at a time when Indonesia should be moving away from reliance on the military, some in the largely unchanged bureaucracy are advocating the expansion of a military presence. Officers are using mounting social unrest as a pretext for recommending the creation of new military area commands (KODAMs) in affected areas. Under the current military structure, there are ten KODAMs, each with about 700 personnel headed by a major general. In February, one new KODAM was approved for Aceh, and the violence in Maluku province has led to a demand for a new KODAM there. Just this week, officials in Nusa Tenggara Barat, the province that includes Bali, decided to request a new KODAM ostensibly as a preventive measure. The establishment of new KODAMs would not only mean a greater troop presence on the ground, but it would open up slots for officers seeking promotions at a time when available positions are shrinking, and the economic crisis has dried up opportunities in the private sector. A democratic Indonesia doesn't need more troops, it needs fewer.

A fourth problem is the deep suspicion that some officers have of political reform, however much they may see it as inevitable. When I was in Ambon in February, the spokesman for the armed forces was asked why local troops made no move to stop an outbreak of violence between Christians and Muslims. He said that in the old days internal security agents, (Bakorstanas) would just have arrested people, but now it was the reform era, and they had to obey the rule of law. In this case, the army was using reform to justify inaction. In Aceh, the regional commander was questioned as to why his forces did not arrest an alleged insurgent leader in January whom the army held responsible for a series of violent raids. When troops surrounded his house, the man came out, surrounded by his family, and calmly walked away, leading many Acehnese to conclude that the army had no intention of arresting him in the first place. The commander said that before, the army would have just opened fire; now it had to be careful about shooting civilians. It's a good thing if soldiers feel constrained by legal norms, but both responses are disingenuous. They also imply that violence is a necessary consequence of reform, and that people might be safer with the old system back.

Many in Indonesia believe that the worst violence in Indonesia in recent months, especially communal outbreaks involving Christians and Muslims, has been provoked by elements close to the Soeharto family, attempting to reassert their power. There is clear evidence of provocation in some cases, although none I know of that conclusively links it back to Soeharto. But when even General Wiranto is quoted repeatedly as saying that provocateurs were responsible for the Ambon violence and other incidents, one begins to wonder what evidence he has, why that evidence has not been made public, and why no provocateurs have been arrested.

There is no question that the image of the army has been badly tarnished as more and more revelations emerge about its past and present, but in terms of U.S. policy, it is an opportunity for the administration to put all emphasis on strengthening civilian institutions. There should be no joint training exercises with Indonesian military units until the issue of provocation of major outbreaks of violence, such as the Jakarta riots in May 1998 and the civil war in Ambon, has been fully resolved, and any perpetrators punished. The U.S. should oppose the creation of any new KODAMs. It should support efforts, particularly in Aceh, to hold military officers accountable for past abuses, even when those same officers are currently holding senior positions in the government. It should continue to use every opportunity to oppose the civilian militia. And it should continue to support, as it has, the separation of the police from the armed forces, a move that is likely to take place in April.

2. East Timor
I don't think any of us could have predicted at the last hearing on Indonesia how far East Timor would have moved toward independence. On the one hand, the progress is a tribute to the persistence of the East Timorese, the quality of their leadership, and the work of the United Nations. On the other, it indicates the depth of the pique Habibie and other top Indonesian officials felt that their offer of "wide-ranging autonomy" last August was met with ingratitude and cynicism. One gets the impression now that they just want to get rid of the place as soon as possible.

But Indonesia's policies over the last twenty-three years have caused unimaginable damage, particularly in dividing the population to the point that prolonged civil unrest, particularly in the western part of East Timor, is not out of the question. There are some old political wounds remaining from the civil war in East Timor in 1975, before the Indonesian invasion. But most of the potential violence can be traced to the Indonesian army's policy of creating paramilitary, pro-integration groups to help the armed forces in counterinsurgency operations. They were also used to terrorize pro-independence supporters, mount counterdemonstrations to pro-independence rallies, and engage in other political activities. Most were given arms and military training. In January, shortly after Habibie suggested that independence was a second option, many of these groups acquired new weapons. In recent weeks, pro-Indonesia militias, working together with local territorial troops, have attacked civilians suspected of supporting independence in Liquica, Ainaro, and Dili.

Supporters of independence have also been responsible for violence. Any future East Timorese leadership will have to be able to guarantee the protection of the rights of all those who worked with the Indonesian administration. It will have to guarantee the rights of non-Timorese as well, many of whom came to East Timor as traders, teachers, or transmigrant farmers. The signs there are not good. In the last few weeks, almost 1,000 Indonesians have fled to West Timor, many of them families headed by teachers and civil servants who have faced harassment and intimidation since prospects for independence improved. Ethnic Chinese and ethnic Bugis, who dominate retail trading networks, have both been targets of attacks in the past and both need to be reassured of their safety. Now the question is how to avert major violence if, as is now planned, the U.N. conducts some kind of ballot to determine the preference of the East Timorese: independence or autonomy.

Before that ballot can be conducted, the militias have to be disarmed, and some kind of security provided. The Indonesian army cannot provide that security; it is hardly perceived as impartial. It is therefore critical that the international community support, and press Indonesia to accept, some kind of international police presence that can also train East Timor's future police force. East Timor will also need massive assistance, given its current dependence on Indonesia for both budgetary support and for basic human resources.

3. Independence Elsewhere?
The moves toward independence for East Timor have not gone unnoticed in other areas, although it would be a mistake to see East Timor as the domino that will cause other regions to break away. There are independence movements elsewhere, but they need to be understood as having their own dynamic, rooted in grievances which need to be addressed --and which will not necessarily be addressed by a free and fair election. Aceh and Irian Jaya are two provinces with well-developed pro-independence movements. On February 26, 100 political, tribal, and community leaders from Irian Jaya presented a statement to President Habibie expressing a desire for independence of the country they call West Papua. In Aceh, as noted, demands for a referendum have increased, first among student groups, now echoed by many political leaders. Both places are rich in natural resources but have seen little of that wealth reinvested at home. Both, because of the presence of armed rebels, became the focus of military operations that resulted in widespread human rights abuses and alienation of the local populace. In both places, failure to address the abuses of the past has resulted in greater support for independence from Indonesia. (When I was in Aceh in February, the deputy head of the local parliament stressed to me that the rising demands for a referendum and the ongoing violence both could be halted by one act: the prosecution of a single officer responsible for any of the killings and disappearances that took place in the early 1990s.)

The violence in Ambon may push more of Ambon's Christians toward a separatist movement, even though support there for the largely expatriate political movement of the Republic of the South Moluccas has never been high. Muslims and Christians have been equally the perpetrators and victims of the violence there, but it is an area where the once-dominant Christians have become a slight minority through demographic change, and they need to be made to feel as though there is still a place for them in a Muslim majority country.

Indonesia is not going to disintegrate overnight, but neither should the ferment in some of the outer islands be dismissed as inimical to the well-being of the nation. That ferment could in the long run produce a healthier political structure, perhaps based on a federal system as Amien Rais and the PAN party have advocated. The U.S. embassy, which by and large has done a terrific job on human rights issues throughout this crisis, should do more to get its embassy personnel out of Jakarta and off of Java. Congress could assist this process in allocating funds for the reopening of the U.S. consulate in Medan, North Sumatra. A Jakarta-centric myopia misses the point of much of what is happening in Indonesia today, from the causes of violence to the prospects for democracy.

4. The Ethnic Chinese
Indonesia's Chinese remain traumatized by what happened to them in May 1998, when many were killed, some of their women were raped, and their homes and shops destroyed. The Indonesian government is about to ratify the Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, but it has made few other efforts to ensure the Chinese that they are valued members of society. None of the discriminatory laws and regulations, such as those banning distribution of Chinese publications or celebration of Chinese New Year, have been repealed or revoked despite government promises to review them. None of the recommendations of the government-appointed joint fact-finding team that investigated the May violence has been implemented. Attacks on Chinese shops continue to be a regular feature of social unrest. The U.S. should continue to press the Indonesian government, publicly and privately, to investigate the origins of the May violence, if necessary offering FBI assistance the way it did following a grenade explosion in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1995.

In short, Indonesia has so many critical problems facing it at once that it would be a mistake for the U.S. to place too much emphasis on the elections as a way of getting the country back on track. Elections will help move Indonesia toward a more legitimate government, although many of the people I talked to regarded the June elections as a kind of dry run just to see how the process worked, with the meaningful poll taking place in 2004. The very low expectations about the upcoming elections is probably advantageous, because there is a lower risk of disillusionment. But regardless of the outcome, the role of the army, the ongoing violence, the issue of East Timor, the threat of disintegration, and the issue of the ethnic Chinese are all going to be around long after the votes are counted.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country

Most Viewed