Why things fell apart


DERWIN PEREIRA examines how and why social cohesion and order have crumbled in that country.

THE images are horrifying. The skeletal remains of churches and mosques lie stark against the sky, as if to stab the bruised conscience of Indonesia.

Places of worship attacked and razed to the ground, gruesome killings, public decapitations and ethnically-targeted gang rapes all point to a society imploding under the forces of anarchy. What is happening to Indonesia?

There was a general expectation that violence would break out given the disastrous state of the economy that has contracted 15 per cent the past year.

And there are close parallels in modern Indonesian history. Similar conditions of economic desperation existed in 1944 – 45 and 1965. But the reasons for the latest conflicts lie much deeper than poverty and deprivation as riots and other acts of mayhem had occurred even before the economic crash.

A close examination of recent history shows that while there was an initial drop of violence after the peak of 1965, when nearly a million people were massacred, it did not disappear entirely and resurfaced time and again with Indonesia’s erratic political heartbeat.

In fact, acts of violence have been on a gradual rise, and religious and ethnic conflicts in particular have reached alarming levels over the last five years.

In the first 20 years after independence, only two churches were destroyed. But under former President Suharto’s 32-year rule, about 500 churches and 15 mosques were attacked, more than half in the ’90s and nearly all in the political hotbed of Java.

With the lid off after Mr Suharto fell from power in May, the genie of violence was out of the bottle and on the loose with even greater vengeance.

The latest incidents in Jakarta, Kupang, Ujung Pandang, West Kalimantan, Medan and Solo all show a problem widening in scale and intensity. They add to earlier notable bloody horrors in Tanjong Priok, Lampung, Pekalongan, Tasikmalaya Sitobondo and Rengasdenglok. An Indonesian Cabinet Minister tells Sunday Review that his government had moved “just too fast and too soon to implement democracy … We are in a predicament similar to that of the former Soviet Union under Gorbachev and his glasnost and perestroika policies. The controls were lifted too suddenly.

“For more than 30 years we were under a one-man authoritarian rule. And then almost overnight, that power centre was fractured to bits. The state is weak and bereft of confidence. There is no more respect for law and order. We are really facing a problem of governance.”

What is frightening is that recent violent images could be a promise of what might happen soon because mechanisms to deal with a society teetering on the brink of mob rule are glaringly-absent.

Political scientist William Liddle of Ohio State University in the United States argues that the potential for violence will remain embedded in the system until institutions are created to resolve problems for so long handled by the state and the armed forces (Abri).

The founders of modern Indonesia sought to moderate divisions in society by introducing a code of tolerance, Pancasila, aspart of state ideology in 1945.

But sceptics charge that Pancasila, which allowed religious freedom and practice, was nothing but a facade. A senior Abri officer concedes as much: “It was a big bluff which concealed differences rather than resolving them.” Sociologists say this was complicated by the stunted growth of grassroots leadership.

Mr Suharto’s concentration of power paralysed all functions of social and traditional control. The once-respected figure of a local Muslim leader or cleric, for instance, now has a diminished presence in the New Order political constellation.

As Dr Daniel Sparingga of the University of Air Langga noted: “When Suharto fell, none of them could function because they did not have the authority. People did not listen to them anymore. There were no structures to mediate conflict. And when the state itself came under pressure, there was nothing to stop the violence.”

In the most graphic example last month, a community leader in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, knelt before a mob and begged them not to destroy mosques in retaliation for the church-burning in Jakarta. His pleas were ignored; the rioters even threatened to kill him.

What took place in Kupang and elsewhere recently were acute manifestations of a downward spiral in tolerance over a number of years. Disputes over permits to build places of worship had been increasing. Religious groups had sought the right to veto building permits for churches, mosques or temples. The authorities gave ground to such chauvinism.

More importantly, it failed consistently to apply the law against those who instigated and took part in riots with ethnic and religious motives. Where there was no legal retribution, it only encouraged copycat violence elsewhere.

Catholic priest Y. B. Mangunwijaya fears that revenge only begets revenge. “It is just like a snake that lays eggs continuously.”


THE government’s reluctance to take strong steps could in part be related to the growing political influence of Islam. For most of the New Order period, Islam was labelled the “extreme right” by the government. It was treated as Public Enemy No. 2, ranking just below the communists, the “extreme left”. Muslim political activists were persecuted. Their demands for a political party or for policies to represent their interests were always denied.

But from the mid-’80s, there was a volte face in policy. Mr Suharto responded positively to Islamic demands as a countervailing force to the military. The government abandoned a decades-long policy forbidding the wearing of jilbab, or Islamic head covering, by female students in state schools.

A Bill was presented to Parliament regulating Islamic courts and a new marriage regulation made inter-faith marriages virtually impossible. No less significant, Mr Suharto and his family made a widely-publicised pilgrimage to Mecca in 1990.

All this encouraged a growing confidence and assertiveness among Muslim modernists as they forged ahead on political and economic fronts.

Leading Indonesian weekly magazine Tempo said recently that this development increased the possibility of confrontation with other religious groups, in particular Christians, perceived to have received special privileges from the regime.

Religious symbols became more pronounced and central in the ’90s. Many people found such symbols permitted them to express political views and objectives without risking sanction by the government.

Indeed, political discourse and conspiracy theories on the latest bouts of violence bore a strong religious overtone.

For most Muslim modernists, the “Great Satan” was former Defence Minister and intelligence chief Benny Murdani and the Catholic-dominated think-tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Some Christians, on the other hand, charged that Cooperatives Minister Adi Sasono and the Association of Muslim Intellectuals were behind the riots.

Political actors in Indonesia tend to seek a hidden hand behind everything. A senior army official says: “The economic crisis and political flux in themselves won’t start problems. You need someone to light the fire.”

His assessment, which reflects thinking among the more secular military elements, was that Muslim extremists were lurking behind every problem. There is not much real evidence to support such charges.

What can be said confidently is that Muslim activists see the end of the Suharto regime and Dr Habibie’s ascendancy as a historic opportunity to give Islam its rightful place.

“They are now in the corridors of power and close to the power centre. They will influence the contours of future state policy,” says the army source. “Abri has lost out in the balance of power vis-a-vis the Muslim modernists for the moment and that explains why they can do and get away with what they want now.”


PERHAPS the biggest contributing factor to rising lawlessness and disorder is the military’s inability to deal with an increasingly volatile situation.

Abri’s credibility is at its lowest point in 30 years and popular resentment against it at an all-time high as the military bungles through a new political minefield.

Revelations of kidnapping activists, shooting student demonstrators and atrocities in Aceh, Irian Jaya and East Timor have all taken their toll on the once-powerful military.

Worse, evidence even admitted by Abri suggests rogue elements and units have themselves been involved in stirring up trouble.

This is the result of the degradation of standards of behaviour, which according to Cornell University Indonesia specialist Benedict Anderson, may have had its roots in the methods Abri employed in East Timor.

“It led to the ‘Timorisation’ of the armed forces that it later brought to Aceh, Irian Jaya and other parts of Indonesia to impose state control,” he tells Sunday Review. “It gave a brutal face to the military that Indonesians never saw before.”

Such methods led to the Dili massacre in 1991 and continued after that.

But the sacking of several generals and the creation of the National Commission of Human Rights led to the evolution of a different face of the military, particularly at provincial levels.

Several lower-ranking commanders who saw no hope of moving up refocused attention on alternative career paths as village chiefs or provincial officials. They concluded that it was not in their interests to antagonise the local population by using force to deal with contentious problems. Such attitudes became even more pronounced after the May riots.

Also, there was uncertainty over how to handle growing unrest given the international focus on possible human rights abuses and questions over the ethnic and religious orientation of soldiers in the field.

These factors resulted in a gradual erosion and malfunctioning of the military chain of command. Troops were hesitant to deal with local-level riots. In the Islamic stronghold of Jember in East Java, violence towards ethnic Chinese went unimpeded for four days despite the presence of troops. Soldiers appeared more content directing traffic.

So, on the one hand, there are Abri personnel who do not hesitate to use the mailed fist, warranted or otherwise, as in therecent crackdown on demonstrators. On the other hand, there are soldiers who prefer the path of least resistance.

This breakdown in military discipline, coupled with lingering divisions among the top brass, helped spawn the growth of sporadic violence across Indonesia. But with Abri discredited, no other organisation can maintain order.

The Cabinet ministerial source notes that it is ironic that now is the time Indonesia needs Abri most, not least. “Some intellectuals might want Abri to return to the barracks maybe because they have not been mugged yet on the streets. The military is the only force that stands between mob rule and anarchy.”

Besides giving Abri a greater say in this rather fluid situation, he suggests slowing down democratic reforms. “I think Lee Kuan Yew’s prescription for managing society is right on target and Indonesians can learn something from him.

“We will never achieve political stability or recover economically if we keep deceiving ourselves that liberal democracy is the way forward for Indonesia. We are not ready for it.”

But despite the violence and simmering tensions, why is the country still holding together?

The Islamic camp, for all the charges of extremism against it, is balanced by the moderating influence of the 30-million-strong traditionalist Nadhlatul Ulama and its enigmatic leader Abdurrahman Wahid.

Muslim scholar Amien Rais’ decision to join the National Mandate Party as its head instead of the radical Bulan Bintang, where he might have been forced to make inflammatory religious statements, is another blessing for Indonesia.

The political centre in Jakarta, while wavering at times due to factional ambitions, is holding on without any direct challenge to it. There is no evidence that, apart from East Timor, active centrifugal forces can bring about Indonesia’s disintegration.

Obvious tensions exist in Aceh, Irian and other areas, but there is neither the demographic weight nor the force to challenge Jakarta.

More important, the constitutional process of transition has been stretched out and Dr Habibie can look forward to at least six months more in power.

Abri leaders, whatever reservations they might have had earlier about the German-trained engineer and Suharto protege, appear to have developed a mutual dependence. What exists now is an uneasy coalition that allows the centre to hold for the time being, offering a semblance of stability.

A presidential adviser says the violence will end once the economy recovers. But overwhelming evidence suggests that this is more than an economic phenomenon. It goes to the heart of public policy-making and the way the state structure has responded to internal troubles in the last three decades.

The problems that have rocked Indonesia with periodic political convulsions will not vanish overnight. And the prospect looks even grimmer as general elections beckon next year.

Whatever new administration comes into power will have to work hard at putting the genie of violence back into the bottle.

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