If we were to divide the recent history of the Indonesian archipelago into phases we could say that, following Dutch rule, it has had three fundamental phases: the ‘non-aligned’ revolutionary period led by Sukarno and brutally interrupted by the 1965 coup d’etat; the phase of order, growth but also of dark dictatorship under general Suharto’s regime and, ultimately, the Reformasi – this current period of democratic, economic and customary reform – which Indonesia is still going through. The latter began with the toppling of the Orde Baru (New Order) dictatorship and the conception of a democracy consolidated through the shaping of the country’s institutional, economic and cultural framework.
If we were to draw a balance of this most recent phase of its life, from the mid-nineties to the first part of the twenty-first century, the result can not be seen as anything but positive, bearing interesting prospects for Indonesia’s future. Nonetheless, the country still lives under the looming shadow of its dictatorial past; an obscure phase of its history which, in the mid-sixties, seemed to have firmly and seemingly unshakably gripped the archipelago. This phase was born of a brutal repression of the local political left and a series of serious violent incidents which, to this day, have yet to be confronted in an attempt to restore dignity to the victims and their families. This phase lasted 32 years.
Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populated country and has the largest Muslim population on the planet. Locals refer to this island nation as tanah air kita, ‘our land by the sea’, a clear reference to the dispersion of its population over 16,000 islands, for many of which (almost two-thirds being uninhabited) geographical and historical research defining their position and identity is still in progress. Java, the most populous island and the most rich in tradition, has always been the propelling force of this large nation and, still to this day, plays a key role for the economy and institutional structure of a territory so varied as to consist of hundreds of languages, communities and vastly differing traditions.
Indonesia has always been very aware of its diversity, so much so as to make it a defining element of its difficult administrative structure and a key to a coexistence that, other than through the Pancasila (the five principles at the core of the constitution), can be found in the national motto: “Unity in Diversity”. This motto is not only a slogan but an acknowledgement of an ongoing struggle to find common ground between the many aspects of the country and to reduce Java’s centrality. The unity which the region strives for could be built around the memory of vast insular reigns of the past such as that of Srivijaya (which included Sumatra, Mali and part of Java) or the territorial extension of colonial dominion or even around the common element of Islam (which, however, is not the official state religion). This must be done by diminishing the strong identification felt towards some of the individual islands and the presence of differing linguistic, ethnic, religious, traditional and even agricultural characteristics: from civilizations of the flooded rice fields of Java and Bali to the Indonesian far-eastern culture of the sago palm tree. Also, from the shadow-puppet theater of Java and the imaginative sumatran Batak architecture, to the various cults honouring the dead and ancestors, there is an abundance of cultural elements so diverse and fascinating that they render the country increasingly attractive. Tourism is an important generator for the Indonesian economy; an engine for development but sometimes also one of environmental deterioration (as in Bali’s case) or a paradigm of the ever-difficult coexistence between external influxes and local realities.
With over 250 million inhabitants spread over almost two million islands, the Indonesian melting pot has always been a forced experiment of coexistence between different cultures, made to seem even further by the presence of the sea – an element which often unites but more often divides. This coexistence has not gone unscathed by forms of identitarian violence, often supported and exploited for political ends, especially by Javan political forces which are the most articulate and those at the centre of state power. The issues of decentralization and the management of local and national power remain unresolved and are increasingly able to articulate and construct a national identity, taking into account the nation’s diversity and centrifugal tendencies. The latter is endemic to any insular nation and a common contemporary global issue, from Catalunya to the small nation of Timor – born at the beginning of this century following from the bloody years of resistance to Java’s military invasion.
The period of great internal conflict, felt considerably under the Suharto dictatorship from Timor to Irian Jaya, from the Moluccas to Aceh, seems to have drawn to an end. The birth of an independent Timor, formerly a Portuguese enclave, was the important symptom of the positive advent of a democracy that was even changing relation between town centres and their peripheries. Islamic extremism has been the most severe emergency of recent times but, apart from increasingly sporadic cases albeit very violent (as in the 2016 attack in the heart of Jakarta), the country seems to have been able to contain a phenomenon which had existed since the Bali attack of 2002 and the strengthening of the Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda-affiliated organization (and, in part, ISIS-affiliated) which is still active but greatly reduced. A complex phenomenon made intelligible even by the manipulation of radical movements by covert special service operations or by those nostalgic for the dictatorship, active sustainers of radical groups and preman gangs (local organized crime). The country’s large Islamic organizations, deep-rooted in civil society and able to have authority over the varied, local spiritual landscape (including very widespread forms of animism and strong traditional currents such as that of Javanese mysticism), have been able to manage this emergence by demonstrating a capacity for interreligious coexistence, extinguishing potential internal conflicts between modernists and traditionalists, between the laic state and religious organizations. One can not deny that there are problems in Indonesia, nor that it isn’t going through a sort of Islamist revival (a New York Times survey sustains that out of six million young Indonesian university students, 20% are studying theology in a country desperately in need of specialized experts) but the country’s strength lies in its capacity to comprehend and peacefully control pushbacks and trends which, when not taking a violent and clandestine turns, can also serve as a stimulus. Therefore, they can also serve as a virtuous example of coexistence.
The current era of the Reformasi, therefore, is that in which the country has had to deal with several problems: that of radical advances (a phenomenon which is perhaps residual now but a symptom of malaise no less); the challenges posed by economic growth (McKinsey estimated in 2012 that Indonesia could become the world’s seventh greatest economic power by 2030 if it were able to deal with a rise in the labour force from 57 to 113 million); the long-ignored issue of a more equal distribution of riches and with an extension of welfare which president Jokowi has put in place in a country plagued by enormous disparities and vast distances between city centres and their peripheries which has often suffered from abandonment, lack of health and educational structures and of dependency on Java-based conglomerates.
If not all that glitters is gold, it can be said that the picture of the Reformasi has more light than shade and is ultimately a demonstration of political courage, not only based on a rise in GDP and its ability to overcome the serious economic crisis of the nineties but also due to its negotiating abilities with neighbouring and distant countries which has seen it reduce its dependency on the US. Today, Indonesia is an important economic partner for China, Japan and other of the region’s countries and a fundamental protagonist of the region with a significant presence in international forums as well as having a key role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The ‘young’ nation, independent since 1949, can now be said to be fully-developed, walking comfortably on two feet.
Nonetheless, many shadows remain and there is no shortage of challenges to be overcome. We have already hinted at the socio-economic issues as well as that of the open wound left by the 500,000 deaths resulting from a military coup which the country struggles to heal. An example of the latter is the banning of Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing based on the memory of the massacre. If Indonesia was, to quote an Adam Schwartz’s 1999 book (a year after the fall of Suharto), a Nation in Waiting at the end of the last century, perhaps its wait is now over. The path leading to its freedom from the shadows of the past is probably less steep than one might think.
Translated by Francesca Simmons
Credit: Bay Ismoyo / AFP