A turbulent history
But despite the heavy burden that the poor have to bear, leftwing groups within Indonesia are now in complete disarray. The socialist message is simply not getting across to the people anymore. To understand why this is so, it is necessary to have some appreciation of how strongly today’s political climate has been shaped by the nation’s turbulent past.
Indonesia is a relatively new country. Indeed, it was not until 1947 that the nation finally achieved its independence after 350 years of Dutch rule. But freedom did not come cheap: many thousands of independence fighters, often equipped with nothing more than sharpened bamboo poles, were killed in the fighting against the much better armed Dutch soldiers.
Unsurprisingly, then, nationalist sentiments ran very high in the post-colonial era. Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno grabbed international attention for pursuing a policy of konfrontasi (confrontation) with the United States and Europe in the early 1960s, memorably telling the West to “go to hell” with its aid. He courted Indonesia’s leftwing groups that were aligned to China and carefully played them off against the country’s nationalists and religious factions.
However, after 15 years at the helm his dangerous game was eventually to prove very costly. With the national economy in a shambles and inflation running at a phenomenal annual rate of 650 percent, Sukarno was finally ousted in a bloody coup in 1965 in which seven senior army officers were brutally murdered and their mutilated bodies stuffed into the Lubang Buaya well located in the southern outskirts of Jakarta. The blame for the coup was pinned on the communist party. Indonesia’s nationalists - supported by military elements that had played a major role in securing the nation’s independence - then readied themselves to eliminate the left for good. Up to 500,000 civilians lost their lives as a terrible orgy of violence swept the nation.
Indonesia’s new president was the man who most believe had actually engineered the coup: army general Suharto. Under his leadership, the backlash against the left continued. There were no half measures. Any socialists that hadn’t been killed directly following the coup were then arrested and sent to prisons on remote islands within the vast archipelago. Suharto gave the military a stranglehold on power by granting the institution a dwi fungsi (duel function) role in both politics and defense.
And even though the military’s political influence has been steadily curtailed by the process of democratization (the armed forces is no longer reserved seats in the nation’s parliament, for example), its tentacles of power still reach down to virtually every level of society today. Many important government positions for instance are still held by military people: the nation’s current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is an ex-army general and so are many of the provisional governors.
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