June 8, 2000

The Unraveling of Indonesia

Few events were as predictable as the rapid unraveling of Indonesia. The 13,000-island archipelago – today effectively a satellite of the United States – is moving swiftly the way of Yugoslavia. All the ingredients are present. Multinational corporations salivate over vast mineral riches. International human rights bodies demand trial and punishment of human rights abusers. The United States tacitly encourages the secessionists. West Papua – also known as Irian Jaya – has voted for independence. The oil-rich province of Aceh in Northern Sumatra is on the verge of seceding. Neighboring Riau in North Central Sumatra is demanding autonomy. A Moslem-Christian war rages in the Molucca Islands. Last week armed Moslem gangs attacked two Christian villages in the Moluccas islands, killing at least 44 people. A week earlier 34 people had been killed in a similar attack on another village. These attacks followed the arrival of more than 2000 trained Moslem paramilitaries from Java. Religious violence has also broken out again in Sulawesi, to the west of the Moluccas.

A large multiethnic state, Indonesia, like Yugoslavia, served a vital US purpose during the Cold War. A strong, independent Yugoslavia was supposed to give Moscow headaches in Eastern Europe. And a strong, united Indonesia was supposed to halt the fall of the Communist dominoes in Asia. "Indonesia is the anchor in that chain of islands stretching from Hokkaido to Sumatra which we should develop as a politico-economic counter-force to Communism on the Asiatic land mass and as base areas from which…we could with our air and sea power dominate continental East Asia and South Asia," wrote George Kennan in 1948 while he was head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department. Moreover, Indonesia is located along the strategic sea-lane linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Oil supplies from the Persian Gulf pass through the Straits of Malacca as well as Asia’s exports to Europe.

The moment the Soviet Union fell the two countries ceased to be of use to the United States. From trying to strengthen Yugoslavia, Washington went overnight to supporting its dissolution. From hailing President Suharto as the savior of Southeast Asia, Washington went overnight to conspiring to topple him. Our Yugoslavia policy yielded rich dividends. The tiny successor-states easily fell under the sway of Washington and proved compliant with the wishes of the multinational corporations and the US-dominated agencies like the IMF or the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The United States obviously hopes that the mineral-rich successor-states to Indonesia follow the same route. In addition, the break up of the world’s fourth largest nation will help weaken any Asian alliance directed against the United States.

To be sure, the Indonesian nation has always been more fiction than reality. It is the successor state to the Dutch East Indies, which was nothing more than the name for the thousands of islands in the colonial possession of the Netherlands. The inhabitants differ by ethnicity and religion. They speak 580 different languages. Though the official language is Bahasa Indonesian – a modified form of Malay – only some seven million speak it, compared to 70 million who speak Javanese, 25 million who speak Sundanese, 10 million who speak Malay and 9 million who speak Madurese. Indonesia proclaimed itself an independent state in 1950. However, armed opposition to rule from Jakarta went on for years. The independent republic of the South Moluccas had been suppressed in 1949. Separatist movements in Sumatra almost toppled the regime of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first ruler.

Last Sunday a congress of about 3,000 pro-independence delegates unanimously called on the outside world to recognize West Papua as a sovereign state. It claimed that the territory had never been legally integrated into Indonesia: "Indonesia must recognize the sovereignty of West Papua, based on historical, cultural, ethnic and religious rights." The Papuan People’s Congress has a point. In May 1963, after years of agitation, Indonesia took over West New Guinea (as it was then known) from the Dutch. The Papuans and Melanesians who inhabit Western Papua are the same Papuans and Melanesians who inhabit the eastern part of the island – the independent state of Papua New Guinea. The last the thing they ever wanted was to be ruled by Indonesia’s Javanese elite. In 1963, the Dutch handed the territory over the territory to the United Nations. Indonesia would assume responsibility for the administration under UN auspices and a plebiscite would be held in 1969 to determine whether the local population wished to belong to Indonesia or not. But there was no plebiscite. Instead, Indonesia handpicked a delegation of Papuan chiefs and headmen who gave a 100 percent vote in support of remaining within Indonesia.

Last month, the Indonesian Government signed a ceasefire agreement in Geneva with secessionist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Their "Memorandum of Understanding" proposes a three-month "humanitarian pause" in the hostilities. Currently Jakarta rejects the idea of holding a referendum on secession. President Abdurrahman Wahid has also put forward an autonomy plan, according to which the province would enjoy 75 percent of oil and natural gas revenues derived from the territory as well as the right to impose Islamic law. In return, Aceh gives up any idea of secession. Very little chance of that.

Aceh contains the Arun gas field – one of Asia’s largest – which is operated by a local subsidiary of ExxonMobil. Gas from this field represents about 30 percent of Indonesia’s total gas production. Aceh supplies about one-third of Indonesia's liquefied natural gas exports and 20 percent of total oil and gas exports. Aceh also has gold, silver, rubber and timber. The hideous harridan came out strongly in support of the May 12 agreement. It was "a genuine act of political courage on both sides." However, she went on, it was only a first step. She wanted to see "a comprehensive political settlement which addresses the core grievances which have [aggravated] conflict in the province." Hardly a vote of support for the sovereignty of Indonesia.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Riau, in north-central Sumatra, the US oil company, Caltex Pacific Indonesia and Indonesia’s state oil company Pertamina have been negotiating for months over a share-splitting deal for the Coastal Plain Pekanbaru oil field. Caltex, a joint venture of Chevron and Texaco, want half. Pertamina wants 65 percent. Caltex then announced its support for the Riau government’s plan to take over the field from the company. Riau supplies more than half of Indonesia’s oil.

President Abdurrahman Wahid is in fragile health. He is diabetic, has a bad heart and is virtually blind as a result of a near fatal stroke two years ago. He lives under constant medical supervision. He is seen as weak and has only just barely avoided an impeachment vote. He is on his way to the United States desperately to seek US economic aid and support for a proposed crackdown on the secessionist movements. He will get neither. Madeleine Albright recently announced an increase in annual aid to Indonesia from $93.5 million to $125 million. Such a sum is a pittance. Compare that to the proposed $1.7 billion package for Colombia.

Text-only printable version of this article

George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Wednesday.

Go to George Szamuely's latest column from the New York Press.

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Wahid was never really Washington’s first choice to take over from Suharto. It wanted to see the current Vice President, Megawati in power in Jakarta. The US administration spent years cultivating Megawati while she was an opposition figure under the Suharto regime. In 1992, even before she became leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), Megawati was invited to attend Clinton’s inauguration. She regularly met visiting US diplomats. In May 1998, while the United States was working ferociously to oust Suharto, the US Ambassador in Jakarta was in attendance at a number of her political gatherings. Why is she so appealing to the United States? Because she is incompetent and out of her depth. With her in power in Jakarta the disintegration of Indonesia is assured.

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