Published: Sep 22, 2007

Never again

Frankly, as we began preparing this edition ahead of Indonesia’s first democratic elections in 44 years, I expected there to be more joy and optimism than there is in the pieces that make it up. Suharto is gone, the military is under enormous pressure to justify its existence on the political stage, press freedom is wide open, political parties and labour unions are free to organise.

There is a deal of euphoria of course, also in the articles you are about to read. Women are on the move with surging energy. The environmental movement is as vigorous as ever. And East Timor could be free within a year.

And yet there is more anxiety than euphoria. Fear that a history of fraudulent New Order elections may have permanently ruined the chances of holding a fair one. Dismay that the military will still refuse to allow the police to civilianise once more. Dread also of the demons within society itself. Even in a remote place like Sumba that has been peaceful for decades there is now conflict between neighbours. Exasperation that even the most radical pro-democracy activists, the students, are not radical enough to really demand total transformation (this last one was pointed out by the remarkable Mangunwijaya, who died aged nearly 70 as we went to press).

But of course it was naive to think that all would be rosy once Suharto was gone. You build a system on state-orchestrated violence for three decades and then it collapses. When the dust cloud clears what do you see? Certainly not a fully functional democratic system. You will see ruins, and feel a sense of anxiety.

So why burden readers in societies whose economies are humming along and whose democratic institutions actually seem to work with such gloomy reporting? For lots of reasons to do with human solidarity and just plain neighborliness, first of all.

But also because we can draw immensely valuable lessons here about the end result of authoritarianism. For years the West had little trouble thinking of Suharto’s regime as just something that suited Indonesians, who after all hold Asian values dear. Anyway, it was delivering the goods of economic growth. Now the long-term consequences of that view are becoming clear. Authoritarianism, militarism, elitism, kills. It kills individual victims, it also kills civic institutions. The lesson surely is: whatever the future holds, never again a military dictator, never again the short-cut to prosperity that Suharto offered.

Gerry van Klinken

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999