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A democratic Asia?

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Reviewed by CHRIS BEALE

The trouble with good books like this is, before their ink is dry, they are out of date. That is how fast Asian events now move. However, for laymen wanting an over-view analysis of Asia's pro-democracy movements, it's hard to find a better starting place than this excellent volume. The back cover raises the crucial question: 'What kind of political opposition is possible?'.

Chapters by Ariel Heryanto and Ed Aspinall cover Indonesia. If journalism is history's first draft, this book is social science's second. Prone to theorising, the book is saved by Heryanto and Aspinall's history-in-motion.


However, this does not prevent out-datedness. There is no mention of Megawati's ousting from the PDI leadership, its violent aftermath, or the riots sweeping Indonesia.

Aspinall's comment 'that there has been no attempt to establish a new party' since the 1970's appears quaint in view of People's Democratic Party (PRD) chairman Budiman Sudjatmiko's 'subversion' trial. Likewise Islamic parliamentarian Sri Bintang Pamungkas' party PUDI.

Aspinall indicates a hard political nail might have to be hit, when he writes: 'In the end, civilians may be obliged to make a painful choice between Suharto and the army'. National stability in Indonesia still grows largely out of the barrel of a gun. Since this book was written, Suharto has become more dependent on the army.

Heryanto provides valuable coverage of the 1994 media bans, bank loan scandals, April 1994 Medan labour 'riot', closure of the national lottery, and Megawati successfully defeating Suharto's first attempt to remove her from the PDI leadership.

For all the book's focus on 'non-formal opposition', there's precious little about Indonesia's fastest growing, potentially most powerful opposition: Islam. But there's plenty of speculation, and some detail, about elite divisions - notably ICMI's co-opting Muslims. Ditto how Indonesia's oppositions exploit such division. These speculations have strong echoes of other Asian democracy movements, especially in Thailand and South Korea.


The volume is a follow-up to editor Rodan's 1993 publication - 'Southeast Asia in the 1990's'. It also follows Murdoch University's 'New Rich in Asia' series, and is as pre-occupied with the well-heeled. The theme recurs that the middle classes want their democracy to administer the affairs of the bourgeoisie.

Essentially, the book argues that Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea more recently demonstrate what Singapore and Malaysia proved long ago. Beneath democracy's 'face', authoritarian regimes reap twin middle class (often Chinese) fears.

On one hand, the fear that 'democracy' might get out of control. Popular passions, pent up by rapid industrialisation, threaten ferocious unleashing. On the other hand, excessive authoritarianism - with feudalistic overlordship, cronyism, and corruption - results in inefficient capitalism, stifling and milking middle-class expansion.

This is the Asian middle class dilemma. It dominates Rodan's book, sometimes to the exclusion of other crucial political actors - the military, working class, religious groups.


Selected country case studies are somewhat arbitrary. Why, for example, is the Philippines excluded? Birth place of 'people's power', it is undoubtedly a model for Indonesia's oppositions.

For anyone with a serious Indonesia interest, however, co-editor Kevin Hewison's chapter on Thailand, latest Asian domino to fall 'democracy's' way, is most interesting. It is also the worst for over-theorising. This is Hamlet minus Denmark's Prince, for there is no mention of the King's intervention in May 1992. Rival military units marched on Bangkok, against occupying troops, so demonstrators would not be 'denied access' to their revered Head of State. Yet these events crucially turned Thailand's democracy uprising from certain defeat into partial victory.

The same events also constitute crucial differences between Thailand and Indonesia. In Thailand, Asia's only country never conquered by the West, monarchy is unchallenged. Suharto? Indonesia has been one of Asia's most colonised. Heryanto documents Suharto's increasingly challenged hegemony, though there is no strong counter-hegemon, yet.

Heryanto and Aspinall's Indonesia articles concentrate on points Hewison's Thai analysis misses. NGO's, religious groups, students, unions, military factions - all responsible for bringing, inspiring, and eventually protecting hundreds of thousands in Bangkok's uprising, form parallel focuses for Heryanto and Aspinall.

Despite missing some of the action, this book is highly recommended.

Chris Beale was the only Australian journalist behind Thai military lines when soldiers opened fire on demonstrators in May 1992. He was writing for Broadside and Green Left Weekly. He speaks Indonesian and visits Indonesia often.

Inside Indonesia 50: Apr-Jun 1997

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