Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Friend or foe?

It was reported yesterday that a bomb exploded in Jakarta a few days earlier. The Chinese businessman Sofyan Wanandi was questioned by the military on his possible involvement. What lies behind this event?

Suharto's administration is facing both economic and political crisis. The economic crisis triggered a crisis of trust toward the regime. The personalised rule of Suharto that has given big economic benefits to his family and cronies is now under attack. Demonstrations by students and other youth organisations have occurred almost every day in Jakarta. They blatantly ask Suharto to step down, something unimaginable even six months ago. Although the number of people participating in these demonstrations is relatively small, they do reflect the feeling of most Indonesians.

Is this a sign that democracy is being born? It doesn't seem to be that easy.


Democracy is the power of the people. Its strength rests on the unity of civil society to balance the power of the state. People have to be able to participate in this decision making process to make democracy possible. To achieve this, civil society has to be strengthened.

Since several months ago, steps have been taken to unify the three largest mass organisations: Nahdatul Ulama led by Abdurrahman Wahid with its estimated 30 million constituents, Muhammadiyah led by Amien Rais with its 28 million constituents, and the Indonesian Democratic Party PDI led by Megawati with about the same number. If these three mass organisations, two Muslim and one Nationalist, could be unified, it is almost sure that the military would have a lot of difficulty continuing their repressive policies.

Megawati and Amien Rais have expressed their willingness to form such a coalition. Wahid said on 19 January that he first needed to know the terms on which the coalition would be based. All three leaders do not seem to object to form a democratic coalition. All three have also called on Suharto to step down.


However, unlike Thailand and the Philippines that succeeded in establishing their democratisation earlier, Indonesian society has long been divided by conflicts of a religious (Islamic versus Christian) and racial nature (indigenous versus Chinese).

The Christians and the Chinese are (somewhat overlapping) minorities of less than 10% of the population, but they are better off economically. Most of the big conglomerates are Chinese-owned, and therefore non-Muslim.

The three civilian leaders each have their own views on this matter. Megawati as the leader of the nationalist group has no problem in dealing with both Christians and Chinese.

Abdurrahman Wahid, despite leading the biggest Muslim organisation in the world, has a very progressive view in dealing with non-Muslims. Oftentimes he has been accused of betraying Muslim solidarity and of having sold out to Chinese and Christians. But so far he still retains strong support, especially from young Muslims.

However, Amien Rais is a bit different. He has become well known for his sectarian approach towards Islam. He believes that there is a danger of 'Christianisation' in Indonesia, and that Christians are trying to control the levers of economic and political power. He thinks they dominate business and have their men in cabinet and the armed forces. Amien Rais has said that the number of Christians in the state bureaucracy has to be in proportion to the percentage of Christians in society.


Faced with this mounting possibility that the three mass organisations may unite, the New Order government seems to be preparing to use its military intelligence to exploit the existing religious and racial conflicts.

It started when a high ranking general made a strong statement blaming Chinese conglomerates for not being patriotic enough to bring their dollars back into the country. They were the ones to be blamed for the present crisis.

At the same time a story appeared that the financial crisis was not merely the work of market forces. It was the result of a political 'conspiracy' to destabilise the Suharto administration, in order to replace Suharto as head of state. It was said that the conspiracy was being organised by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Catholic think tank that has strong connection with Chinese business.

This think tank worked closely with Suharto during the early stage of the New Order government. General Benny Murdani, the ex commander-in-chief of the armed forces and also a Catholic and once a confidante of president Suharto, is also closely associated with the organisation.

Sofyan Wanandi, the wealthy businessman mentioned earlier, together with his brother Jusuf Wanandi, are core members of the CSIS. Sofyan's alleged involvement in the bomb explosion strengthened the assumption that the CSIS has been active in destabilising the regime.

The story goes on that the IMF/ USA pressure against Indonesia is part of an international Christian conspiracy against an Indonesia with a Muslim majority. The US-dominated IMF, in other words, plays a neo-colonialist role, working together with domestic anti-Islamic forces.

By circulating this story, military intelligence firstly want to divert the people's impression that this economic crisis was the result of the president's own nepotism and cronyism. Secondly, it intends to diffuse the civilan opposition by playing off Muslims against non-Muslims. This story was later conveyed confidentialy to Amien Rais.


Amien Rais seemed to rise to the bait. Last week, as quoted by the Muslim daily Republika, he made a statement saying that the economic and political crisis was the work of a political conspiracy by 'traitors to the country' who aimed to destabilise the nation. The next day Republika published the reactions of many pro-government Muslim leaders, who cheered Amien Rais on and asked the Muslim community to defend the government.

Lukman Harun, another leader within the Muhammadiyah to which Amien Rais belongs, said that Suharto was not only the head of state but also leader of the Muslims. He then made an appeal for Muslims to work together with the government against these 'traitors.' The same appeal was also launched by the commander of the army special forces, Maj-Gen Prabowo Subianto (also Suharto's son-in-law), during a get-together with Muslim ulema to break the fast in his headquarters.

It remains to be seen whether Amien Rais will now stick to his former position, namely to ask Suharto to step down and to create a coalition with the other two mass organisations. If he doesn't, then the unification of the three biggest mass organisations is in limbo, together with the prospect of democracy. The military will have succeeded in striking at the weak spot of this potential civilan united front against a repressive regime. However, everything is still uncertain. On January 25 Amien Rais and Megawati appeared together in Yogyakarta, still calling on Suharto to step down. This is, of course, very encouraging.

If Amien Rais does change his political stance after being informed about this 'Christian conspiracy against Islam and the regime', those struggling for democracy will be forced to admit that they will have to wait a little longer. The civilian coalition is still fragile. Indonesian society is still full of deep controversies, and strong civilian leaders are yet to be born.

Arief Budiman is professor of Indonesian studies at the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 54: Apr-Jun 1998

Latest Articles

Feminists and LGBT


Can they work together? Religious objections make it hard

Concerts for cash

Oct 27, 2023 - MICHAEL H. B. RADITYA

Indonesia has a plan to boost the economy through large-scale arts, cultural and sporting events, but are they ready?

Healing the nation? Part 2

Sep 13, 2023 - SASKIA E. WIERINGA

Recent attempts to address the Indonesian genocide after 1 October 1966

Healing the nation? Part 1

Sep 13, 2023 - SASKIA E. WIERINGA

Recent attempts to address the Indonesian genocide after 1 October 1966

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.