Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Whose stability?

Jay Bulworth

After World War II, the US State Department conducted a comprehensive review of the state of the world. George Kennan, the head of the Policy Planning Staff, described the problem in the American government’s publication Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948 as follows:

We have about 50 per cent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 per cent of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction… We should cease to talk about vague and — for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratisation. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Thus in terms of US foreign policy, the word ‘stability’ refers to the preservation of a pattern of relationships which permit the American elite to maintain this position of dominance, often with the aid of obedient and powerful elite in other nations, particularly developing ones.

In the same policy plan, post-war US planners designated a specific role for each region of the world: the US, given its dominant status after World War II, would take charge of the Western hemisphere and the Middle East. Western Europe would be entrusted with the ‘exploitation of the colonial and dependent areas of the African Continent’. Southeast Asia would ‘fulfil its major function as a source of raw materials for Japan and Western Europe’.

The threat to stability in countries like Indonesia, as defined by post-war planners in America, came from what they recognised as ‘an increasing popular demand for immediate improvement in the low living standards of the masses’. They noted that governments were ‘under intense domestic political pressures to increase production and to diversify their economies’ in many newly independent nations.

Opposition to America’s global plans came from ‘nationalistic regimes maintained in large part by appeals to the masses of the population’ (NSC 144/1, ‘United States Objectives and Courses of Action With Respect to Latin America’, 18 March 1953). From the perspective of US planners, right-wing nationalism was as unwelcome as left-wing nationalism; the US was hostile to Perón in Argentina and to Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, because even though they were right-wing, they pursued an independent course of economic development. The US opposes economic self-determination, not ‘communism’ or ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, although it uses such labels as a pretext for opposing economic self-determination.

Meddling with sovereignty

The US was hostile to Sukarno’s presidency of an independent Indonesia because of his nationalist commitment and non-aligned foreign policy stance. It tried to unseat him by supporting right-wing parties and by backing armed rebellions.

The Indonesian army and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) were two of the most important political forces following independence. The army demonstrated its utility to American objectives by putting down an uprising supported by the PKI in the Madiun region of Central Java in 1948. American and Australian foreign policy makers celebrated the army’s subsequent role in the massacres of 1965–66. As a result of the massacres, the PKI was physically annihilated and popular organisations associated with it were depoliticised.

Then the plunder began. At a conference in Geneva in November 1967, the Indonesian economy was ‘carved up, sector by sector’. According to John Pilger, representatives of top Western corporations including the major oil companies and banks, General Motors, Imperial Chemical Industries, British Leyland, British-American Tobacco, American Express, Siemens, Goodyear, the International Paper Corporation, US Steel and others met with Suharto’s economic team and organised the investment regime they wanted.

The labour force was tamed by a military dictatorship that employed various repressive measures to keep it in line. The Indonesian press, students, and unions were brought under control. Although Indonesia had possibly the worst working conditions and lowest wages in Asia, its rulers did not challenge or attempt to change this state of affairs. They were therefore exempted from the annual review of labour practices by the Clinton administration, which had the support of influential Senators.

American support for repressive regimes flows logically from its hostility to economic self-determination; a government that respects the wishes of its own population is unlikely to obey the contradictory demands of US investors. As Herman and Chomsky note in After the Cataclysm ‘the collective conspiracy of a comprador-business elite, local military officers, and foreign economic and military interests normally cannot maintain ‘stability’ without active or threatened terror’.

In 1996, with tensions rising and Suharto growing old, the US began looking for other segments of the Indonesian elite who could deliver what they saw as ‘stability’. This search for compliant rulers was on display as early as mid-1996 when, after two days of political rioting in Jakarta, the US Assistant Secretary of State, John Shattuck, met with trade union leader Mochtar Pakpahan. The Deputy Secretary of State, Winston Lord visited then-opposition figure Megawati Sukarnoputri, radical leader Budiman Sujatmiko, Mochtar Pakpahan, and others in September 1996.

On his return to America, Lord voiced his concerns about the difficulty of ensuring a smooth transition to a post-Suharto era. The next year, even before the Asian economic crisis began to be noticed, the US co-sponsored a resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Commission condemning the Indonesian government for human rights violations. The US had realised that Suharto’s days as president were numbered, and that an alternative political leadership would need to be found.

Stabilising reformasi

Since Suharto was forced to resign in May 1998, complex and often contradictory forces have been unleashed. Senior army officers who engaged in terrorism against the people of East Timor have not been punished. They have gone on to conduct operations against the people of West Papua and Aceh. The use of terrorism justified in religious terminology has also become a feature of the Indonesian political landscape, although this is minor compared to the Indonesian army’s track record in this arena. Indonesia’s foreign debt is now more than 140 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The government spends much more on debt repayments than it does on health care.

More positively, there has been an increase in the politicisation of the public. There have been mass protests concerning a variety of issues, and a proliferation of political parties. Press freedoms have expanded and criticism of the government’s actions is now commonplace. East Timor is now independent of Indonesian colonial rule, and Indonesian workers are able to organise in ways that were once simply impossible.

The US, which has long supported the Indonesian military (TNI) in the name of stability, is now concerned that ongoing TNI activities are creating even more problems and instability. It suspects that the TNI is creating instability in order to justify a greater role for itself in a post-New Order Indonesia. This is why the American Ambassador travelled to Tokyo and lobbied strongly to help broker a peace settlement between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the TNI.

The failure of the peace negotiations reflects the TNI’s unwillingness to accept demobilisation in Aceh. This would amount to a further diminution of its power and influence. As for other sections of the Indonesian political elite, they may also be opposed to the TNI’s operations in Aceh, but remain unwilling to say so openly for fear of making a powerful enemy in the lead-up to the 2004 elections.

Indonesia’s troubles today are directly related to the pursuit of a repressive form of stability. The contradiction of TNI’s actions, which are now at odds with those of their Western supporters, has opened a window of opportunity for exploring new global civil society links and activities. New concepts of stability and propsperity can be developed. For Indonesians and Australians of goodwill, the choice could not be more stark — their stability or all of ours?

Jay Bulworth (Jay.Bulworth@operamail.com) is completing a PhD in strategic policy at Deakin University, Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 77: Jan - Mar 2004

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