Interesting Times

Jan 27th, 2010, in Opinion, by

A smouldering civil war among the elites, Army power plays, and Chinese scapegoats.

This stems from a conversation I had just after the Christmas/New Year’s holidays with an old gentleman of my acquaintance. This man has held senior posts in government, both elected and otherwise, since early in the Suharto regime, he is a serious man who quite literally knows where many of the bodies are buried and understands well how Indonesian society and politics work. For some time now he has been warning me that Indonesia is headed for serious trouble and it will come sooner rather than later. I have until now dismissed his comments as those of a somewhat cranky old man disillusioned with how the younger generation are behaving and have pointed to the remarkable "stability" and economic success Indonesia has been undergoing lately. I am no longer of that opinion and have begun to accept, depressingly, what he has been saying.

I will condense his thesis (which he has written in a private 12 page summary for some friends and associates who have sought his views on the current state of affairs, he was kind enough to let me have a copy) as well as I can and I welcome any commentators who have a deeper understanding than I do of what is happening in Indonesia today. For myself I have come around to the realisation that although I live here and keep myself up to date with Indonesian news I don’t really know what makes this country tick.

It is as follows:


Under the thin veneer of the current Indonesian success story there lie extremely serious stress fractures in this society. Some people point to terrorism as a major concern, my friend dismisses this as actually something that can be and indeed is being contained by the Indonesian state. The deep divisions among the elites of this society however are something that cannot be so easily resolved and will cause a major earthquake if they are not handled with more determination, something that the current President seems incapable or perhaps unwilling so to do.

These elites in business, politics, the media, the police and the armed forces are at this very moment in a state of undeclared civil war, quite literally so in the case of the last two. Beneath these elites is a seething mass of poverty stricken, depressed citizenry which is being stoked up by extremely dangerous individuals that have past form in these matters and who could cause a tsunami to erupt in the streets at any time.

The current hysteria about demonstrations leading to disorder and the police mobilising 10,000 officers to handle demos that end up with less than half that number of protesters may seem excessive but I am assured that behind the scenes there are in fact sinister elements (you don’t need me to tell you who they are) who are gearing up to actually turn one of these events nasty and right now they are simply biding their time for the right opportunity.

I alluded to the army/police split earlier and this is a pivotal element in all of this. The Army should not be dismissed as a busted flush in Indonesian politics, they have been licking their wounds since 1998 and have been getting more and more alienated from the current government.

Anti-corruption drives, divesting the Army of their business interests, giving increased security roles to the Police have all been causing great resentment among the Army high command and the rank and file and they are starting to make some rather ominous comments about this state of affairs. They are starting to get restless and indeed I understand that the head of the TNI dropped some serious hints that the Army wasn’t happy about how Indonesian politics were proceeding during a major speech in December (my apologies, I haven’t been able to link this).

If anyone thinks that it is ludicrous to suggest that the Army could even contemplate trying to get into power again one should only remember that of the three tickets for the presidential election last year, all of them had a "retired" general on them. It was only ten short years ago that Thailand seemed like a peaceful democracy, until one morning the citizens of Bangkok woke up to find tanks on the street.

Coupled with all of this is Indonesia’s nasty little attraction to running amok among the Chinese and this is where all the relentless media attention given to the recent corruption scandals come in. You must always remember that the media reporting these events are not dispassionate, neutral observers but are in fact owned by the various factions in the ongoing political disputes.

The big unspoken thread that runs through all these scandals so deliciously served up to the masses with a nod and a wink,

"say no more but you know what I’m getting at don’t you?"

is

"Look the Chinese are robbing us again!".

All the big names in these scandals, Artalyta, Tantula, Anggodo are of course ethnic Chinese, the message being subtly sent to the disaffected in society couldn’t be clearer (when my friend mentioned Artalyta initially he forgot her name and referred to "the woman who was jailed", I thought he meant Prita, the lady being prosecuted for defamation but he corrected me and then went on to point out the media attention and popular support Prita received, no coincidence of course that she was a jilbab wearing woman being persecuted by a Chinese owned, Christian hospital), the mobs will know what is expected of them when they get the go-ahead.

This leads us to the last point; the trigger, who knows where it will come? It could be some god-forsaken place in the back end of no-where, a crowd of disaffected warung owners protesting at yet another IndoMaret opening in their kampung, don’t laugh, I have been told by several people that there is a lot of tension surrounding these franchises springing up everywhere ("and who do you think is opening them?" one not so subtle informant asked me). It could be workers laid off as a result of the Chinese/Indonesian free trade agreement (another deep source of resentment) or it could be something as stupid as a bunch of football hooligans kicking off.

Whatever the cause the woeful Indonesian police will find themselves unable to handle it and ask the Army for help, the Army will reply

We’d love to help you but we’re a little bit busy right now, call us back when it’s all spiralled out of control and we’ll take over


So what do posters think, am I being over-pessimistic, is my associate simply a grumpy old man? Or is there something in what he is saying and that we may soon be living in interesting times?


23 Comments on “Interesting Times”

  1. Seksi Mr. Patoengs,

    Humbly suggest of Seksi Mr. Berlian’s deserves its own column to solicit responses. Personally, I agree with the undeclared war, but think the ‘dark forces’ are sinking to pathetic Suharto-era scare mongering. I think SBY – for all his apparent namby-pambyism – is aware of the dangers and is skillfully moving Indonesia in the right direction. It might not be fast enough for Indonesian Corruption Watch or the BBC, but they’re not really aware of the dangers.

    But it’d make a nice post and comments like Berlians help make IM a worthy read.

    These elites in business, politics, the media, the police and the armed forces are at this very moment in a state of undeclared civil war, quite literally so in the case of the last two. Beneath these elites is a seething mass of poverty stricken, depressed citizenry which is being stoked up by extremely dangerous individuals that have past form in these matters and who could cause a tsunami to erupt in the streets at any time.

  2. avatar Odinius says:

    @Berlian Baru

    I don’t see it that way. I think that the elite is fractured, yes, but going about their rivalries primarily through the ballot box and using non-violent organizational power to further their various agenda. In other words, Indonesia is looking more and more like a consolidated democracy. A poor one, yes. A still fragile one, true. One that has a long road to go before it is truly consolidated, definitely. But I think people give Indonesia a harder time than it deserves. It’s come a long way in the last 10 years.

  3. avatar madrotter says:

    excellent piece berlian baru and i couldn’t agree more! if you’ve lived here long enough you’ll remember how things were before the split between the army and the police. police? you never saw police back then, all you saw were the militairy everywhere. since then the police here have gone on a murdering rampage, i have seen all this myself, i have lost friends, dear friends because of this. i can only speak about what i’ve seen and heard in bandung. bandung was a lively, happy, free for all kinda city when i first arrived in 1996. there were cafe’s everywhere, there were huge concerts all the time. people used to smoke a lot of weed openly at venues. every week there was a huge reggae party where all the people from papua would show up and dance, dance , dance. This all changed around 5, 6 years ago, i’m thinking it might have something to do with the arrival of the mayor, this rosa guy. anyways, the cops started murdering, torturing, extorting. i know of folks arrested with tiny bits of weed then getting tortured and often killed by cops who would put up a boombox and dance to house music while smoking christal meth en weed while doing their torture. i know of kids as young as 15, 16 years old dying under torture. i helped carry the body of my dear friend tim, an african guy, a good guy, dead at the hands of these scumbags, from the hospital, it took him 3 days to die in a horrible way… nowadays, you won’t find weed in bandung, there’s plenty of smack and meth and pills and fake alcohol (and i hate all of those) so there’s still plenty of people dying.. the thriving underground music scene, the third biggest in the world at one point has disapeared, most of its members have either been murdered, are in jail or left for middle and east java. the city has transformed into an open sewer, that beloved mayor has gotten very rich from selling permits to build on protected areas causing floods or extreme dryness depending on the season. in the meanwhile he goes around with the cops closing down discotheques because of “immoral dancing” doing loads of interviews with papers and tv about how bandung must become a total religious city…people are dying everyday from accidents because of the sorry state the roads are in, unemployment has reached incredible levels and there never have been so many people poor as there are right now while at the same time the elites are building supermall after supermall and are building luxerious housing complexes (mostly palaces for the weekend) all over the place (again often in protected areas) they flaunt their wealth shamelessly, more than ever..

    so yes, the place is like a volcano about to go off and frankly i’m amazed it hasn’t happened yet. no small wonder then that the armies of hooligans are swelling with new members, no wonder then that so many people turn to organisations like the fpi and no wonder that so many churches are being burned down. people have no way to vent their frustrations and anger against an apparatus that is so powerful and well equipped as the cops and the ones whos interests they protect…

    you will not hear me say that things were better under suharto but you will hear me say that things got worse since the old mass murderer stepped down and the pack of wolves that he somehow kept at bay took over. these people, in their endless arrogance have no idear what they are playing with. they think they do. they think that when it happens it will be all on the heads of the chinese (which it will for a big part when things go down) but i’m affraid that when it will go down it will be worse, much worse then what i saw happening in 1998. the anger, the frustration, it’s really about to boil over any moment and i’m amazed at how most folks here have kept themselves in check so far, the restraint they have shown… those hooligans going on a rampage, these kids, they must have been like what? 8 years, 10 years old when suharto stepped down. all they know is corrupt cops that torture and blackmail them, all they know is seeing their parents in despair and all they know is jobs where you break your back for a pittance… and they’re not the same kids as say 10 years ago. they’re internet savvy, they know what’s up and they want theirs…. hell, if i was one of them, chances are i would be a hooligan myself, who knows?

    this piece is getting too long already and i’ve not even started!

  4. avatar ET says:

    Or is there something in what he is saying and that we may soon be living in interesting times?

    I hope I am wrong but I think he is right and once again it will be the Chinese that will pay the price for being successful. Also the fact that mainland China is leaping forward while Indonesia can hardly hold the pace must be a thorn in the side of pribumi nationalistic pride ready to spur on the masses into an uncontrolable amok.

  5. avatar Ross says:

    This is an unusually cerebral piece of work, not to diss other comentators, including myself, who tend to write in between getting home and having dinner at night, or else during bouts of insomnia.
    I certainly want to digest it carefully before responding at length, but berlian may well be correct in his analysis.
    I don’t share Achmad’s optimism about SBY, who I note today has re-appointed that ghastly fanatic to his advisory council.

  6. avatar Ross says:

    Reading this piece again, a few times, I think berlian, or maybe his source, is overstating the case. Yes, the media are not much good, and have axes galore to grind. Taking even the English-language press, we have seen stuff in the JP news pages that could have come from Al Qaeda, though that was just a callow reporter whose bias ‘slipped through, ‘ maybe.
    Media everywhere have a less than objective approach to politics, notably in America, where the mainstream media act like an Obama cheer-leading troupe.

    The Chinese issue; Prita was not lionised because of her jilbab but because of the arrogant hospital authority, Chinese-owned or not, whilst Artalyta is a nasty piece of work regardless of her racial origins.

    Of course there is a wide-spread feeling that Chinese ethnics are unfairly better off, and arguably prone to divided loyalties.
    I personally doubt this is true of most of them, but when I posted about Metro TV’s Chinese news programme, pointing out that our bule programme gave a spectrum of international news while Xin Wen kept focusing on the ‘Motherland,’ (whose motherland?) I was criticised for saying so.

    Having said all that, I really don’t think the Armed Forces have a taste for a coup, though, yes, they are unjustifiably self-important and need to have their wings clipped.
    But I shall follow this discussion with interest, as the possibility of such a major upheaval as foreseen is a threat to all of us who like living here.

  7. avatar Odinius says:

    Is Indonesia really doing that poorly? GDP is consistently up, JI has been pretty much smashed into oblivion, there’s a lot less communal violence than there was 1997-2002, the army is basically out of politics, there have been two very, very successful sets of elections, etc.

    Sure there’s still a lot wrong with the place, and loads of problems that remain, and remain threatening. But this is progress, people!

  8. avatar Burung Koel says:

    It was only ten short years ago that Thailand seemed like a peaceful democracy, until one morning the citizens of Bangkok woke up to find tanks on the street.

    I’m not sure the closest comparison in Southeast Asia is with Thailand. While all countries are different, there are probably more similarities in politics between Indonesia and the Philippines. The notable points being that wheeling and dealing at the heights of power is done by elites, often headed by a few powerfully connected families. Election times are characterised by populist appeals and celebrity appearances, rather than focusing on any distinct policy and program differences between official parties.

    That’s probably where the comparison ends. If you were a Marxist, you would note that Indonesia has never really developed broad based ‘classes’ that have coalesced around common interests and ideas – neither peasants nor the urban proletariat. There are too many religious and ethnic/linguistic differences for this to happen. People identify with their family, village and ethnic group/religion before their politics comes into play. Most people are too busy trying to get by to have the time for playing politics anyway (another reason that it’s the preserve of the elites).

    The downside is that there is no real, nation wide mass movement (of labour or any other kind) that could represent the interests of the poor – like Labour or Socialist parties have in other countries. The upside is that there is very little chance of a bloody urban revolution, or an agrarian Maoist movement having any traction in the countryside(like Nepal, or the Naxalites in India). Political parties without a broad base, real economic principles or a commitment to a specific cause just end up running a populist agenda. While there will continue to be disaffection in the community, it will be just that, completely devoid of ideology and ready to be pandered to at the next election.

    Judging by what others have forecast above, this actually makes me an optimist! But as a trained scientist, I never think of a glass as being half full, just twice as big as it needs to be.

  9. avatar Burung Koel says:

    Sorry, forgot to add a comment about the Army. Also, a bit like the Philippines – on the margins but a significant player in the wheeling and dealing, and not to be discounted. But also far from launching a coup.

    I think this is because (for the reasons above) it is not likely that a radical government will end up in power with complete control of parliament or even the executive. The Army are therefore unlikely to have justifiable cause to intervene.

    But this situation also leads to less accountability (to the public), a lot of “paying off” of favours and hence a persistence of corruption. The Army also end up as another interest group that has to be mollified or pandered to.

  10. avatar madrotter says:

    from what i’ve read they’re quietly dismantling papua setting a new deforestation record

  11. avatar sputjam says:

    Thaksin of thailand was a succesful and prosperous businessman, who turned politician and became PM, and used public money to buy support of the rural majority, misused parliament to escape taxation which incurred the wrath of the King, who probably ordered the army to perform a bloodless coup.

    I trust the indonesian political elite will not go the same way, as none had managed any huge businesses, which can induce a conflict of interest situation like what occured in thailand.

    In the near term, with economy on the upswing, and foreign investors, including those in the retail and hypermarts business fighting for new premises and market share, i doubt if any planned violence will materialise.

    The trouble with indonesia has always been its topsy turvy exchange rates. If somehow, the govenrment managed to control this and make it stable, maybe there will be more long term investment in manufacturing, creating jobs and wealth.

  12. avatar Laurence says:

    This is from a website but the white paper stuff is all true. Sort of agrees with some statements made on this site.

    Unlike the Australian defence white papers of the past, the previous one being just ten short years ago, 2008’s “Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030” makes four critical points regarding Indonesia. First, it no longer sees Indonesia as a military threat. Second, it openly debates the break up of Indonesia. Third, it predicts an increased Australian military role in “stabilisation”, humanitarian and peace-keeping operations, like those in East Timor and the Solomon Islands. Forth, it discusses the potential for Indonesia to fragment either as a result of developing democratic transformation or from anarchy, revolution, Islamic militancy.

    Clear then, Australia does not believe Indonesia, or what would be left of it, could be a major threat to western “civilization” one way or another. If Indonesia remains intact, which is unlikely given increasing discontent amongst its impoverished population forced to watch the world of plenty, it will continue to be a poor third world nation whose bloody military are stretched to their limits with the role of containing self-determination ambitions. If Indonesian Islamic Extremists come to power as is possible given the introduction of Sharia Law (AKA Anti-Pornography Law) and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s alignment with the radical Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera), then clearly Australia believes this would be the final straw for many Indonesians who would likely take to the streets in a popular uprising. If Indonesian democracy matures, then international legal rights such as self-determination will likely see all but Java and Southern Sumatra remain of the RI.

  13. avatar David says:

    I can only look at things from my own very limited perspective, and I really don’t see anything happening or likely to happen, but who knows.

    Coupled with all of this is Indonesia’s nasty little attraction to running amok among the Chinese and this is where all the relentless media attention given to the recent corruption scandals come in.

    I think that bit is way wrong. I’ve always thought this anti-Chinese thing was way overblown. Depends on the ethnic group but among the majority, Javanese, I don’t think there is all this seething anti-chinese sentiment waiting to be whipped up at all.

  14. avatar Ross says:

    You’re right, Patung, it is not seething, but there is a powerful prejudice agianst the Chinese.
    If you mention somebody is well-off, the average pribumi instantly assumes we are speaking of Chinese. Not fair, but it’s there.
    Nevertheless, I don’t see any imminent pogroms, on racial grounds.

    It’s the cowardly cave-ins by authority (see recent reports from Wahid and Setara Institutes) to Islamist pigs like the FPI and their more subtle MUI heroes ( I use subtle in a very relative sense) that worry me.
    Christians are not numerous or wealthy enough to put up sufficent resistance, especially with the current regime which includes sharia freaks in this coalition and ‘froze’ the Ahmadiyah to appease vermin like the afore-mentioned.

  15. avatar Odinius says:

    Anti-Chinese prejudice isn’t quite what it was 12 year ago, though. At that time, there were powerful people deliberately stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment for political purposes. After the reality of the riots set in, people across the political elite came to understand what would result from going down that path. Things got better for the Chinese, in legal terms, and as most of my Indo-Chinese friends will attest, it’s gotten better on a day-to-day basis too.

    Still a long way to go before there’s real equality and the Chinese are unproblematically viewed as both Indonesian and Chinese, but it’s still progress.

  16. avatar bismarck88 says:

    “If anyone thinks that it is ludicrous to suggest that the Army could even contemplate trying to get into power again one should only remember that of the three tickets for the presidential election last year, all of them had a “retired” general on them. It was only ten short years ago that Thailand seemed like a peaceful democracy, until one morning the citizens of Bangkok woke up to find tanks on the street.”

    I would disagree with the above statement. Indonesian society is way too divided for a civil war even among elites. For a civil war to happen you need several camps with both political / social cohesion. In Indonesia, the elites are too busy sleeping with each other. In Thailand you have this sort of polarization and it splits families. Do you see family members going at each other’s throats because one person voted for PDI and the other for voting Democrat?

    Secondly, Indonesia is now too decentralized now for elite bickering or a coup in Jakarta to make a difference. If the army does get back into power the first thing they will do is consolidate. Local elites are not likely to agree and it will renew separatist movements throughout Indonesia. Indonesia is more likely to disintegrate amidst a multitude of separatism than a civil war.

    Thirdly, the military is unhappy. Of course they are. But they were unhappy with Gus Dur / Habibie and they did not launch a military coup right than and there. They had a lot more to unhappy with Gus Dur than with the current administration.

    Lastly it all boils down to economics. Fortunately, the old man is not an economist. The situation he portrays is worse than 1998. For that to happen the economic situation has to be as bad as 1998. Could Suharto have been removed if the economy was humming at 5-6% a year in 1998? It took a Depression to bring Indonesians out into the streets in 1998. The only way for that to happen now if there is a world wide Depression (not unlikely), but it would mean all of us would be running to the hills. We just had a near Depression last year, and Indonesia managed to weather the storm.

  17. avatar BrotherMouzone says:

    @Madrotter

    it will be worse, much worse then what i saw happening in 1998. the anger, the frustration, it’s really about to boil over any moment and i’m amazed at how most folks here have kept themselves in check so far, the restraint they have shown.

    Blimey – I must be living in a different country…

    In all fairness, I guess the groups you move in help define your impression of the state of the nation.

    Most of my Indonesian friends are pretty happy with how things are going. They can earn and eat and are generally getting wealthier as a result of growth and stability. They are still frustrated by corruption but recognize that things are better now than in previous years and that there is at least some degree of accountability now.

    SBY has an excellent approval rating and is steering things gently in the right direction without rocking the boat – very wise. As Bismarck says, unless the economy tanks suddenly, I don’t think we are anywhere near these doom-and-gloom scenarios…

  18. avatar Oigal says:

    it will be worse, much worse then what i saw happening in 1998. the anger, the frustration, it’s really about to boil over any moment and i’m amazed at how most folks here have kept themselves in check so far, the restraint they have shown.

    Blimey – I must be living in a different country…

    Yea BM, I reckon you are. The anti-Javanese (or more correctly anti-jakarta/elite) feeling in the provinces is frankly scary at the moment and growing worse daily. Those in their isolated little Jakarta bubbles don’t realise what a tinderbox is out there. The day of the reckoning for the robber barons is on the horizon unfortunately it will be the little people that suffer again.

  19. avatar madrotter says:

    well i move in all kinds of groups i guess, because of the music but i also talk to everybody, from becak drivers to yes, those boneks (or rather their bandung brothers the vikings), folks working in supermarkets, bank employees, what ever and really, people are fed up with it. all these stories about how well the economy is recovering are all very dandy but nothing and i mean NOTHING is trickling down to those in need. all these people see is broken down roads, trash, harder and harder laws and the same old lying bunch of politicians… as far as the days of reckoning for the robber barons (nicely put oigal!!!) goes, their money is already safe overseas and singapore is always willing to hide a few more big time thieving crooks….

  20. avatar BrotherMouzone says:

    @Oigal

    Those in their isolated little Jakarta bubbles don’t realise what a tinderbox is out there.

    How splendidly patronizing 😉 Shame I don’t live in Jakarta…

    You and Mad Rotter are talking about two very different types of meltdown…

    Yours is some kind of organized rebellion from the provinces against the Javanese overlords – unlikely to happen, and even if it did it the TNI would deal with it quickly.

    Mad Rotter’s is some sort of people’s uprising due to mass poverty – again, unlikely; Indonesian history has shown us that the people only rise up when they’re told to.

    Those who wish to unseat SBY will have to wait until he is a damned sight more compromised than he is now.

  21. avatar Oigal says:

    Blimey – I must be living in a different country…

    And this of course is not patronising ..laugh

    Yours is some kind of organized rebellion from the provinces against the Javanese overlords – unlikely to happen, and even if it did it the TNI would deal with it quickly

    In fact, no I am not but the comment is interesting in itself.

    I very much doubt a organised rebellion, however is there a very real chance of a disturbance and venting in one region spreading…absolutely if not a wonder it has not happened yet.

    Sadly that would be the worst possible outcome for the people because as you say the very ones who are supposed to serve and protect will live up to their inglorious past.

  22. avatar Odinius says:

    Oigal said:

    Yea BM, I reckon you are. The anti-Javanese (or more correctly anti-jakarta/elite) feeling in the provinces is frankly scary at the moment and growing worse daily. Those in their isolated little Jakarta bubbles don’t realise what a tinderbox is out there. The day of the reckoning for the robber barons is on the horizon unfortunately it will be the little people that suffer again.

    Not sure it’s quite that straightforward. The “indignation” you often find in the outer provinces is often tightly controlled by local elites, who are not actually pushing for greater openness at the Indonesian center, or some comprehensive democratization plan, but a bigger cut in the lucrative development schemes going on locally. That’s why Dayak anger in the late 90s quickly turned into political offices and institutionalized bribery for certain Dayak leaders, who calmed the locals. Little else changed.

  23. avatar BrotherMouzone says:

    @Oigal, you said

    Sadly that would be the worst possible outcome for the people because as you say the very ones who are supposed to serve and protect will live up to their inglorious past.

    So we are basically in agreement. Your proposal that;

    The day of the reckoning for the robber barons is on the horizon

    is an unrealistic one.

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