Book Review

Indonesia: The unknown archipelago

Original article:

The Economist
May 30th 2003
From The Economist print edition

Opening the door to one of the world's great nations

THE bookcase of every serious student, amateur or professional, of world
affairs will doubtless contain at least a handful of books about China.
India will be represented by several more. The United States will surely be
accorded a shelf at the least. But how many books will he or she possess on
Indonesia-the largest country, in terms of population, after those three? In
all probability, none. To most people, Indonesia is a cipher, by far the
least-known of the world's great nations. This is especially strange in
light of the fact that it is easily the largest Muslim one, with more than
three-quarters the number of inhabitants as live in all the Arab states
combined. Its strategic significance is no less striking: Indonesia sits on
generous oil reserves of its own, and through its waters pass about half of
all the world's shipping, including most of the energy requirements of Japan
and South Korea. Culturally, too, it is fascinating, its thousands of
islands home to a volatile mixture of Muslims and Christians, superimposed
on older Hindu and animist traditions. Above all, perhaps, Indonesia is a
democracy, if a rather new and fragile one.

How to account for this neglect? One reason is simply to note that, until
fairly recently, Indonesia has been boringly stable, at least since 1966,
when General Suharto displaced the country's charismatic but infuriating
founder, Sukarno. Under President Suharto, a system was in place in which
the army pervaded government totally, through the policy known as dwi
fungsi, or "dual function", and kept irritations like separatism, radical
Islam and socialism firmly under control. A reliable American ally,
Indonesia was even allowed to annex East Timor and Irian Jaya without undue
protest. Prior to Mr Suharto's reign, of course, Indonesia was fascinating
indeed: Sukarno flirted with communism, famously told the Americans "to hell
with your aid", attempted to fight the British in Borneo, declared 1965 "The
Year of Living Dangerously", and generally ran his country into the ground.
But for more than 30 years, Indonesia was not much of a story. George
Monbiot told the tale of the Indonesian army's savage repression of Irian
Jaya in "Poisoned Arrows", and Timothy Mo immortalised the sufferings of
East Timor in "The Redundancy of Courage". But on the whole, good Indonesia
books have been hard to find.

With luck, that is now changing. The past six years have been extraordinary
ones, none more so than 1997, when Indonesia was simultaneously struck by
the Asian financial meltdown and devastating fires that ravaged much of its
area. By then, Mr Suharto was old, ailing and universally regarded as
monumentally corrupt (his wife, Madame Tien, had been known as Madame Tien
Percent). In 1998, a year of massed demonstrations and violently suppressed
rioting, Mr Suharto was overthrown: but stability has been hard to find.
Indonesia has had three presidents since then, and the late 1990s witnessed
the emergence of fierce separatist struggles in Aceh, in Irian Jaya and most
notably in East Timor, where army-backed militias attempted, unsuccessfully,
to prevent the birth of an independent nation, but succeeded in destroying
most of it. The violence has continued-this week, Aceh is back at war. And a
new phenomenon, of radical Islamic terrorism, has emerged: the Bali bomb of
October 2002 has changed Indonesia forever.

Theodore Friend's book is therefore welcome. An engaging romp through the 54
years of Indonesia's existence, its scope is a broad one. Part personal
memoir, part history, part economic treatise, it makes for a useful (and
bang up-to-date) introduction to the unknown archipelago, particularly
valuable in the light of the absence of much in the way of competition. The
chaotic Sukarno years are well described, but the book only really comes
into its own in Mr Suharto's time, when Mr Friend started visiting Indonesia
himself. The drift into corruption and excess, and the gathering storm of
retribution, form the book's meat.

Undoubtedly, it could be better: it would have been useful to read much more
about the beliefs and membership of Indonesia's two great Muslim groups,
Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, each of which claims tens of millions of
followers. Religion, in general, is neglected: there should be more, too, on
groups like Laskar Jihad and Jemaah Islamiah, accused of planting the Bali
bomb. And the presidency of Megawati Sukarnoputri (pictured), Sukarno's
daughter, deserves more than a 30-page epilogue. Miss Megawati is accused by
human rights groups of trying to reconstruct the authoritarian rule of the
man who overthrew her father. Her army chief once offered the chilling
prescription: "exterminate provocateurs, shoot rioters". Her supporters
argue that Indonesia is far more democratic now than it has ever been. Mr
Friend does not come clearly down on one side or other of this question: he
admires her deft populist touch: "I am your mother. Listen to me. I want you
to go home," she once told her rioting supporters. But he is equally
repelled by her affinity with the army. Perhaps the president's own dwi
fungsi is to blame.

Indonesian Destinies
By Theodore Friend
Belknap Press; 640 pages; $35 and 23.50
Buy it at or

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