Book Review Indonesia: The unknown archipelago Original article: http://www.economist.com/books/displayStory.cfm?story_id=1811809 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 Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2003. All rights reserved.