Once again, Indonesia is in the headlines. Demonstrators clash with police in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, government soldiers ordered to shoot-to-kill anybody causing disturbances, and an apparent crack-down on political dissidents and labor leaders in that troubled archipelago nation, just Northwest of Australia. The following is an excerpt from a recent BBC news report on these events in Indonesia:
In Indonesia, the authorities are making it clear that any opposition will be met more severely in the future. At a military news conference a short time ago, they confirmed they're still holding two hundred people after the clashes on Saturday, including an independent trades union leader. Earlier they said that anyone causing fresh disturbances would be shot. At the press conference, General Sjarnawi Hamid, speaking through a translator, blamed a small radical group known as the People's Democratic Party, or PRD, for masterminding the riots.
"They want to overthrow the existing government, and later on they will form a new organization or government. We have had experiences concerning this communism, because in Indonesia it has happened twice. First was in 1948, and the second was in 1965. And this new generation do not actually realize the danger of communism, as a latent danger."
So there you have it, the specter of communism again in Indonesia. Or perhaps there's something more to the story. We are most fortunate to have with us today Professor Benedict Anderson of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Professor Anderson, thank you for joining us today.
Professor Anderson is a specialist on Indonesia and Southeast Asia, he has written many articles and essays about the current Suharto regime in Indonesia. Professor Anderson, perhaps you could give us a brief account of these recent events, and maybe even go back in time to the dates mentioned in that press conference with the General Sjarnawi Hamid to bring us up to date.
There are two sorts of backgrounds to this. One explains the references to 1948 and 1965. But there is also the specific background to the demonstrations and the repression that are currently going on in Jakarta. These are two really quite distinct stories.
1948 refers to the war of independence that Indonesia fought for five years against the Dutch, in which the leadership of the republic basically split between left and right. This produced a kind of disorganized, small-scale civil war in the island of Java in 1948. Many people on the left were killed, and the radical nationalists were suppressed.
1965 refers to the still rather mysterious and controversial attempted coup of October the 1st, 1965, by junior military officers. This so-called coup, which killed six senior generals and proclaimed a kind of revolutionary council that would take over power, was suppressed very quickly by Suharto, Indonesia's present president, who was then in charge of the army's strategic strike force. The coup was blamed on the large, legal communist party of Indonesia, the PKI. Following that allegation against the PKI, some of the worst massacres of this century anywhere took place. Between half a million and a million people were murdered in Fall 1965 and early 1966. Communists were suppressed completely, the communist party was dissolved and has never reconstituted itself. Hundreds of thousands of people were put in prisons for many years without trial. There is really no basis for thinking that communism is going to make any kind of come-back in Indonesia, or indeed anywhere else in the world. So this is an obsolete fantasy of certain military groups in Indonesia. I don't think it has much resonance with the population at large. But in seeking to discredit a very small and quite courageous opposition, these military groups still think that the best way to discredit them is to use this kind of McCarthyite tactic. Even though these are kids, somewhere between twenty to twenty-five years old, born long after the communist party was destroyed, nonetheless they're accused of being communists.
With regard to the background for the contemporary problems, four things need to be borne in mind. One is that the success of Indonesia's economic modernization program over the last twenty-five years, substantially helped by external investments, loans and aid, has created an economy which is on the verge of assuming NIC (Newly Industrialized Country) status. This has produced a very large and discontented working class force, of which a large number are working women. Since the early 1990's, there has been increasing unrest, and increasing spread of strikes, against miserable wages and repressive factory conditions. This unrest has greatly alarmed some circles in Jakarta. These working people are struggling to get wages that are better than, say, a dollar for a nine or ten hour work day. They have actually been abetted by American labor unions who have made some representations that Indonesia shouldn't get special trade privileges as long as labor is so severely controlled and repressed. The arrest of the most prominent labor activist in Indonesia reflects the regime's concern about this situation. You have a very restless working class and an extremely wealthy, corrupt and privileged ruling group which is afraid that its privileges and wealth may be threatened in the future.
The U.S. press is reporting that the major player in these recent events is the opposition leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Can you give us some details on that part of the story?
Megawati is one of the children of the charismatic president Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia at independence, and the person who was deposed by Suharto after the events of 1965. She has not been a prominent person until really quite recently, in fact she was so unprominent that Suharto appointed her as a member of parliament. She still is a member of parliament. Megawati did not appear to be a trouble-maker for the regime at all. But of course she is the beneficiary of her father's reputation, of the love many people still have for him, and of the kind of legendary image he has among many young people. So her name is very important. It's striking that the military have tried to force the newspapers not to mention her last name, so that people will be less likely to realize that she is the daughter of the former President.
Megawati was elected president of the so-called Indonesian Democratic Party a little while back, over some opposition from inside the government. Yet it was only after she was elected that she began to speak out on a number of important issues: human rights, abuse of labor, the role of the military, and so forth. This sudden and surprising outspokenness generated a very strong reaction. In response, the government manipulated things so that a special congress of the party was organized to dump her as the head of the party. This was done by coercion, by bribery, by a variety of underhanded means. Of course the reaction to this very blatant and open maneuvering outraged many people. This was the cause of the late-July demonstrations in Jakarta.
There was the feeling that Suharto was afraid that Megawati might run against him in the elections that are coming up. Because of her name and because people are so thoroughly fed up with his thirty years of dictatorial rule, Megawati might make a real dent in his reputation and power. This is the reason for the recent confrontation in Jakarta.
But the size of the demonstrations, and the determination of the youngsters who are supporting Megawati, are a pretty good indication of how wide-spread the sense of frustration is among young urban people. These are the people that the government is most concerned about.
So the move against the Democratic Party headquarters was really a trigger for an expression of discontent that is more wide-spread and that isn't necessarily tied to these particular events involving the Indonesian Democratic Party.
Yes. The core of the Democratic Party is actually the Nationalist Party of Megawati's father, Sukarno. Symbolically people think about it as a continuation of that old party, although it has other factions to it as well.
The second thing one needs to keep in mind regarding these events is that Suharto has been re-elected president, unopposed, I think five or six times now. He's seventy-five years old, his wife has just died, and he's been recently to Germany for various semi-serious ailments. So part of the atmosphere in Jakarta is people feeling that this long period of rule should be coming to an end. And yet people are also aware that he's determined to hang on as long as possible, and not to tolerate any competition whatever. The succession issue is becoming more and more obvious all the time. And more and more people are feeling that something ought to be done to make sure that the succession goes in a good and more democratic kind of direction.
You mentioned Suharto's record of re-elections, five or six times over the past three decades. The New York Times reports that "Suharto has given Indonesians good reason to vote from him, using the country's oil and gas reserves to finance industrial growth and pull his country from chaos and near-starvation to growing prosperity. Schools, clinics and electricity have reached ever farther into the far-flung population in this archipelago of thousands of islands." That's sounds pretty good, and yet we're seeing all of this discontent. Perhaps the low wages and poor working conditions that are part of the reason for the dissatisfaction are nonetheless also fueling this development process. Is there some truth in these statements?
Well I think that the truth of it is something like this. During the first fifteen years of the new order, during Indonesia's progress from a very miserable economic condition to something that was much more prosperous, people were very supportive on the whole because they thought the country was going somewhere economically. People thought that things were stabilizing and calm, and that the terrible hysteria of the sixties was over. But of course a number of things have happened since then.
One thing that has happened is that people have gotten used to that, and now think that the political structure should fit better with the changing economic and social realities. In Indonesia we have a completely fossilized political system constructed in the late-sixties, early-seventies, which hasn't been substantially changed since then.
Another change is that there is now a huge, young population in Indonesia which has no memory of the sixties. These young people take for granted many things that Suharto thinks they ought to be grateful for, and they are bored to death with the government.
The third thing to bear in mind in the current climate of discontent is the corruption. A lot is made of Indonesia's development, and it's got more development aid over the last thirty years than almost any other country except perhaps Israel. But it's also been incredibly wasted. One obvious comparison is Korea. In 1960, these two countries were almost at the same level of development. But today, thirty years later, Korea is about three times more advanced than Indonesia. And the major reason for this is the absolutely unbelievable level of corruption in Indonesia.
You may have seen the statistics that were produced earlier this year where businessmen were asked to rate countries on the basis of the corruption they faced in trying to do investments and so forth. Indonesia came out number one in the world, ahead of some pretty heavy competition from countries we can all imagine. A lot of this corruption is actually the "royal family" itself. Suharto's children are notoriously greedy and are fabulously wealthy. They have incomes and resources in the billions of dollars, whereas other people are making a dollar a day for extremely unpleasant and hard work. So the gap between the rich and the poor which wasn't so obvious fifteen or twenty years ago is extremely obvious now, and it's very much identified with the Suharto's immediate entourage. This is another very important kind of sticking point.
A fourth thing to keep in mind is the end of the Cold War. A lot of people were willing to live by a certain kind of authoritarian rule in that context. But now that it is all over, and other countries in Africa, South America and Asia have been moving in a more democratic direction, many people in Indonesia think they're terribly overdue for a movement in that direction.
In this regard, it is worth noting the response to the charges of communism that were mentioned at the beginning of this interview. As soon as General Sjarnawi Hamid made the statement that this was communism once again, he was answered the following day, quite surprisingly, in an Islamic newspaper, by General Nasution. General Nasution is the founder of the Indonesian army, an eighty-year-old general well-known for his anti-communism. He just made fun of the whole thing. He said this is absolutely absurd, and that the government must be desperate if it's calling these little kids, a hundred and twenty-five of them, a dangerous communist revival. So here you have one of the most, perhaps the most, respected single military officer in Indonesia, publicly making fun of the statement. This is symptomatic of the changing political climate in Indonesia. The government obviously can't be very pleased by this. But these charges of "latent communism" are not taken very seriously anywhere except inside certain military circles.
So, even within the military itself, not just within the government, we're seeing disagreement over how to characterize the opposition in Indonesia. There's no doubt that there is discontent. But what is the character of these organizations that are pushing for change in Indonesia? There has been the arrest of the independent labor union leader, Muchtar Pakpahan, as well as the smaller group accused of being communist, the Democratic Peoples Party, and the leader there, pursued but not yet arrested, Budiman Sudjatmiko. What can you tell us about these organizations?
Well, these organizations are all quite new. Pakpahan, who is actually a lawyer in background, got involved in trying to create independent labor organizations. Up to that point, about four or five years ago, all labor unions that were not controlled by the government were illegal. In fact, for a long time even strikes were illegal. Using leverage that was, I think, opened up by United States pressure, Pakpahan founded the independent labor union federation which the government was very unhappy about. He was arrested after some labor riots last year in Medan on the island of Sumatra and put on trial. The United States exercised a lot of pressure behind the scenes to have the accusations against him reduced from subversion and treason to something more normal. But he's a pretty tough character and he knows he has friends overseas. Pakpahan is middle-aged now.
On the other hand, Budiman, a leader in the Democratic Peoples Party, is much younger. He comes out of this activist world of NGO's (Non-Government Organizations) and student organizations. For most of the New Order, the campuses have been tightly controlled by the government, and political activities actually banned. But as more and more frustration has grown, youngsters who had their activist training in environmental groups or in groups helping working people, have slowly decided to get out of these NGO-type groups, and try to put them together into a new political party. It's very small, and very young, and only very recently formed. I don't think it's any real threat to anybody. But it's a sign, again, of generational conflict which is going to be very important in the future.
Do you see a growth of this organization, this alliance between these smaller groups?
I think it depends on what sort of cracks open up at the top. There are certain well-placed people who are thinking about the post-Suharto period, and I have no doubt that some of them for opportunistic or other reasons will at some point look for support from among these youngsters. The person who comes after Suharto is more or less going to have to be more democratic, or at least is going to have to make moves, short-term moves, in that direction, to show that he's different from this dictatorial and corrupt old man.
However, Suharto has made sure that there's nobody of really national credibility around. Anybody who looked like having that kind of reputation he took care of. So there's a kind of leadership vacuum in Indonesia, which is one reason why somebody like Megawati, who really has very little political experience, has suddenly become important. This vacuum can be filled by all kinds of people whose names probably we don't even know yet. This is a regime that has been basically unchanged for over thirty years, which is extremely abnormal. And I think that when it goes, it will go in all kinds of unexpected directions.
What aspects of these most recent events should people in this country, the United States, focus on? How do these events affect citizens in this country?
Well, one way into this is to think about the discussions that have appeared in the New York Times and other media about the exploitative conditions in factories operated under the franchise of Nike and Reebok. You may have seen that Michael Jordan was interviewed as to whether he was aware that the shoes that he was advertising and getting millions of dollars of endorsements for, were [assembled by people] being paid a dollar a day for very tough labor. And there's been a whole series of articles and exchanges in the New York Times and other media about these conditions. That is, these are basically U.S. corporations which are exploiting the cheap labor in places like Indonesia on the basis of friendly relations with very oppressive regimes. So I think one thing to bear in mind is that what goes on in Indonesia and the unrest that is happening there, is not disconnected from what is going on here. That is, America is also involved in this.
America has been a very strong supporter, until recently, of the Suharto government. In a very real sense, the Suharto regime has lasted as long as it has because of this support. The United States has given an enormous amount of money to Suharto over the last thirty years.
Finally, there's another issue that we haven't mentioned yet, another reason that the United States is unhappy now with Indonesia. That of course is the issue of East Timor, which was occupied brutally by Indonesia in the middle-1970's, at a cost of about a third of the population's lives. This occupation, repression and annexation has been a huge failure. A younger generation of East Timorese has come up which has excellent contacts overseas. You may have heard about the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) conference in Jakarta, last year, where a number of these very brave young activists actually camped themselves in the American embassy as President Clinton arrived in Jakarta, infuriating the Indonesian government. At that point Warren Christopher went out of his way to express his concern about Indonesia's behavior in East Timor, that it could not be justified, and indicating that the United States was trying to push Indonesia for the first time into some kind of decent or reasonable settlement.
You've mentioned the involvement of corporations like Nike and Reebok as a factor that ties the events in Jakarta back to the United States. Could you describe, perhaps with some more detail, the role that U.S.-based companies like Nike play in Indonesia?
Well, Nike has made substantial investments in Indonesia because of the extremely repressive labor regime there. The control over labor has meant that they can pay extremely low wages to these mostly women workers. Nike makes absolutely colossal profits on the basis of this exploitative relationship. Nike is not alone in this at all. And it's not just American corporations. It's also true of Taiwanese corporations, Korean corporations, Japanese corporations and so forth.
Of course, Michael Jordan is extremely well-known in Indonesia. He's probably the most famous American, except for Bill Clinton, there. He's identified everywhere, through CNN and so forth, with Nike. People are very aware of Jordan getting millions and millions of dollars just to put his name on these shoes, while people around the corner are making seven dollars a week, working about fifty or sixty hours. So that generates a strong and clear link in their minds between what these corporations get out of Indonesia and what they give to the people who actually do the work.
Another interesting example the Freeport Sulfur (Freeport-McMoRan), which has its headquarters in Austin, Texas, where it has also become a big local issue. Freeport has giant mining investments in the troubled province of West Irian, or Irian Jaya, which is the western half of the island of New Guinea. The enclave of Freeport Sulfur is basically closed off to the local community, heavily guarded by elite paratroopers. This is a corporation which also makes local people feel that their resources are being carted off to the rest of the world without anybody local getting any benefit from it. Except of course highly-placed officials in the Jakarta government.
United States corporations shouldn't be singled out. It isn't just the Americans doing this kind of thing. But American companies are strategically placed in sectors of the Indonesian economy, like mining and like athletic shoes, which are very visible to the Indonesian public through the mass media.
And I should say that one big difference between Indonesia now, and fifteen years ago, is that development has meant that far more people now have access to satellite communication, fax machines, and so forth. The e-mail revolution has meant that information coming into Indonesia and leaving it is taking place on a scale now which the government is no longer able to control. People are far better informed about what is going on in their own society, and outside, than they were ten or fifteen years ago. And that's also one reason why discontent is rising so rapidly.
You mentioned the role of these transnational corporations in Indonesia. I was just looking at a brief history of Indonesia, and it turns out that there is something of a tradition for this. In fact, it was the Dutch East India Company that first subjugated this region as a colonial power. It wasn't a nation-state that moved in, but a private company. Is that a fair characterization of the colonial history of this region?
Well, it's very interesting that you should raise this, because the so-called Dutch East India Company wasn't in fact called "Dutch" at all. It was called the United East India Company. It had its board of directors in Amsterdam, but it was the world's first transnational corporation. That is, its field officers came from France, Ireland, Germany, Denmark; they employed Japanese, they employed Africans, they employed Indians, and so forth. It was a really quite extraordinary operation which lasted from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth, that is the first two hundred years. It went finally bankrupt and was replaced after the Napoleonic wars by a true Dutch colonial regime, around 1815, and that lasted basically until World War II. So it is one of the odd places, not many of them in the world, which was actually colonized by a transnational corporation initially.
And it seems that there's something of a continuity then in terms of the ruling powers in the region. It certainly seems as though companies like Freeport McMoRan have a dramatic influence both in terms of the policies of the Indonesian government, but also the government here in the United States with respect to our foreign policy towards Indonesia.
Well it's interesting. You may remember in the last months of the Bush administration, partly as a result of the (November 1991) massacre carried out by the Indonesian army in Dili, the capital of the occupied territory of East Timor, which got world-wide attention, there was a mood in Congress to end the funding which the United States was providing for the training of the Indonesian military officers which had been going on for a long time. The interesting thing is that when this issue came up, the Suharto government mobilized many of these giant corporations, with which it's very friendly, to put on a heavy lobbying campaign in the Congress. Suharto is able to use the resources of these corporations in the United States as well as in his own country. In this particular case, because the Bush administration didn't add its own muscle, the end of the funding actually went through, much to Jakarta's disappointment. So it isn't as if these transnational corporations can't be tackled, can't be resisted, and sometimes resisted successfully. The point I want to make is that one shouldn't think that the companies only do stuff in Indonesia. They also operate here in alliance with the Suharto circle.
So the link is not only in terms of companies that are actually located here in the United States, but through campaign contributions and direct lobbying, they are influencing the democratic process here, and having a dramatic impact on the lives of people abroad, in this case in particular in Indonesia.
There's a long history of this, not just Indonesia. You remember the famous Korea lobby in the 1970s; and the Shah of Iran's SAVAK network operating in the United States. The Dominican Republic for a long time had this kind of operation. A number of so-called third-world countries actually have well-organized and well-paid lobbies inside the United States. This is something that more attention should be paid to. Suharto and his group are simply another member of this circle of rich countries, or at least rich governments, which have the resources and the friends among the transnational corporations which permit them to play a role in domestic policy formation here.
I'd like to press you a bit on the role of these multinational corporations in countries like Indonesia, or for that matter in Honduras and the other countries that are home to the so-called sweatshop industries that have been in the news recently. A couple of arguments that are very common. First, there's the straight-forward denial that these are sweatshop conditions. For example, the Nike Corporation claims to be paying way above the minimum wage in Indonesia, and claims to be a leader in terms of the good treatment of their employees. They say that they provide meals and places to live for people who come in for work from the countryside. Second, there's the argument about" development". It is argued that all this is a necessary, if sometimes unpleasant, phase that each country must go through in order to achieve successful development. Nike, in fact, would like to take credit for the successful development of other Newly Industrialized Countries, as you call them, the NICS, such as South Korea. Is there anything to this argument about development. Is it necessary to have a low-cost labor force in order to make this transition?
Well the argument which is made forcefully by technocrats working for the Jakarta government is that this is a question of international competition. If we don't keep wages low here, these businesses will simply move to Vietnam, or to Burma or to China, where conditions are even more miserable, so there's nothing we can do about it. These are international market forces. If we want to have these investments in this country we have to make it possible for Nike to feel it's worth investing here. And there's some truth in that. Some corporations already are moving out of Indonesia to Vietnam and to the Southern part of China precisely for these reasons, looking for places where they can get the maximum profit margin.
I think the other side of this, however, is that there's a good deal of variation in how these corporations actually treat their workers. Some treat them much worse than others, not just in terms of wages but in the level of harassment of female workers, sexual harassment, in terms of the actual working conditions. Some of these factories are really like jails. The workers are forced to eat in the canteens, they're not allowed to get their food outside because the management is afraid that they're going to be contacted by labor activists. Most of these factories have military personnel who are there to survey these workers to make sure that there's labor discipline and so forth. We're not talking about a sort of friendly, sunny open room with women chatting happily with each other as they make the shoes. These are highly disciplinary operations.
The other argument says that you have to go through this unpleasantness in order to get to somewhere. You can make the argument that third-world countries, which have much lower standards of living, have to go through a process which is painful, but there are two pieces to the pain. One is the low wages paid; the other is the condition under which the work is carried out. I mean, you may get a low wage, but if you don't feel that you're being spied on, you don't feel that you're being sexually harassed, you don't feel that you have to have your meals provided by the company, if you feel that you can get menstrual leave, then that's quite a different thing than if the whole atmosphere, the whole life of the factory, is generally miserable. Those are really extra-economic things. But they are regarded as necessary by the regime and by the corporations in order to ensure discipline. And I think if you look at the demands that many of these workers make, in the first instance many of the demands actually are not for high wages as such, they are for ending the prison-like conditions under which the work is carried on, and also giving the workers the right to organize, the right to express their demands freely, to meet each other and so forth. These are conditions for just normal democratic life.
How do you respond to questions along these lines, where you're confronted with press releases, but sadly not just press releases from Nike, also editorials, for example, locally in the Portland Oregonian, which appear to suggest that the characterization of the factories as unpleasant and repressive, and charges of substandard wages, that if these charges are not outright lies about the situation, they reflect an ignorance of the particular circumstance of Indonesia. As Americans, we just don't understand. Either we don't understand the culture, or we don't understand the economy of this country, where what appears to us to be a very low-wage and maybe what appears to us to be unpleasant working conditions, are in fact desirable by the local population. Certainly, when you read articles in the New York Times in which workers are interviewed, they express tremendous gratitude towards Nike for setting up these factories.
There are two things to bear in mind here. First of all, Indonesia has a giant population, close to two hundred million now, and a lot of it is young, and there's a great deal of joblessness. So I think it is in fact true that people looking for jobs are, at least initially, grateful to have found them. But what you will find if you look at the wave of strikes which has been going on now for four or five years, and is getting larger and larger every year, is that the people who are happy to get the job find themselves very unhappy when they make any kind of noise. They're just simply fired and newer people are brought in. The turn-over is very high. There is no job security. The strikes are led by people who have actually been in these companies for a year or two, not by the new people who have just come in. The people who have worked for the company for, say, three or four or five years feel that they deserve some kind of consideration on the basis of that service. So it depends who you ask. Are you asking somebody who's just got a job in Nike, or are you asking somebody who's had a job with Nike for three or four years or has just lost a job with Nike? I think you get a very different kind of response.
The other thing is that if everything were really so fine and dandy, these strikes are inexplicable. We're talking about something like three thousand strikes over the last four or five years, heavily concentrated in the export sector, that is, in factories which export textiles, appliances and this kind of thing, that is, precisely the kind of factories where foreign corporations play an important role. Also, the government's furious reaction, the incredible weight of the security apparatus, all of this wouldn't be necessary if these people were blissfully happy and totally content with their conditions. That is, the strikes themselves, and the response of the regime, ought to tell you that the kind of line pushed by your local newspaper doesn't make any sense.
Perhaps we could turn to the topic mentioned earlier, the 1975 invasion and continuing occupation of East Timor by the Indonesian military, to provide a sense of the character of the regime in power in Indonesia.
East Timor is half of an island at the extreme end of the Indonesian archipelago, not far from Australia. It was one of the oldest colonies of the Portuguese empire, going back to the sixteenth century, but the Portuguese didn't do much with it. In 1974, the dictatorial regime in Portugal collapsed in the face of a military uprising and in the wake of that, various African colonies, Angola, Mozambique, and so forth, which had been fighting for their freedom, were given their independence as Portugal moved towards democracy. But in the case of East Timor, this was the one territory in the empire which wasn't allowed to become independent because a greedy regime in Jakarta, with its eyes on the very substantial oil reserves which lie under the waters next to the island, decided to take it over. And so, in 1975, the Suharto regime sent its military in. In fact, the invasion started just as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Ford came to visit Jakarta.
This invasion was carried out extremely brutally. Over the next three or four years, as I mentioned earlier, it is estimated that one out of three East Timorese died, either in the physical fighting or as a result of napalming of crops, of famine, of disease in forced resettlement camps and so forth. The regime there has remained extremely repressive.
The Indonesian idea was to keep the rest of the world outside ignorant of what was going on and they also hoped that by building some schools and spreading the Indonesian language and so forth, they would capture the young population of East Timor who would be turned into Indonesian citizens in due course, and that would be the end of the problem. But in fact what has happened is exactly the opposite. It is precisely the youngsters, the people who were not born or were tiny babies when the invasion took place in 1976, who have turned out to be the most militant and dedicated in the struggle for their country's freedom. And it's very clear now that Suharto and the government in Jakarta has reached a kind of dead-end. That is, they've lost the young generation, and there's no chance that they're going to turn this population into another part of Indonesia. But they don't know really what to do except carry on with the repression. And therefore it's very important that international fora and international groups exert their influence on Jakarta.
It's important to remember that the United States, although it has given a lot of support to Suharto on this issue, has nonetheless refused to make one very important move, which is to recognize Indonesia's legal control over the territory. The United States only recognizes de facto occupation. And this is in fact the position of the European community and so forth. So that up till now, twenty years later, the international community still hasn't accepted Indonesia's legal right to be in East Timor. And we see moves in recent years by the UN Secretary General, and indeed by the Clinton Administration, to put pressure on Suharto to reverse course. This pressure hasn't been consistent always, but Indonesia is now in a much less favorable position to continue its occupation than perhaps it was ten years ago.
Do you see the recent events, which I believe have included references to the situation in East Timor, that is demonstrators have as a part of their protests called for a withdrawal of the Indonesian military from East Timor, do you see these recent events as perhaps leading to a change of that situation.
I think it might, yes. One thing that's very striking is that up until say, about 1990, Indonesians themselves were banned from going to East Timor, except with a special sort of internal passport. It was closed off not only to the outside world, but to ordinary Indonesians themselves. The press said almost nothing about what was going on there. So ordinary Indonesians really had almost no idea what was really happening. But after the Dili Massacre, and the huge international attention that it aroused, and the electronic revolution that I mentioned before, this has changed quite dramatically, so that ordinary Indonesians are much more aware of what's really happening than was true in the first ten or fifteen years.
But more important, I think, is that the first daring political activities taken by youngsters in the capital city of Indonesia, were not taken by Indonesians as such, but were taken by these extremely brave young East Timorese activists, who occupied the compound in the American Embassy, and then later they also did the same thing with the French Embassy and Dutch Embassy and so forth. That is, they in a way set an example for less courageous Indonesian activists. That's why they have a kind of real prestige among the youngsters, who believe that what the East Timorese want is what they want too, that is democratization, an end of military control of the country, and so forth. So from having been extremely peripheral to the Indonesian consciousness for the first fifteen years, East Timorese now have a completely different position in the mindset of the younger generation of Indonesians.
Through their occupation of the American Embassy?
Well, it wasn't the whole of the Embassy, it was just the compound of the embassy. They didn't do any damage or anything like that. But it was extraordinary that they could do this in the middle of the APEC meeting. It was extremely embarrassing for Suharto, and of course the world media picked it up right away.
And this was something that had an inspirational effect on local activists within Indonesia.
I think so. I mean, these young Indonesian activists must think that, my god, if the East Timorese who come from this completely remote place on the far edge of the country had the courage to resist, we should pull our socks up and try to do at least as well.
Perhaps American activists could learn something from that as well.
I hope they do.
What might be happening within the ruling circles of Indonesia, that might lead to substantial changes in the coming months or years?
The most important thing that's going on now in the military can be described this way. For the first half of his rule, Suharto, who came to power at the age of forty-four, was able to control the military through a network of his classmates, age-mates, people who had been with him during the fight against the Dutch, and so forth. He was deeply involved in the army, he was a long-term army man. But after the early 1980s, his generation died off, mostly, or retired. And so with every year that passes, he's had more of a problem of building a strong base among officers who are so much younger than he.
The top generals now are twenty years younger than he is, and his way of trying to deal with this problem of maintaining control of the military has had very divisive effects. On the one hand, he has used his family relations. His last chief of staff was his son-in-law. It's clear that another son-in-law who just got promoted yesterday to major-general is being groomed to be the next army chief of staff. On the other hand, he's also promoted people who have been attached to him as his personal aides to take key positions in the army. This is widely resented among the mainstream officer corps. They feel that these people are getting promotions and good jobs on the basis of clique advantages and family connections and so forth, and that they've been bypassed for these reasons. And that means that there's a substantial group inside the army that is visibly unhappy with Suharto. However, there are all sorts of other people who are profiting from this situation. The point being here that basically Suharto's own methods of trying to control the army are actually producing more visible divisions among its members than we've seen probably for a generation. That is, divisions between people who are fed up with this system and want to do something about it, and people who want to cling to it as long as possible. I think these divisions will come out when Suharto dies or perhaps before that.