Will economic crisis plunge
Indonesia into social and political crisis?
March 13, 1998
in this forum:
How likely is a revolution if the economic situation continues to worsen? If things continue to worsen and riots become violent, how important of a role will the military play? Why should the IMF and the international community bail-out his regime? What about the social costs of the crisis for the Indonesian people? Is the U.S. prepared to the end its support for Suharto ? Andrea Loeb of Chicago, IL, asks: Considering the outbreak of riots throughout Indonesia, how likely is a revolution if the economic situation continues to worsen? Will Suharto survive such a crisis? Will it be as bad the "year of living dangerously" (1965-1965), in which hundreds of thousands people were killed?
Edward Masters, former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, responds:
If economic conditions continue to deteriorate, serious internal disturbances are possible; probably even likely. Even now, the rupiah has lost 80 percent of its value, inflation is running at an annual rate of 50 to 60 percent and several million people have lost their jobs. Some predict that the number of unemployed may reach l0 million or more by the end of the year. The construction and financial services industries have virtually stopped functioning and much of the manufacturing sector is at a standstill because factories cannot import essential raw materials. Food and other essential items are in short supply in some areas, and land and property values in the metropolitan areas are down by 50 percent. This is a major crisis in the world's fourth most populous nation, one with over 200 million people.
People have already taken to the streets in several areas protesting against high food prices and scarcity of key items. Students have been demonstrating on their campuses for political change. If the economy continues to deteriorate, these disturbances will grow. While Indonesians are basically gentle and tolerant, we must remember that "amok" is an Indonesian-Malay word. Popular pressures could grow and, as in l965-66, force a change in government. It would be doubtful that Suharto could weather such a crisis. The most likely outcome would be a military takeover which would probably create stability in the short run but might well create an unfortunate longer term precedent.
I was in Jakarta as Counselor of the U.S. Embassy from l964-68 and saw the rising tensions and eventual explosion. I do not believe the upheaval described above would be anywhere near as disruptive as the aftermath of the September 30, l965 communist coup attempt. That situation was primed by several years of growing tension and localized violence in the villages and urban areas between communist and non-communist groups. We received reports of isolated violence in some village every few days. It was what one leading Indonesian intellectual called "survival politics." The question was which group would predominate, the communists or what we called the "political Muslims." Massacre of the top army leaders on September 30, several in front of their families, ignited this volatile situation and resulted in non-communist groups -- Muslims and students with army support -- going after the communists and eventually eliminating them as an organized force.
The same ingredients -- the same volatility -- are not there today. I do not believe it would be a repeat of the l965-66 situation. Incidentally, someone could do a great service if he or she would do a thorough and objective study of just how many people were killed in the "year of living dangerously." The figure 500,000 has gotten into the data base and is cited by almost everyone. When I ask where the figure came from, the usual answer is that "everyone knows that half a million people were killed."
I doubt the number was nearly that high, and it most certainly was not just an anti-Chinese pogrom, as some now allege. We probably will never know the exact number of people killed for certain, but I have seen no real evidence to support the 500,000 figure. The U.S. Embassy sent Indonesian speaking American officers across Java and Bali at that time and their estimates were far smaller than this figure. They were told in many villages that there were few or no killings there, but there were a lot in the next village down the road. The story at the next village was quite often the same. They found no mass graves or other evidence of mass killings. A leading U.S. newspaper reported at the time that the Brantas River flowing through Surabaya was "choked with bodies." Questioned about this, our Consul in Surabaya, who crossed the river several times daily, reported that one day he saw something which may have been a body, but then it also could have been a log. The river most certainly was not "choked."
As I said, we will probably never know the exact number for certain. Even if it was not 500,000, there is no question that many people were killed. But a thorough and objective study would be most useful.
John Hughes, former editor and publisher of the Christian Science Monitor, responds:
I do not think we will see a repetition of the terrible bloodletting that took place after the murder of the generals in 1965. That was a paying off of ancient grudges within an overall struggle for political power.
What we see in Indonesia today is economic unrest. First, the army has abundant force to put down any serious challenge. Second, President Suharto is wily and skillful at containing disorder. Riots, yes. A revolution, no.
Ralph Cossa, Executive Director of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic International Studies, responds:
As a general rule, I am not an alarmist. However, I believe there is a serious, perhaps better than even, chance that President Suharto will be forced to step down, and this could come sooner rather than later (within the next four to six months if not earlier) if the economic situation continues to worsen because of Suharto's stubborn refusal to deal with the problem head-on. Unfortunately, things are likely to get much worse before they get better and this will likely include increasingly more violent clashes between protestors and police/military forces. Hundreds could die if the riots become more wide-spread, but it is doubtful that we will see casualties and chaos on the scale of 1965-66.
It is more likely that the change in leadership will ultimately come from within (i.e., Suharto being forced to step down by the military) than from the streets but it will be pressure from the "revolutionaries"--students and peasants backed by professors and businessmen--that will compel the army to finally take "corrective action."