Indonesia: The Last Wave

INDONESIA A Military Timeline

A look at the events and leaders that have defined Indonesian history since independence from the Dutch in 1945, and the strategic military role played by the United States. View map of Indonesia & Neighboring Countries

By Anjali Mitter Duva

Japanese Invasion and Occupation

Photo/Andrew Marshall

At the height of World War II, the Dutch colonial government of Indonesia (then known as the Dutch East Indies) joins an international oil embargo against Japan. Dependent on Indonesia for 25 percent of its oil and touting itself as the "Light of Asia," Japan invades Indonesia in 1942 and breaks the Dutch hold on the islands. At first welcomed as liberators, the Japanese soon impose an oppressive and totalitarian occupation. They exploit the islands’ fuel sources (primarily oil), cut down large tracts of forests to plant cash crops, remove materials (like railway lines) for use in war projects and force hundreds of thousands of Indonesians into labor.

The Japanese do, however, encourage political activity and Indonesian nationalism, seeking to affirm the superiority of Asians over the Dutch and the West in general. They allow the use of a unifying language, Bahasa Indonesia, which emerged from the 1928 nationalist oath of "one country, one people, one language." (Indonesia is home to more than 200 native languages.) While they retain the Dutch administrative system, the Japanese fill all but high-ranking positions with Indonesians. In the countryside, they rely on local indigenous elites to rule, often assisting them with training and arms. And they enable the Indonesian Nationalist Party, led by a young, Dutch-educated architect named Sukarno, to build a network of support among students and young professionals.

Independence from the Dutch

Taken shortly after Indonesian independence from the Dutch, Indonesian cabinet members meet in Jakarta in November 1945. From left: Premier Sutan Sjahrir, President Sukarno and Vice President Mohamed Hatta

Taken shortly after Indonesian independence from the Dutch, Indonesian cabinet members meet in Jakarta in November 1945. From left: Premier Sutan Sjahrir, President Sukarno and Vice President Mohamed Hatta.
AP Photo/Leslie Priest

In 1945, the Japanese surrender to the Allies, and Sukarno, leader of the Indonesian Nationalists, proclaims independence. Sukarno and his party establish the Republic of Indonesia, with a parliamentary government and a temporary constitution granting broad presidential powers. The Dutch, asserting that they are still the colonial power, re-occupy the region. But the Japanese occupation has empowered Indonesia’s nationalists, and they put up a fierce, armed resistance against the Dutch forces. Thousands of Europeans are killed or go missing during the conflict. Negotiations between the Dutch and the nationalists lead to two truce agreements, but neither holds. The Dutch are under heavy international pressure, particularly from U.S. President Harry S. Truman, to let go of Indonesia. The Cold War has begun, and the United States considers Indonesian republicans a strategically placed anti-communist force in Asia, a region where communism is spreading. In 1949, the Dutch, still reeling from the devastation of the Nazi occupation at home, succumb to international pressure and transfer sovereignty to a federal Indonesian government. In an agreement that leaves many Dutch-appointed legislators in the House of Representatives, elections are postponed for five years.

Sukarno’s Early Rule

Sukarno rules Indonesia under a new constitution that creates a unitary republic with a parliamentary form of government in which the president has no real executive power. The United States, seeking to build a relationship with Indonesia for political and trade purposes, begins official security assistance. Officers in Indonesia’s military receive training through the United States’ International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), often in the United States itself. The United States government also begins grant aid of military equipment, primarily for communications and logistics, averaging $13 million a year through the 1970s. The military, a crucial force in bringing about independence, becomes deeply involved in politics, developing what becomes known as a dual function, or dwifungsi, role in national defense and development. Wartime economic disruptions, food shortages and a fractured and diverse society threaten the success of democracy. In 1955, Indonesia holds what will be the last free elections for 44 years, and Sukarno begins his second term as president.

Sukarno and 'Guided Democracy'

Dozens of parties fill the political arena. Sukarno’s Nationalist Party still leads, but by a slim margin. Not far behind are two of Indonesia’s many Muslim parties, representing some of the varying degrees of orthodoxy among the 90 percent population of practicing Muslims. At one end of the spectrum, are groups opposing Sukarno’s decision to create a unified and secular state, who are calling for an Islamic state instead. The rise of a Communist Party (PKI) and the strong military also threaten Sukarno’s power. Different parties hold sway on different islands: Sukarno still has wide support in Jakarta, but the hardline Darul Islam (House of Islam) draws its support from West Java, Aceh and Sulawesi. Given the political instability, the economy flounders. Food shortages, poverty and separatist sentiment on some islands, including Papua and Sumatra, spark rebellions.

Sukarno begins to draw closer to the Communist Party (PKI), which shares his anti-Islamic views, and is gaining support in Indonesia. The United States, trying to weaken the Sukarno presidency and fearing Indonesia’s leftward drift, provides clandestine military aid to some rebellions, particularly ones on the oil-producing islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi. The country also courts anti-Communist camps within the army through continued military education and equipment sales. Dissatisfied with his limited executive powers in the face of growing, if splintered, opposition, Sukarno revives the provisional 1945 constitution in 1959. His “Guided Democracy” is, in fact, an authoritarian regime. Sukarno dissolves the elected Assembly and replaces it with an appointed one. He establishes government control of the media, and sends opponents into exile.

Suharto and the 'New Order'

In 1965, supporters of the Communist Party (PKI) within the military kidnap and murder six senior generals in Jakarta. A general named Suharto rallies troops opposed to the PKI to retake control of the capital. Violence sweeps through Indonesia as more than 1 million alleged communists are arrested or killed. The effective removal of the PKI gives room to Islamic groups for expansion. Sukarno transfers key political and military powers to Suharto, who becomes president. Suharto proclaims a “New Order,” citing economic development as its primary goal.

The authoritarian administration is dominated by the military, but takes advice from American-educated Indonesian economic experts, nicknamed the “Berkeley Mafia.” In 1966, the United States begins arms sales to Indonesia, allowing for a closer relationship with this country, which sits on the Molucca Straits and acts as an important shipping channel and represents a possible ally for the US during the Cold War. Relief aid, military training and arms sales flow from the United States, Britain and Australia. The poverty level drops, and Indonesia becomes an industrialized nation. Suharto is re-elected in 1968 and 1973, as cronyism and corruption continue to run rampant.

Annexation of East Timor

Indonesians gather in Jakarta to protest military action in East Timor.

Indonesians gather in Jakarta to protest military action in East Timor.

In 1975, the Portuguese withdraw from East Timor, the eastern half of the island of Timor, where they had ruled as the colonial power since 1702. The western half belongs to Indonesia. East Timor proclaims itself independent, with a left-leaning party at its head. Citing fears of communism and separatist influence, Indonesia invades, receiving military support from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. In fact, U.S. arms sales to Indonesia reach new highs, going from $12 million in 1974 to $65 million in 1975. The increased sales include fighter aircraft and armored cars. Amid major violence and brutality, East Timor becomes Timor Timur, Indonesia’s 27th province. Indonesian troops fight the Timorese guerrilla force, beginning a harsh pacification campaign that will last through the 1980s and decimate one third of East Timor’s 650,000 inhabitants. Reports of military repression, starvation and disease focus international attention on Indonesia as a major violator of human rights.

Repression and the Oil Boom

While violence continues in East Timor, another situation develops in Aceh, part of the province of Sumatra. Partially in response to Indonesia’s agreement to let U.S. oil and gas companies (such as Mobil Oil) and mining companies (such as Freeport McMoRan) exploit Aceh’s rich natural resources, the Free Aceh Movement demands independence in 1976. Prolonged fighting ensues, and in 1990 Suharto declares martial law.

Meanwhile, throughout Indonesia, Suharto bans most political parties, forcing the consolidation of the remaining ones into two tightly controlled opposition parties, one Muslim and one nationalist. The ruling party re-elects Suharto every five years. The oil boom brings in an influx of money and improved services and living conditions, but subsequent over-borrowing and expensive state-led projects leave the economy vulnerable. The administrations of U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan continue a steady flow of weapons, including Skyhawk attack planes, to Jakarta, stating such measures are necessary to secure Indonesia’s unequivocal support for U.S. economic, security and political interests in the region.

The East Timor Massacre and Uneasy Relations With the U.S.

In 1991, an East Timorese protest against Indonesian rule turns tragic as Indonesian troops fire on the crowd, mainly comprised of students. More than 250 are killed and a similar number are wounded. A British journalist catches the scene on film, and international support for Indonesia plummets. In 1992, under President Bill Clinton, the United States -- citing human rights abuses -- cuts off military training and restricts sales of military equipment to Indonesia. The end of the Cold War and the decline of global communism also lessen the importance of Indonesia for the United States.

Military relations are partly restored in 1995 under an Expanded IMET program, with the goal of briefing military officers about issues of human rights, military justice and civilian control of the military. However, two years later Suharto ends the program, claiming unfair scrutiny from the U.S. over Indonesia’s human rights record. Civil unrest increases as the Asian financial crisis of 1997 coincides with falling oil and gas prices and the worst drought in 50 years.

B. J. Habibie’s Presidency

Indonesian President B.J. Habibie with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the presidential palace in Jakarta in March1999.  Albright visited Indonesia to discuss East Timor and upcoming parliamentary elections

Indonesian President B.J. Habibie with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the presidential palace in Jakarta in March1999. Albright visited Indonesia to discuss East Timor and upcoming parliamentary elections. AP Photo/Muchtar Zakaria

Under international and domestic pressure and sharp criticism for the human rights abuses that took place under his watch, Suharto resigns in 1998. His vice president B. J. Habibie, an economic nationalist and reformer, succeeds him. Habibie releases many prominent political and labor prisoners, lifts the Sukarno-imposed controls on the press and political parties and ends dwifungsi, the formal involvement of the armed forces in government administration. Relations resume with the international donor community, as institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) provide much-needed loans and gain economic leverage.

When Habibie allows the people of East Timor to choose between autonomy and independence, the East Timorese vote overwhelmingly for independence, and Indonesian troops respond with violence that ends only with the intervention of an international peacekeeping force. Relations between Indonesia and the international community are once again strained. President Bill Clinton severs all remaining military-to-military relations. Habibie announces the first democratic elections in since 1955.

Abdurrahman Wahid’s Presidency

Megawati Sukarnoputri at a press conference at her party headquarters in September 1999, where she blamed President B.J. Habibie for the violence in East Timor

Megawati Sukarnoputri at a press conference at her party headquarters in September 1999, where she blamed President B.J. Habibie for the violence in East Timor. AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Elections in 1999 include 48 parties, evidence of democracy at work. The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, wins the parliamentary elections with 33 percent of the vote. Megawati, however, narrowly loses the presidency itself to Abdurrahman Wahid, a Muslim democrat. Wahid pursues democracy and economic development among challenging conditions: economic malaise; regional, interethnic and interreligious conflict and continued separatist violence in Aceh and Papua.

The United States calls for trials of Indonesians who carried out murders, torture and other human rights abuses in East Timor, fueling nationalist resentment of foreign pressure. As law and order decline, small terrorist cells connected with Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant Islamic organization, find fertile soil from which to recruit new members. The central government attempts to quell continued rebellions in Aceh by granting its government the right to apply Sharia law more broadly. In 2001, parliament votes to impeach Wahid for corruption and incompetence. Loss of public confidence in civilian leadership puts more military officers in political positions.

Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Presidency and the Rise of Terrorism

Police guard the ruins of the Bali nightclub after a car bomb blast killed more than 180 people in October 2002.

Police guard the ruins of the Bali nightclub after a car bomb blast killed more than 180 people in October 2002. AP Photo/Ed Wray

Megawati Sukarnoputri is elected to replace Wahid. On September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda stages a massive attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Later that month Megawati, leader of the world’s largest Muslim nation, speaks out against terrorism, and the United States approves a generous aid package to Indonesia for security. However, pressured by a cabinet that is wary of U.S. motives, Megawati publicly criticizes the U.S. attack on Afghanistan.

Terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002 and Jakarta in 2003, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of tourists and foreign students, demonstrate the existence of jihad groups in Indonesia. The United States, under President George W. Bush, resumes military-to-military links in 2002, to help reign in terrorism and improve human rights. However, a number of incidents, including the death of two U.S. citizens during an alleged Indonesian army ambush in Papua, complicate the relationship.

2004 to present
Disaster, Recovery and Renewed Relations With the US

Peaceful and fair legislative elections with high turnout in 2004 bring retired General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (commonly known as SBY) to the presidency. Yudhoyono puts forth an image of integrity and responsibility, and announces a tough stand on terrorism and corruption. Relations with the U.S. improve as Yudhoyono puts the global war on terrorism high on his agenda, despite domestic pressure to consider Muslim interests. In December 2004, a massive tsunami kills 160,000 people in Aceh and leaves another 500,000 homeless. The extent of the devastation brings the re-establishment of normal relations with the United States, including large contributions of reconstruction aid. The tsunami also catalyzes successful peace talks with the Free Aceh Movement, and former rebel commander Irwandi Yusuf is elected governor of Aceh in a local election. A terrorist strike in Bali that kills 100 tourists in 2005, however, underscores, in the U.S. view, the failure of the Indonesian government to establish effective control of terrorist elements.

Anjali Mitter Duva is a writer, editor and content developer. With a Master’s in City Planning from MIT, she specializes in urban development, international affairs, history, geography, public health and arts and culture.

Indonesia and neighboring countries