Analysing the end of Suharto's Indonesia

The role of culture in Indonesian politics

Gary Dean, June 1998

The incantations and vocabulary of the new era are rapidly taking hold in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto and his New Order regime. KKN, reformasi and transparansi have replaced UUD'45, Pancasila and pembangunan as catch phrases of the emerging order. As the heavy New Order fog lifts, new possibilities for Indonesian society are being discussed, dampened however by severe economic conditions.

It is commonly recognised that ways of seeing and interpreting events are often coloured by the outlook and prejudices of the observer, irrespective of the efforts of that observer to remain `objective'. As a broad example, journalists and political scientists will often interpret political events in Indonesia very differently from, say, the sociologist or anthropologist. Why is this so?

Suharto resigned on the 21st of May, 1998, the culmination of months of intense social and political instability in Indonesia. Political transitions in Indonesia have never been easy; it has been noted that all the major upheavals in Indonesia throughout this century have been born of the failure of those in power to perceive the exhaustion of their own mandate.[1] Suharto was no exception. In the face of clear and widespread rejection he tried to carry on as normal, feigning oblivion to the increasing clamour in the streets outside the Istana Cendana.

His reasons for wishing to hold grimly to power were probably two-fold; firstly, and most obvious to many observers, he wanted to protect his family's colossal wealth which he knew would come under immediate threat should he release the reigns of power.

Secondly, and possibly more importantly, Suharto did not know how to resign due to his deeply embedded cultural-spiritual outlook. In the Javanese political tradition power is absolute, or is not considered power at all. The ruler must maintain this absolute power as proof that he has concentrated all the cosmic forces of the realm within himself. The ruler cannot tolerate any semi-autonomous regions within his field of power, any more than he can share his power with others[2], because to share power is to lose power. As a direct consequence of this, the distance between Suharto and obvious replacements for him was enormous, as was also the case with Sukarno.

The beginning of the end for Suharto could be said to have started with the storming of the PDI offices on the 27th of July, 1996. Whilst in itself this event was comparatively insignificant on the somewhat insensitive Richter scale of Indonesian politics, and although many commentators and activists attach a importance to this event that is unjustified, the July 27 incident did stand out as a small milestone on the road to Suharto's demise, and was one of a few historical back-references used by the student movement in their campaign for political reformation.

Probably more important in the gradual demise of the former president was the series of economic, political and - most importantly - natural disasters which afflicted Indonesia throughout 1997 and into 1998. Some of these events Suharto had very little direct control over, just to name a few:

  • the concern over a major eruption of the Merapi volcano in central Java,
  • the Busang_Bre-X gold scandal, reputedly one of the biggest mining scams in world history[3], which managed to entangle Suharto's long-time business partner, Bob Hasan, among others,
  • the most serious drought in Indonesian history, with its catastrophic side-effects such as:
    • starvation in many parts of the archipelago including the politically sensitive areas of Irian Jaya and East Timor,
    • forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra which literally blanketed and choked an enormous area including Malaysia and Singapore for many months, causing serious problems for people's health, tourism and trade, and leading to acute intra-ASEAN political tension,
    • the crash of a domestic aircraft in Medan causing the death of 500 passengers, blamed on a lack of visibility due to smoke haze.

If this were not enough - and arguably these natural calamities alone could be considered sufficient within the context of Suharto's demise in the eyes of both himself and his rural Java constituents - a series of political and economic disasters followed:

  • the election campaign in March, which in effect totally disenfranchised PDI/Megawati supporters. Despite the overwhelming support given to Golkar - and there is every possibility that Golkar didn't directly tamper very much with the votes - this election must be considered a significant blow to Suharto's legitimacy,
  • starting in around July and continuing to the present (June 1998), a sharp decline in the value of the Rupiah from around Rp2,500 / US$ to Rp16,000 / US$,
  • in December, the collapse of 16 banks, and subsequent problems for most others.

Logically, Suharto could not be blamed for the natural disasters that afflicted Indonesia for most of 1997. However, in the context of Java, both the president and his constituents knew very well the significance and implication of these natural events upon Suharto's rule, symbolising as they did a loss of control over the natural world. In the context of the disintegration of the Mataram empire in the 17th century, Ricklefs wrote this:

The king was old and ill, but his tyranny and murders continued. There was a famine in 1674-76, and much sickness. Inauspicious omens were seen; Mount Merapi erupted in 1672, there were earthquakes and lunar eclipses, and the rains fell out of season. Moreover, the end of the [Javanese] century was approaching. Javanese court tradition posited a cycle of centuries which saw the fall of courts at the end of each. As the Javanese year AJ 1600 (beginning in March 1677) approached, prophesies spread that the end of Mataram was imminent. Such ideas, in a state as fragile as that of Amangkurat I, could only increase the likelihood that when the challenge to the king finally arose, resistance would seem futile.[4]

Suharto was indeed visibly older and physically frailer in 1997; there was a famine, a well-publicised dengue fever epidemic later that year and into 1998, Merapi put on a show in the first part of 1997, and of course, the end of the century is approaching. When the student protests began in earnest in late 1997/early 1998, Suharto was already significantly politically weakened by these natural disasters alone, so by themselves, the role of the students in Suharto's downfall should not be over-estimated. So too, the role of `political' events such as the 27 July incident and the Trisakti killings should not be given undue importance. Such events did indeed provide a kind of political anchor for protest action, and grist for the `political' orientation of the media and political scientists, however they were not in any way pivotal to Suharto's downfall.

The dominant `political' interpretations given to the events in Indonesia over the past few months owe as much to a superficiality of understanding - both inside and outside Indonesia - as they do to a conscious rejection of the role of deeply-embedded cultural-spiritual factors which operate within Indonesian society. These factors are fundamentally more important, however they require a certain depth of specific cultural knowledge which the average journalist and political observer do not possess, or do not wish to possess. Their interpretations of these events are therefore channelled through what they know through their own media; a media which concentrates on the picturesque, the sensational, and the `right now', and which often acts itself as a primary cause of these same `political' events, a classic example of the anarcho-situationist Spectacle contemplating itself.[5]

Political science criticism of `culturalist' interpretations of political events have centred around a curious, and spurious, charge of `orientalism'. Richard Robison writes:

As far as the study of politics in the recent and contemporary history of Southeast Asia is concerned, the influence of orientalism is strong. Its main effect has been to take politics out of its material context, to portray political systems as harmonious cultural accords between rulers and the ruled and to mask the real processes of coercion and resistance which constitute the stuff of politics. They have negated, neglected or obscured the economic and class aspects of power and failed to place `elites' within a setting of class and economic relationships.[6]

The political scientist's basic complaint is that the culturalist interpretation of politics and societies does not place enough emphasis on class and economic factors. This complaint reflects a very narrow view of human political existence, and also reflects the influence of Marxism within the academic community, and its dry, materialistic emphasis on class relationships and economics. Such a view is very much a Western cultural construct masquerading as a neutral, valueless and transparent science capable of being overlaid onto any cultural context without distortion. Clearly, political science is not valueless, nor without a history, and is overwhelmingly dominated by Western cultural constructs.

The importance of this argument lies in the fact that - like it or not - it is the aliran, and not class issues, which remain the dominant cleavages within Indonesian society. Thus it is cultural outlook and not class which must predominant in any analysis of Indonesian society and politics. Marxian notions that every society necessarily comprises a bourgeois, a proletariat and a peasantry are extremely two-dimensional, and rarely reflect the social reality outside of Europe. It is no doubt easy for the English-speaking political scientist to immerse him or herself within the apparently modern, liberal `middle-class' society of Jakarta, and imagine that the rules that apply in Western societies must surely apply there, and that to think otherwise is somehow `Orientalist'. Cocooned within this milieu, shielded from the need to communicate in a language other than English, surrounded by the trappings of technological society, absorbing information solely from the Jakarta Post and English-language television, and embedded within a relatable social context, there are many foreign (non-Indonesian) social scientists and professional political observers who must surely feel very comfortable and `at home'. Of course, the Jakarta jet-set is far from being representative of Indonesian society as a whole, comprising as they do a tiny proportion of Indonesia's total population. This is not to say that their perspectives as Indonesians are somehow invalid by virtue of their `modernity' or their superficially "Western" cultural outlooks, but merely that they as a group are too small, and lacking in real influence within Indonesia itself, to be properly included when attempting to gain an accurate overall picture of the course of Indonesian society.

Aliran expression was no doubt manipulated and in some ways suppressed under the New Order, however the strength of its re-emergence in this immediate post-Suharto period is sufficient proof that Geertz's much-criticised abangan-santri-priyayi categorisation has remained virtually unchanged to this day. There are only three serious political leaders who have emerged since the fall of Suharto: Megawati Sukarnoputri, representing the abangan stream, M. Amien Rais, representing the santri, and B.J. Habibie, who could be seen to be temporarily representing the priyayi tendency. Whilst a number of minor oppositionist leaders have also emerged, most of whom seek to stake out an imagined liberal `labour' constituency, these cannot be considered serious contenders for power, and will remain mere side-shows for the media and for those observers outside of Indonesia who perhaps more readily identify with such parties. These parties - such as Mochtar Pakpahan's Serikat Buruh Sejahtera Indonesia and Sri Bintang's group - may well have some influence in Jakarta, especially amongst `radical' academics and some of Jakarta's tiny industrial working class, however they themselves acknowledge that ultimately they will be in coalition with the abangan stream led by Megawati.[7]

Megawati's political strategy both prior to and after Suharto's fall has been one of studied silence. Up until recently this strategy has been highly successful in concentrating the minds of a significant section of the Javanese population upon her, both despite and because of a media blackout. This produced a `shadow-effect' across the entire political landscape, slowly and relentlessly increasing in size as the sun set upon the New Order. Megawati became the silent nemesis, displaying exceedingly great power with seemingly no effort, and clearly her entire being was concentrated towards Suharto's fall. In the minds of many Javanese this steady increase in Megawati's apparent `power' must have a corresponding decrease somewhere else in the universe, most obviously Suharto's. As Anderson (1972) observes, in the Javanese view, the cosmos is neither expanding nor contracting, and therefore the total amount of power within the universe remains constant. What does change is its distribution within the universe.[8]

What matters in this discussion is not whether such conceptions and beliefs are inherently `true' or `untrue', but that these conceptions are believed to be self-evident truths by most Javanese within the framework of their own worldview, which is to say, the basic cultural/cosmological assumptions through which the world and it's events are interpreted. If an act or event is viewed as symbolic, then it automatically becomes symbolic. If Merapi erupts, then many Javanese may well think that this is a sign of impending doom for the incumbent ruler. Even among the apparently well educated, deep-seated beliefs such as this are difficult to shift. As a comparison, within Western societies similar deep-seated superstitions also exist; in some newer Australian suburbs, house number 13 is frequently `skipped' because it would be difficult to sell, even to the most rational and sceptical buyer, not because he/she secretly believes in this superstition, but that he/she knows that other people in society believe this, so the house would therefore be difficult to re-sell. This kind of belief or superstition thus tends to become self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling.

The strength of the Javanist worldview is of course consciously manipulated and used by Indonesian political leaders. Megawati's long silence has produced a kind of millennial expectation amongst many Indonesians, and indeed there are those who believe that she is the incarnation of her father.[9] The Sukarnoist cult has deep roots, and many variations. Some believe that Sukarno never died, and that Suharto's presence alongside Sukarno's coffin was staged to show that Suharto had symbolically supped Sukarno's wahyu, his divine power and right to be ruler.

The millennial theme was present all through the campaign to oust Suharto, with the underlying belief that all would be well once he was removed from power, that all that had gone wrong with the economy, for one example, would somehow be quickly righted.[10]

Exactly one month after Suharto's resignation, on the 20th of June, the 28th anniversary of Sukarno's death was commemorated. The print media comprehensively covered the weeks leading up to this event. Many articles appeared which took another, more positive, look at Sukarno and in particular, at the tumultuous and bloody events of the mid-60's. The culmination of all this publicity and media focus was a mass pilgrimage to Sukarno's tomb situated in Blitar, East Java. Some estimates say that more than one million people attended this event, including Megawati who gave a very brief speech at the closing ceremony.[11] That this occurred merely one month after Suharto's departure, and after more than 32 years of intense New Order propaganda against Sukarno, is remarkable.

The question that could now be posed is, how would the political scientist interpret millenarianism and grave-visiting in the Indonesian political context without reference to underlying cultural-cosmological influences? And how does their Marxian class analysis fit into all this? The problem for the `non-Orientalist' political scientist is that their analyses are severely lacking, or at least superficial, and devoid of meaning within Indonesia itself. To attempt to ignore the complex of beliefs, concepts, views, practices, and values of the Javanese religion is to ignore the key to properly understanding both Java and Indonesia. Said (1978), in his book Orientalism, has correctly pointed out that knowledge cannot be detached from the ideology or worldview that seeks it.[12] So too, perhaps more than any other social science, political science views its subject matter through the ideological lens of its particular observer; liberalism, feminism, Marxism, environmentalism or eclectic admixtures of all or some these.

The aliran continue to have a profound impact on everyday life and politics in Indonesia. Analysing Indonesian society therefore requires a proper understanding and recognition of these streams, notwithstanding that awareness must always be kept that these streams are not fixed for all time, but rather dynamic and living parts of the Indonesian social body. Western-oriented political analysis perhaps needs to recognise that culture and worldviews within any society form the bedrock from which political and social expression emerge, and that societies and political events cannot be properly understood or analysed in the absence of such recognition.


[1] Michael R J Vatikiotis (1993) Indonesian Politics under Suharto. Routledge, London.
[2] Franz Magnis-Suseno (1997) Javanese Ethics and Worldview. Gramedia, Jakarta.
[3] Amien Rais (1997) Refleksi. Gema Insana, Jakarta.
[4] M.C. Ricklefs (1991) A History of Modern Indonesia. McMillan, London.
[5] Author unknown (circa 1968) Society of the Spectacle. ?, Paris.
[6] Richard Robison (1990) `Orientalism and Contemporary Writing in Southeast Asian Politics', pp 97-100 in Richard Robison (1990) Power and Economy in Suharto's Indonesia, Journal of Contemporary Asia Publishers, Manila/Wollongong.
[7] `asa' (1998) `Pakpahan akan Dirikan Partai Buruh Nasional'. Kompas 25 June: 6. "_ Dr Mochtar Pakpahan mengungkapkan rencana berdirinya Partai Buruh Nasional yang mewadahi aspirasi politik kalangan pekerja secara luas di Indonesia. Pakpahan menawarkan kepada Megawati Soekarnoputri untuk memimpin partai tersebut."
[8] Benedict Anderson (1972) `The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture' in Claire Holt et al (eds), Culture and Politics in Indonesia, Cornell UP, Ithaca.
[9] Yogyakarta taxi driver (February 1997), personal communication.
[10] This is an impression gained through many months of reading and watching Indonesian news media during 1997-98, in addition to conversations with students in Yogyakarta who could be counted amongst the `true believers'.
[11] `nar' et al (1998) `Ribuan Orang Hadiri Haul Bung Karno'. Kompas 21 June: 1.
[12] Edward Siad (1985) Orientalism. Penguin, Marmondworth (1st ed. 1978).