Rendezvous with destiny

On Monday 23 July, Megawati Sukarnoputri was sworn in as Indonesia’s fifth president — the fourth in as many years. Though it is a job she probably has long coveted, her position is not an enviable one, given the conflicts, social turmoil, economic ruin and external debts that ultimately sunk her ousted predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid.

An ironic twist of fate finds Megawati at last able to vindicate the celebrated legacy of her father, Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. After nearly four decades, Megawati is picking up where her father left off. Sukarno, of Non- aligned Movement fame, was the host of the Bandung summit of African and Asian leaders in April 1955. Interestingly enough, the only European leader present at Bandung was the late Yugoslav leader Josef Broz Tito. With numerous Indonesian provinces angling for independence, Megawati’s chief task today is to hold her country together so as to avoid the sad fate of Yugoslavia, which disintegrated following Tito’s death.

In more ways than one, Megawati has her job cut out for her. Megawati inherits something of the charisma of the populist Sukarno, as well as his left-leaning politics, his secularist and nationalist agenda. But Megawati is now presiding over a multi-cultural disaster coming to grips with economic ruin. After being relegated to the political sidelines for years, Megawati’s own political fortunes spiralled upwards following the fall in May 1998 of former president Suharto, who overthrew Megawati’s father. Too early, as yet, to speculate on her performance in office, other than to say that she does not lack political acumen.

Megawati’s path to political triumph was tortuously slow, turbulent and free of false entries, but big on promise. She is no whiner, and has tenaciously held on to that promise. Still, puzzling gaps that suspiciously remain deep in the recesses of her political background, like missing pieces of a jigsaw, threaten to rear their ugly heads and consume her.

Many moons ago, when I interviewed Megawati at her opulent mansion in Jakarta in 1995, she had already made her mark at the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, Indonesia’s parliament, as a leading opposition figure. She struck me as a politician with a clear sense of direction — someone who knew how to look to the past and utilise her illustrious father’s legacy, but keep her sights firmly set on the future. Like all good politicians, her first allegiance is to her loyal constituency; and in this regard, she is certain just who that is: the poor, the marginalised and the disfranchised. However, Megawati has been extremely careful neither to burn her bridges with the economic elite, nor alienate herself politically from the powers that be — particularly Indonesia’s powerful military establishment.

Though there are many toes not to step on, Megawati knows how to stick to her guns. This has allowed her to consolidate her iron grip on the revealingly named Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), a party where anyone sceptical about political Islam or concerned about women, youth, labour and minorities — in that order — has been most welcome. A skilful exercise in low politics? Perhaps. But Megawati has obviously had her eye on high politics from the word go. Rather than rely entirely on rank and file politicians to lift her to the political heights, she flirted with the top generals. They, as it transpired in the end, were instrumental in placing the plum job in her lap. Sleeping with the enemy, if you will.

It is possible to admire a political move without necessarily condoning it. I rather admire Megawati’s capacity to charm Indonesia’s mighty military, the TNI — the very people who toppled her late father in a palace coup in 1965. But at the risk of sounding a trifle presumptuous, I must say that the strategy rings a discordant note with me. No matter how badly I might want to break out of political oblivion and end my superfluous stint as a struggling journalist, I could never see myself making a secret pact with the successors of the military junta that overthrew my father’s government in Ghana in February 1966. Megawati’s cosying up with the TNI is so outlandish, it is as if Benazir Bhutto suddenly connived with arch-enemy General Pervez Musharraf, the political heir of Gen Zia Ul-Haq, who executed her father, to secure a political comeback in Pakistan.

Which train of thought leads to the obvious fact that Indonesia is definitely neither Ghana nor Pakistan. In sheer size, Indonesia has proportions approximating the world’s superpower, the United States. The archipelago straddles 51,200 kilometres between the Indian and Pacific oceans. To put the magnitude in perspective, that is equivalent to the distance between Florida and Alaska. Geographically, Indonesia dominates southeast Asia, commanding the sea lanes that separate the Indian sub-continent from northeast Asia — China, Korea and Japan. The country has tremendous political weight by virtue of the sheer size of its population and abundant natural resources. Population-wise, Indonesia dwarfs its neighbours; it is 12 times more populous than the continent-nation of Australia.

More to the point, Indonesia is of immense strategic importance. Half of all global maritime shipping passes through Indonesia’s perilous, but unavoidable, sea channels. Indonesia has fabulous mineral wealth, much of it untapped, and enormous agricultural and industrial potential.

Yet, Indonesia is a political powder keg, seething with religious, social and ethnic unrest fuelled by chronic economic malaise, abject poverty suffered by the majority of its population, unacceptable income differentials, and a concentration of power in the hands of a few — the Javanese political and economic elite. Indeed, over two-thirds of the Indonesian population is concentrated in Java, roughly the size of England, and Madura, smaller than Wales or Connecticut.

According to United Nations figures, one-third of Indonesia’s children suffer from chronic malnutrition and infant mortality has doubled since the crippling economic crisis of 1997. Megawati rose to power partly by championing the cause of the poor, but now that she is in the top post, she bears the responsibility of improving their lot.

Some 200 million of Indonesia’s 230 million people are Muslim, which makes it the largest Muslim nation in the world. But this still leaves room for an economically powerful Christian minority of 20 million. The other 10 million people are potpourri of Hindu, Buddhist and animist minorities. But religious and cultural differences do not end there. Javanese Muslims are generally regarded as lax about their religion. Pre- Islamic animist cultural traits such as kebatinan, Javanese traditional mysticism, still exert a powerful influence in Java. In sharp contrast, the Muslims of Aceh are suspiciously viewed as fanatical zealots by other Indonesians. The industrious Muslim Madurese, who left their tiny overpopulated and impoverished island in droves to seek greener pastures in richer, more remote parts of the archipelago, are hated and feared by their hosts, predominantly Christian communities.

The Christians of Indonesia are even more diverse. Ethnic Chinese, many of whom are Christian, predominate and control commerce and industry. But the staunchest Christians are tribal people in the sparsely populated outlying islands, like the indigenous Dayaks of Kalimantan and the Papuans of Irian Jaya, who see their religion as part of their identity — their cultural specificity keeps them apart from the numerically and politically dominant Javanese Muslims. The strange irony is that most of the country’s natural wealth is to be found in Indonesia’s politically peripheralised extremities, peopled by numerically inferior ethnic minorities with a strong sense of cultural distinction. Therein lies Indonesia’s predicament.

There are several violent ethnic and religious clashes running amok in Indonesia today. The outlying islands and remote regions are most likely to experience the brunt of ethnic violence and separatists fighting. Chief among these is Aceh, in the northwestern-most end of the country on the tip of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. Next comes Irian Jaya, the enormous easternmost province that occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea. Other flash points include the Moluccas, Kalimantan and Lombok, as well as large cities such as Medan, Surabaya (Indonesia’s second largest city and industrial powerhouse), Yogyakarta (Java’s cultural and spiritual heart), and, of course, the capital, Jakarta.

The vast and volatile Kalimantan spreads across two-thirds of the island of Borneo, the second largest in the archipelago. Muslim immigrants from Madura have been targeted by the indigenous predominantly Christian and animist Dayaks. In 1997 alone, ethnic clashes claimed over 1,000 people in West Kalimantan, where native Dayaks constitute 40 per cent of the 3.5 million population whose lands have been expropriated by commercial farming, export plantations and timber concessions. More recently, in late February, a resurgence of violence led to the deaths of hundreds of people, almost all of them Madurese, in central Kalimantan.

Likewise, the sparsely-populated Irian Jaya has witnessed an unprecedented influx of Muslim immigrants from the densely-populated islands of Java and Madura. Successive Indonesia governments claimed that Dutch and American missionaries incited the indigenous Papuan population to rebel against the central authorities in Jakarta. Pro-independence demonstrations erupted after East Timor was released from Indonesia’s stranglehold in 1999 following an independence vote. Irian Jaya, under Dutch colonial rule for much longer than the rest of Indonesia, was forcibly incorporated into the country after the departure of the Dutch in 1963. The separatist Free Papua Movement wants nothing less than independence, but the Javanese now outnumber the locals.

Medan, the capital of North Sumatra, saw 1998 clashes between students and security forces in Medan and Indonesia’s third largest city has a significant ethnic Chinese population, mainly Christian. Medan is also geographically close to Malaysia and Singapore across the Malacca Straits, but its hopes for secession were dashed with the 1997 economic collapse.

Neighbouring Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, jabs an index finger into the Andaman Sea and turns its back on the rest of the archipelago. Aceh is not only geographically remote from Java, but was only put under Dutch administration in 1918, three or four centuries after the rest of the archipelago had succumbed to Dutch colonial rule. Aceh’s four million people guard their identity carefully; they are proud of their unique, devoutly Muslim culture and their historical isolation from the rest of the archipelago. Formerly a Muslim sultanate with close trading links to Arabia, the Acehneses’ ancestors embraced Islam several centuries before other Indonesians did. But perhaps the most significant attribute of Aceh is that it produces 40 per cent of Indonesia’s liquefied natural gas and a sizeable amount of its oil. The Suharto regime was notorious for its counter insurgency operations Aceh. The separatist struggle of the Free Aceh Movement has claimed over 5,000 people in the last decade. Between 1990 and 1998 Aceh, was declared a “special combat zone” for the Indonesian army.

In Lombok, mobs of Muslims ransacked factories owned by Christians in the Lombok capital Mataram and Balinese Hindus in the island’s main tourist centre of Senggigi. Since January 1999 violent clashes between the Muslim majority and Christian minority in the Moluccas, formerly known as the fabled Spice Islands, have claimed more than a thousand lives. Secessionist conflicts, as well as ethnic and religious tensions, are widely expected to emerge as Megawati’s main political headache. She must muster all her nationalist strength. And, she will need the generals as never before.