August 10, 2020

Indonesia, Suharto & The New Order

Hiwj.org – Indonesia’s second president, Suharto (1921-2008), came to power in the midst of a crisis of emergency and bloodshed. His predecessor, Sukarno, had created a very dangerous composition of the antagonistic government and consisted of nationalist, communist, and religious factions. Another party eager to hold political power was the army, which succeeded in becoming more influential in Indonesian politics in the 1950s when it was necessary to crush a number of rebels that threatened Indonesian unity.

These four groups are very suspicious of each other. This distrust then culminated in a tragedy in the mid-1960s when a group of leftist officers, under the influence of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) staged a coup by kidnapping and killing seven major military leaders whom they accused of wanting to overthrow President Sukarno. Suharto, a high-ranking officer who took over military power during this period of chaos, stated that the PKI was the mastermind behind all this chaos. Over the next few months, hundreds of thousands of communist followers and suspected communists were slaughtered in Sumatra, Java, and Bali. Even though many facts remain unknown.

Power Transition

On March 11, 1966, Indonesia was still in chaos. Right on that day, President Sukarno was forced to sign a decree granting power to General Suharto to take measures to maintain the security, peace, and stability of the country. This decree was known as the Supersemar document (March 11 Order) and as a means of transferring executive power from Sukarno to Suharto. Suharto quickly banned all PKI activities, began to purge the military of elements of the left, and began to strengthen the role of military politics in Indonesian society.

Sukarno’s strength was increasingly diminished so that Suharto was formally declared acting interim president in 1967 and sworn in as the second President of Indonesia in 1968. This marked the emergence of a new era called the ‘New Order’ and meant that the government policies were drastically changed. The Suharto administration focused on economic development. Relations with the Western world, which had been destroyed by Sukarno, were restored to allow the flow of much needed foreign aid funds into Indonesia. Fiscal management began to be carried out by technocrats. As well as dangerous and costly confrontations against Malaysia were stopped.

The next step taken by Suharto was to depoliticize Indonesia. Ministers were prohibited to make their own policies. Instead, they must implement policies formulated by the President. Golkar was used as Suharto’s powerful parliamentary vehicle. Golkar includes several hundred smaller functional groups consisting of trade unions, farmers, and entrepreneurs that ensure that Indonesian society can no longer be mobilized by political parties.

Golkar was developed into a tool to ensure that the majority of votes in elections would support the government. Golkar has a network up to the villages and is funded to promote the Central Government. Civil servants are required to support Golkar while village heads receive a vote quota for Golkar which must be met. These policies resulted in a major victory for Golkar in the 1971 general election.

To further strengthen his political power, Suharto ‘pushed’ 9 existing political parties to join, leaving only 2 parties. The first party is the United Development Party (PPP) consisting of Islamic parties and the second party is the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) consisting of nationalist and Christian parties. Nevertheless, the political activities of the two parties were limited that they only became short campaign periods before the general election.

An increasingly authoritarian government

From the beginning of the New Order, the macroeconomic growth figures were very impressive. However, these policies also caused dissatisfaction in Indonesian society because the government was considered too focused on attracting foreign investors. While large investment opportunities are only given to Indonesians who are usually military officers or a small group of citizens of Chinese descent (who are a minority group in Indonesia but have dominated the economy).

Had enough of corruption, collusion, and nepotism, thousands of people staged a demonstration in 1974. It was when the Japanese Prime Minister visited Jakarta. This demonstration turned into a major riot called the ‘Malari Riot’. It was a terrible experience for the new government because it showed that the Government could not control the masses. Fearing that one day there might be resistance from millions of poor people in urban and rural areas, new (more pressing) policies are implemented by the Government. 12 printed media were banned and journalists detained without trial. This encourages the media to censor themselves. All dissatisfaction expressed in the public was immediately suppressed.

In national politics, Suharto succeeded in further strengthening his position in the 1970s. Peaking domestic oil production ensures that national income is abundant. This income is used to finance infrastructure development and poverty alleviation programs. However, internationally, Indonesia’s image has deteriorated due to the invasion of East Timor. After the cessation of Portuguese occupation – and the East Timor declaration of independence in 1975 – the Indonesian military quickly invaded the country; an invasion accompanied by violence.

In 1984, all socio-political organizations had to declare Pancasila (the five founding principles of the Indonesian State introduced by Sukarno in the 1940s) as their only ideology. Suharto then used Pancasila as a means of emphasis because all organizations were under threat of accusations of carrying out anti-Pancasila actions.

It could be said that in the 1980s, Suharto was at the peak of his power. Every election is easily won. Moreover, he succeeded in making the military powerless. Similar to political parties and civil servants, the military only works to implement Suharto’s policies. However, the depoliticization of Indonesian society has one important side effect, namely the awakening of Islamic awareness, especially among young Indonesians. Because the political arena is not an open area, Muslims see Islam as a safe alternative. Objections and complaints about the government are discussed in mosques and sermons because it is too dangerous to speak at demonstrations, which will be stopped as soon as they occur. It led to new policy changes in 1990.

Change of Focus to Islam

Muslim general leaders from organizations such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) have more room to criticize Suharto’s policies. They had the room because Islamic forces have always been powerful throughout Indonesian history. Suharto who was a traditionalist and the less religious Muslim began a new approach to Islam in the early 1990s. These included Suharto’s pilgrimage to Mecca in 1991, the placement of more ‘Muslim-friendly’ officers at the helm of the military, and the establishment of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI). ICMI was established more as a place to voice input from Muslims for public policy than a mass-based political organization. Its membership includes critical Islamic leaders who are not involved in government, and also cabinet ministers. All these combined efforts have indeed succeeded in reducing the criticism of the Muslim community a little.

Increasingly stronger opposition

During the 1990s, Suharto’s New Order Government began to lose control as Indonesian society became increasingly assertive. This is partly due to its own success: an impressive economic development has given more Indonesians an education and those who are educated feel frustrated that they have no influence in changing the political situation in the country. Meanwhile, indigenous entrepreneurs were frustrated because they did not get a business opportunity because big business opportunities were only given to Suharto’s family and close friends (his cronies). From 1993, street demonstrations became more frequent and not without success, for example, a government-sponsored lottery had to be stopped because of demonstrations by students and Muslim groups. Moreover, some officials supported by the central government were defeated during general elections in the provinces. This shows the public that the Suharto regime was not without its weaknesses.

Another issue that has a negative impact on the government’s position is its activities to interfere with PDI’s internal affairs. Megawati Soekarnoputri (daughter of Sukarno) was elected as chair of the PDI in 1993 to replace Suryadi. However, the government did not recognize this decision and ordered a repeat election. Megawati, who was increasingly critical of the Suharto regime, was seen as a real threat because of her father’s status. Therefore, the central government supported Suryadi in another congress without inviting Megawati’s participation. This resulted in Suryadi’s re-election as Chairperson but Megawati clearly refused to acknowledge the results of this artificial congress. This then led to divisions within the PDI and also violent clashes at the general headquarters in Jakarta.

The downfall of Suharto’s New Order

The legitimacy of Suharto’s authoritarian government came mainly from economic development that occurred during his reign. Out of desperation in the 1960s, the process of industrialization turned Indonesia into a promising economy. Influential international institutions (such as the World Bank) declared Indonesia a ‘Miracle of East Asia’ in the 1990s. Other terms used by international institutions describe the performance of the Indonesian economy as ‘Asian Tigers’ and ‘High Performing Asian Economy’ (HPAE). Of course, the international community also realizes that human rights are not always respected by governments. However, ironically, The characteristic of the suppressive New Order is also the key to alleviating poverty for millions of people because there is little room to oppose policy making and implementation. In the mid-1960s, more than 50% of the population was classified as living under the poverty line, while in 1993 this figure was reduced to 13.5% of the total population. Other social indicators (such as school participation, infant mortality, life expectancy) show similarly positive results.

The Suharto style of government was a patronage political system. In exchange for political or financial support, he persuaded his critics by giving them good positions in government as well as business opportunities. However, this favoritism is not only given to its critics. During the last decade of Suharto’s regime, children and close friends could form a business empire simply because of their ‘friendship’ with Suharto. Although many Indonesians are frustrated with corruption, collusion, and high-level nepotism in this government circle, the Government can always refer to impressive economic development and at the same time lip service to the public by claiming that there are efforts to eradicate corruption in this country.

However, the economic pillar which became the legitimacy tool disappeared when the Asian Financial Crisis struck in 1997-1998 (more detailed explanation is in the Asian Financial Crisis section). Indonesia was the country hardest hit by the crisis which then had a snowball effect. From an economic crisis, the effect continues to cause social and political crises. Many economic and social achievements collapsed and Indonesian people became determined to demand a new government (without Suharto’s presence). Jakarta turned into a battleground where riots destroyed thousands of buildings, while more than a thousand people were killed. On May 21, 1998, Vice President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, a close ally of Suharto, became Indonesia’s third president. He had no choice but to agree with the demands of the Indonesian people to start the Reformation era.

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