Will Indonesia Be Balkanized?
By Keith B. Richburg
As the country embarks on a new era of democracy and reform, Indonesia's provinces are sending reminders that they, too, participated in the popular uprising that toppled the Suharto regime last month. Their students marched, their political activists got tear-gassed by riot police, and now they want a say in the new political order.
What the provinces want most is more control in managing their own affairs. What they fear is that Indonesia's traditional tolerance of differences may not survive the shift to a democratic political system.
There is enormous religious, ethnic and regional diversity across this sprawling archipelago of 13,500 islands. More than 90 percent of Indonesia's 204 million people follow Islam, but there are also Christians, Hindus and animists. Here on the island of Bali, 93 percent of the people are Hindu, a throwback to A.D. 400 when the first Hindu kingdom was established on Java.
During his 32 years in power, Suharto bequeathed to Indonesia a legacy of religious tolerance, a strong sense of national unity and an Indonesian identity built around a common language. But he also left behind an overly centralized power structure with its seat in Jakarta, and the feeling that out of all the scattered islands that make up this unlikely nation, Java was always the first among equals.
"Having a multiethnic culture means we are all Indonesians," said Luh Ketut Suryani, a psychiatrist and Balinese activist. "But Suharto tried to make us all uniform, so you can't differentiate Jakarta from Surabaya from Denpasar. . . . We say that colonialism now comes from our own people. Not only Balinese say that. In Timor, in Sulawesi, people also say so. Everything comes from Java.
"We feel like a stepchild," she said.
The desire for change can be readily seen here in Bali. A lively discussion about the future of Indonesia began one recent day with a woman named Ibu Gedung Oka, 76, who sat cross-legged on a straw mat at a Hindu ashram.
Oka, a retired English professor and longtime local activist, has seen many phases of Indonesia's tumultuous 20th-century history, and she strongly believes that the country's disparate islands must stay united. "We are born to stick together," she said.
But for many Balinese, like Oka and her group, Bali is being exploited -- not by outside powers, but by the central government on Java, which sees Bali's growing tourism as one of the country's most lucrative foreign exchange earners. In the government's race to develop the island, Balinese fear they are losing much of their land and their unique culture and identity. One way they feel they can protect themselves is through more regional autonomy -- or as Oka says, "unity on an equal footing."
Granting more autonomy means, among other things, ending the practice of provincial governors being appointed by Jakarta, allowing localities more say in how they raise and spend their own revenue, and increasing local control over Indonesia's rich natural resources.
Many Indonesians fear that the stirrings for more regional autonomy might be the first dangerous step down the slippery slope to separatism. Granting more autonomy might fuel outright demands for independence in some places, they say. "Once separatism explodes or erupts, it means you have another Yugoslavia," said Jakarta political commentator Christianto Wibisono, director of the Indonesian Business Data Center.
Like Yugoslavia or the former Soviet Union, modern-day Indonesia is a bit of a historical hybrid, created out of the imperial expansion of successive Javanese kings and then consolidated by the Dutch, who added Bali to their island empire in 1906. Predominantly Catholic East Timor, a Portuguese colony, became a part of Indonesia after Suharto's troops invaded it in 1975 and annexed it a year later, sparking worldwide condemnation.
Indonesia's unlikely coming together has given the country a long history of separatist and insurgency movements, from the rebels of mineral-rich Irian Jaya to the East Timorese resistance. There have been secessionist moves in Sulawesi, and in the 1950s an idea was floated about a separate Sumatran state, though it never gathered much momentum. A few exiles in the Netherlands still champion an "independent republic of the Moluccas," and even claim a president. Also, questions persist about Aceh in the far western corner, where many residents adhere to a more traditional, less tolerant brand of Islam.
"I think we have overcome what the Soviet Union had to go through, because we've already gone through a long period when nearly every region in Indonesia has tried unsuccessfully to separate itself," said Marzuki Darusman, a member of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission in Jakarta. "The Pandora's box we're opening here now is not something we're unaware of. It's just opening the windows, allowing fresh air to come in."
Here in Bali, there seems strong support for the idea of Indonesian unity and little sympathy for suggestions that the island might consider independence. "Regionalism here, in political terms, in cultural terms, in economic terms, is very, very weak," said an economist and a member of activist Oka's ashram discussion group.
"I like to stay unified," said Putu Suasta, a native Balinese businessman and longtime political activist who has been jailed several times for leading demonstrations against the local authorities. "Most people don't want to split apart. They want unity with justice. But let's see -- maybe if they don't have justice, they'll want to split."
The biggest complaint here, and the one fueling the demands for greater autonomy, is that most of the money generated from tourism does not stay here, but goes off to the central government in Jakarta.
Residents here also complain that the central government is insensitive to local concerns when granting approvals for new developments. In the early 1990s, for example, protests erupted over plans to build a golf resort near a historic Hindu temple at Tanah Lot; the protests were unsuccessful, and the resort was completed.
"We would like to have something like federalism," said Putu Suasta, who led some of those protests at Tanah Lot. "Let [the provinces] control their own resources, have their own laws."
Beneath the desire for more autonomy is an underlying fear that Indonesia could experience a resurgence of Islam that might erode the country's traditional tolerance. Several people interviewed here expressed concerns about the new president, B. J. Habibie, who made his political base in a group of Muslim intellectuals, and who has lately been taking advice on his reform proposals mostly from Muslim clerics and scholars.
"We are worried about fundamentalism," said Bayu Mahendra Nyoman, 25, a medical school student. "They use Islam, saying if you are against Habibie, you are against Islam." Added his friend and fellow student, Sudjatmoko, 26, "I'm worried about whether our tolerance will be destroyed."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company