- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2000

Is Indonesia really a state, let alone a nation-state? The question is quite pertinent as we watch the largest Muslim country in the world 210 million struggling to create the national identity it has lacked since its creation by the Netherlands, its once colonial master, more than half a century ago.

Endemic corruption, widespread inter-ethnic violence, wasted international loans these are only part of Indonesia's calamities. Far worse was a catastrophic national leadership: a onetime crooked president, Gen. Suharto, about to face trial on embezzlement and other criminal charges; a current president, the narcoleptic Adburrahman Wahid, 60, disabled and ineffectual, who to escape impeachment has just handed over his powers to Indonesia's vice president, Megawati Soekarnoputri. She is the daughter of Sukarno, one of the worst post-colonial rulers, who as Indonesia's first president ran the country into the ground in an alliance with the Indonesian Communist Party.

No, Indonesia, this archipelago of thousands of islands, is not a country and the sooner that fact is recognized the better for peace and stability in South Asia. As Indonesia stumbles from crisis to crisis it should be clear to anybody that building a nation out of this melange of peoples is impossible without enormous bloodshed as we have already seen in East Timor and in Acheh Sumatra, Celebes and the Moluccas.

Responsible for this ghastly mess of post-colonialism is the Netherlands. Instead of following decolonization principles, namely returning each colonial territory to its indigenous people, as for the most part other colonial empires did, the Dutch kept its empire intact at the handover. In other words, as a defeated colonial power, the Netherlands transferred sovereignty to another colonial power, a Javanese regime. The name of the "new" country was changed from "Dutch East Indies" to "Indonesia," although no such country had ever existed. That meant that peoples on islands other than Java Acheh, Borneo, Sulawesi, West Irian, the Moluccas were forced to become part of a so-called country that had no existence in history: There was no common language, no common culture and no will to live together.

The majority of the peoples of the East Indies conquered by the Dutch are not Javanese. But by the sheer accident that the Dutch colonial regime established the center of administration on the island of Java, the Javanese inherited the "right" of colonial overlordship.

Attempts by the French and British to combine disparate peoples were few, and they turned into failures. The French combined Mali and Senegal into the Mali Federation that lasted six months and they are now separate countries. The British tried territorial mergers in two places the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland; it collapsed into three countries, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. Britain created one country that had no previous existence Nigeria. In the late 1960s, a civil war broke out in Biafra between the Yoruba and Ibo peoples and a million people died. Now parts of Muslim Nigeria are imposing Muslim law, the sharia, on its territory despite large Christian populations.

Indonesia's experiment in nation-building is further handicapped because it is an archipelago of 13,600 islands, many of them uninhabited. In length, its scattered islands extend more than 2,400 miles, the distance from Lisbon to Moscow. In width, they extend more than 1,200 miles, the distance from Rome to Stockholm. Administration by a central government is impossible except by guns and bayonets and that isn't working in Acheh, where a rebellion that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives has been under way for some three decades.

An American statesman has written: "Indonesia was nothing but a geographic expression until the Dutch found it more efficient to unite the islands of the Indies under a single administration." The author of that finding was then Harvard Professor Henry Kissinger. What he wrote ("Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy") in 1963 is just as true today.



Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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