- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004


By Theodore Friend

Harvard University Press, $35, 628 pages


Few countries in the world are currently as strategically important to the United States as giant Indonesia. This vast archipelago of 17,000 islands, 13,000 of them inhabited, is the fourth most populous nation in the world and the largest Muslim one. It is also attempting an immensely difficult rapid transition to full democracy after more than three decades of brutal military dictatorship. Yet ignorance of Indonesia is almost total among American policymakers and foreign policy pundits, let alone the general public.

All the more reason, therefore, to applaud the arrival of Theodore Friend’s massive and magnificent new book. This is an outstanding general history of Indonesia over the four and a half decades since its troubled independence, won after 300 years of Dutch colonial rule. But it is also a reliable, insightful guide to the dynamics of current Indonesian politics, and the troubled but principled and (so far) surprisingly robust presidency of Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Mr. Friend, President Emeritus of Eisenhower Fellowships and a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, has an unrivalled knowledge of Asian history in general and of Indonesia’s in particular. He also enjoyed exceptional access to the nation’s key leaders during the dramatic transition to democracy in 1998-2000. His consequent blending of scholarship and hands-on direct experience informs every page of this book.

I covered Indonesian politics following the collapse of the 32-year dictatorship of former President Suharto and through the troubled presidencies of B.J. Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid (better known in his own country as Gus Dur). Mr. Friend’s vivid, subjective descriptions and assessments of them and Mrs. Megawati are all absolutely spot on.

Mr. Habibie was an often-inept technocrat entirely out of his depth running such a vast and complex nation. As the author puts it, “His eyes flashed with intelligence, but he twisted his legs when he talked, rolled his head, exploded in manic gestures … Physically slight, he frequently twitched like a comic wayang puppet. He became president of Indonesia on a few hours’ notice.”

Mr. Friend describes Mr. Wahid as “a man of great will and guile” but incapacitated by an overwhelming succession of physical afflictions including “poorly treated glaucoma, myopic degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy, all further complicated by two strokes that destroyed some visual pathways in his brain. Indonesia’s new president could not see beyond his dinner plate.”

Mrs. Megawati, as Mr. Friend notes, is a vast improvement on her two predecessors but also an often bewildering mix of shrewd and sensible power-broker with middle-class mother and housewife. “Megawati’s personal steadiness was a welcome relief after Habibie and Wahid,” he writes. “But her sense of proportion was often troubling. On her first visit to New York she declined a pre-breakfast meeting arranged to reassure American businesses that had legal issues in Jakarta; [but] she spent time shopping in Bloomingdales and spent a six figure sum in dollars to hire troupe and theater for an exclusive Monday night showing of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ to her entourage.”

Mr. Friend threads his way with scrupulous care through the crucial, bloodstained events of 1965-66 that led to extermination of the communist movement in Indonesia, but at the cost of a horrific slaughter that may well have ended a million innocent lives. He explains the longstanding hatreds, most of them born in a ferocious colonial past of blood-drenched repression that even Americans who think they know Indonesia have no conception of.

For example, the fierce determination of the people of energy-rich Aceh to be masters of their own oil and gas wealth is clearly a reaction to the pillaging of those resources by Mr. Suharto and his kleptocracy, unrivalled in their boundless greed. But the people of Aceh felt a special sense of bitterness because they had been in the vanguard of the fierce 1940s struggle for independence against the Dutch, and paid an appalling price for it.

Mrs. Megawati suffers in American eyes from being the daughter of Indonesia’s idealistic but wildly erratic communist-leaning founding father, the late President Sukarno. But as Mr. Friend makes clear, she is no communist or socialist either. Given the chance, one feels, she would probably be a “Third Way” social democrat in the Bill Clinton or Tony Blair tradition.

However, the grim imperatives of Indonesian history, geography and politics do not allow for such a benign outcome. Mrs. Megawati knows she cannot rule, or hold Indonesia together, without the support of TNI, the Armed Forces of Indonesia. In June 2002 she promoted Lt. Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu, then commander of Kostrad, the crucial army strategic reserve, to four-star general and army chief of staff.

Ryamizard’s father, Maj. Gen. Ryacudu, “is now said to have been ardently loyal to her father until Sukarno’s downfall late in 1965,” Mr. Friend writes. But while apparently loyal to Mrs. Megawati, he was no tolerant democrat either. “In an interview with Tempo magazine about how to deal with separatists and disorder he provided a simple and chilling prescription, ‘Exterminate provocateurs, shoot rioters.’”

Will this be the pattern of Indonesia’s future as it was of its past? Or will more hopeful sentiments prevail? As Mr. Friend puts it, “Can the largest Muslim nation in the world remain the most pluralist, by its own ideal design.” Much rides on the outcome. Americans pondering the quandary would do well to turn for guidance to this invaluable book.

Martin Sieff is Chief Political Correspondent for United Press International.

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