27 April 2001 - Indonesia

In Indonesia, one cannot help but be immersed in the wonderment of the many cultures and ethnic groups. At the same time, the disconnect among those many groups is even more powerful.

I met Javanese, residents of the island of Java, Indonesia’s political and economic center. On Sumatra, we talked to elder Minangkabau, the oldest and largest matrilineal culture known in the world.  I met Balinese, whose tropical home of Bali is perhaps the spot best known to Westerners.  I met Acehnese, members of the oil-rich province in Northern Sumatra, an area lobbying for its independence.  I even came across a few industrious Chinese who have come here to run businesses.

But perhaps most telling, I didn’t meet an Indonesian.  Whether in a big city or drifting through the countryside, I found no one who called themselves Indonesian, I felt no sense of Indonesian nationalism.  The capital may be in Jakarta, but few people worried about decisions made by the central government.  Instead, most were content to be part of their own area, region and separate from any larger unifying body.  If you ask me, it’s just one more sign the country is on the verge of falling apart.

Given its physical makeup, that’s hardly surprising. Indonesia isn’t a contiguous land–it’s actually an archipelago of 17,000 islands, only 6,000 of which are inhabited.   With 220 million people and roughly 365 ethnic and tribal groups strewn across 3,000 miles from the tip of Sumatra to the edge of New Papua, Indonesia is unrivaled by any country in terms of ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity.  At the same time, that diversity is one of the more absurd legacies to the colonialists of the empire-building age.

The landscape is as varied and distinctive as its cultures.  My wife, Paige, and I drove through rain forests in Sumatra and across rugged mountains in Bali.  The land is extremely fertile, ideal for growing coffee, rice, rubber, sugar cane, tea and even tobacco.  Agriculture, in fact, accounts for a fifth of Indonesia’s gross domestic product and employs nearly half its workforce.

Infrastructure is equally varied.  Many roads around Indonesia’s oil and gas compounds are well maintained, likely by the corporations that operate the sites and not the government. Indonesia, after all, is a major oil producer and a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.  Driving across Sumatra, we marveled at the condition of a main highway until we noticed a pipeline ran next to it.

Politically, things are about as bad as they can be.  It’s actually the world’s third largest democracy (second to the U.S. and India), but you wouldn’t guess it by the way the country is run.  Greed and theft have guided the leaders for years. In fact, many experts have defined its governments and leaders as kleptocracies. Suharto, the military leader who ruled the country from 1966 to 1998, created his ‘New Order’ regime by exploiting the country’s natural resources and paying low wages to his people.  Only an elite group of his family and friends reaped the rewards.

The country’s current president, Abdurrahman Wahid, has his own problems.   Commonly known as Gus Dur–Gus is a term of respect, Dur is short for Abdurrahman and he is about to be impeached. Unlike the Clinton debacle in the U.S., Gus Dur has been accused of corruption and in the last few months, has been censured twice by parliament, which appears ready to vote him out of office soon.  To complicate matters, Wahid’s popular support comes from the Nahdltaul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization, which he formerly ran. Wahid’s forced departure could spark the wrath of 300,000 people who have vowed to defend him. Some already have led armed suicide squads in the capital city.

Wahid’s vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, will likely be his successor.  As the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first leader during the 1940s, she is very popular with the local and Western press. In fact, she actually won the election outright but by some crafty ‘politics,’ Wahid managed to get himself elected president by the parliament.   Still, Megawati could actually unite the country if it did not have such awful internal rifts. Unfortunately, she has shown no more administrative skills than have her predecessors.

Economically, whoever is in charge has a mountain to climb. Unlike its neighbors, Indonesia has yet to truly recover from the Asian fiscal crisis. Government debt equals nearly 100 percent of gross domestic product; roughly 40 percent of all government operating expenditures go to make debt service.  In mid-May, Standard & Poors downgraded Indonesia’s long-term sovereign credit rating, fearing it may soon default. The currency is plummeting as the government prints money as fast it can to buy votes. The International Monetary Fund, which since 1998 has funneled money to help the country get back on its feet, recently announced it was cutting off the flow until the political turmoil settled. That could be a long wait.

Indonesia is heavily dependent on the United States for aid, trade, and investment.   American mining, energy and apparel companies have huge investments here.  But the decidedly Muslim government is becoming more and more at odds with a U.S. government that continues to support Israelis over the Palestinians.

Corruption is world famous in Indonesia.  Bribery is basically accepted as a practice that keeps the country’s wheels moving.  To drive through Sumatra, I needed a letter of permission from the state.  The police commissioner unabashedly told me I could wait for the letter to arrive, which might have taken weeks, or I could pay him 1 million rupiah–basically $100, or a month’s worth of his salary.  I bargained down to US$45, handed him the cash and we were off. No illicit looks or money passing under tables, just a deal.

But perhaps the biggest problems, and ones that most often get the attention of the Western press, are the many separatist movements that have pretty much turned into full-fledged wars. In Aceh, an oil and gas-rich province in northern Sumatra, separatists have clashed with the military in their efforts to gain independence. Separatists in Irian Jaya, a region which covers the western half of New Guinea Island, have struggled for independence for nearly four decades. But independence is not the only thing at stake.   The separatists also want their fair share of the natural resources.  The fighting has gotten so bad in some of the oil- and gas-rich areas that Western companies have shut down their plants. In Aceh, Exxon Mobil halted operations at a huge natural gas field after attacks on its employees. Experts estimate the disruptions are costing the government $100 million a month.

Religious battles also are being waged. Throughout the Molucca Islands, once known as the Spice Islands, Muslim fundamentalists are forcing Christians, who make up 9 percent of the Indonesia population, to convert or risk death.  It all smacks of ethnic cleansing.

East Timor is the most well known scar on Indonesia’s record.  A former Portuguese colony, East Timor was absorbed into Indonesia under Suharto’s rule in 1975.  It’s no secret that Timor’s vast offshore hydrocarbon reserves, for which it shares revenues with Australia, make it strategically valuable.  For years, the military forced East Timor’s people to accept Indonesian rule. In August 1999, Suharto’s successor, Habibie, offered the region its independence.  In a referendum, the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly to end a quarter century of Indonesian military occupation and become independent.

Sadly, anti-independence militias, angered by the results, went on a three-week rampage, killing hundreds of people and forcing about 300,000 others to flee their homes. The United Nations has since come in and is running the country as a protectorate until elections later this summer. The destructiveness of war is apparent. In East Timor, we saw bombed-out government buildings and stores.  East Timor will need years to rebuild its economy. There are a few signs of reconstruction: enterprising merchants have set up stands in the windows of bombed out shops, trying to sell fruits and vegetables.   Negotiations are underway with Australia to determine how the hydrocarbon revenues will be split in the future.  The stakes are high for East Timor’s 700,000 people since development is now accelerating in the area. In a few years, East Timor likely will receive a minimum of several hundred million dollars per year.  The huge sum spread over a small population in a small country means dramatic changes are in store.

Making matters worse is Indonesia’s growing piracy industry, giving the country the dubious honor of having the world’s highest rate of at-sea piracy.  In fact, nearly half of all ‘reported’ attacks worldwide occurred in Indonesian waters and the Strait of Malacca, arguably the most important shipping lane in the world.  Oil tankers from the Middle East must pass through on the way to Japan and Korea.  Tech firms ship products through to India and Europe.  Bandits steal everything from oil to silver ingot to smaller loot like ship safes and radios.  Some crewmen told me there are basically three types of piracy.  The small-time pirates just hold up a small boat and steal what they can. More ambitious pirates target larger ships and tankers and offload the cargo.  The worst steal the boat and cargo, kill the crew and then sell the boat elsewhere with a new paint job or for parts.  I certainly kept my eyes open as we crossed the Strait of Malacca.

For all its divisiveness, Indonesia’s broad range of cultures makes it fascinating to visit.  We were amazed at some of the sights.  We went to Yogyakarta, where Wahid gets most of his support, and visited Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world, built in the 700s.  The area was part of the Island of Java that was once extremely rich, where there was a tremendous Indian influence.

From there, we went to Bali, the popular resort island, which has pretty much lived up to Sukarno’s vision of a place where rich Westerners would come and spend their money. But with apologies to Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon hope all ye who enter” of seeing the real Indonesia.  After all, it doesn’t feel a whole lot like Indonesia in these high-class tourist compounds. The only locals you’ll ever meet are the ones who work there.

In Sumatra, we visited the town of Bukingtingi, home of some of the Minangkabau, a culture unlike any I have ever seen.  Located in Western Sumatra, the Minangkabau are the largest matrilineal-culture in the world. Titles, property and family names are all handed down through the female line. A man’s children are not his heirs.  Instead, he leaves his possessions to the children of his eldest sister.  The grandmother is the ultimate matriarch and power figure.  Instead of proposing, men wait for women to come to them.  If the man accepts, he moves in with his wife’s family.  If anything goes wrong in the marriage, he returns to his family but this wife retains all property rights.  While such a practice seems unusual for a Muslim culture, I could see the Minangkabau have taken the very best of the cultures around them–Muslim, Buddhist, Chinese–and developed a unique understanding of political and social equality.

Women own most of the shops. The people are highly educated. In fact, the Minangkabau have produced some of Indonesia’s greatest poets, educators and revolutionaries. Many government ministers and politicians come from this ethnic group. It reminded me of the Parsis in India. The four million Minangkabau make them the fourth largest of Indonesia’s many ethnic groups. It’s a prosperous agricultural community, producing rice in Sumatra’s fertile soils. Of the many different ethnic groups I encountered in Indonesia, only the Chinese seemed as disciplined and hard working. Unlike many other areas in Indonesia, everything works; we were able to get on the Internet and use our phones. The roads were drivable, and the restaurants excellent.

Most important, the people understood their country’s problems. I marveled at the Minangkabau’s architecture. They live in incredible homes called long houses. The roofs are designed with sweeping arcs that come to points like buffalo horns.  In fact, that’s where the name Minangkabau comes from: Minang means victory, kabau means horn.  I don’t know if a matrilineal culture is better, but it certainly has worked well to create a successful and organized society.  Naturally, the Minangkabau are not isolated and have embraced their evolution.  Today, men assume more responsibility for their families. All are encouraged to go seek their fortune.   These days, many don’t return.  Instead of moving in permanently, many newlywed couples stay at her mother’s home for a few nights as a symbolic gesture, and then go live on their own. But like so many other pieces that make up the puzzle of Indonesia, the Minangkabau live their own lives, separate from the worlds around them.   Like so many of Indonesia’s many peoples and cultures, they want little to do with the rules handed down from Jakarta.

To me, such a fragmented identity will eventually lead to Indonesia’s demise.  I don’t know when Indonesia will fall apart–it may take a year, it may take 10 years–but given all its troubles, it likely can not survive. And given the strategic importance of its shipping lanes, its contribution to the oil industry, its size, and its neighbors, the repercussions of that collapse will ripple well beyond the hills of Bali, the rice fields of Sumatra or the streets of Jakarta. Even in the U.S., the implications will be profound.