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Travel Guide > Asia > Indonesia

Indonesia History & Politics

  
 
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Ancestors

The early, modern history of Indonesia begins in the period from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE with a wave of light, brown-skinned Austronesian immigrants, thought to have originated in Taiwan. This Neolithic group of people, skilled in open-ocean maritime travel and agriculture are believed to have quickly supplanted the existing, less-developed population.

From this point onward, dozens of kingdoms and civilizations flourished and faded in different parts of the archipelago. Some notable kingdoms include Srivijaya (7th-14th century) on Sumatra and Majapahit (1293-c.1500), based in eastern Java but the first to unite the main islands of Sumatra, Java, Bali and Borneo (now Kalimantan) as well as parts of the Malay Peninsula.

The first Europeans to arrive (after Marco Polo who passed through in the late 1200s) were the Portuguese, who were given permission to erect a godown near present-day Jakarta in 1522. By the end of the century, however, the Dutch had pretty much taken over and the razing of a competing English fort in 1619 secured their hold on Java, leading to 350 years of colonization. In 1824, the Dutch and the British signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty which divided the Malay world into Dutch and British spheres of influence, with the Dutch ceding Malacca to the British, and the British ceding all their colonies on Sumatra to the Dutch. The line of division roughly corresponds to what is now the border between Malaysia and Indonesia.

Various nationalist groups developed in the early 20th century, and there were several disturbances, quickly put down by the Dutch. Leaders were arrested and exiled. Then during World War II, the Japanese conquered most of the islands. In August 1945 in the post war vacumn following the Japanese surrender to allied forces the Japanese army and navy still controlled the majority of the Indonesian archipelago. The Japanese agreed to return Indonesia to the Netherlands but continued to administer the region as the Dutch were unable to immediately return due to massive destabilisation from the effects of war in Europe.

Independence

On August 17th 1945 Sukarno read the Proklamasi or Declaration of Independence and the Panitia Persiapan Kemerdekaan Indonesia (PPKI) moved to form an interim government. A constitution, drafted by the PPKI preparatory committee was announced on 18th August 18th and Sukarno was declared President with Hatta as Vice-President. The PPKI was then remade into the KNIP (Central Indonesian National Committee) and the KNIP became the temporary governing body. The new government was installed on August 31, 1945. Indonesia's founding fathers Sukarno (Soekarno) and Hatta declared the independence of the Republic of Indonesia.

The Dutch mounted a diplomatic and military campaign to reclaim their former colony from the nationalists. Disputations, negotiations, partitioning and armed conflict prevailed between the newly independent Indonesia and the Netherlands. Several nations including the US were highly critical of the Dutch in this immediate post war period and at one stage in late 1949 the US government suspended aid provided to the Dutch under the Marshal plan. The matter was also raised by the newly formed UN. After four years of fighting, the Dutch accepted defeat and on December 27, 1949 and they formally transferred sovereignty to "Republik Indonesia Serikat" (Republic of United States of Indonesia). In August 1950 a new constitution was proclaimed and the new Republic of Indonesia was formed from the original but now expanded Republic to include Sumatra Timur and East Indonesia/Negara Indonesia Timur. Jakarta was made the capital of the Republic of Indonesia however the Netherlands and Indonesia remained in a theoretical constitutional union with Indonesia holding the status of a fully independent state.

In September 1950 Natsir and the Masyumi party led the first government of fully independent Indonesia. Sukarno returned again to the role of President and over time came to assert greater power in that role. For a time Indonesia used a provisional constitution modelled upon that of the US which also drew heavily on the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On September 26, 1950 Indonesia was admitted to the newly formed United Nations. The 1950 constitution appears to have been an attempt to set up a liberal democracy system with two chambers of parliament. Later in 1955, still under this provisional constitution Indonesia held its first free election.

The new government was tasked with finalising a permanent and final version of the constitution but after much wrangling consensus was not reached leading to organised public demonstrations in 1958. In 1959 President Sukarno issued a decree dissolving the then current constitution and restored the 1945 Constitution. Indonesia then entered the era of Guided Democracy with the Head of State assuming stronger presidential powers and also absorbing the previous role of Prime Minister.

From their initial declaration of independence Indonesia claimed West Papua as part of their nation, but the Dutch held onto it into the 1960s, and in the early sixties there was further armed conflict over that region. After a UN-brokered peace deal, and a referendum, West Papua became part of Indonesia and was renamed as Irian Jaya, which apocryphically stands for Ikut (part of) Republic of Indonesia, Anti Netherlands. It's now called simply Papua, but the independence movement smolders on to this day.

During the post war and Cold war period Sukarno made friendly advances to the USA, the Soviet Union and later, China. He also tried to play one against another as he attempted to develop the nation as a non-aligned state. Much to the dismay of post war Western governments Sukarno became engaged in extensive dialogue with the Soviets and accepted civil and military aid, equipment, and technical assistance from the CCCP. Sukarno publicly claimed that his engagement with the Soviets was to assist in promoting the new Republic of Indonesia as a non-aligned post war state and to assist in rebuilding the nation following the Pacific war.

At this time US were trying to consolidate their control over regional and strategic interests in South East Asia and Indo-china.

The US, confronted by an archepelgo apparently in the grasp of emerging Indonesian nationalism sought to gain and maintain control over the important resources and shipping routes of the region. They viewed Indonesia as potentially unstable and in a power vacumn left in the wake of the Japanese defeat in Indonesia. The Dutch, their nation ravaged by the European war were unable to fully reclaim their colony and maintain control over the rising tide of Indonesian nationalism.

The Dutch were also subject to pressure from the US and other western governments in addition to their own considerable problems at home. The US covertly supported anti Sukarno activities and operations to destabilise the the nationalist movement. In 1957-58, the CIA infiltrated arms and personnel in support of regional rebellions against Sukarno. Covert actions at this time led to the capture of an American pilot and plane. The activities involved the use of mercenary forces as well as the material and financial support of insurgents. Funding, arms, logistical support and training were provided covertly by the US to breakaway factions, right wing elements, and radical Islamist groups including Darul Islam in an attempt to gain US and western control of Indonesian nationalism. The actions were supported from the US embassy in Singapore, by elements of the US 7th fleet stationed of Sulawesi and Sumatra and with the co-operation and support of the UK government and western intelligence agencies.

The US, with the participation of other Western powers including the UK later seized upon Sukarno's emerging dialogue and dealings with the with the Soviets and later the Chinese as a threat to the region. Former Director of the CIA William Colby later compared their own operations in Indonesia to the Vietnam Phoenix Program conducted in Vietnam. Indeed some of the equipment including military aircraft were later transferred onto that program. Colby further admitted directing the CIA to concentrate on compiling lists of members of the PKI and other leftist groups, Colby was at that time the Chief of CIA's Far East Division. Cloaked by the fears and propaganda of the Cold war period the US maintained an extended overt and a covert campaign to destabilise Sukarno.

The new order

In 1965, in highly controversial and confusing circumstances involving a purported military coup, Sukarno, known for his support of Indonesian nationalism and independence was displaced by Suharto, an army general with strong anti communist views. Suharto originally served in the Japanese occupation forces supported police force, later he entered the the Peta (Defenders of the Fatherland) and went on to train in the Japanese led Indonesian armed forces of the occupation period. In the post war period it is believed he fell under US influence and patronage and with their backing he and his supporters rose in stature and influence.

The coup

In September 1965 six army generals were murdered in an apparent coup attempt. The kidnappings and subsequent murders occurred in highly suspicious circumstances and the somewhat confusing official accounts have been found to be highly suspect. A group of senior officers including the army commander Lieutenant General Ahmad Yani had apparently been increasingly at odds with an alliance of right wing officers including Suharto. The murdered officers were supportive of Sukarno and accommodating of the Presidents relationship with the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party). Subandrio, Sukarno's foreign minister, second deputy prime minister and chief of intelligence, from 1960 to 1966 had infiltrated agents into a secret meeting of rightwing generals plotting the overthrow of Sukarno. It is believed he may have precipitated the uprising by releasing information about this but the details remain uncertain. The uprising was reported amongst units in central Java, air force units at Halim air force base and armed forces units that occupied Merdeka Square, a strategic section of the capital. The so called "30th September group" leaders claimed the forces present in Merdeka Square were to protect the Presidency from a planned uprising soon to be orchestrated by a group of generals backed by the US CIA. General Suharto then reportedly subsequently quelled this action within the armed forces in a single day. The right wing officers who subsequently rose to power condemned the killings of the senior army officers and claimed the uprising involving the military units was the work of communists. As more documentation emerges from western archives it appears ever more apparent that the event was stage managed to allow Suharto an opportunity to subsequently to claim the leadership. In the early stages Suharto blamed the murders on a group of PKI inspired youths, women and "elements of the Air Force".

The purges

The murders were later to be blamed upon the PKI, communists and the September 30th movement, ironically the same group that had claimed to have come together in an attempt to thwart a right wing coup d'état. Suharto initially claimed to support President Sukarno but then seized power himself, sidelining Sukarno, proclaiming a New Order (Orde Baru). A series of bloody anti-Communist purges was then initiated leading to the death of 500,000-2,000,000 people (estimates vary widely).

The Western governments turned a blind eye to the massacres and they remained substantially unreported in the West for a considerable time. Many historians have since shed light on the involvement of the US intelligence services and to a lesser degree their mutual contacts in British, German and Japanese intelligence in the circumstances leading up to the seizure of power by Suharto and the subsequent murderous purges.

When the information concerning the widspread killings was eventually released it was shrouded in mystery. The US intelligence agencies and the CIA were later found to be complicit in supplying names and addresses of the PKI members to the Indonesian army, Suharto operatives and CIA-funded Muslim death squads, who hunted the leftists down and murdered them. Declassified US files have since shown that the US government was giving covert aid to Suharto and the death squads to conduct the widespread purges across Indonesia. Following Suharto's rise to power US interests in the region were secured and their influence over the RI and the nation's resourses continued into the new century.

Under Suharto from 1966 to 1997, Indonesia enjoyed stability and economic growth, but most of the wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small corrupt elite and dissent was brutally crushed. During the Asian economic crisis of 1997 the value of the Indonesian rupiah plummeted, halving the purchasing power of ordinary Indonesians. In the ensuing violent upheaval, now known as Reformasi, Suharto was brought down and a more democratic regime installed.

Post Reformasi 1998

The former Portuguese colony of East Timor was annexed by Indonesia in 1975, but there was armed resistance to this. After decades of civil war, on 30 August 1999, a provincial referendum for independence was overwhelmingly approved by the people of East Timor. Indonesia grudgingly but still astonishingly accepted the result (although army-linked militias looted capital Dili in protest), and East Timor gained its independence in 2002.

One more violent secessionist movement took place in the devoutly Islamic state of Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra. After decades of insurgency and abortive talks, the deadlock was broken by the 2004 tsunami, which killed over 200,000 people in Aceh. The Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) signed a peace deal the next year, with Aceh giving up it's fight for independence in exchange for being granted special autonomy including the right to enact Syariah (Islamic) law, and to date the peace has held.

In 2004 Indonesia held the first election was in which the people directly elected the president and vice president. The president of Indonesia may currently serve a maximum of two consecutive five-year terms. Currently Indonesia is one of the worlds largest democracies and is going through a period of difficult reforms and re-invention following the Reformasi and the institution of a democratically elected government. In order to assist in the transformation from the years of centralised control under the Suharto regime the role of regional and provincial government has been strengthened and enhanced. The election process in Indonesia has a high participation rate and the nature and fabric of governance and administration is slowly changing across Indonesia. Change in the nation since the fall of Suharto has also been characterized by greater freedom of speech and a massive reduction in the political censorship that was a feature of Suharto's New Order era. There is more open political debate in the news media as well as in general discourse, political and social debate.





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