What’s Wrong with Contemporary Indonesia?

Mar 05, 2012

An old leftist looks back at his career in politics, and at the state of Indonesia today.

Our methods were too extreme, our language was too strong, it had no nuance. We conceptualised things in black and white.

When asked to compare the pre-1965 period with today’s Indonesia, Harsutedjo commented that ‘the gap between the rich and poor was not so pronounced, while we spoke of capitalist bureaucrats this referred largely to the military and civilians’. He feels that there was a greater sense of social conscience after independence, perhaps because the people were more spirited. From independence onwards there were united efforts, for example, to eradicate illiteracy.

During the Suharto era, Harsutedjo observed the escalation of capitalism in Indonesia from within the system. Working in a foreign bank, an institution that symbolises modern capitalism, he was sometimes frustrated as to how he could achieve change in society. He studied banking laws and attempted to ensure the bank’s policies were fair with regard to Indonesian interests.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, Harsutedjo began to publish works about his experiences and about his political views. In 2010 he published a book, Dictionary of the New Order’s Crimes: Love your Homeland and Your Nation. Although the book is focused on the New Order it traces not only the crimes of that regime, but also its enduring legacies. In it, Harsutedjo provides a comprehensive catalogue of all the problems he sees today in Indonesian society and the need for a stronger sense of nationalism. Some key themes of the book are environmental exploitation, foreign ownership of Indonesian assets and the neglect of human rights, including the rights of the poor.

From red to green

Harsutedjo explains that for him ‘loving one’s country means protecting and safeguarding the land and water that we own and all that grows and lives in it, all flora and fauna and all water and sea as well as the air above it and its people’ (p. 5). He expresses great regret that Indonesian leaders do not seem to value these things as evidenced by the 2002 ‘loss’ to Malaysia of the two islands of Sipadan and Ligitan at the border of East Kalimantan. According to him, the two islands were handed over because of a regime that ‘prioritised its own power and its own pockets’. More small islands have been and will continue to be lost and to sink because of ‘the greed of giant investors’. According to Harsutedjo ‘They collude with the regime to steadily steal the coral, the sand and to dig up the mangrove trees which have for thousands of years guarded and preserved our seas and our land’ (p. 5).

The illegal sale of timber, sand and soil at low prices to Singapore is evidence that Indonesians have already sold their homeland’ (p. 5). Throughout his dictionary Harsutedjo lists many other cases in which Indonesia’s economic sovereignty has been compromised such as through the sale of mining and oil concessions to foreigners. In our interview, Harsutedjo stated that ‘compared to the Sukarno era there is now more foreign exploitation, but also national exploitation’. He gives the example of the privatisation of water for use in rice fields and of drinking water.

1214 The Dictionary of New Order Crimes, Komunitas Bambu.Harsutedjo’s contemporary critiques about economic exploitation mirror those made by many Indonesian nationalists in the 1950s and 1960s concerning the need for complete – including economic – independence. In the 1950s, the Indonesian economy continued to be dominated by Dutch companies. Many people were wary of allowing further concessions to foreign companies to exploit Indonesian resources such as oil. In an era of neoliberal globalisation such critiques have continuing resonance.

Harsutedjo documents throughout his dictionary the many human rights the New Order regime infringed, especially the rights of those imprisoned in relation to the Thirtieth of September Movement. The regime’s violations included not only imprisonment without trial, but also continuing stigmatisation once prisoners were released. Prisoners and their families were barred from certain occupations and they had to report regularly to local authorities.

Despite much talk of human rights since the fall of Suharto, for Harsutedjo human rights protection has not gone far enough: ‘the only people whose human rights are respected are the corruptors and those who have committed human rights abuses’ (p. 118). Referring to the string of violent episodes and massacres from the 1960s through to the late 1990s, he writes ‘A civilised country would not allow this tainted and bloodstained history to pass by without an investigation, such that the same thing may happen again’(p. 118).

Harsutedjo’s critiques mirror those of others of the Indonesian left who are still waiting to see some form of justice for the crimes of 1965-68. Despite investigations by both the National Commission of Human Rights and NGOs, time and again there has been no political will to prosecute those at the highest level of the military for these crimes. The military continues to enjoy impunity.

The triumph of capitalism?

In our interview, Harsutedjo commented that in the Sukarno era, ‘people used to be more idealistic, now they are pragmatic. No-one used to talk about becoming rich, now everyone does. It used to be a taboo.’ He notes that although the word capitalism still has some negative connotations, Indonesia now well and truly follows a capitalist system. He describes modern day Indonesian capitalism as ‘primitive’ because companies are able to pay off parliamentarians to pass laws that protect their interests. ‘New laws are passed that protect those who already have wealth, not the impoverished.’

In his dictionary he elaborates on this theme. ‘In the brutal form of capitalism that exists today in Indonesia the financial, chemical, pharmaceutical, automotive, tobacco, energy and other big industries hold the reins of the government in making decisions’ (p. 148). Meanwhile, many ordinary Indonesians do not have access to clean water, or cannot afford healthcare or education for their children.