There are more than 190 million Indonesians (only China, India and America have bigger populations) and they range from Jakarta yuppies to tribesmen in Irian Jaya whose national costume is a gourd worn on the penis. In some respects, Indonesia seems more like an unwieldy empire than a nation state. For years, it has seemed almost invisible to European eyes. Now, however, its very survival in its present form has been called into question.
Violent riots in Jakarta have left at least two people dead, many injured, and a dozen government buildings and businesses gutted by fires. There were no new disturbances yesterday, but the presence of armoured cars and troops on the streets of the capital may indicate that Indonesia's years of miraculous unity are at an end.
The key to the changes afoot in Indonesia lies with one man, 75-year old President Suharto. In 1965, when he came to prominence, the country was an international basket case, racked by anti-communist and anti-Chinese pogroms which killed as many as 400,000 people and were described by the CIA as "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century". Two years later, he had placed the former President Sukarno under house arrest, and been declared president of the so-called "New Order". He now rules over the biggest and most economically powerful country in south-east Asia.
Suharto is now an old man. His advancing years have coincided with escalating changes in Indonesian society and the surfacing of old and familiar conflicts. The country's burgeoning wealth is distributed unequally: a disproportionate number of rich Indonesians are ethnic Chinese, and the resentment which fuelled the pogroms of the Sixties has never fully subsided.
But the most favoured family of all is that of the President. Suharto is immensely revered, but in May there were stifled gasps of indignation when his son Tommy was awarded the right to develop a national car, free of import and luxury taxes. Earlier this year a petrochemical plant owned by an- other of the Suharto boys, Bambang, was exempted from a tax increase.
"Insulting" the President is still punishable by imprisonment, but a code word has been developed for criticism of the Suharto dynasty. When you ask protesters on the streets of Jakarta what they dislike about the government, the second thing they say is "corruption".
Their first complaint is also couched in oblique terms. Last weekend's riots were sparked when the headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) were raided by police. They had been occupied for more than a month by supporters of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the ousted leader of the PDI. Ms Megawati's demands seem modest: she wants the government to recognise her as the legitimate leader of the PDI, and withdraw its support for a rival elected in a rigged Congress last month. But her resistance is incendiary. First, she is the daughter of the former president, Sukarno. Second, and as a partial consequence, she is the most popular and respected figure in the country.
Suharto has never yet been challenged, but his clumsy sacking of Megawati has given her fellow citizens new ideas. Indonesia's unity may begin to look less like a triumph over the odds and more like a 30-year-old fluke.Reuse content