Thirty-year rule of unity threatened by turmoil

Jakarta - By geographical common sense, Indonesia should not be a country at all, let alone a stable, prosperous and unified one, writes Richard Lloyd Parry. From Aceh in the far north west to the Torres Strait in the east is 5,000 miles, almost as far as from London to Baghdad. The archipelago has 14,000 islands, some mere equatorial rocks, others some of the largest in the world.

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.

Suggested Topics
Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup