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
News
Shoppers at Selfridges department store in central London
news

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
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

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game