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Culture Of Contempt


new internationalist
issue 253 - March 1994

Culture of contempt
The military rulers who are trying to crush East Timor seized power in Indonesia in 1965
with a coup that cost 500,000 lives and put an end to a vibrant democracy in their own country.
Max Lane studies the historical record.

A frequent argument heard from the current Indonesian Government and from its defenders internationally is that it is inappropriate to judge its human-rights record using so-called Western values. But since the beginning of the twentieth century a fundamental aspect of Indonesian history has been the struggle for freedom and human rights.

At the beginning of the century the main struggle was against colonial oppression. Mass organizations – such as the Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union) – and later political parties – such as the Indonesian Communist Party, the Indonesian National Party and the Islamic Union Party – involved hundreds of thousands of people in their mass campaigns. Thousands of Indonesians, especially workers, entered colonial prisons as payment for the assertion of their rights.

The same vision inspired Indonesians to take up arms and support the guerrilla struggle between 1945 and 1949 against the return of the Dutch to Indonesia after the defeat of Japan at the end of World War Two. All of the mass political movements of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s fought for political democracy, individual freedom and justice. Between 1945 and 1959 Indonesia had one of the freest parliamentary democracies in the world. In 1955 there were general elections with well over 30 parties participating. In 1957 there were equally free and successful elections for provincial parliaments. These elections took place with a totally free and flourishing press. Indeed, many of Indonesia’s prominent political and intellectual figures of the time were publishers or journalists.

During this time, hundreds of thousands of people joined the political party of their choice or various mass organizations affiliated to these parties. Very large trade union, peasant, women’s and cultural organizations developed which were affiliated to or worked closely with each of the major parties. Even the smaller Protestant and Catholic parties had their own mass organizations. The trade unions were able to launch actions to take over all the companies that still belonged to the Dutch. By 1957 almost all of these companies had been occupied by their workers and were eventually nationalized.

There were, of course, problems associated with this freedom. Because there were five major parties with virtually equal popular support, there was some instability. But it did not result in any major economic disruption as four of the main parties shared a similar general outlook on the economy. Only the Communist Party, the fastest-growing party, with support amongst workers and peasants, was excluded from a turn in government.

The erosion of this liberal democratic system began with escalating sabotage by the Indonesian military. As early as 1952 the military, led by General Nasution, attempted a coup. Even more serious problems began in the late 1950s. Extreme rightist generals stationed in parts of Sumatra and the Celebes staged mutinies to protect their smuggling and business enterprises and to express their hostility to the Indonesian Left. In some areas there were mass arrests of leftists. This rebellion was crushed by the national military command.

Under the protection of martial law – declared because of the mutinies – the army moved into all nationalized Dutch companies and assumed control. This turned the army into the single biggest group of capitalists in the country. Their behaviour had an enormous impact on the Indonesian economy. Military managers began lining their pockets to such an extent that this modern sector of the economy went into rapid decline.

Then the military devised a new constitution to encourage President Sukarno, hitherto a figurehead President, to disband the elected Assembly. In 1959 President Sukarno began a campaign to replace the political parties with the various mass organizations as the main representative bodies.

This was the first serious undermining of political democracy in Indonesia. But even after that, mass participation in political life remained very high. Between 1959 and 1965 over 15 million people joined political parties or affiliated to mass organizations. Huge mass campaigns developed, usually under the ideological leadership of President Sukarno, around issues of American and British influence in the region as well as land reform and corruption. These campaigns grew in intensity as a struggle developed between the big mass parties of the left (the Indonesian Communist Party) and the mainly conservative Islamic forces (the military and its allies).

By 1965 the extent of voluntary political mobilization of the people was enormous. The military began to panic. In outlying provinces such as in Kalimantan they banned leftist publications. By late 1965 rumours began to spread of the existence of a Council of Generals planning a coup against Sukarno.

On 30 September a group of middle-ranking officers moved to arrest these generals. Chaos ensued. The remaining leadership of the military initiated a programme of mass murder and arrests. Over 500,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of others were arrested without trial. Almost 20,000 were gaoled for between 10 and 14 years. All the big mass organizations ceased activity. Left-wing organizations and parties were banned. A policy of depolitisasi (depoliticization) was introduced which forbade political activity, left or right, at small town and village level. Only the state was allowed access to the population.

It was only after 1965 with the new government of President Suharto, backed by the military, that the idea began to be propagated that political democracy was alien to Indonesian culture. The truth is that it is not Indonesian but military culture that is hostile to mass political participation. Between 1945 and 1965 millions of Indonesians voluntarily and frequently threw themselves into political activity by joining the political organizations of their choice, showing that they too, like all human beings given the chance, wish to participate in determining the life of their country.

Max Lane is a Research Associate at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, University of Sydney and a regular writer on Southeast Asian affairs for Green Left Weekly.


Timor came from the crocodile
An often-told traditional story

The crocodile as portrayed in a traditional Timorese design. Long ago a boy saw a baby crocodile fighting for his life while the sun was shining fiercely. He was trying to get from the lagoon to the sea, but the little crocodile wasn’t strong and was moving very slowly. The boy took pity on him and carried that crocodile to the sea.

The crocodile was very grateful and promised that he would repay that kindness. He said if the boy wanted to travel he could go to the sea and call ‘Crocodile, Crocodile’, and he would come to him.

Time passed. The boy remembered the crocodile’s promise. He went to the sea and after the third call the crocodile came. They were like two old friends meeting after a long time, very happy to see each other. The crocodile told the boy to sit on his back and took him on a journey. They travelled together like this many times.

Then one day the crocodile felt he would like to eat the boy. It was his instinct, being the animal he was. But his conscience troubled him and before he did this thing he went to ask the opinion of other animals. He met a whale, a tiger and a buffalo... many animals.

All of them condemned him, saying he shouldn’t repay this favour of the boy with bad action. Finally he came to a monkey, the finest animal, jumping from one branch to another. For being so ungrateful he called the crocodile the worst name he could and then disappeared.

The crocodile was ashamed and gave up the idea of eating the boy. He still took the boy on his back and they travelled together until the crocodile became old. He said, ‘Ah, friend, the good deed you did me cannot be repaid. I am obliged to die and I will change into a land where you and your descendants will live from my fat, as payment for your kindness.’

That crocodile became Timor island, which is the shape of a crocodile, and the Timorese are descendants of that boy. People there are always kind. They welcome others and have a sense of justice and gratitude to people and they tell this legend to explain it.

Our people call crocodiles ‘Grandfather’. When they cross a river they always call ‘Crocodile, I am your grandchild, do not eat me’.

From Michele Turner, Telling - East Timor: Personal Testimonies 1942-1992, New South Wales University Press, 1992.

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