Return to Indonesia

A reporter chronicles the revival of the world’s most populous Muslim nation a decade after its disintegration

Despite ongoing problems, Indonesia boasts one of Asia's strongest economies. (Ed Wray)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

As reports of riots in Indonesia flashed across the world’s news wires, in May 1998, my wife telephoned the hotel in Jakarta where I was staying to make sure I was OK. “What do you see out your window?” she asked. Flames from burning department stores and Chinese shops and businesses owned by the family of President Suharto spread across the horizon like a magnificent sunset. Army tanks and soldiers with dogs filled the square below. “I see a city burning,” I said, “a city dying.”

From This Story

At the time it seemed no exaggeration. Indonesia’s economy and its currency, the rupiah, had collapsed in a financial crisis that gripped all of Southeast Asia. In parts of the Spice Islands, which belong to Indonesia, tensions between Muslims and Christians were escalating. In the nation’s province of Aceh, and in Papua, site of one of the world’s richest deposits of copper and gold, the death toll mounted as secessionists skirmished with the army. East Timor was about to fall into anarchy, then secede from Indonesia as an independent country. In Jakarta, the nation’s capital, student protesters seeking to replace three decades of dictatorship with democracy were brutally put down by the military and government thugs, sparking clashes that would claim 1,200 lives and 6,000 buildings. Hardest hit was the Chinese minority, long resented for their entrepreneurial success; their businesses were looted and destroyed, and women were raped by hired military goons. Tens of thousands of Chinese fled the country.

I was then a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, based in Hanoi, and I was covering the civil unrest in Jakarta. One day I came upon an anti-Suharto demonstration at Trisakti, a private university. Students at other colleges sometimes taunted Trisakti’s students, belittling their lack of political involvement by waving bras and panties at them. But on this day Trisakti’s young men challenged the soldiers, standing shoulder to shoulder and pushing against their lines. “Don’t get so close. You could get shot and killed,” a friend of 19-year-old Trisakti student Elang Lesmana warned him. “That’s OK,” Lesmana replied. “I’d be a hero.” The soldiers, who had exchanged their rubber bullets for real ones, killed Lesmana and three other students. The deaths galvanized Indonesia, turning the tide of public and military sentiment.

Suharto’s top general, Wiranto—like Suharto and many Indonesians, he has only one name—told the president the military could no longer protect him and had no intention of staging a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Jakarta. Nine days after the shootings of students, on May 21, Asia’s longest-serving leader resigned. He retired to the family compound in a leafy Jakarta suburb to live out his final decade watching TV, surrounded by a stuffed tiger and bookshelves full of cheap souvenirs and trinkets. Caged songbirds sang on his terrace.

For 32 years Suharto had run Indonesia like the CEO of a family corporation. The Suhartos’ fortune reportedly topped $15 billion, and they had a major stake in more than 1,200 companies. But Suharto left behind more than a legacy of corruption and a military best known for its deadly abuse of human rights. He had also been Indonesia’s father of development, building schools and roads, opening the economy to foreign investment, transforming dusty, tropical Jakarta into a modern capital and lifting millions of Indonesians out of poverty.

The world’s most populous Muslim country, with 240 million people, Indonesia has always been an ungainly place. The archipelago encompasses 17,500 islands—6,000 inhabited—that stretch 3,200 miles across the Pacific Ocean’s so-called Ring of Fire where earthquakes and volcanoes are a constant threat and tsunamis are born. The people—88 percent Muslim—speak scores of local languages and represent dozens of ethnic groups. As recently as the 1950s the population included tribes of headhunters. That this polyglot was born as a single nation in 1949, after 300 years of Dutch rule and four of warfare and negotiations with the Netherlands, was a miracle in itself.

After witnessing the Suharto-era meltdown, I did not return to Indonesia until October 2009, after I had begun hearing about changes unimaginable a decade earlier. On the surface, Jakarta didn’t seem much changed. Traffic remained gridlocked in the humid 90-degree heat. Shantytown slums languished in the shadow of marbled shopping malls where pianists in tuxedos played Chopin next to Valentino and Louis Vuitton shops, and white-gloved valets parked cars. The Indonesians I encountered were, as always, gracious and friendly, and I could walk virtually any street, even at night in a city of nine million people, with no fear for my safety. On one block you’d still find a mosque packed with men who considered alcohol and dancing ungodly, on the next, a nightclub like the Stadium that served alcohol 24 hours a day on weekends and boasted a disco pulsating with lights, thunderous rock music and writhing young bodies.

But beneath the surface, everything was different. Indonesia had recovered from half a century of dictatorship—first under Sukarno, then Suharto—and in the time I’d been away had become what Freedom House, a U.S. think tank, called the only fully free and democratic country in Southeast Asia. The outlying islands were generally calm. Soldiers no longer careered with abandon through city streets in cars bearing the red license plates of the military command. The unthinkable had happened: Indonesia had become one of the region’s most stable and prosperous nations.

People seldom talked about the dark past, not even of the apocalyptic end of the Sukarno regime in the mid-1960s, when the army and vigilantes went on a madhouse slaughter to purge the country of leftists, real and imagined. The killings spread from Jakarta to the Hindu-dominated island of Bali, and by the time order was restored as many as half a million had lost their lives. The mayhem was captured in the 1982 movie starring Mel Gibson and Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously.

Today Indonesia has joined the Group of 20, the world’s premier forum for economic cooperation. Blessed with an abundance of natural resources—petroleum, natural gas, timber, rubber and various minerals—and a strategic position straddling one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, it is one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus