Back to the Graft

Joshua Kurlantzick

  • My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist by Sadanand Dhume
    Skyhorse, 271 pp, $24.95, April 2009, ISBN 978 1 60239 643 2
  • Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert Kaplan
    Random House, 384 pp, £21.00, October 2010, ISBN 978 1 4000 6746 6
  • Understanding Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity by Robert Pringle
    Hawaii, 220 pp, $22.00, April 2010, ISBN 978 0 8248 3415 9

In the late 1990s it seemed quite possible that Indonesia was going to disintegrate, to become a South-East Asian version of Pakistan or Nigeria. The collapse of the long-lasting dictatorship of Suharto in 1998, together with the Asian financial crisis, battered Indonesia’s economy and released the cork that had kept contained religious, ethnic, class and other divisions in this very diverse archipelago. The result was political and social meltdown. The economy, already in a worse state than, say, South Korea’s, shrank by 13 per cent in 1998, and tens of millions of Indonesians fell below the poverty line. Prices for staple goods like rice and cooking oil soared, and in Jakarta rioters targeted enclaves lived in by the small, often wealthy ethnic Chinese community. Mobs burned down Chinese homes, looted Chinese-owned stores and reportedly gang-raped Chinese women. From the skyscrapers of the financial district, when I visited, you could see fires burning across the city, the flames skipping from one neighbourhood to the next. My translator, a Christian Indonesian Chinese who writes Bible-inspired children’s stories in her spare time, slept on the floor of her office in downtown Jakarta, too scared to go home.

Outside Jakarta, the violence was even worse. In the Malukus, the famous Spice Islands where Western colonists had competed for access to nutmeg and cloves, Christians and Muslims attacked each other’s villages, burning them to the ground and beheading survivors, whose skulls were impaled on spikes. Muslim and Christian gangs from other parts of Indonesia, including veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, poured into the islands, bringing more weapons and more death. After the violence ended, towns divided themselves into Muslim and Christian enclaves, with each place having two of every local amenity: a bank for Christians and one for Muslims, a hotel for Christians and one for Muslims, a market for Christians and one for Muslims.

With central authority weakened after Suharto’s fall, outlying regions like Aceh and East Timor, a former Portuguese colony which had been forcibly annexed by Indonesia in 1975, pushed for independence. When Timor finally voted in 1999 to secede, local militias linked to the Indonesian army made sure that an independent Timor would start with nothing. Wielding machetes, shotguns and homemade pistols, they rampaged through the territory, slaughtering Timorese who sheltered in churches and attacking foreign journalists. Nearly half the population fled from their homes; and when I visited Timor’s capital, Dili, seven years later, the signs of conflict were still evident. Children played in burned-out buildings, and gangs of unemployed young men roamed the streets at night, robbing passers-by in order to buy food.

Despite such events, Indonesia has somehow managed to achieve some degree of stability during the last decade. But it is only in the last two years that writers and reporters in the West have taken any notice of the shift. In Washington, where Indonesia had received a fraction of the attention paid to neighbouring countries like Thailand or Taiwan, a small army of government officials suddenly began to court it, as the US realised it had to compete with China for Jakarta’s loyalty. Battle was joined, in November, by Barack Obama, who made a triumphant ‘return’ to Jakarta, reminiscing about growing up there and delivering a speech at the national university that was cheered as though he were a revivalist preacher.

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