Indonesia: Can the center hold?

“Things fall apart,” Yeats famous poem goes, “the center cannot hold.”

It is an apt description of Indonesia today, a graphic portrayal of the bleak future of this beleaguered nation.  The world’s eyes are on East Timor, but larger questions of national survival frame the Timor question.

The Indonesian economy remains the shakiest in the region.  Its capacity to bounce back from the Asian financial crisis has been hampered by the weakness of its economic institutions.  The political system that oversees the fifth most populous country and one of the most culturally diverse societies in the world is going through a rough transition.  Since its liberation from the Dutch in 1945, Indonesia has been tenuously held together by the hegemony of the military, the trappings of a modern nation-state, and the unifying ethos of Islam. Today the army’s right to rule is under question, and local ethnic identities are asserting themselves against the symbols of Javanese nationalism.  Through all this, Islamic leaders have been unable to provide a single narrative of the nation’s crisis and its future directions.

Indonesians are probably among the most nationalistic of the Southeast Asian peoples.  Yet in the last two years, their self-understanding as a sovereign nation has come under assault from at least two directions. First, from the IMF, which, since 1997, has dictated the terms of its economic reorganization, and second, from the UN which has sent an international peacekeeping force to restore order in East Timor, and created an international commission to inquire into the tragic events that followed the vote for East Timorese independence.

To be sure, the UN-sanctioned Aug. 30 referendum, was in itself already a blow to Indonesian nationhood.  In normal times, Indonesia would not have allowed it.  Having asserted its sovereignty over East Timor in 1975, it was a matter of national honor, and also of oil, to hold on to East Timor despite what the rest of the world might say.  And indeed, even the most progressive among Indonesia’s  intellectuals either supported the forced annexation of East Timor, or said nothing critical about it.

Even Megawati Sukarnoputri, possibly the country’s next president, went on record to oppose the referendum, saying it was the wrong time to hold it.  In her view, a government, under a transition president (Habibie) of contested legitimacy, would not be in the best position to negotiate a just settlement.  Wanting to court international favor, while stilling nationalist sentiments at home, Habibie had agreed to the referendum on condition that the results would be taken up in parliament, and that any step leading to East Timorese independence should have the prior approval of the Indonesian government.  This proviso was clearly meant to placate Indonesian nationalist feelings.

None of this will matter much now.  The independence of East Timor is a fait accompli.  The United Nations has committed itself to look after the future of this new nation.  The conduct of the Indonesian army and of the militias under its informal control in the aftermath of the referendum had been so brutal and disgraceful as to cast doubt on the very capacity of Indonesia to rule itself.   Today, Indonesia  fights no longer for East Timor but for its own integrity as a nation.

As a modernizing nation, ruled by the ideals of national integration and unity, the Philippines understands only too well the fragility of postcolonial states like Indonesia.   With globalization have come the fragmentation and the emasculation of nation-states.  Sub-national identities suppressed in the process of nation-building suddenly come alive and acquire a new legitimacy in the world stage.

Had this spirit of the times been upon us in the early ‘70s, the UN might have intervened to stop the massacre of the Muslims in Mindanao.  It might have sent a peacekeeping force to restore order, and supervised a referendum to determine whether the people of Mindanao wanted autonomy or secession.  Of course, the Marcos regime would have protested that it was in full control of the situation, and would have insisted, in the name of national sovereignty, that it be left alone to settle its internal affairs.

Indonesia feels exactly like that today.  But engulfed by multiple crises, it is unable to assert its sovereign rights on almost all fronts.  Instead it has become an example of the dramatic unraveling of the modern nation-state.  It has no choice but to let go of East Timor, and to allow the UN to intervene.  In doing so, it gives itself needed breathing space so that it may focus its attention on the vital task of reweaving its national institutions.

Nothing would be gained for the people of Indonesia or of the region if the country’s independence is compromised any further.  That is why, though it may seem insensitive to the atrocities committed against the Timorese people, I think the decision of the Philippine delegation to vote against the formation of an international commission of inquiry on East Timor was correct.  I believe the Indonesian Commission on Human Rights, with the participation of Asian experts, should have been allowed to undertake this sensitive task.

To have aligned ourselves with the UN majority, against the unanimous Asian sentiment to respect Indonesian autonomy, would have been to spit in the face of our neighbors and to assume the superior moral stance of colonial supervisors.


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