Suharto's Rule


On 11 March 1966, the Indonesian military mounted a show of force outside the presidential palace, pressuring Sukarno to hand over executive power to General Suharto. In retirement, Sukarno continued to defend the PKI and to campaign against
the massacres and anti-Chinese racism. Without access to the media, however, his speeches failed to achieve political traction.

In the wake of the massacres, Indonesia's pre-eminent cultural and intellectual organizations-the Peoples' Cultural Institute, the National Cultural Institute, and the Indonesian Scholars' Association-were shut down, and many of their members were arrested or imprisoned. All trade union activity was frozen for several years. More than one-and-a-half million Indonesians passed through a system of prisons and prison camps. The PKI was physically annihilated, and popular organizations associated with it were suppressed. The whole of Indonesian society was forcibly depoliticized. In village after village, local bureaucrats backed by the army imposed a control matrix of permits, rules, and regulations. Citizens were required to obtain a "letter of clean circumstances"' certifying that they and their extended families had not been associated with the left before 1965. Indonesian society became devoted to the prevention of any challenge to elite interests.

Control of the universities, newspapers, and cultural institutions was handed to conservative writers and intellectuals who collaborated with the New Order's program and did not oppose the jailing of their left-wing cultural rivals. Along with the violence, certain cultural values were strongly promoted - discussion of personal, religious, and consumerist issues was encouraged, while discussion of politics was considered to be in bad taste. Indonesian history was rewritten by the Armed Forces History Centre; textbooks, films, and official histories were produced to reflect the approved version of Indonesian history. The ordinary men and women from all walks of life who had played a part in winning independence from the Dutch were written out of history and replaced by Indonesian military personnel, depicted as the alleged heroes of independence.

The Suharto regime attacked Indonesian workers by intervening regularly on behalf of corporate interests. For example, workers were deemed to have resigned if they did not return to work within two days of being ordered to do so by the company or the Ministry of Labour.1 The government took no action against employers who violated health and safety provisions as well as the minimum wage.2 It cracked down on Indonesian workers by abducting and interrogating labour activists, and used troops regularly to break strikes. It guaranteed a low-wage economy in order to attract foreign investment and increase corporate profits. The starting wage for a female process worker was set at US$1.35 per day. A study found that 88 per cent of Indonesian women who worked for this wage were found to be suffering from malnourishment.3

According to the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, the regime helped create a workforce that was 'cheap, submissive and politically passive'. To protest this state of affairs was to invite terrible retribution: Marsinah, a young labour activist who organized protests outside a factory in East Java, disappeared and was found dead three days later. Her corpse showed signs of torture and rape.4

Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke's first overseas state visit was to Jakarta, where he made a famous champagne toast to Suharto: "We know your people love you." Under Hawke, the Australian government continued negotiations with Indonesia on the seabed boundary in the Timor Gap. Successive Australian governments strengthened ties with the Indonesian military and tried to minimize international criticism of Suharto. The Timor Gap Treaty was signed in December 1989. It was ratified with bi-partisan support in the Australian parliament.

The Suharto regime''s strategy-applauded by Australian commentators as precipitating an economic miracle-involved the destruction of rainforests and the "longest list of species threatened with extinction of any country, serious soil erosion, flash-flooding, mudslides, and river systems [with] serious siltation problems."5 These costs were of marginal importance to the calculations of Australian policy-makers. However, they knew that the Australian population was wary of the elite-driven push for closer relations with the Suharto regime. Accordingly, when the Keating government signed a defence treaty with Indonesia in 1995, it was forced to carry out the negotiations in secret. Keating himself acknowledged the extent of public opposition when he said, ""If there'd been a more public process, there probably wouldn't have been a treaty."6

After Keating's defeat in the 1996 election, the continuity of Australian foreign policy was evident in the new trade minister and Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer's description of Suharto as "perhaps the world's greatest figure in the latter half of the 20th century."7 Suharto's rule seriously weakened Indonesian political life for
decades, and set the scene for the subsequent emergence of Islamic terrorism in the archipelago. A crisis-ridden economy and a popular uprising forced Suharto's resignation on 21 May 1998.

1 For more details, see N. Katjasungkana and T. Masduki, 1993, Labour, State and Democracy, Jakarta.

2 Indonesia's Department of Labour figures showed that between 1985 and 1990, there were 108,332 reported violations. Only 0.15 per cent resulted in convictions.

3 R. Rothstein, 1995, 'The Global Hiring Hall', The American Prospect, 17: 52-61, 1995.

4 Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, 1994, Preliminary Report - Murder of Marsinah, Amsterdam.

5 R. McGibbon, 1997, PhD thesis, Australian National University.

6'Leaders sign historic Indonesian treaty', The Australian, 19 December 1995, p 1.

7 D. Lague, 3 August 1996, 'The looming crisis with Jakarta', Sydney Morning Herald, p 15.