As the abc’s Jakarta correspondent for five years, Michael Maher

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As the ABC’s Jakarta correspondent for five years, Michael Maher

covered the deepening crisis across the Indonesian archipelago, producing

award-winning journalism for both television and radio and

gaining a reputation for incisive reporting.
An Asian Studies graduate, Maher has lived and worked

throughout South-East Asia.
He is currently Asia Editor at The Bulletin.


Penguin Books Australia Ltd
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First published by Penguin Books Australia Ltd 2000
Copyright © Michael Maher, 2000
The moral right of the author has been asserted
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no

part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both
the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
Cover design by John Canty, Penguin Design Studio

Text design by Erika Budiman, Penguin Design Studio
Map on pp. viii-ix by Craig McGill
Typeset in 12/17 pt Bembo by Post Pre-press Group, Brisbane

Printed and bound in Australia by Australian Print Group, Maryborough
National Library of Australia

Cataloguing-in-Publication data:
Maher, Michael Bret, 1962- .

Indonesia: an eyewitness account.
Includes index.

ISBN 0 670 88532 0.
1. Religion and social problems - Indonesia. 2. Religion
and state - Indonesia. 3. Indonesia - Politics and
government - 1998- . 4. Indonesia - Economic conditions 1945-
. 5. Indonesia - Religion. I.Title.

For Susan

Map viii
Author’s Note xi

Introduction . . 1
1 Java Days 4
2 Suharto’s Kingdom 14
3 The Ties That Bind 39
4 Dr Strangelove and the Brotherhood of Islam 63
5 Insulting the Sovereign: Communists,
Subversives and Traitors 89
6 A Race Apart 115
7 The Asian Contagion 127
8 The May Revolution? 150
9 The Balkans of South-East Asia 173
10 East Timor 202
11 A Million Mutinies Now 231
Epilogue: In the Shadow of a Dictator 254
Acknowledgements 259
Index 263

I EMBARKED ON THIS PROJECT with the singular aim of writing

an accessible book on Indonesia - one that might reach as wide an

audience as possible. For many outsiders, Indonesia is an intimidating

subject. It’s a nation so vast and seemingly complex that it defies

ready judgement. Even those who have made the study of this

archipelago their life’s work often stumble in the face of its subterranean

politics, its regional differences and its unexpected quirks. A

noted scholar once told me:’No matter how much of a so-called

expert you are on Indonesia, you invariably end up getting a lot

wrong.’ Indonesians themselves joke that they sometimes have

trouble fathoming the undercurrents of their nation. After all,
j getting it’right’when analysing a country of more than 200 million
people and 250 ethnic groups spread over 13000 islands is no

simple task.
This book doesn’t pretend to be an exhaustive or detached study

of Indonesia’s politics, its economy or its relations with the rest of

the world. Rather it is a personal account of the years I spent covering

a nation in the midst of great change. It is the story of the

struggles, the hopes, the defeats and the victories of a diverse people

living under the dead weight of an authoritarian, deeply corrupt

regime. Of course, Indonesia’s story is far from over. I conclude with

the rise of the country’s first democratically elected president,

Abdurrahman Wahid, and the resolution of the long-running East

Timor dispute. Now new chapters have begun, every bit as challenging

and daunting as those that have just come to an end.
For Australian readers, I hope I have gone some way towards lifting

the veil that often shrouds our largest Asian neighbour to reveal

that there are as many common bonds and aspirations uniting us as

there are differences that divide us.
For the many Indonesians who generously gave their time,

insights and friendship - often under threat of retribution from an

oppressive state -1 hope this book will be seen as an outsider’s honest

and sympathetic attempt to chronicle tumultuous times.
Michael Matter

FROM A KOOFTOP I WATCHED as Jakarta burned.
To the north, the city’s Chinatown was ablaze. At all other points

- south, east and west - there were yet more fires. Department

stores, banks, police stations and homes. All engorged by the flames.
Down below, the streets were empty.The garishly painted kaki

lima foodcarts, dispensing satay on banana leaves and spicy noodles

in stained china bowls, had disappeared. So had the rust-eaten

Metromini buses careening murderously along Jalan Sudirman, passengers

hanging on for dear life.The din of traffic, the cries of hawkers

and the crush of office workers, street urchins and commuters

had come to a halt. The cacophonous rhythm of this giant Asian

metropolis was no longer beating. Only the occasional forlorn wail

of a siren disturbed the quiet.
Looking out over the city I had lived in for five years, I knew

we’d reached the end. For months the pressure had been building.

Student unrest, street riots and looting had broken out around the

country. Indonesians were not only thinking the unthinkable, they

had now begun to act. Millions were demanding that the country’s

aging dictator, General Suharto, stand down.
As the plumes of acrid black smoke gradually smudged out the

blue mid-day sky, I reflected on how one man had been able to drive

his nation to the edge of such a precipice and still grimly press on,

despite the promise of certain disaster. I reflected on all the other

dictators who had done the same, marvelling at history’s ability to

repeat itself, at humankind’s inability to learn the lessons of the past.
But most of all I was struck by the breakneck speed with which

events were finally unfolding.
For five years I had watched as cracks began to appear in the

towering edifice that was the Suharto regime. While cashed-up

foreign banks, hungry multi-national corporations and an array of

eager world leaders lined up to hail Indonesia an ’Asian miracle’,

away from the gleaming office blocks of Jakarta’s Golden Triangle

miracles were getting harder to find. To be sure, President Suharto

had brought three decades of stability to this unwieldy, archipelagic

nation. He’d raised literacy and health standards and had put rice on

peoples tables. But at what cost? In the process he’d ruled Indonesians

as a feudal king rules his serfs - at times benevolent, occasionally

tolerant of grievances but ultimately prepared to use brute force

to put down those who threatened his own political and economic

interests. Now it had come to this. Weighed down by an Asia-wide

economic collapse, the capital had exploded. Jakarta had succumbed

to the anarchy of the mob.
Just a few streets away from my observation post stood Suharto’s

heavily guarded bungalow at 8 Jalan Cendana.The president wasn’t

home. He was at a conference in Egypt.As his country continued to

freefall deeper into crisis, Suharto’s absence underlined once again

just how remote he’d become. And now it was too late for him to

make amends. Perhaps, as he sat in his hotel suite in Cairo, watching

the news reports on his burning capital, the besieged president was

also reflecting. Was he asking himself what had gone wrong? Was

he blaming his misfortunes on treachery and incompetence within

his own palace? Or was he, old soldier to the last, plotting his next

As I left the roof to file another despatch for the hourly news

bulletin, Suharto had just seven days left in power. It was Thursday

14 May 1998. The next week would bring moments of terror,

intrigue and, finally, sheer jubilation. But at the end of it all, after

Asia’s most enduring strongman had been brought down, Indonesians

would be forced to confront the crushing truth.
Suharto had promised to build foundations that would secure

Indonesia’s future. Instead, he bequeathed his people a house of

cards . . .

... Java is probably the very finest and most interesting tropical

island in the world.’
TIRING is TOO GOOD FOR YOU! I’m sending you to Jakarta.’
So read the caption to a cartoon of a hapless reporter standing,

head bowed, before the desk of his hard-bitten editor. In my office

at the back of a mouldering bungalow in the old Dutch quarter of

Menteng, this cartoon took pride of place on the permanently damp

It was a favourite among many of Jakarta’s other foreign correspondents

as well. Not that we needed reminding of the fraught

relationship between the Western media and the Suharto regime. In

this job the sword of Damocles teetered permanently above your

head. A single call from the dreaded Department of Information,

known to all by its suitably Orwellian acronym DEPPEN, could

have you packing your bags for the next plane out. Never to return.

And so it was that after telling one of Australia’s most seasoned

journalists in early 1993 that I’d just been appointed to the ABC’s

Jakarta bureau, all I received was a wry smile and the muttered

response, ’You poor bastard.’
Colleagues all earnestly acknowledged the significance of my

new position. Indonesia, after all, was that brooding nation of 200

million people, hovering like a heavy weight just to our north. And

hadn’t the prime minister of the day, Paul Keating, intoned that no

country was more important to Australia than Indonesia? Few of

those colleagues wanted to work there, however - at least not for

any length of time. Not only did the zealous lieutenants of Suharto’s

so-called New Order go out of their way to make life difficult for

foreign reporters, they appeared to reserve their greatest disdain for

reporters of the Australian variety. In fact, the name of one eminent

journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald, David Jenkins, had

become a byword for the myriad sins committed by the perfidious

foreign press.
In 1986, Jenkins had written an article on the spectacular wealth

of Indonesia’s First Family.’After Marcos, Now for Suharto’s Billions’

the headline read. It was an entirely fitting reference to the kleptomania

of two South-East Asian dictators, one who’d just been

toppled, the other at the very height of his power. And therein lay

the problem. Suharto was so firmly entrenched that there was close

to zero tolerance for criticism of his rule. References to his family’s

spectacular, but ill-gotten, wealth were highest on the list of taboos.

Adding insult to injury, the Sydney Morning Herald had the temerity

to plaster Jenkins’ article over the front page. Within a year of the

story appearing, most of the Australian press corps in Jakarta had

been thrown out.
It was not uncommon for an Indonesian general, government

official or Suharto business crony, upon learning I was from the Australian

media, to exhale ’Ah, David Jenkins!’And that was it. No

more explanation was required.The mere mention of Jenkins’ name

was enough to convey a catalogue of wrongdoing.
As luck would have it, I was doubly cursed. Not only was I an

Australian journalist but I also worked for the Australian Broadcasting

It wasn’t that our reporting was any more or less critical than

that of other foreign media organisations. But our ’crimes’, in the

eyes of the humourless men at DEPPEN and military intelligence,

were writ larger because we broadcast back into Indonesia - in

Indonesian - through our short-wave radio and satellite TV services.

With the local media heavily bridled, these news bulletins became

an important source of independent information for millions of

Indonesians - information more often than not at odds with the

government’s official line.
On mornings after a particularly critical item had gone to air, I’d

brace myself for the inevitable telephone call from the Information

Selatnat pagi, Pak Michael. About your story last night.We’ve

received complaints from other agencies about it.’
Other agencies’ was a euphemism for military intelligence,

which seemed to spend much of its time monitoring our reports

and most likely, we suspected, our telephones.
Why did you say in your report that Indonesia annexed East

Timor when you know perfectly well that the East Timorese voted

to become one of our provinces in a free and fair referendum? You

mustn’t report negative things about Indonesia. It gives us a bad

And then, to end the homily, there was always the veiled threat.
By the way, Pak Michael, how much longer does your journalist’s

visa run for?’ ,

Overhanging all this surface tension, like a dark, sinister cloud, was

the death of five Australian-based reporters at the hands of Indonesian

soldiers in East Timor in 1975. Despite compelling evidence to the

contrary, the Indonesian government maintained steadfastly that the

reporters had been caught in crossfire between warring East Timorese

factions. What’s more, the killing of these young men - all in their

twenties - was constantly advanced by officials in Jakarta as the reason

for the perceived hostility of the Australian media towards Indonesia.

It was a charge easily made. But the tawdry human rights record of

Suharto and his generals, sustained over three long decades, guaranteed

that no single incident could account for the regime s on-going

battles on the public relations front.
So why was I clambering over the ropes to force my way into

this wrestling ring?
Why was I volunteering for immersion in reams of red tape to

accomplish the most simple of journalistic tasks?
Why was I condemning myself to the ulcer-inducing frustration

of having expensive satellite feeds ’pulled’ at the last moment because

the censors at Indonesian state television didn’t like the look of the

pictures we were filing?
The answer was simple: because Indonesia was a major story just

waiting to happen. And it was right on Australia’s doorstep.
* * *
Despite being the fourth most populous nation on earth, the world’s

largest nation of Moslems and an archipelago with a vast array of

ethnic groups and languages, in the early 1990s Indonesia rarely

made it to the pages of international newspapers, let alone into

foreign television and radio bulletins.

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