Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Welcome to the Former Indonesia

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 24, 2001 --  

The vote to oust Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid has set off nervous speculation about a breakup of the fourth most populous nation on earth. With multiple secessionist movements brewing, Wahid had used the risk of breakup as a tool to perpetuate his rule. His opponents, including the new president Megawati Sukarnoputri, have dismissed his warnings as self-serving propaganda. This was a mistake.

To be sure, the breakup of Indonesia has already begun. The UN intervention in East Timor in 1999 secured its independence and rallied other groups across the sprawling archipelago. But defenders of the status quo in the U.S. State Department are wrong to conclude that a breakup is necessarily a bad thing. Under the right conditions, the islands' residents could be much better off with a handful of independent states.

The people of Indonesia are so diverse that it is amazing they have been forced into a single nation so long. Populous Java may be overwhelmingly Muslim, but there are Hindus in Bali, Christians in Ambon, and primitive tribes practicing esoteric beliefs in the interior of West Papua. The adoption of a state language was such a divisive issue in Indonesia's history that Bahasa Indonesian had to be invented to avoid offending national groups. Just try to imagine the European Union trying to ram Esperanto down a Parisian's throat!

With other multiethnic states such dismal failures (witness the fall of Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and the Soviet Union) it's amazing that the international community even tries to keep Indonesia together.

The argument diplomats usually make in support of a state's integrity -- stability -- has no place here. Indonesia is such a basket case that it's difficult to imagine how a breakup would make things worse. Pirates commonly seize ships in the lawless waters off the islands. The currency is so weak that foreigners can live on virtually no money. (A lunch at a Yogyakarta Kentucky Fried Chicken cost me less than 50 cents in March.) The pullout of investors after the 1998 economic crisis was so complete that huge business hotels stand empty without maintenance, and those that remain disconnect half the lights to conserve electricity. In the Jakarta business district of Glodok, windows remain smashed three years after violent rioting against the Chinese business elite.

If Indonesia were to break up, public resources would be less likely to be diverted to corrupt business endeavors in Jakarta, and might have a shot at doing some good. And with a new roster of nations on the map, International businessmen may look for opportunities away from the island of Java, which completely dominates Indonesia's affairs.

New nations would likely include Aceh on the tip of Sumatra, West Papua, Kalimantan in south Borneo, and the Maluku Islands. Countless other regions will probably follow in a gradual disintegration similar in duration -- but hopefully not violence -- to the gradual disappearance of the Yugoslavian Federation.

Many of these new states will find themselves in fairly desperate conditions in the first years following independence. Like East Timor, they may find that trying to get by without help from their neighbors in the former Indonesia is difficult at best. This is the wrong approach. There is no logical reason that the islands cannot maintain their economic integration once they become separate states. If each were allowed to remain in to the Association of South East Asian Nations, and committed to a free trade block with other former Indonesian states, economic prospects could be brighter than under the rule of the centralized Jakarta government. This is the prospect that a peaceful breakup would bring.

For this to happen however, Indonesia will require a much more liberal-minded leader than Megawati Sukarnoputri. If she maintains her hard-line nationalistic stance toward breakaway regions, Indonesia could produce the same kind of frightening headlines this decade that Yugoslavia did in the last. It is time for a new generation of leaders in the former Indonesia.