Indonesia: Millenarianism makes a comeback in Java


Dr George Quinn

Indonesia's intractable economic crisis continues. Unemployment remains high, fiscal reform is proceeding at a snail's pace, new investment is very slow, growth is sluggish. In its management of the economy, President Abdurrahman Wahid's government is widely perceived as disunited, disorganised and ineffective. The government is also struggling to deal with a host of social and political problems, foremost among them the problems of regional unrest in Aceh, West Timor, Maluku and Irian Jaya. In the capital, the President is under pressure from his political opponents with significant moves to impeach him over alleged corruption.

Beyond the immediate debates about economic and political strategy Indonesia's malaise is producing some fundamental and potentially disturbing changes in the convictions and attitudes of ordinary people. Here are some of these changes.

In hitherto tolerant Indonesia there have been sporadic but slowly increasing outbreaks of anti-foreign sentiment. In some quarters anti-American, anti-Australian and anti-UN feeling is running high. The US and Australian Embassies in Jakarta have had to tighten security after aggressive demonstrations. In September three UNHCR workers were lynched in Atambua, West Timor, forcing the evacuation of all UN personnel from the region. In October a group of militants searched hotels in Solo looking for Americans, insisting that they be expelled from the country. On 21 November the Australian Ambassador and members of his entourage were physically threatened during a visit to Makassar, South Sulawesi. President Abdurrahman Wahid has been forced by anti-Australian sentiment yet again to postpone a visit to Australia. Foreigners are regularly accused of interference in the internal affairs of Indonesia. US Secretary of Defence William Cohen is widely (and wrongly) believed to have threatened Indonesia with trade sanctions if its human rights performance did not improve. Australians are regularly accused of interfering in the turmoil in Maluku and of promoting secessionist sentiment in Irian Jaya.

The belief is widespread that Indonesia has incurred God's wrath and that the solution to its problems is greater piety. There is a surge in the building of mosques and churches. Militant fundamentalism among Muslims is on the increase, though it is not yet a significant threat to the country's internal security nor a really prominent factor in political life. A host of small but aggressive Islamic militias have appeared. The most prominent among them is the Laskar Jihad (The Holy War Legion), a nation-wide organisation dedicated principally to protecting Muslim communities under pressure from Christians in the Maluku islands. In mosques and religious institutions, on the streets of Java's cities, and even through the internet, the Laskar Jihad seek new recruits, promising not only the possibility of beautiful martyrdom but, more important, a return to a purer, more self-assured Islam.

In a small, but growing segment of the population, there has been a return to primordialism. One manifestation of this is the rise of secessionist movements and regionalism. East Timor has already broken away from Indonesia. A powerful and potentially successful secessionist movement has gripped Aceh. Secessionist sentiment is strong among the indigenous people of Irian Jaya (also called West Papua) though here the chances of achieving secession are considerably less than in Aceh. Indonesia is moving towards the implementation of autonomy in budgetary and other domains at the sub-provincial (kabupaten) level. Two new provinces have already been created (Banten in West Java, and North Maluku in the troubled Maluku islands) and it is probable that burgeoning regionalism will result in the creation of other new provinces.

On the island of Java popular Millenarianism has significantly increased. In the past, political and social crises have produced powerful popular beliefs in the coming of a just king who, it is believed, will miraculously extinguish current turmoil and bring justice, peace and prosperity. The just king is known by various names: ratu adil, satrio piningit, imam mahdi. In the country areas of Java today, many people are again talking of the immanent( or imminent? I think immanent is right but is unusual) appearance of this just king. The hopes embodied in such beliefs are tempered with a commonly held and ominous conviction that a period of turmoil and blood-letting must precede his arrival.

Indonesia is on a knife-edge. Economic malaise, political fumbling, regionalism, xenophobia, religious fundamentalism and primordialism constitute a volatile mix that even a small spark could ignite. At the moment the mix seems manageable, but the spark that ignites it could come from ignorance and heavy-handedness on the part of the outside forces that impact on Indonesia.

WATCHPOINT: Never before has there been a greater necessity for far-sightedness and sensitivity in the relations of foreign powers with Indonesia.


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