Monday, 27 June 2016

Book Review - Indonesian upheaval by John Hughes

Indonesian upheaval by John Hughes

New York: Fawcett Publications, 1967

As Australia's nearest neighbour, the fourth-most populous country in the World, and despite sporadic attempts to engage the public, the knowledge of Indonesia's people and history by Australians is pitifully small. It is not a subject dealt with either at schools or universities in Australia (with some minor exceptions), and Indonesians do not form a large population grouping in Australia, so little knowledge comes via osmosis. Most Australians know Indonesia via Bali, a popular holiday destination; but Bali, a majority Hindu island, is not typical of the wider Indonesian culture, which is overwhelmingly Muslim.

Australia's relationship with Indonesia goes through regular tense moments, most recently over the independence of East Timor, and previously through the Confrontation over Malaysia, in which Australian troops took part.

I am no different to the majority of my countrymen, knowing little of the archepelago to our north; and while I knew that the first great national leader of Indonesia, Sukarno, was overthrown by the military headed by Suharto, I knew little of the detail. John Hughes - a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist working for the Christian Science Monitor - has written a blow-by-blow account of the coup and following struggle that led to what was a major change in direction for the country. The book is based on his journalism at the time, when he was correspondent in Jakarta.

The overthrow of Sukarno was anything but a typical coup d'etat: in fact it is hard to know even now exactly what was going on during the initial attempted coup. On the night of the 30th of September 1965, squads of army soldiers left the Halim Air Force Base to capture six of the country's top generals. Two were killed resisting capture, and the others were taken back to Halim where it seems they were tortured before being murdered. As well as the insurrectionist army troops, there were thousands of Communist activists at the base ready to fight.

So far, so standard coup. But it was the events that followed that were extremely odd. Sukarno himself left his palace and went to Halim, where he spoke to officers involved in the coup, and seemed to understand, if not condone, the events of that night. Sukarno had over the previous years been moving more and more towards communism, and had become particularly close to China. The Indonesian Communist Party was one of the largest in the world at the time, and had some representation in cabinet, although no real power. It's possible that the Communists thought that if they "decapitated" the army, it would give Sukarno freedom to move more definitively to the left.

Sukarno however, wiley politician that he was, played for time, waiting to see how the coup played out. He didn't have long to wait: the plotters had not planned the next stage of the coup - perhaps they thought Sukarno would come out vocally in their favour - and the army, led by Suharto, quickly regained control of the situation.

Then came the massacre - the army let loose the anti-communist forces in society, and over the next few months hundreds of thousands of communists, suspected communists, or merely the unlucky, were slaughtered. The left had been destroyed, and Suharto took over the reins of government, although Sukarno had not been removed.

By the mid 60s Indonesia was in a sorry state economically - people struggled to feed themselves, and infrastructure was collapsing. Sukarno had for many years blamed outside forces for this state of affairs, but now, after the coup attempt, the populace and in particular the students, found their voice and increasingly laid the blame for their plight at the feet of the President.

As Suharto and his allied increased their control over government affairs, Sukarno was progressively sidelined, until, a year after the coup attempt, he was removed from the post of president, which Suharto claimed after an election.

This book, published just after Suharto became Acting President, gives an on-the-ground account, in a slightly breathless style, of how all this came about. As a work of great political insight it's not great, but as a primer of the course of events it is useful.

Fifty years have passed, and still there is a pall of silence over the massacres and other dark activities that occurred at that time. Suharto - who ended up as much of a dictator as Sukarno - has gone, and Indonesia is a democracy with a growth rate that many other countries would envy.

Indonesian upheaval is good journalistic writing covering a vital piece of Indonesian history.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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