Chapter 5: War, Independence and Political Transformations, 1942 to 1998

By 1920, the Netherlands appeared to be utterly secure in its Indies colony. A vigorous forward policy in the outer islands had staved off annexations by colonial newcomers such as the Germans and Americans, and Britain’s naval base in Singapore appeared to offer security against attack. With the rise of Japan, however, the international atmosphere began to change, especially as it became apparent that Japan had a special interest in the oil wells of the Indies to fuel its military machine. The colonial authorities became extremely nervous about contacts between the Japanese and the nationalist movement, but few imagined that Japan would be able to put an end to Dutch rule so swiftly.

The Japanese occupation of 1942 heralded a quarter century of rapid political change. The occupation itself lasted only a little over three years, but when the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in August 1945, Indonesian nationalists took advantage of the interregnum to declare independence. Four and a half years of intermittent warfare and negotiation was to follow until in late 1949 the Dutch finally transferred to an Indonesian Republic the sovereignty they had first claimed a century and a half earlier. Independence brought no respite from political turmoil. Parliamentary governments in the early 1950s were plagued by division and regional dissent until they were swept away by Sukarno’s autocratic Guided Democracy in 1957. Sukarno’s rule, however, became a time of still greater political polarization and economic decay, culminating in a transition to military rule and the massacre of perhaps half a million Indonesian communists in 1965–1966. From 1966, Indonesia was ruled by a military-backed ‘New Order’ government under President Suharto, which presided over an era of unprecedented economic growth and rapid social change until both prosperity and the authoritarian system were brought down by the effects of Asia’s 1997 financial crisis.

Occupation and Revolution

From bases in Vichy French Indochina and the Japanese colony of Palau, Japanese forces struck the archipelago along its entire northern borders. Their first landings were on the Malay Peninsula on 8 December 1941, about an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor; the supposedly impregnable British fortress of Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. Allied forces in the region were grouped into a somewhat fractious joint American–British–Dutch–Australian (ABDA) command and were generally outclassed strategically and tactically. The first Japanese landings on Java took place on 1 March, but by then a Japanese fleet had defeated the Dutch navy in the Battle of the Java Sea and the colonial authorities recognized that fighting in Java would only delay the inevitable fall of the island and of the Indies. The formal surrender of all Allied forces in the Netherlands Indies took place on 8 March, though sporadic resistance continued in some regions and the Japanese themselves took some time to occupy the more outlying islands.

Japanese conquest of the Netherlands Indies, 1941-1942

The occupation was a devastating blow to colonial prestige. The rapid Japanese victory, achieved in the face of only token Dutch resistance on Java, suddenly made colonial power appear fragile. The Japanese further damaged the assumptions of European superiority by removing Westerners from positions of authority and sending most of them into internment camps, where they died in thousands. The use of Dutch was banned and Indonesians were promoted to take positions opened up by the removal of Europeans.

Pekanbaru railway, 1943-45

Japanese-run internment camps for Europeans in West Java, 1943-1945

The islands of Indonesia experienced the Japanese occupation in very different ways. The east of the archipelago remained a front line. Dutch and Australian troops fought a guerrilla war with the Japanese in the interior of Timor until January 1943, and much of western New Guinea was contested territory. Allied bombing and submarine raids caused much damage, and the Allied front line’s advance in New Guinea helped to diminish the psychological effect of the Japanese victories in 1942. In eastern Indonesia, moreover, the authorities were ruthless in suppressing dissent. In October 1943 the Japanese uncovered an opposition movement amongst the West Borneo elite. They responded with a wave of arrests followed by executions, in which almost all the regional elite – professionals, nationalists, officials, and rajas – were killed. Arrests and executions, though on a lesser scale, also took place in South Borneo.

Java and Sumatra, on the other hand, were relatively unaffected by Allied commando and bombing raids and the Japanese army authorities in Java were less hostile to political movements than were the naval authorities in the east. Partly to generate popular support for the war effort, Japanese authorities on Java sponsored a series of mass organizations which provided something of a platform for nationalist leaders such as Sukarno and Hatta. But Java and Sumatra bore the brunt of Japanese wartime economic policies. The Japanese occupation cut the Indonesian archipelago off from its traditional markets in Europe and North America. Japan was never able to absorb more than a small proportion of Indonesian production, and transport of produce to Japan became more and more difficult as the war progressed. In consequence, many of the tea, coffee, rubber, sugar and other plantations in Java, Sumatra and Borneo were converted to food crops or to crops such as ramie (for fibre) or castor (for oil) useful in the war economy. This dismantling of productive capacity caused much suffering amongst Indonesian communities once dependent on export production; it also contributed to Indonesia’s economic difficulties after the war. Problems were exacerbated by mismanaged Japanese rice procurement policies and by the recruitment of more than two million rōmusha (forced labourers) to work on Japanese military and civilian projects both in Java and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Huge numbers died as a result of disease, neglect and maltreatment, and many more were left stranded far from their homes at the end of the war.

Japanese administrative divisions in the Indonesian archipelago

Local resistance to the Japanese developed in several regions. The occupation forces never fully controlled Aceh, and significant local revolts took place there in 1942 and 1944. In February 1944, peasants in the Singaparna region of Java, driven to desperation by Japanese rice procurement policies and led by a local Islamic militant, revolted against the Japanese. A similar uprising followed in April 1944. Both were brutally suppressed. In February 1945, troops of the PETA, an Indonesian auxiliary army created by the Japanese, mutinied in Blitar in East Java. The mutiny was quickly suppressed by the Japanese, but its leader, Supriyadi, disappeared and was seen by many nationalists as the first military hero of the revolution.

Nowhere in Indonesia, did the ferocity of the resistance match that in the Malay Peninsula, where the Japanese faced an intense struggle from the left-wing predominantly Chinese Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) throughout the war.

Western New Guinea, 1942-1944: Japanese invasion, Dutch resistance and Allied re-occupation.

Allied military operations and positions, mid-July 1944 to August 1945

As Japanese forces retreated, the occupation authorities on Java became increasingly willing to seek Indonesian political support by offering political concessions. On 7 September 1944, the Japanese prime minister, Kunaichi Koiso, declared that independence would be granted to the ‘East Indies’ at some stage in the future. Koiso presumably had in mind as a model the Japanese-created puppet states in Burma and the Philippines, but both the form and extent of the independent Indies was left vague. During the following months, however, the Japanese both became more specific about their intentions and allowed Indonesians to discuss the constitutional form and extent of the future state. In March 1945, the Japanese created an investigatory committee of nationalists to consider details of the independence proposal. Some nationalists in the committee favoured including other broadly Malay areas – Malaya, northern Borneo and Portuguese Timor – and possibly excluding Melanesian western New Guinea. A small Malay nationalist movement in the Japanese sections of the Malay Peninsula also favoured integration with Indonesia, but by August 1945 most parties had reached a consensus to include only the former Netherlands Indies in the new state.

By the beginning of August 1945, the Japanese had set a date in September for the creation of the new Indonesian state and they installed a new Independence Preparatory Committee which was to act as a kind of proto-parliament. On 6 August the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, but the significance of this event was not immediately clear in Indonesia. On 9 August, the nationalist leaders Sukarno and Hatta flew to the Japanese regional headquarters in Dalat, in Vietnam, to receive formal authorization for the independence declaration. They returned on the 14th and a day later heard the news of the Japanese surrender.

Nationalist circles were thrown into turmoil over what to do next. Sukarno and Hatta favoured caution, fearing that the Japanese might not tolerate precipitate action and fearing still more that going ahead with the declaration might compromise them with the victorious Allies. Younger nationalists, however, especially a group connected with the so-called Free Indonesia Hostel at Menteng 31 in Jakarta, urged an immediate declaration of independence which would mark the Indonesian people’s seizure of their own future and ensure that independence was not a gift from the Japanese. When Sukarno and Hatta remained obdurate, the young nationalists kidnapped them and took them to the isolated town of Rengasdengklok, east of the city, where they finally persuaded the older leaders to act. Sukarno and Hatta returned to Jakarta on the 16th and after a night of hectic preparation declared independence in a low-key ceremony in the garden of Sukarno’s house at Pegangsaan Timur 56.

On the following day, the Independence Preparatory Committee met, adopted the constitution it had drafted under Japan’s auspices, reconstituted itself as the provisional national parliament and elected Sukarno and Hatta as President and Vice-President. The new Republic of Indonesia was to be a unitary state rather than a federation, and none of its eight provinces corresponded to any single ethnic group or to any of the former native states.

17 August 1945: the declaration of independence

Republic of Indonesia provinces, 1945-1950

Neither the Dutch nor the other Allies recognized the declaration of Indonesian independence. They saw the declaration as, at best, the action of a small intellectual elite and they suspected that it had been engineered by the Japanese in an effort to hamper the restoration of colonial rule. Because, however, Allied military planners in Southeast Asia had not expected the Japanese surrender so soon, several weeks passed before Allied forces arrived in significant numbers to accept the Japanese surrender and to begin restoring Dutch rule. In the interval, despite the risk that Japanese forces would block the Republic as they were required to do under the terms of their surrender, the new state quickly won the allegiance of many Indonesians and began to take over government offices and other public buildings. The Republic’s ability to consolidate itself varied greatly from region to region. In Borneo, there was hardly any nationalist leadership left to take an initiative, and Australian forces in most of eastern Indonesia faced little resistance from the small and scattered nationalist groups there. On Java and Sumatra, on the other hand, the nationalists had the advantage of numbers and were often able to seize or otherwise obtain weapons from the Japanese. Tens of thousands of Indonesians joined either the official army or one of the many ‘struggle organizations’ which sprang up to defend national independence. When the Allies landed in the larger cities of Java and Sumatra, therefore, they often faced determined armed resistance. In particular, the Battle of Surabaya (10 November 1945) impressed the British with the strength of the Indonesian nationalist movement and led them to begin placing pressure on the Dutch to reach a negotiated settlement with the Republic.

Allied re-occupation, August 1945-March 1946

Semi-occupied Jakarta, 1946-1947

In the months after the independence declaration, social and political tensions which had built up during the colonial era and under the Japanese in several parts of Java and Sumatra led to local social revolutions. Established elites – generally the aristocratic-administrative elites who had participated in colonial rule – were overthrown and new elites came to power, though all of them professed allegiance to the new Republic.

In November–December 1945, underground communists and orthodox Muslim activists seized power in the so-called ‘Three Regions’ (Tiga Daerah) of Brebes, Tegal and Pemalang in Central Java. In the Karawang region east of Jakarta, the dominant elements in the new order were powerful local gangsters with links to the nationalist movement dating from before the war. In both regions, the revolutionaries soon clashed with the Republican authorities and were eventually suppressed. In Banten, a coalition of leftists, Muslims and gangsters dominated politics with little challenge from the Republic until late in the revolution.

During late 1945, the Sultan of Yogyakarta in Central Java launched a kind of revolution from above, increasing the level of democracy in local government and reducing the power of the aristocracy. The neighbouring Sunan of Surakarta, on the other hand, was less adept at accommodating the spirit of revolution and was stripped of his powers in June 1946.

Social revolutions in Java, 1945-46

In Aceh, Islamic leaders (ulama) spearheaded action against local aristocrats, the uleëbalang, who had cooperated with the Dutch since early in the century. A civil war between December 1945 and March 1946 wiped out the uleëbalang as a political force. Further south, in East Sumatra, Batak gangs led a series of attacks on the Malay and Batak aristocracies in which hundreds died and the power of the rajas was greatly weakened.

The British, meanwhile, planned major reforms in Malaya. Under the Malayan Union plan, the Sultans were to lose most of their powers, and all the Malayan territories except Singapore were to be combined into a unified colony under a governor. The British also proposed liberal citizenship laws which would have granted citizenship to most of the Chinese and Indian residents of the colony. Although the Malayan Union was installed in April 1946, it led to a massive mobilization amongst Malays and the formation of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to defend the special position of the Malays and their sultans.

Sumatra and the British colonies, 1946

During the first weeks after the independence declaration, Indonesia’s government hesitated to create a national army. They doubted that Indonesia could defeat the battled-hardened forces of the Allies and hoped that the Atlantic Charter’s assertion of the right of all peoples to self-determination would be extended to Indonesia. They therefore devolved the creation of official armed units to residency level. For this reason, much of the early work of creating an army high command was done by military figures themselves. Only in November 1945, with the appointment of Amir Syarifuddin as defence minister, did the government begin to pay serious attention to military matters.

Indonesian military strategy at this stage focussed on defending the Republic’s front lines around the occupied cities of the north coast. The government’s plan was to make the Republic a reality which the Dutch would sooner or later have to accept. They were prepared, however, to hasten that acceptance by making concessions: in particular, they were willing to allow the Dutch to recover their economic interests, to adopt a federal system of government, and to accept a continuing relationship with the Netherlands in the form of a commonwealth. For many Indonesians, however, such concessions amounted to giving away much of what the revolution stood for. Three governments fell in the period 1946–1947 in the face of popular indignation over the concessions they had made to the Dutch.

Federal Indonesia as proposed in the Linggajati Agreement

Republican military units on Java, 1946-47

By mid-1947 talks had broken down and on 21 July 1947 Dutch forces launched what they called a ‘police action’ to recover territories they regarded as being in rebellion. This action seized the most important plantation regions of Java and Sumatra, but failed to destroy the Republic. Although the United Nations brokered a ceasefire on 4 August, Dutch military action continued in the south of West Java. The furthermost points of the Dutch advance became the basis of the Van Mook Line, which separated Republican and Dutch regions until December 1948.

First Dutch ‘Police Action' on Sumatra, July-August 1947

First Dutch ‘Police Action' on Java, July-August 1947

Despite deep mistrust between the two sides, negotiations resumed under United Nations auspices aboard an American warship, the Renville, anchored for the purpose in Jakarta Bay. Under international pressure, the Republic and the Dutch signed a second agreement in January 1948. The agreement ratified the Dutch conquests and confirmed plans for a federation, but it gave the Republic some formal status as party to an international agreement and it promised a plebiscite on the political future of the conquered territories. The agreement was bitterly unpopular in the Republic.

Sumatra’s regions continued to differ greatly in their political complexion after the social revolutions died down in mid-1946. In Aceh, where the Dutch never penetrated further than the offshore settlement of Sabang, the ulama-dominated government began to introduce Islamic law provisions, especially in inheritance matters. Further south, independent warlords dominated much of East Sumatra and its hinterland, Tapanuli. Their depredations on the local people added to memories of the violence in 1946 made many people relieved to see the Dutch extend their control in July 1947. Tapanuli remained turbulent throughout this period and descended into full-scale civil war between September and November 1948. The regional government in West Sumatra, by contrast, was dominated by Western-educated nationalists who had close links to influential Minangkabau politicians on Java, but in March 1947 they suppressed a coup by Muslim leaders wanting to follow more closely the path of Aceh. The situation in southern Sumatra is less known, but political antagonisms there seem to have been more subdued than further north.

Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, 1947-48

Emergency in Malaya.

Until the Dutch military action of July 1947, all these regional authorities exported plantation products (rubber, coffee, pepper and tea) as well as gold and other goods across the Melaka Strait, despite a Dutch naval blockade. In this era, the Republican governor of South Sumatra called himself ‘the biggest smuggler in Southeast Asia’. After July 1947, only Aceh and Central Sumatra (with Jambi as its main port) played a significant role in this trade. Cut off from central and even provincial governments, many regions in Sumatra issued their own currency notes after July 1947, but with little to back them the regional currencies suffered terribly from inflation.

Deep tensions developed in the Republican camp during 1948. Resources were scarce in those parts of Central and East Java still in Republican hands, and local armed units competed for living space with each other and with more than 20,000 troops of the Siliwangi Division ‘repatriated’ from West Java under the Renville Agreement. Strikes in state enterprises and cuts in the civil service exacerbated tensions. The Left, which had dominated government from late 1945 until January 1948, was now excluded from power by the non-parliamentary government of vice-president Hatta, and saw its influence in the government and armed forces rapidly eroded. Led by members recently returned from Moscow, the communist party (PKI) began a campaign of radical mobilization in the towns and countryside, appealing especially to the followers of Javanist Islam (Kejawen).

Driven from Surakarta by Siliwangi troops in mid-September 1948, pro-PKI units assembled in Madiun, where they seized the administration and declared a national front government. Party leaders then joined the revolt, which was ferociously condemned by President Sukarno. In the ensuing civil war, about eight thousand people were killed, many of them in communal clashes between santri (orthodox Islamic) and Kejawen villagers. The rebels were defeated by the beginning of December and most of the leaders were shot. The ‘Madiun Affair’ helped to create a legacy of bitterness in the Javanese countryside, and to confirm the enmity of the dominant Siliwangi group in the army high command towards the PKI. The defeat of the communists, however, made the United States more sympathetic to the Republic and in 1949 led the Americans to oppose a Dutch attempt to settle the conflict by force.

In March 1948, radical Muslims in West Java established their own resistance movement with the name Darul Islam. The DI did not formally repudiate the Republic at this stage, but it regarded the secular authorities in Yogyakarta as weak-willed traitors who would be unable to deliver independence.

Upheaval in Java, 1948: the Madiun Affair and the Darul Islam movement

Before the Second World War there had been considerable discussion over whether a federal structure might not suit independent Indonesia because of its economic diversity. In the event, the nationalists decided for a unitary system at the time of the declaration of independence, but the idea of federalism was taken up by the Dutch as part of their struggle to recover influence in the archipelago.

Initially, federalism was mainly a device to reunite the regions which had become separate as a result of the fact that the Dutch had occupied most of Borneo and eastern Indonesia, while the Republic dominated Java and Sumatra. In time, however, the Dutch sought to use federalism as a tool to detach important regions and ethnic groups from the Republic. By the end of the revolution, the Dutch had created a structure as complex as the pre-war system of indirectly ruled states.

At the core of the federal system were six negara, or states, which were intended to federate with the Republic of Indonesia into a Republic of the United States of Indonesia, which would in turn be a part of a highly devolved Netherlands–Indonesian Union. Alongside these states were regions considered to be less developed politically; these were classified for the most part as neo-landschappen. The Negara Indonesia Timur (State of Eastern Indonesia) and several of the neo-landschappen were themselves divided into quasi-federal regions. Finally, there were also regions considered not to be viable as separate political units.


1. Indonesia Timoer (East Indonesia, created 24 December 1946), comprising thirteen daerah: Soelawesi Selatan, Soelawesi Tengah, Gorontalo, Minahasa, Sangihe & Talaud, Bali, Lombok, Soembawa, Flores, Soemba, Timor dan poelau-poelau, Maloekoe Selatan, and Maloekoe Oetara.

2. Soematra Timur (East Sumatra, created 25 December 1947)

3. Madoera (created 20 February 1948)

4. Pasoendan (West Java, created 25 February 1948)

5. Soematra Selatan (South Sumatra, created 2 September 1948)

6. Jawa Timoer (East Java, created 27 November 1948)

Other autonomous constitutional units (defined principally by participation in constitutional discussions and mention in the federal constitution)

7. Daerah Istimewa Kalimantan Barat (Special Territory of West Kalimantan) – federation of 15 native states and three neo-landschappen

8. Federasi Kalimantan Timur (East Kalimantan Federation) – federation of four native states and the neo-landschap of Pasir

9. Dajak Besar – neo-landschap

10. Daerah Bandjar – neo-landschap

11. Kalimantan Tenggara – federation of neo-landschappen of Pegatan, Poeloe Laut and Tjantung Sampanahan

12. Bangka – neo-landschap

13. Billiton – neo-landschap

14. Riau – neo-landschap

Loosely federated from June 1948, but separately represented in federal councils

15. Djawa Tengah – limited to the residencies of Semarang, Banjoemas and Pekalongan; had no defined political identity but nonetheless constituted a ‘political entity’.

Other regions

Kota Waringin (native state), Padang (municipality), Sabang, Djakarta Federal District, New Guinea.

Many of these federal and sub-federal units had little political identity, and all of them were abolished in early 1950. Indonesia formally returned to a unitary structure in August 1950.

Federal Indonesia, 1949-1950

By late 1948, the Dutch believed that military and political circumstances were ripe for crushing the Republic. Dutch armed forces were at full strength, whereas the Indonesian army had recently undergone a demoralizing reduction in numbers as an austerity measure. Political tensions in the Republic were high: the Left had just been defeated in the Madiun uprising, and there were deep tensions between fundamentalist and more secularly-minded Muslims. The Dutch moreover had begun constructing a federal constitutional order in the parts of Indonesia that they controlled and they hoped that this political reform would attract those they saw as moderate nationalists. To deal what they hoped would be a final blow to the Republic, Dutch forces launched a second ‘Police Action’ on 19 December 1948. They quickly captured the Republic’s capital, Yogyakarta, and arrested most of the civilian cabinet. In the following days, virtually all of Java and much of Republican Sumatra (with the exception of Aceh) were occupied. Against Dutch expectations, however, international condemnation, guerrilla resistance and a refusal to cooperate, even on the part of previously amenable ‘moderate’ nationalists, put them rapidly on the defensive. Unable to secure a quick victory, they were forced into negotiations with the captured Republican leaders. Yogyakarta returned to Republican rule in June 1949, and most of the rest of the newly seized regions returned to Republican rule on 27 December when the Dutch formally transferred sovereignty to a new, federal Republic of the United States of Indonesia, in which the Republic of Indonesia (as declared in August 1945) was the dominant political force.

General Sudirman's ‘guerrilla route'

Second ‘Police Action' and its aftermath, 1948-1949

Tension and Conflict in the Republic, 1950–1966

Many Indonesians were unhappy with the terms of the independence agreement with the Netherlands, and their dissatisfaction bedevilled the Republic’s politics during the early 1950s.

The more conservative groups whom the Dutch had cultivated feared – correctly – that the republic would move quickly to dismantle the federal system. In many regions the federal structures were so weak that they collapsed at the slightest prompting, but in a few regions the federalists took up arms. In Bandung and Jakarta, the Dutch commando leader Raymond Westerling, who had been responsible for terrible massacres in South Sulawesi in early 1947, launched an unsuccessful putsch against the Republic in January 1950, apparently with the aim of installing a federalist government. In April Andi Aziz, an Indonesian officer in the former Dutch colonial army, mutinied in Makasar in the hope of protecting the state of East Indonesia. His action hastened its dissolution, but meanwhile, on 25 April, dissident Ambonese declared the independence of a Republic of the South Moluccas (RMS). Government troops defeated the rebels during the second half of 1950, but guerrilla warfare continued for several years on the island of Seram.

For other Indonesians, by contrast, the settlement with the Dutch was too soft. They objected to continuing constitutional links with Holland through a Netherlands-Indonesian Union, to various economic concessions to Dutch interests, and to the fact that the Dutch had retained control of West New Guinea, which Indonesians called Irian Barat (West Irian). In West Java and South Sulawesi, nationalist armed units from the army and from irregular forces objected to being demobilized and took to the hills, often describing themselves as Barisan Sakit Hati (the Sick-at-Heart Brigade).

In addition, many Muslims were unhappy with the secular character of the Indonesian state, and they wished to see the majority status of Indonesia’s Muslims reflected in an Islamic state. These aspirations helped sustain the Darul Islam movement in West Java and allowed it to extend its influence into Central Java. In January 1952, the Sakit Hati rebels in South Sulawesi joined the Darul Islam, followed in September 1953 by the Muslim leaders in Aceh who had been a bulwark of the Republic during the revolution. At the height of its power in 1954, the Darul Islam controlled significant areas of the country and could even mount operations on the outskirts of Jakarta.

Republic of Indonesia provinces, 1950-55

Regional rebellions and provincial boundaries, 1950-1954

The legitimacy of all these movements was enhanced by the fact that the Republic’s parliament in Jakarta had not been elected but was a composite body drawn from the parliaments of the revolutionary Republic and the federal states. The parliamentarians represented a wide range of parties and social groups, and all the cabinets of the early 1950s were therefore coalitions. This situation meant that no single party could impose its will on the country, but it made governments unstable and left them open to criticism for lack of action. The first cabinets benefited from an economic boom as a result of the Korean War, but after 1953 economic conditions became more difficult and were exacerbated by increasing official corruption.

Indonesia’s first national parliamentary elections were finally held in September 1955. Votes were tallied first by province, but the proportional voting system meant that the whole country effectively voted as a single electorate for the new 257-member parliament.

Many observers had expected the modernist Muslim Masjumi, the largest party in the old parliament, to do well, and perhaps to win a majority in its own right, but the party won only 20.9% of the vote and came second to the secular Partai Nasional Indonesia (PNI) with 22.3%. Many of the votes which the Masjumi had hoped to win went instead to the conservative Muslim Nahdatul Ulama (NU), but the four main Muslim parties together won only 43% of the vote. Although the Masjumi was the only party to win at least 10% of the vote in every province, its weakest performance was in the two Javanese provinces of Central and East Java. In contrast, the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) won 16% of the vote, almost all of it from Central and East Java, which were also the stronghold of the PNI and NU. Of the four large parties in the new parliament, therefore, only the Masjumi was widely represented outside Java.

National elections, 1955: proportion of voters by province

Java in the 1955 elections

Sumatra in the 1955 elections

Kalimantan in the 1955 elections

Eastern Indonesia in the 1955 elections.

The government which formed in the new parliament in March 1956 was a coalition between the three largest parties (PNI, Masjumi and NU), but it was headed by the PNI leader Ali Sastroamidjojo and was dominated by the PNI. Its economic policies tended to favour the importers of Java over the exporters of the Outer Islands, and its social and foreign policies tended to move leftwards in order to undercut the growing appeal of the PKI on Java.

As the economic policies of the Ali government made conditions increasingly difficult for the Outer Islands, and as the political marginalization of the Masjumi became clear, regional dissent began to develop. Vice-President Hatta, widely seen as a voice for the Outer Islands in Jakarta, resigned in July 1956. During late 1956 and early 1957, army commanders in Sumatra and eastern Indonesia declared martial law in their regions and cut relations with Jakarta, demanding a government closer to the interests of the Outer Islands. Unable to remain in the cabinet while their electoral base was in revolt against it, the Masjumi left the coalition in January 1957, though the cabinet did not resign until March. Meanwhile, President Sukarno and the army commander, Gen. A. H. Nasution, were increasingly determined to dismantle the parliamentary system. Sukarno spoke strongly against ‘50% plus one’ democracy, while Nasution canvassed the idea of a permanent government role for the military.

In April 1957, with the parties unable to agree on a new coalition, President Sukarno formed a ‘business’ cabinet, nominally non-party and led by a respected independent politician, Djuanda, but in fact dominated by the PNI and NU. The following month he formed a National Council, consisting of representatives of so-called ‘functional groups’ (peasants, workers, students, women, military and so on). Although presented as a non-ideological alternative to parliament, the council appeared to many people to be a forum for the growing ascendancy of the left wing in Indonesian politics.

In December 1957, after the United Nations General Assembly had failed to pass a resolution calling on the Dutch to negotiate over West New Guinea, left-wing groups began seizing Dutch assets in Indonesia. The Dutch-owned KPM shipping line was one of the enterprises targeted, but many of its ships escaped. The loss of these vessels further damaged the trading position of the Outer Islands.

With tension rising in Jakarta, senior Masjumi and PSI leaders fled to Central Sumatra where they declared an alternative government in February 1958, calling it the Pemerintah Revolusioner Republik Indonesia (PRRI, Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia). The Permesta movement, now largely confined to northern Sulawesi allied itself with the PRRI.

The rebels in Sumatra initially controlled most of the provinces of North and Central Sumatra, but armed forces loyal to the government bombed Padang and the rebel capital, Bukittinggi, and recaptured Medan by mid-March. Padang fell in mid-April and Bukittinggi in early May, reducing the rebellion to sporadic guerrilla activity in the countryside. In the east, government troops moved eastward from Gorontalo, finally capturing Manado in late June.

Regional unrest, 1956-1957

Local elections in Java, June-August 1957: the rise of the PKI

The PRRI–Permesta badly strained relations between Indonesia and the newly independent Federation of Malaya, which had openly sympathized with the rebels, and with the United States which had actively supported and encouraged them. The rebellion’s failure also removed the conservative Masjumi influence from national politics and made easier the passage to Sukarno’s new form of military-backed authoritarianism, which came to be called Guided Democracy. The Masjumi and PSI were banned in September 1958 and in July 1959 Sukarno revoked the provisional constitution of 1950, reintroducing the original constitution of August 1945, which provided for a strong executive presidency. The elected parliament was dissolved, though most of its members were appointed to a larger national assembly (MPRS); the regional assemblies elected in 1957 were dismissed.

Regional rebellions, 1958-1959

Under Guided Democracy, the military played an enhanced role in government, through Nasution’s presence in the cabinet, through the appointment of military officers as provincial governors and through the army’s control of the enterprises seized from the Dutch in 1957 and subsequently nationalized. The PKI, however, also became increasingly influential, partly because of its own energy in recruiting support, partly because Sukarno welded many of its ideas into his philosophy of NASAKOM (nationalism, religion, communism), which was elevated to be the national political philosophy, and partly because Sukarno encouraged the party as a counterweight to the power of the army.

With Guided Democracy in place, Sukarno began to press the issue of western New Guinea, which the Indonesians called Irian Barat (West Irian). During the 1950s, the Dutch had pursued a general policy of economic development and education in the territory, intending to bring it eventually to a separate independence, but they had established elected councils, with a limited franchise, only at local and regional levels. Only in April 1961 did they create a partly elected New Guinea Council with limited powers over the whole region.

International opinion was divided over whose claim had priority but was increasingly inclined to support Dutch proposals for an internationally supervised plebiscite, which might well have gone against Indonesia. From 1960, however, Sukarno made increasing threats of military action against the Dutch and in 1962 began small-scale military infiltration into the territory. Although these operations were relatively unsuccessful, the Dutch were unwilling to fight another colonial war and came under strong American pressure to back down. The Americans feared that the Irian issue would drive Indonesian politics further to the left if the territory were not restored to the Republic. In October 1962, therefore, the Dutch transferred western New Guinea to a temporary United Nations administration which handed it in turn to Indonesia in May 1963, with the provision that an ‘Act of Free Choice’ should be held after five years to determine the wishes of the people.

Indonesia's campaign for western New Guinea, 1960-1963

Provinces and military regions, 1955-1959

Meanwhile, political tensions within Indonesia had increased. Although one of the aims of Guided Democracy had been to create a truce between the groups conflicting over Indonesia’s future, the system depended on Sukarno’s ideological virtuosity and careful balancing of the army, the Muslims and the PKI. As Sukarno’s health showed signs of decline, therefore, the rival political forces continued to manoeuvre for strategic advantage. In January 1963, partly to create a new external issue to unite Indonesians after the resolution of the West Irian issue, Sukarno declared a ‘confrontation’ with the newly formed state of Malaysia, a federation of all the Southeast Asian territories under British domination (except Brunei). The Malaysia proposal allowed the British to join Singapore to its natural economic hinterland in the Malay peninsula while balancing the predominantly Chinese population of Singapore with the northern Borneo states where Chinese were only about a third of the population. Indonesia objected to Malaysia because it saw the British proposal as closely resembling the Dutch strategy of the late 1940s: Malaysia was to be a federation in which traditional aristocracies held a major constitutional role and with which the former colonial power retained strong economic, military and cultural ties. A rebellion in Brunei in December 1962 also fed Indonesian suspicions that the people of northern Borneo did not want to join Malaysia. Sukarno was offended, too, because the British had not consulted Indonesia, as the major regional power, on their plans.

Internal and external tensions: land reform and confrontation with Malaysia

In mid-1963, the Malayan authorities assured Indonesia that the northern Borneo territories would be included only if their inhabitants were proven to support the idea. Sukarno was therefore incensed when Malayan officials announced that Malaysia would go ahead regardless of the results of a United Nations public opinion survey in August–September 1963. When Malaysia was formally created on 16 September 1963, therefore, Indonesia stepped up its confrontation, landing commandos on the Malay Peninsula and fighting a jungle war with Commonwealth forces in Borneo.

Indonesian exports in 1965

Although all the political groups in Indonesia publicly supported Confrontation, the army was far from happy with it. Not only did they fear military defeat at the hands of the better trained and equipped Commonwealth forces but they were reluctant to place their own better troops in Kalimantan and Sumatra for fear of allowing the PKI to gain greater influence on Java. They were also worried greatly by a PKI proposal in January 1965 to arm workers and peasants as a ‘fifth force’ (alongside the four branches of the existing armed forces) to fight the British. Sections of the armed forces, therefore, opened contacts with the British to assure them that Confrontation would not be pursued too vigorously.

Indonesia’s Confrontation with Malaysia was complicated by a separate claim which the Philippines made to Sabah on the basis of the former sovereignty of the sultans of Sulu.

Early on the morning of 1 October 1965, leftist troops launched a coup in Jakarta, ostensibly to forestall a seizure of power by the army high command on Armed Forces Day, 5 October. Squads drawn mainly from the Sukarnoist Presidential Guard seized key points in the city and abducted six senior generals. Three of the generals were killed in the course of these raids, and the remaining three were taken to Lubang Buaya, near Halim airforce base, where they too were killed. Lurid stories, later shown to be fabrications, quickly circulated concerning the deaths of these generals. A seventh general, the influential A. H. Nasution, narrowly escaped. From their headquarters at Halim, where they had brought both President Sukarno and the PKI chairman D. N. Aidit, the plotters claimed state power in the name of a Revolutionary Council. Within hours, however, General Suharto, the senior surviving command officer and head of the strategic reserve Kostrad, had seized the initiative. By late afternoon he had recovered control of central Jakarta without firing a shot and on the evening of 1 October, the coup leaders, Sukarno and Aidit all fled from Halim, which fell to anti-communist troops on 2 October. Parallel mutinies by left-wing troops in Central Java were suppressed at the same time.

Jakarta on the night of the coup, 1 October 1965

Coup in Central Java, 1-4 October 1965

Both the sequence of events during these few hours and the underlying causes of the affair remain controversial. In particular, it is not certain that the plotters intended from the start to kill the generals or to seize power. The coup may in fact have been a limited political operation which ran out of control after the first generals were killed. There has been much debate over possible links between the plotters and other forces in Indonesian politics, but recent research indicates that there were important connections between the immediate coup plotters and a small group around within the PKI.

There was a widespread perception at the time, however, that the coup was a pre-emptive lunge for power by the communist party. This perception provided the grounds for Suharto to go beyond merely suppressing the coup and to begin the wholesale destruction of the left wing and the dismantling of Sukarno’s power.

The New Order

The coup attempt of 1 October 1965 gave the army, now led by General Suharto, the opportunity to seize power from President Sukarno. The transition to military-dominated rule in Jakarta was slow: in view of Sukarno’s still enormous influence, Suharto moved cautiously, placing his own men in key positions, seeking international support and confronting Sukarno’s main lieutenants one by one rather than the tackling the president directly. Only on 11 March 1966 did Suharto obtain from Sukarno what amounted to a formal transfer of presidential authority, and he did not take the title of Acting President until March 1967.

The destruction of the Left, on the other hand, was much swifter and more brutal. Within a few days of the suppression of the coup, accounts of the murder of the generals were embellished with fabricated stories that they had been tortured by crazed members of the PKI-linked women’s organization, Gerwani. Further rumours quickly emerged that the communists had been planning a massacre of their political opponents to follow the coup, and within a few days anti-communist groups had begun first to burn PKI offices and then to kill party members and associates.

No reliable figures exist on the number of victims of these massacres, which were most severe in North Sumatra, Central and East Java and Bali. The number killed is unlikely to be less than 400,000 and may be as much as a million. The PKI had engaged in a wide variety of political conflicts in different parts of the country and its enemies were diverse; in parts of east Java the party had backed Hindus against conservative Muslims, while in Bali it was sharply critical of the Hindu establishment. The pattern of the killings, however, was similar in most regions. After an initial period of uncertainty, following the coup attempt, the arrival of anti-communist troops would spark a bout of killing of communists lasting several weeks. The army itself undertook many of the killings, especially in the few regions where party members offered resistance, but more often preferred to arm, train and encourage civilian vigilantes to do the job. The killings were for the most part confined to rural areas; PKI members in the cities were purged, but most of them were jailed for long periods rather than being killed.

Massacres of 1965-1967

The PKI had claimed three million members, of whom probably half a million were actively involved in party affairs. At least twenty million more Indonesians were members of PKI-affiliated organizations such as the peasants’ union BTI and the women’s movement Gerwani. Large numbers of leftist activists who were not killed in 1965–1966 – well over a million people by the government’s own estimates – were jailed for longer or shorter periods in camps dotted over much of the archipelago. Because of the difficulty of proving that any of them were involved in the events of 1 October 1965, very few were brought to trial, but many spent over a decade in detention. Initially the prisoners were held in a wide variety of places, including existing jails, army camps, and even a former civilian internment camp from the Second World War, in conditions varying from adequate to bad. By the mid-1970s, the main detention area was on the island of Buru in Maluku, where prisoners were required to create self-supporting agricultural settlements loosely modelled on the transmigration settlements being established elsewhere in the country. After international pressure on Indonesia, most political prisoners accused of PKI links were released by 1979, though until the demise of the New Order, a small number remained in detention, some of them under sentence of death. Released prisoners were noted as such on their identity cards and were prohibited from employment in a wide range of ‘sensitive’ occupations (including teaching).

Detention camps for political prisoners, ca 1975

Political prisoners on Buru: main areas of settlement, ca 1975

Although the Indonesian military made extensive use of violence to establish the New Order, they sought to create a political system in which tensions, and therefore, violence would be minimized. A major part of this strategy involved limiting the influence on government and society of all political parties, not just the communist party. The parties were alleged to have prevented good government both by appointing incompetent party supporters to administrative positions and by interpreting government policy in terms of party policy rather than national interest.

A major feature of the New Order, therefore, was the removal of the once powerful party presence in the administration and its substitution with a military presence. The military had been involved in administration both during the revolution against the Dutch and under Sukarno’s Guided Democracy, but that involvement was now elevated to the level of a political doctrine, called dwifungsi, under which the military’s role in providing political stability and the necessary conditions for economic development were placed on a par with the tasks of external defence.

Military personnel, active and retired, were appointed to positions throughout the government. They were especially prominent in the Department of Internal Affairs (Dalam Negeri), holding positions ranging from governor down to village chief. The administration was never fully militarized, but the strong military (mainly army) presence ensured that this key ministry was under effective military control.

The government also habitually appointed military personnel to positions which offered the opportunity for financial advantage, either through corruption (embezzlement or bribes) or indirectly through privileged access to information and permits. This practice gave the New Order extensive opportunities to reward its supporters, as well as providing a major flow of funds into the military sector which was not covered in the state budget.

Military dual function (dwifungsi) in 1984: provincial governors

Party influence within the bureaucracy was further diminished by introduction of the principle of ‘mono-loyalty’, enunciated in 1970, under which public servants were required to give exclusive loyalty to the government and could not therefore join or support political parties without the written permission of their superiors.

The New Order stopped short of doing away with political parties and elections, but allowed both to continue only under tightly controlled conditions. Parties were not permitted to maintain a presence outside the larger cities and towns, and thus could not directly maintain mass membership; they could campaign only during the brief, designated campaign period prior to elections; and both their candidate lists and their campaign strategies were subject to modification by the authorities. The government, moreover, created its own election vehicle, called Golkar, which was not a party but which provided a label under which people could vote for the government. As the government vehicle, Golkar enjoyed the full support of both bureaucracy and military during the election campaigns.

The first national elections held under the New Order gave an impressive victory to Golkar. The government won a majority in all provinces except Aceh, Jakarta and Maluku, where it missed by no more than a few percent. Golkar was especially successful in winning the votes of those who had formerly voted for the PNI, which had now been stripped of its power base in the bureaucracy. The religious parties did best in retaining the allegiance of their supporters, but the Parmusi, created under New Order auspices to fill the niche left after the banning of Masjumi in 1960, did less well than expected.

Golkar in the 1971 elections

Relics of the party system: non-government parties winning more than 10% of the vote, by province, 1971

Golkar had been formed originally in 1964 as a military-sponsored coordinating body for non-communist trade unions. Even when it became an electoral vehicle for the government, it did not become a conventional political party, but retained its federal structure. Golkar therefore had no members and largely ceased to exist except at election time. In 1983, however, in an attempt to develop stronger political ties between government and people, Golkar officially transformed itself into a mass organization and began to recruit members, attracting several million in its first year. This transformation was one of the factors which helped Golkar to win handsomely in the 1987 elections and it gave rise to speculation that Golkar might develop a political identity distinct from that of the government. Only to a limited extent, however, did Golkar show signs of independence. Its leadership was still nominated by the government (and included two of President Suharto’s children) and its parliamentary membership were still subject to rigorous vetting by state security services, so that individuals critical of or inconvenient to the government were unlikely to be permitted to stand for election again.

Golkar won all the national elections held from 1971 to 1992. In 1973, the government required the remaining political parties to merge into two new parties, the Unity Development Party (PPP) for the Muslim parties and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) for the others. Both new parties suffered badly from internal divisions between their unwilling constituents. In the 1970s and early 1980s the PPP had greatest success in maintaining its vote, based on a solid Islamic constituency in parts of Java and Sumatra. In 1984, however, frustrated by the obstacles to Islamic political activism, the Nahdatul Ulama formally withdrew from the PPP and from public political activity. The PPP vote in later elections plummeted, but in the 1980s the PDI began to emerge as a new voice of opposition. The election results in 1992 showed that the party had lost much of its political base amongst the Christian communities of eastern Indonesia, but had displaced the PPP in many provinces as the main non-government political force.

Golkar in the 1992 elections

Non-government parties from 1971 to 1982: the rise of the PPP and the fall of the PDI

Non-government parties from 1982 to 1992: the rise of the PDI and the fall of the PPP

Figure 5.i:  The three party symbols, 1992. PDI (left), PPP (centre), Golkar (right). The symbols of all three parties were drawn mainly from the Indonesian coat of arms, where the bull stands for national unity, the star for belief in God, the rice and cotton for prosperity and waringin (fig tree) for humanity. The PPP symbol also contains a highly stylized Ka'abah, the black rock at the centre of Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

Tight control of the bureaucracy and careful management of elections helped the Suharto government to maintain a political stability which many Indonesians regarded as a blessing after the turmoil of the period to 1967. Nonetheless, the regime was uncompromising and often brutal in dealing with dissent. Although most Indonesians benefited from the development programmes of the New Order, there were many people who suffered from the government’s arbitrary actions. Many more were unhappy with the ideological character of the regime, the high level of corruption and the general lack of democratic rights. The boundaries between what was and what was not permitted varied over the thirty years of New Order government, but the government was especially harsh in dealing with mass movements questioning its authority.

Dissent and repression, 1970-1984

Dissent and repression, 1985-1997

Indonesia’s economic recovery after 1966 rested in part on generous international donors and creditors and on careful planning by Indonesian economists, but the massive exploitation of the country’s natural resources played a major role. Large areas of the archipelago were allocated to foreign firms for oil exploration and extraction, and the country’s forests were distributed to logging firms. These measures generated the capital needed for infrastructure and other investment, and provided the government with a means of delivering quick rewards to its supporters and associates. The natural resources boom was the basis of a large number of fortunes in the New Order elite.

In three decades, the New Order achieved dramatic improvements in Indonesia’s overall economic performance and in a great many areas of social welfare. An issue of continuing concern, however, is the disparity between different regions. Economic, social and political disparities have been a feature of the archipelago throughout its history. As seen in earlier chapters, Java and the Melaka Strait region were once the heart of the archipelago; in the late colonial period, however, Java in particular became a major problem area of what was then called ‘diminished welfare’. This state of affairs continued well into the New Order period, when the rich mining and plantation resources of the Outer Islands were the most important economic attraction of the Indies to the Dutch. On the eve of the Asian economic crisis of 1997, however, signs were that the position was being reversed and that Java was once more becoming the economic powerhouse of the archipelago.

Oil and gas working areas, 1974

Oil and gas fields in production, 1993

Gross regional product (GRP) per capita and provincial growth rates, 1973-1990

Foreign investment by province, 1967-1990

Infant mortality (deaths before year 1 per 1,000 live births), 1990

Percentage of the Indonesian population in poverty, by province, 1990

Indonesia and its neighbours, GNP per capita in US$ and according to Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)

Indonesia and its neighbours, social distribution of income, ca 1991

Despite the increasing social and economic integration of the archipelago, a number of regions participated much less than others in the economic successes of the New Order. West Kalimantan and East Nusatenggara stand out as provinces where conditions remain difficult for a large part of the population. The political implications of such discrepancies are hard to foresee, but both provinces have been troubled by serious social and religious tensions in recent years. On the whole, on the other hand, the general improvement of social conditions and economic performance in the densely populated provinces of Java probably worked against the growth of regional separatist movements because the benefits and opportunities which flowed from being part of Indonesia were easier to see.

National heroes, by region

Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (Beautiful Indonesia in Miniature Theme Park)

The End of the New Order

As President Suharto aged (he was born in 1921), there was great uncertainty over how much of the order he had constructed would be able to survive his eventual departure. Suharto had always prevented the emergence of an heir apparent, and observers wondered whether any successor would be able to step smoothly into power. In the event, the New Order began to unravel before Suharto left office.

The immediate cause of Suharto’s ouster was the Asian financial crisis of 1997. The crisis was triggered by a realization amongst investors that many firms in neighbouring Thailand which had borrowed heavily in international finance markets were facing serious difficulties in paying their debts. To safeguard their holdings, Southeast Asian and international investors began to pull finance out of the region – not just from Thailand but also from Malaysia and to some extent Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. This action drove down the value of currencies in all these countries, seriously exacerbating the problem of indebtedness.

Indonesia was at first only mildly affected by the crisis, but the International Monetary Fund (IMF) used the opportunity to press Suharto to make some more general economic reforms as a condition of IMF assistance. These reforms included economic deregulation and a reduction in government spending. Both sets of measures would have seriously damaged the economic interests of the Suharto circle, which had depended on privileged access to government permits and contracts. Misjudging the mood of the IMF and investors, the president formally agreed to reforms but largely failed to implement them. This inaction attracted the first ever concerted international criticism of New Order economic policies. Suharto’s ‘crony capitalism’ (a term borrowed from critiques of President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines) was widely portrayed as the principal reason for Indonesia’s economic weakness, and the Indonesian rupiah lost 80% of its value on foreign exchange markets.

This international pressure coincided with increasing domestic discontent. The gap between rich and poor in Indonesia appeared to have grown sharply during the 1990s, and there was widespread disgust with the regime’s forcible removal of the popular Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of ex-President Sukarno, from the leadership of the PDI in 1996. Suharto’s declining health, moreover, meant that the long-term benefits for elite members of supporting his rule were likely to be limited.

In March 1998 Suharto’s re-election to a seventh term as president was forced through the National Assembly, which also elected as vice-president B. J. Habibie, the unpopular former technology minister. The economy, however, continued to crumble and violence reached acute levels. On 12 May the shooting of four students by security forces at Trisakti University in Jakarta triggered a massive breakdown in public order. Rioters in Jakarta attacked commercial and government buildings, targeting especially the Chinese community, which suffered murder, rape, arson and looting. Violence reached a peak on 14 May: armed gangs controlled much of the city, 3,000 buildings were destroyed and at least 500 people were killed. Finally, on 21 May 1998, Suharto announced his resignation and passed the presidency to Habibie.

Jakarta in May 1998: the fall of Suharto

Foreign Relations

Before the Second World War, the Indonesian elite was aware of the presence of nationalist movements in neighbouring colonies but few people, except for some communists, believed that there was any value in coordinating struggles across the region. After the war, the outbreak of nationalist and communist revolutions in Burma, Malaya, Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as Indonesia, led to suggestions for collaboration in a regional struggle. The policies and strategies of the respective colonial powers, however, were very different and most national leaders preferred to tailor their strategies to their own specific circumstances, rather than tying their future to the success of other movements. The only exception was the South East Asia League, formed in 1947 under the auspices of Thailand, which also included Amir Syarifuddin’s Republic of Indonesia and Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The League disappeared after the overthrow of the Pridi government in Thailand and the resignation of Amir as Indonesia’s prime minister.

South East Asia League

After 1949, Indonesia adopted a foreign policy which was formally described as ‘active and non-aligned’. In particular, it refused to align with either side in the Cold War, seeking instead to develop a third force of Asian and African countries, which would both moderate the great power conflict and focus attention on problems of global inequity. These efforts resulted in the Asia–Africa Conference in Bandung in 1955, normally regarded as the first meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement.

South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO)

The domination of the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) by Western powers led Southeast Asian countries to begin thinking of a purely regional association which might serve their mutual interests. This idea first took shape in the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), formed in 1961 by Thailand, the Philippines and Malaya. All three partners were strategically aligned with the West, and Indonesia refused to join. The organization, however, came under immediate pressure as a result of a Philippines claim in 1962 to Sabah (North Borneo) which Malaya intended to become part of a broader federation of Malaysia. The ASA therefore remained largely dormant until it was dissolved in 1966. In 1963, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines tentatively agreed to a pan-Malay confederation, to be called Maphilindo, but the idea was scotched, almost as soon as it was launched, by Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia.

Association of Southeast Asia (ASA)


In 1964 and 1965, Indonesia increasingly presented itself as a global leader of the ‘New Emerging Forces’ against the ‘Old Established Forces’ which included both the West and the Soviet Union. Sukarno also talked of a Jakarta–Peking axis, sometimes expanded to become a Jakarta–Phnom Penh–Hanoi–Peking–Pyongyang axis (thus including Sihanouk’s Cambodia, North Vietnam and North Korea).

After Sukarno’s overthrow in 1965–1966, the New Order government was anxious to mend its relations with both the West and with its immediate Southeast Asian neighbours. One of the first results of this reorientation was the foundation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. In recent years, ASEAN has become increasingly important as a body negotiating on behalf of its members with external powers such as the European Union and Japan. Although Indonesia retained a formal commitment to non-alignment (Suharto chaired the Non-Aligned Movement from 1992 to 1995), in practice Indonesia has backed the West on most issues of international politics.

ASEAN 1967-1984

ASEAN 1984-1995

ASEAN 1995-1997

ASEAN 1997-1999

ASEAN 1999-present

East Timor

In 1975, Indonesian forces seized the Portuguese colonial territories in eastern Timor which had formed an enclave within the archipelago since the 19th century. Independent Indonesia had first repudiated any claim to East Timor, partly because its claim to West New Guinea rested on a right it asserted to rule all of, but no more than, the former Netherlands Indies. In 1974, however, West New Guinea was firmly in Indonesian hands and the overthrow of the right-wing Caetano government in Lisbon led Portugal to promise independence to all its colonies. A lively political debate emerged in East Timor over the colony’s future, with most opinions being divided between those favouring immediate independence and those preferring greater autonomy within a continuing relationship with Portugal. By mid-1975, the supporters of independence had coalesced into a party called Fretilin, which defeated the associationist União Democrática Timorense (UDT, Timorese Democratic Union) in a brief civil war in August.

Indonesia, however, fearing that an independent East Timor might provide a base for communism, regionalist separatism or unwanted external influences, had already begun planning to annex the territory. Indonesian intelligence groups actively worked the emerging parties in East Timor, Indonesian ‘volunteers’ slowly invaded the territory from the west from September, and on 7 December Indonesian sea and air forces stormed the capital, Dili, and began a rapid conquest of the island. Finally, in July 1976, after assembling a pliant group of Timorese who petitioned for incorporation into the Republic, Indonesia declared East Timor to be its 27th province.

The Indonesian invasion took place with the acquiescence of the United States and Australian governments, which expected, like Indonesia, that swift decisive intervention would disperse the young, inexperienced nationalist movement and that Timorese on the whole would readily accept Indonesian citizenship. The invasion, however, aroused both widespread international condemnation and determined resistance on the part of the Timorese. Only Australia and Indonesia’s partners in ASEAN formally recognized the annexation and Indonesia’s disregard of successive United Nations resolutions calling for self-determination in the territory was an embarrassment. The suffering of the Timorese, however, was incomparably greater. The initial invasion was accompanied by considerable brutality towards civilians as Indonesian forces sought to intimidate potential opposition. Unable to establish firm control over the interior, Indonesian forces resorted to a strategy of population resettlement, in which people were moved from the countryside into concentration areas where they could be closely supervised and kept out of contact with Fretilin guerrillas. Estimates of the Timorese death toll in this campaign, which ran from 1977 to 1979, ranged from 30,000 to 300,000, including both shootings and deaths from famine and disease in the poorly managed concentration areas. After East Timor’s independence, a government commission investigating the violence carried out under Indonesian occupation estimated the number of non-combatants killed at 18,600, but placed the number of deaths resulting from Indonesian government policies, especially in the concentration areas as at least 84,000.

After the Indonesian military successes of 1977–1979, Fretilin abandoned attempts to control territory, and instead, under the leadership of ‘Xanana’ Gusmão, developed mobile armed columns and a network of clandestine support organizations amongst the civilian population, which enabled constant small-scale guerrilla operations to continue. In 1986, the CNRM (Conselho Nacional da Resisténcia Maubere, Maubere Council of National Resistance) was created to provide a broader political framework than was possible under Fretilin. Increasingly, moreover, the Catholic Church began to act as a focus for East Timorese identity, using the local language, Tetum, rather than Indonesian for services when the use of Portuguese was banned in 1981. The Church was also a conduit to the outside world for information on events in the territory. A consequence was that the percentage of the East Timorese population adhering to Catholicism rose from 30% in 1975 to 80% in 1990.

Strategic situation in East Timor in 1986, according to Fretilin

Indonesian military and administrative districts (KODIM, kabupaten) in East Timor, 1995

Although spending on health, education and infrastructure now vastly exceeded that during the Portuguese era, dissatisfaction with Indonesian rule remained strong, partly because of the continuing brutality of occupation forces, partly because generally Timorese were not allowed to share in the economic and employment opportunities brought by integration. The result was an on-going campaign of resistance in the main population centres, punctuated by regular violent clashes with the authorities. The award in 1996 of the Nobel Prize for Peace to Msg C. F. X. Belo, Catholic Administrator of Dili, and to Jose Ramos Horta, international spokesman for the CNRM, focussed international attention again on the continuing conflict.

Dili and the Santa Cruz Cemetery, 1991

Maritime Boundaries

At the time of independence, Indonesia could claim territorial waters up to three miles from its coastline of each of its islands. As an archipelagic state, however, Indonesia believed that it should be able to claim some greater degree of authority over the waters lying between its islands. In 1960, therefore, the government formally claimed as internal waters all the seas lying within a base line drawn between the outmost points of the archipelago. This claim was not recognized internationally, but Indonesia was able to sign a number of agreements with neighbouring countries to settle real and potential disputes. In 1980 Indonesia claimed a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around this outer limit. In 1982, the Convention on the Law of the Sea largely ratified Indonesia’s baseline claim, but the right of foreign ships to innocent passage through Indonesian waters is still a matter of dispute. Outside powers, especially the United States, have argued particularly that the Melaka, Sunda and Lombok straits are international waterways through which all vessels have an absolute right of passage.

Indonesia's maritime boundaries, 1997

Traditional fishing regime in the Timor Sea, 1968

Indonesia was marginally involved in the complex territorial disputes of the South China Sea, where China (both the People’s Republic and Taiwan), Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia all had competing claims. Although Indonesia sought at times to present itself as a mediator in the disputes, its links with the other ASEAN countries and its own small claims in the region mean that it was unlikely to be regarded as a neutral force.

Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor in 1976 gave it a maritime boundary with Australia, the so-called ‘Timor Gap’, which was not covered by earlier treaties. Australia argued for a straight line connecting the two end points of the previously agreed boundaries, but Indonesia argued that the Law of the Sea now favoured a median line and in the absence of an agreement it asserted some claim to the full 200-km EEZ. The dispute was of economic importance, because oil and gas prospects on the Timor shelf could not safely be explored in the absence of clear jurisdictional arrangements.

In December 1989, however, Indonesia and Australia signed a treaty providing a management regime for economic exploitation of the disputed zone. The disputed area lying between the undersea Timor Trough, which Australia claimed as the edge of its continental shelf, and the Indonesian EEZ limit, was divided into three zones, B and C under Australian and Indonesian jurisdiction respectively and A under joint arrangements. It was specified that the treaty would not alter the fundamental boundary claims of either side, but these issues were left in abeyance.

Because the alleged unviability of an independent East Timorese state was one of the arguments presented against East Timorese independence, the exploitation of lucrative and non-renewable natural resources in the Timor Gap were widely criticized in some international circles. Portugal brought a case against Australia in the International Court of Justice over its granting of oil leases in the Timor Gap, but in 1995 the Court refused to pass judgement on the grounds that to do so would be to determine the legality of Indonesia’s occupation of the territory, which it could not do because Indonesia did not accept the court’s jurisdiction.