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Wednesday, 13 September, 2000, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Analysis: Indonesia's fragile archipelago
By former Jakarta correspondent Catherine Napier

Indonesia's national motto is "Bhinneka tunggal" or "unity in diversity". It was coined by the leaders of the new Republic proclaimed in 1945 and the political challenge it reflects is as true today as it was more than 50 years ago.

For although half a century of being part of an independent Indonesia has led to a strong sense of national identity across the more than 13,000 islands that make up the archipelago, many other forces still pulling the country apart.

The declaration of independence followed a slow process of Dutch colonisation which began in the 17th century with the creation of the Dutch East India Company.

It was spices which attracted European traders to a small collection of islands in what is now Eastern Indonesia. The Dutch monopolised the trade and from there expanded their influence - largely through indirect rule - across the collection of independent sultanates and principalities which made up the region then.

Political unity under the Dutch was only achieved at the beginning of this century, leaving strong regional identities intact.

Forging a national identity

It was Indonesians themselves who were left to confront the problem of how to unify a country of more than 250 ethnic groups, whose experience of the Dutch varied from region to region.

The war of independence against the Dutch, from 1945 to 1950, was of key importance in helping to forge a national identity, as was the post-colonial leadership under Sukarno and Hatta.

Sukarno, who became the first president of the Republic, was a supreme nationalist. It was he who invented Indonesia's national ideology of Pancasila designed to promote tolerance amongst diverse religious and ideological groups.

Preaching monotheism - belief in one god - and crucially Indonesian unity, it had few critics until later on when, under Indonesia's second President Suharto, Pancasila became a tool of state repression.

The spread of a national language - Bahasa Indonesia - also helped unify a multi-lingual population. Intermarriage helped, internal migration helped.

The consolidation of army power, the creation of internal security agencies and the general militarisation of society under President Suharto established a kind of order in which economic development flourished and challenges against the state were more or less doomed from the outset - until the economy collapsed and Suharto's rule with it.

But antagonism between the central most heavily populated island of Java and the outlying regions continues to present the most serious political challenge to the government even today.

After independence, President Sukarno faced a series of rebellions in the early 1950s led by disaffected army commanders and Islamic leaders. In 1950 a new - short lived - unitary constitution was adopted with a centralised administration in Jakarta.

Although politically dominant, Java was dependant on income from exports from the resource-rich outer islands and the Javanese were accused of exploitation.

This sort of grievance is still pulling Indonesia apart.

Demands for independence

Aceh is a case in point. A strongly Islamic area which fought a war against the Dutch, Aceh has also been in regular conflict with the leadership of independent Indonesia.

Since the 1950s Aceh has been demanding greater autonomy, first supporting an Islamic rebellion against the state then later supporting an independence movement known as the Free Aceh Movement.

Aceh was granted the status of a special region in 1959 but the reality of life within the Indonesian republic has not been to the liking of most of its population.

Brutal counter-insurgency operations in the late 1980s and early 1990s alienated its inhabitants, further increasing support for the independence movement.

Sukarno soon ran into trouble with the new Indonesian state. A seven year experiment with democracy ended in 1957 with Indonesian unity in crisis.

Martial law was imposed and political life restricted, although in foreign policy Sukarno struck out as a fierce anti-colonialist and self-styled leader of an alliance of newly independent Afro-Asian states which later became the Non Aligned Movement.

Clash of old and new

These states supported Sukarno's claim to Irian Jaya which he secured from the Dutch in 1969 after a period under UN supervision.

But for indigenous Papuans the history of the province since then has been a far from happy one. Treated as second class citizens, they have suffered the invasion of their tribal lands by developers and transmigrants while their natural resources are plundered for the benefit of Jakarta.

Perhaps nowhere in Indonesia is the clash of the old and new so apparent as the siting of a state of the art gold and copper mine - Freeport Indonesia - in a mountainous area populated by near stone age tribes.

President Suharto sent special combat troops to crush an independence movement - the Free Papua Organisation or OPM - but anti-Indonesian activity has increased in recent years and serious demands for independence have resurfaced.

As in other disaffected areas of the republic, the collapse of the Suharto regime has led to unrealistic expectations of change and a promised "dialogue" on autonomy has been postponed.

East Timor 'special case'

The end of Indonesian rule in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony invaded by Indonesia in 1975 is likely to further fuel such expectations. Since its incorporation into the Republic, East Timor's majority Catholic population had been subjected to sustained repression by the Indonesian army determined to crush separatist sentiment at the cost of many thousands of lives.

East Timor's vote for independence in a United Nations supervised ballot on autonomy has prompted real worries that other regions will be encouraged to to break away.

But East Timor has been a special case in the sense that the United Nations never accepted the Indonesian annexation of 1976.

Many Irianese feel they have an equally strong case for independence, but for other regions fed up with Jakarta it seems that at least part of the answer must lie in genuine decentralisation, a path the present interim government has already embarked upon.

Links to more Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.


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