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Indonesia Then and Now: a Passion for Freedom Remains

FOR me it was d vu as I watched TV news footage of Indonesian protesters climbing over the fence that protects the American Embassy in Jakarta and occupying the diplomatic compound.

It was 30 years ago that as a correspondent covering civil war I used to climb up and over that same embassy fence, sometimes going in to evade the communist mobs besieging the compound, sometimes going out, leaving a buttoned-up embassy to find out what was happening in the violence-wracked streets.

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The situation then was different. In 1964 and early 1965, the rule of then-President Sukarno was rushing toward crisis. Although Sukarno had captured the support of his people by uniting them against their former Dutch colonial rulers, he had frittered away his young nation's heritage. His people were poor and sometimes hungry. As a diversion he railed against the West - the British, whose embassy in Jakarta he permitted to be burned, and then the Americans, whom he labeled the masterminds of an imagined imperialistic conspiracy.

Americans were harassed. One day in December 1964 I had stationed myself in the US embassy. The city was tense amid rumors of pending anti-American violence. The gates were locked, the compound was cleared, and US marines guarded the main doors. Suddenly a telephone call came from the lone American manning the US Information Service center a mile away. Above the sound of breaking glass and shouting, the American chief of the center, Jordan Tanner, reported: ``They [the anti-American mob] are smashing the windows. They're breaking in. They're burning the books.'' He had little time for more.

The marines were not about to open the gates to let me out. So over the famous fence I went, eventually to find Mr. Tanner shaken but unharmed in the smoking shambles of the center after a mob of 300 had sacked it.

As Indonesia under Sukarno lurched ever leftward, the Indonesian Communist Party made its bid for power. On Oct. 1, 1965, it tortured and brutally murdered key generals in the stalwartly anti-communist Indonesian Army.

A relatively obscure general named Suharto, then commander of the army's strategic reserve, played a key role in putting down the attempted communist coup. Allied with the Army were hundreds of thousands of Indonesian students who took to the streets demanding freedom from Sukarno's leftist dictatorship. After the subsequent fall of Sukarno, Suharto became president in 1967 and has ruled Indonesia till the present.

In the intervening years, much has changed for the better. Communism has been vanquished. Indonesia's oil and forests and other natural resources have been utilized for productive purposes. Its people are vastly better off economically. There is much less poverty.

But as leaders of Asian and Pacific nations met in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta this week for an economic summit, this progress was overshadowed by encroachments on the human rights of some Indonesian citizens.

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Demonstrators who scaled the fence of the American embassy were not seeking to do harm, but to win the support of the US and other nations against Indonesian repression in East Timor, which Indonesia invaded and seized from Portugal. Indonesia has been heavy-handed in its subsequent rule over the territory. The action of the East Timorese embarrassed President Suharto as he sought to enhance Indonesia's image in the international arena. Coupled with a crackdown on the Indonesian press and emasculation of the Indonesian labor movement, it captured the negative attention of several thousand journalists reporting on the summit.

Thirty years ago, Indonesia's anticommunist military men and an army of brave young students allied themselves in the cause of liberty. That passion for freedom is still much alive.

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