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The Year of Living Dangerously Never Ends in Indonesia

November 07, 2019

"The Year of Living Dangerously'' is a 1982 film directed by Peter Weir based on Christopher Koch's 1978 novel by the same name. The story is about a love affair set in Indonesia at the time of the overthrow of President Sukarno from 1965-1966. As the author was working for a company with a significant presence in Indonesia, the first-hand accounts from associates regarding the deaths of over one million people were unbelievable. An internal strife between the post-colonial ruler, President Sukarno, and General Suharto focused on the Indonesian Communist Party with which Sukarno was very cozy and specifically Indonesians of Chinese ethnicity. Ultimately, General Suharto prevailed in the contest and Sukarno lived under house arrest until his death in 1970. As was the case in upheavals in other countries in the region, it has become quite clear that the CIA played a role in this tragedy. 

A young Mel Gibson played an Australian reporter, the diminutive Linda Hunt earned an Academy Award as a male cinemaphotographer as shown below and Sigourney Weaver played a British Embassy Officer. If you have been in similar situations, one cannot comprehend their calm demeanor when surrounded by rioting crowds carrying assorted weapons except for the rush of adrenaline that often occurs.

The image below reflects one of the two combative military forces at that time with "political undesirables" in a round-up that in all probability did not end well though their numbers would have been lost in the overall death toll. 

Some eight years later, the author experienced a similar event that began in Jakarta on January 14, 1974 and spread throughout the Indonesia heartland of Java. Surprisingly, the mountain city of Bandung had experienced rioting several months before that date and, by chance, the author found himself there as the wave moved outward from Jakarta. One of the scenes in the referenced film may have been set in Bandung some nine years before in a popular guest house. 

The 1974 riots began as a reaction to the visit of Prime Minister Tanaka of Japan to Indonesia. As is usually the case, provocateurs stirred up the population at the bottom end of the vast chasm from prosperity to poverty to target Japanese cars, offices and people as shown above. After a period of time, it became obvious that everything was out of control with indiscriminate hostility directed toward any evidence of income inequality with a focus on foreigners. On January 14, 1974, the author called the Australian partner in the company's accounting firm in Jakarta from Bandung to resolve an issue that precluded the sale of an asset to Pertamina, the state oil company of Indonesia. When pressed on a sticky point, the audit partner said "We have a spot of trouble here" followed by the sound of automatic weapons fire and breaking glass. Undeterred, my response was "Do we have a deal" and, unsurprisingly, he said "Yes!" Throughout the day in Jakarta, roundups and deaths followed. 

The image above was published in The NY Times on January 15, 1974 which reported that the young man shown was pulled down by the police and never seen again. The question is what does one do in Bandung while waiting for the excitement to come your way? My handler in Bandung was Henry Harriman - though it was common knowledge that his real name was Henry Ho and he was ethnic Chinese. The plan was clear-stay near the hotel, close to the bar and be prepared to get to an interior room when the shooting starts. The shooting did occur over the ensuing couple of days but by day four the word came out that the trains to Jakarta were running and the airport there had been re-opened. Who knows, as a personal experience, it may have been good preparation for the early days in Baghdad following the fall of Sadaam Hussein.

There was a rumor that the unrest was instigated by a faction of the Indonesian army loyal to General Ibnu Sutowo, Chairman of Pertamina, attempting to overthrow Prime Minister Suharto. Suharto had recognized the fragility of running a country with the entrenched ethnic animosity and had forced all of the Chinese to adopt indigenous or "pribumi" names as Henry Ho had done. Shortly after the riots, General Ibnu Sutowo was removed from his position as head of Pertamina for rampant corruption which was a well-understood practice in Indonesia though it is not wise to step on the toes of the top guy.

In May 1998, the riots happened again with a specific focus on the minority 3% Chinese population which controlled 80% of the country's private-sector commerce. Many of the Chinese preferred to speak their native language and practiced Christianity or Buddhism in the predominantly Muslim country. As much as anything, the riots reflected the frustration of a corrupt political process that kept Suharto and his cronies in power for a seventh consecutive five-year term.

Indonesia's Chinese population began with immigrants over a hundred years ago who sought to escape poverty at home. They were hard workers building a closely-knit Chinese community creating resentment among the indigenous residents. The Sukarno regime prevented the ethnic Chinese from doing business outside of the urban areas. Suharto's government forced them to adopt Indonesian names in an attempt to homogenize the community.

Many continued to speak Chinese and practiced either Christianity or Buddhism. Therefore, cultural differences only inflamed the economic disparity which served as a beacon focusing on the Chinese that resulted in looting and the murder of over 1,000 Chinese. Suharto lost control of the military and resigned from office which ushered in a more egalitarian approach to the Chinese.

Things have been relatively quiet since 1998 though a new issue has arisen that could be cause for concern that will be addressed in a following commentary. Religious differences have evolved based upon a more fundamentalist Muslim faith that could be used to stoke the flames of continuing income inequality throughout the population.

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