ABC News Commentary

17 January 1974

Suharto Military Regime

The violent riots which have hit the streets of Jakarta in the last two days and which have involved tens of thousands of demonstrators have obviously given vent to feelings of massive discontent. It is true that in the first instance the main objects of student anger were Japanese business interests which have achieved a stranglehold over several key areas of the Indonesian economy. But perhaps even more significant is the way in which the demonstrating crowds subsequently turned their attention to the local Chinese community, destroying a whole line of restaurants, bars, massage parlours and steam baths. It would be a serious mistake, however, to interpret this outburst simply in terms of traditional Indonesian antipathy towards the Chinese minority. In popular eyes, Chinese economic interests have become symbols of wealth and privilege, made all the more objectionable to the extent that operate in partnership senior military officers. 

Many of the largest business concerns in Indonesia such as Pertamina, the state oil corporation, are headed by generals directly responsible to General Suharto rather to the relevant government department. These industrial and commercial enterprises often rely on the participation of Chinese businessmen who can provide the needed capital and technical skills. Many senior officers have thus secured positions where they can make considerable profits for themselves. Public awareness of corruption in the highest places, contrasted with the squalid misery of the masses faced with unemployment and rising prices, has encourages and probably motivated the present outbreak of almost uncontrollable violence. What may have appeared as an anti-foreign demonstration may turn out to be a serious expression of anti-government protest. In fact some of the students have been chanting slogans against Suharto’s principal advisers, while one particular crowd of rioters attempted to storm the offices of Jakarta’s military governor. 

There exists, in any case, a very obvious connection between the military regime and foreign economic interests. It is the Indonesian power structure headed by General Suharto which has bee largely responsible for the tacit but far-reaching understanding between the army leadership and the Western and Japanese and Western corporations anxious to secure effective and long-term access to Indonesia’s raw materials. Thus the military regime, assisted by an army of technocrats, has allowed its economic nd social policies to follow the Western model of capital-intensive development. The aim of this economic strategy is to exact quick and high returns from capital investment rather than to foster projects with long-term development potential. The end result of this policy is to promote increasing dependence on overseas capital. Significantly, the Indonesian Government provides foreign investors not only with the advantage of a cheap labour force but also with the protection of legislation which guarantees their investment and ensures the retention of profits. 

While there has been a steady increase in Indonesia’s Gross National Product in the last few years, it has been achieved at the cost of ever-increasing repression and exploitation. It is only a very small middle class which has enjoyed the benefits of economic growth. Whatever the high-sounding phrases of the new Indonesian five-year plan, the Suharto government remains firmly committed to the defence of the status quo. 

Serious questions thus arise as to the direction of Australian policy which has thus far under both Liberal and Labor governments given strong support to the Suharto regime not only diplomatically but also through a considerable programme of foreign aid, investment and military assistance. Is it in Australia’s interests, not to mention the interests of the peoples of Southeast Asia, to reinforce the power of established conservative elites and hinder the radical social and economic changes needed to transform the lot of the impoverished and dissatisfied masses? The riots in Jakarta are perhaps a salutary reminder of the urgent need for Australia to reconsider her policies towards the region. It is surely time for us to abandon the neo-colonial attitudes of the past and end our support for a political and economic state of affairs which reeks of injustice and threatens to erupt into larger-scale violence.