March 1999

The disintegration of a state




The situation in Indonesia is going from bad to worse. Riots and senseless killings have erupted in many parts of the country, from Acheh and Medan in the west, to Ambon and Timor in the east. Now we have gruesome newspaper photographs of rioters from West Kalimantan holding in triumph decapitated heads of their enemies.

We have to learn a new vocabulary of the various ethnic groups in that country. No longer can we merely think in terms of Indonesians, Pribumis and Chinese. We have to distinguish between the Javanese, the Achehnese, the Ambonese, Malays, Dayaks, Madurese, Timorese and so on. Every week, a hitherto unfamiliar name erupts into our news bulletins.

I am not making any prediction in this essay about what is going to happen next in that country. It would be foolhardy of me. There are so many variables at play, passions breaking out which few ever suspected to have existed during the Suharto years, that no one can predict; we can only think through the multiple possibilities.

I just wish to explore for a brief moment the unthinkable: the disintegration of a State. I don't mean to suggest that it is likely to happen, but things have gone so far now that anything is possible.

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States appear solid and permanent. They are seen as coloured jigsaws on atlases, a uniform solid colour from one end of its territory to the other. States can last decades or centuries, outlasting our biological span, so that for all practical purposes in terms of our lives, they ARE permanent.

But the truth is, they are neither. In reality, they are tenuous arrangements, partly of top-down coercion, partly of bottom-up consent. A group of people forming a power elite claims a certain territory as its State, and so long as no foreign party, or any inhabitants of any part make a serious attempt to contest its claim, the State it is. But once consent is withdrawn and top-down coercion proves, for whatever reason, ineffective, the State can vanish very rapidly.

Look at the way the Soviet Union or the old Yugoslavia disappeared in a blink of an eye.

In some cases, it is doubtful if consent of the governed was ever won. In such instances, the State lasted only as long as the centre could enforce its rule over the territory. As soon as the centre became exhausted, or got caught up in internal infighting, the State would effectively vanish as well. This model is applicable to what we've seen in some African countries like Somalia, the old Ethiopia, Congo, southern Sudan or Sierra Leone. The inhabitants' loyalties were always more to the tribe than to the State. As soon as the elite in the capital city let go its grip, the State fragmented.

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The means by which a power elite can impose its will on the inhabitants of its claimed territory is quite obvious. There is the military, the police, the border guards and immigration officers. There is its judicial system that can pass down sedition judgements and pack dissidents to jail; the control over broadcasting wavelengths and perhaps the press.

To use only the power of coercion to maintain a government in power (and with it, its claim of being a State) would require enormous resources in the face of an unwilling population. You'd have to have large numbers of troops and police patrolling every street and village. Just to pay them would cost more than any economic value you could extract from the territory. You'd have very busy kangaroo courts sentencing opponents to jail. You'd have a hell of a time patrolling your borders to stop arms smuggling to the insurgents. It is impossible for a State to operate like that over any reasonable period of time.

Winning consent of the governed is essential. "Consent" doesn't mean democratic elections, which I suspect many Americans think is the only possible meaning it can have. I disagree. Consent simply means going about one's daily life in acceptance of the reality that the State controls your community to some extent. To win consent, a State would try to deliver tangible benefits to its citizenry, first and foremost, civil peace and security, followed by schools, hospitals, transportation facilities, opportunities to make a living, and reasonable access to justice.

Given these benefits, it's easier, for the average person, to live one's life within the framework of the State than to challenge it day in and day out. And so everything settles into a kind of modus vivendi between the power elite and the ordinary folk, and the semblance of a State is taken for granted.

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A semblance it will always be, especially for a country as far-flung and populous as Indonesia. In its case, the economic and developmental benefits could never be more than a trickle flowing to each village. And like economic progress, the coercive power of Jakarta was always more illusion than reality.

The effect of the economic crisis has been to shatter those illusions. The illusion of better livelihoods has been exploded as inflation erodes the value of money, jobs are lost, fertiliser is unaffordable and famine seriously threatens certain parts of the country. This reversal of fortunes has focussed attention on the massive corruption within the power elite the last 3 decades, which in turn has shattered the illusion of its rightful authority.

When a few demonstrations in the capital (May 1998) could bring down a 32-year regime, the aura of invincibility of the Jakarta government was forever lost. It's similar to how when the Japanese occupied Singapore, Malaya and Burma in the 2nd World War, the British could never hope to regain their full authority over these colonies again, even after the Japanese defeat of 1945.

With the lid off, all the bitterness repressed through the last few decades is now erupting: bitterness against the venal bureaucracy, against the trigger-happy army, against the Chinese middlemen who did relatively well under Suharto and against the Christians. In the outer provinces, the bitterness, as we can see today, is against the Javanese and Madurese. These groups, coming from the overpopulated islands of Java and Madura, were encouraged to migrate to the outlying provinces during the last 30 years. As one would expect, the indigenous population in those provinces saw them as alien settlers, coming to seize their traditional lands and natural resources. Now, as the central power structure weakens, the migrants are exposed to the wrath of the locals.

The last few months have seen the army stretching itself to send reinforcements here and there to try to keep order. In many places, the local police have been overwhelmed by the riots. Perhaps in some cities, the police were not seen as evenhanded, or the local command structure of the police was incompetent. The net result is that the army had to be called in. But how many fronts can the army hold at the same time? How secure is the central command's control of the local army units? How professional and disciplined are its soldiers, such that they really keep the peace, rather than shoot wildly and make things worse?

We haven't seen the end of this drama yet. With luck, despite being very stretched, the army can just about manage to keep things from boiling over. But the (we hope, unlikely) pessimistic scenario is one of its gradual collapse from overstrain.

Soldiers may get exhausted and mutinous. Local commanders may be corrupt and sell their favours to the highest bidder among the local rioting factions. Or cash may not arrive from the capital and the troops aren't paid for months (e.g. Russia). To survive, the individual soldier steals equipment from his camp and sells them on the blackmarket, including maybe his own rifle.

As the army proves unable, through indiscipline, corruption, or sheer exhaustion, to hold the peace, the frightened Javanese and Madurese migrants in many provinces flee back to their ancestral islands. With them will go the teachers, the doctors, the road engineers, the people associated with the retreating power elite. Gradually the services with which the State justifies its existence -- schools, hospitals, courts of justice, etc -- evaporate. In other words, the tangible State evaporates. Local vigilantes at the village, town or neighbourhood level, seize control of the abandoned territory. As they establish control, putting up barricades and meting out rough and ready justice, the final vestige of the State gives up. The soldiers, fearful for their lives, cast off their uniforms, throw away their guns, and rush for the ferries and trucks to get out.

What happens next? A lot depends on what happens within Java. As things stand, there is serious contention within the Javanese elite for power, both within the present government, and among the government, students and opposition parties. There are two elections scheduled for 1999, a general election and a presidential one. If the elections turn out to be a mess and no acceptable result emerges, the internal strife will get worse. The Javanese may get so consumed in perhaps a low-grade kind of civil war on their home island, they will hardly have the energy to do anything about the provinces. The army will be so sucked into the troubles on the home island, they can hardly send any more reinforcements to the periphery.

With the Javanese so distracted, whichever ruthless provincial leader emerges top dog in his area, be it Acheh, Sulawesi or Riau, may be effectively independent. But often in these situations, no top dog emerges, and the daily chaos continues in the provinces, spreading murder, mayhem and famine. Neighbouring countries like Singapore will face a flood of refugees and rising piracy on the surrounding seas.

If the Javanese get their act together, they may be able to turn their attention to the unruly provinces, and try to bring them under control again. This usually means a military campaign. More fighting, more casualties. Sometimes, military campaigns succeed, but sometimes they fail. Casualties mount, little headway is made. Parents demand that their sons should not be sacrificed in some faraway war, and the will to impose the power of the centre on the provinces ebbs.

It's already happening in the case of East Timor. Jakarta has largely decided it is not worth the cost of holding on to it by military means.

I have no idea what is likely, or unlikely. Singapore has always known -- uncomfortably -- a massive Indonesia (now about 200 million people) next door. Except for the chaos of 1966 when Suharto overthrew Sukarno, that huge archipelago has been, if not prosperous, at least more or less under someone's control. Now we face the risk that nobody may be in control and the chaos looks many times worse than 1966. If the Indonesian State distintegrates, either wholly or just crumbles at its edges, our insecurity will be much greater than ever before.

Yawning Bread