One might think twenty years would be time enough for an ‘emerging democracy’ to escape from its chrysalis. Indonesia was a laggard in the wave that saw procedural democracy restored across much of Latin America, the Soviet bloc and Sub-Saharan Africa by the mid-1990s, along with the toppling of dictators in the Philippines, Korea and Taiwan. But after thirty-three years in power, Suharto’s iron grip was loosened only by the social catastrophe of the 1997 Asian crisis, when pressure from the imf as much as turmoil from below forced his resignation in 1998. Since then, an electoral cycle has stabilized, and in 2014 an outsider presidential candidate, Joko Widodo, was swept into office. Jokowi, as he’s known, had even promised to investigate the mass killings of 1965–66 which inaugurated Suharto’s New Order—a subject recently gaining wide attention from Western viewers thanks to Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing (2012). While every Cold War dictatorship tried to wipe out its radical-left opponents, Suharto succeeded on a far greater scale—some 500,000 killed, on conservative estimates, compared to 3,000 in Chile or 20,000 in Argentina. The New Order not only annihilated the 3-million strong Communist Party of Indonesia (pki) as a political force but succeeded in demonizing its memory on a scale that surpassed comparable efforts in Franco’s Spain, let alone those of Pinochet or the Argentine Junta.

Yet twenty years on, remnants of the Suharto era persist and renew themselves in surprising ways. In 2014 Jokowi’s electoral opponent Prabowo, a notoriously hardline former general—former son-in-law of Suharto, a commander of the counter-insurgent terror in East Timor in the 1980s, and responsible for ‘disappearing’ pro-democracy protesters in 1997–98—won nearly 47 per cent of the vote. Golkar, the ruling party under Suharto’s New Order, initially consigned to the opposition, was absorbed into Jokowi’s parliamentary coalition in early 2016. It’s as if the banyan tree of old still casts its deep shade, under whose polymorphous entanglement of branches, roots and trunks little can grow without being strangled and corrupted.footnote1 What are the reasons for this ‘persistence of the old regime’—what special interests, institutions and ideologies underpin it? And what role does the memory of the 1960s massacre play in the country’s political culture today? During the 2014 presidential campaign, Jokowi wrote—or at least, lent his name to—an opinion piece in Kompas, the Jakarta daily, titled ‘Mental Revolution’, which began with a paradox: ‘Why is it that sixteen years on from Reformasi, with relatively high economic growth and “free and fair” direct elections, instead of being happy our society is growing restless—in the language of the young, galau?’footnote2 What follows attempts to provide some answers to these questions.

With a population well over a quarter of a billion, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country after China, India and the us. Unlike its giant continental neighbours, though, Indonesia is not a consolidated landmass, but extends for some 3,000 miles across an equatorial archipelago encompassing more than 13,000 islands, nearly a thousand of them inhabited. Strategically, this leaves the country with very rich natural resources (coal, gold, tin, natural gas, forestry products, rubber, coffee, etc.); a geography at once porous and impenetrable, defenceless from the air, with immense challenges for transport and communications infrastructure. As with India, the political entity of Indonesia was welded together by colonizing powers, who imposed military and administrative unity upon a multiplicity of older polities of widely varied types and sizes—the Javanese kingdom, with its highly developed courtly rituals; the sultanates of Sumatra; the ancient trading cities strung along the sea routes between China and India; the villages of the Outer Islands—subject to the haphazard nature of European colonial rivalry: some islands, Borneo, Timor or New Guinea, were partitioned between two or even three external powers.

Even by comparison to French or English colonial rule, Dutch wracking of its East Indian possessions through extensive agricultural exploitation was cheese-paring, coercive and uneven. Writing under the pen name Robert Curtis, Benedict Anderson summarized the outcomes in an early issue of New Left Review. In Java, directly administered by the colonial power, peasants were forced to cultivate export crops on their subsistence rice-lands, for nominal sums, while aristocrats were incorporated into the colonial bureaucracy. In Sumatra, by contrast, Dutch rule arrived only in the twentieth century, and was indirect, mediated through immigrant groups: building up the military and administrative influence of pliant local notables over their rivals and subjects, to create a caste of ‘traditional’ rulers. At the same time, Javanese and Chinese peasants were imported as coolie labour for the foreign-owned plantations and mines, creating a mutinous population with no loyalty to its local ‘emir’, while in Java the high social visibility of the white masters helped to sharpen political awareness.footnote3 By the 1920s growing national consciousness, uneven modernization and rising social tensions helped to produce an array of political parties, trade unions and other groupings agitating for independence. Most important were the Partai Nasional Indonesia (pni), a modernizing, initially student-based and mainly Javanese vehicle led by Sukarno, who was flanked by Hatta and Sjahrir; the mass Islamic organizations; and the Indonesian Communist Party (pki).

Of these dramatis personae, Sukarno (1901–70), born in Surabaya to a low-level Javanese priyayi aristocrat and a Brahmin Balinese woman, would play the most significant role. During high school, he lived in the house of Haji Oemar Said Tjokroaminoto, the charismatic leader of Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union), where he met many of the nationalist leaders, and went on to study architecture in a technical college in Bandung. He founded a study club in 1925, and the Indonesian Nationalist Association, which would later turn into the Indonesian Nationalist Party in 1927; he was arrested a number of times for his nationalist activities by the colonial government. During his presidency, Sukarno was the target of at least seven assassination attempts. After the 1965 coup, and the official transfer of power in 1967, he was put under house arrest until his death three years later. Hatta (1902–80), born in Bukittinggi in Sumatra, was raised within the Minangkabau matrilineal system by his mother’s family. He studied economics on a scholarship in Rotterdam, where he became leader of the Indonesian Association in 1922 and was arrested. On his return, he joined Sukarno’s pni, but when it was outlawed, founded with Sjahrir the New pni—the ‘P’ referring to Pendidikan or Education rather than Party. Both Hatta and Sjahrir were arrested and sent into exile in 1934. Sukarno and Hatta were the ones who proclaimed Independence in 1945, and until the two fell out in 1956, served as a dwitunggal duumvirate, a symbol of national unity transcending regional and ideological divisions, with complementary gifts of showmanship, artistry and brilliant rhetorical appeal on Sukarno’s part, and solid administrative competence, applied economic grasp and phlegmatic integrity on Hatta’s.