Despite Indonesia’s decision not to align with either of the two blocks, Soviet or
American, internal instability forced the government to change its position. After
installing a guided and managed democracy system, president Soekarno came closer to
the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Soon after, the nation’s economy collapsed and
inflation escalated uncontrollably.
Political unrest and seizure of power by Suharto
Troubles politiques et prise de pouvoir
Suharto, second person from the left, October 6 th 1965, photo © voaafrique
Indonesia was on the verge of a major blow up but in the night of the 30 th of September
1965, a dramatic episode changed the course of history. Near Jakarta, six top generals of
the Army were kidnapped and killed by a group of Army conspirators.
General Suharto, commander of the army’s strategic reserve was still relatively unknown
at the time. He quickly took the lead of the army to end the insurrection. He dissolved
and banned the Indonesian Communist Party, which he accused of being behind the
killings, and prohibited all kinds of dissemination of communist doctrines. Five months
later, he managed to obtain full power by constraining Sukarno to sign the Supersemar
letter, a document in which he surrendered all executive authority to Suharto. Powerless,
the former president lived under house arrest until his death in 1970.
The bloody transition toward the New Order constitutes one of the darkest periods in
Indonesia’s history. The political purge targeted the elimination of all alleged communist
sympathizers and anyone close to them. Mass murder and imprisonment extended to
ethnic and religious minorities mainly the Chinese community, intellectuals and artists.
An estimated 500,000 to more than one million people were killed during the few months
following the controversial coup attempt.
President Suharto in the centre, © photo merdeka
From that moment on, holding full control of governance, Suharto focused on the
nation’s development. He allied with the United States and international organizations
like the UN and IMF. At the same time, he broke off diplomatic relations with the soviet
block and China. During his rule, the New Order, he brought stability, economic
development and family planning at the cost of individual freedom and democracy.
A sham election from which he inevitably came out as the winner, was held every five
years. With this strategy, he ruled Indonesia for thirty-two years.
Under his presidency, foreign investment started to flow and the country experienced
rapid economic growth. Suharto accommodated international mining and oil companies
that wanted to settle in Indonesia. Part of the income generated went to built
administration, education and health infrastructures.
In the mid 1980’s Indonesia yielding to pressures to liberalise the economy, privatized
hundreds of state enterprises. Suharto entrusted them to relatives or near relations whom
became extremely wealthy from that deal.
Political unrest periodically arose in different parts of the archipelago but any opposition
to the New Order was promptly suppressed. The invasion of East Timor by Indonesian
forces in 1975 marked another dark page of history with massive killing of civilians
followed by decades of occupation.
As decades went by, collusion, corruption and capital embezzlement infiltrated every
levels of the government while social disparities deepened and general discontentment
Suharto’s grip on power was unshaken until the Asian Financial crisis of 1997 when
fueled by the rupiah’s fall and severe price hikes, student demonstrations intensified and
riots broke out in several cities especially in the capital. The Indonesian masses supported
by many leading figures called on Suharto to step down. He finally announced his
resignation in May 1998, leaving the presidency to his vice-president and protégé B.J.
The fall of the dictator was followed by the reformasi era with long awaited measures to
restore democratic values.