Anthropologist's View of Indonesia's Turmoil and Its Roots


(Interview with Clifford Geertz)


When jetloads of pinstriped Western bankers descended on Indonesia last year to demand that President Suharto salvage his battered economy by shutting down the business monopolies held by his children, one of America's most influential anthropologists was not surprised that he balked.

Prof. Clifford Geertz said that in the tradition-laden culture of the central Indonesian island of Java -- home to more than half the population of that vast archipelago nation, and Suharto's birthplace -- parents dote on their children in ways that other societies would consider indulgent, even excessive.

"Javanese children are spoiled," said Geertz of the Institute for Advanced Study, whose books include "The Social History of an Indonesian Town" and "The Religion of Java." "In Java, there is a tremendous amount of protection from the father. If he doesn't do that, then he would be no good as a father."

Of course, excessive fatherly love is not the sole reason for Suharto's refusal to break up a multi-billion-dollar business empire controlled by his six rapacious children. The president, who has ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for more than 30 years and has been accused of using murder and torture to quash dissent, has never responded well to international criticism.

Yet while bankers, economists and diplomats have spent much of the last year trying to make sense of Indonesia's turmoil, scrutinizing everything from its financial institutions to its byzantine political structure, many have failed to look closely at the often misunderstood culture of Indonesia in trying to find a way to resolve the crisis peacefully.

An Indonesian specialist who is considered by many of his peers to be the leading anthropologist of his generation, Geertz said he worried that the International Monetary Fund and the other Western institutions were so misreading Javanese culture that they could turn a desperate situation in that nation of 210 million people into a dangerous one.

The collapse of the Indonesian currency, which has lost more than two-thirds of its value over the last year, and the corresponding rise in the price of basic commodities like rice and cooking oil has set off street riots in Jakarta and on dozens of colleges campuses.

Several people were killed in clashes with the government's security forces this week and thousands were injured in rioting yesterday. Many of the demonstrators have demanded the ouster of Suharto, who has no history of tolerating dissent and is thought ready to use even more violence to stem the protests.

"I think they don't understand," Geertz said of those in the IMF. "I don't think that someone who has been trained as a financial whiz can go to Indonesia and immediately grasp the situation. I've worked on it for years, and I wouldn't claim to grasp the situation."

Geertz said that when Suharto rebuffed the International Monetary Fund last year and refused to close down many of his children's multi-billion-dollar business operations -- they control everything from toll roads to communications satellites -- he could draw on centuries of Javanese tradition. Even if that threatened the collapse of an economy that had once been his proudest achievement.

From the windows of his spacious office at the institute, Geertz stares out over an especially leafy corner of the institute's campus -- a grove of sun-dappled trees sways in a gentle spring breeze -- and insists that he can only guess at the extent of the chaos half a world away on the muggy streets of Jakarta, the steamy, smog-shrouded Indonesian capital.

But from what this 71-year-old anthropologist has read and seen from a distance about Indonesia's economic collapse and the reaction of the public to the turmoil, it all seems very familiar, and very Javanese.

"It's not a matter of everybody in Java is exactly the same or that they all have some sort of Javanism in them that essentially determines what they do," he said, seated with his back to a collection of toothy Javanese tribal masks gathered on his travels. "But the way things are going on in that country, at least from afar, it does not seem unfamiliar to me." Geertz began his career in the 1950s with field studies on village life in Java.

His first bit of advice to Western bankers and economists is one often given to first-time visitors to Indonesia: avoid confrontation with the Javanese, who are trained from infancy to avoid direct personal encounters that might force a display of anger or other emotion, even within their own families.

Among the Javanese, it is unimaginable rudeness to point out another's mistakes. The language reinforces this heightened sense of civility, with elders and leaders addressed in a "higher," more formal style of Javanese.

"There is this pattern of politeness," he said. "The whole thing is to dampen your feelings, to remain detached and calm and quiet. The Javanese usually don't express emotion.

"I've lived in both Indonesia and Morocco, and the difference is that if a Moroccan doesn't like you, you know it in about two minutes. In Indonesia, it would take two years for you to figure that the guy you've been living next to hates you and has hated you since the first day he saw you. And you may never know."

So when the IMF and the Clinton administration dispatched high-ranking delegations of bankers and economists to demand that Suharto comply with terms of the Western rescue plan, Geertz says, they created the impression among Indonesians that the West was eager to humiliate the only national leader most Indonesians have ever known.

The image was captured most starkly at a news conference in Jakarta in January, when television cameras whirled as Michel Camdessus, the managing director of the fund, stood sternly over Suharto with his arms folded as the Indonesian leader signed an interim rescue agreement.

The image of the fund appearing to dictate the bailout terms to Suharto shocked many Indonesians and brought a political backlash against the fund, emboldening the government to ignore many of the conditions placed on the $43 billion aid program.

If the IMF had been more subtle in its dealings with the Indonesian leader, "they might have gotten what they wanted from the start," Geertz said, adding: "But I guess you don't expect that from economists."

Geertz said that in the midst of the worst crisis of his rule, Suharto was playing a difficult hand reasonably well: "It's unwise to underestimate the man."

Suharto's strategy in dealing with the economic crisis has become increasingly clear, and alarming to his friends in the West. For decades, he accepted the counsel of U.S.-trained economists who urged him to open his markets and rely on low-technology industries like garment-making. "He did everything they wanted him to," Geertz said. But now, Suharto has decided to abandon much of their counsel.

He has instead adopted the rhetoric of fierce nationalism and has appointed a new vice president who is anathema to most Western economists because of his unconventional and occasionally bizarre economic theories. He has placed his eldest daughter in the Cabinet as minister of social welfare and has not dampened speculation that he intends to create a Suharto dynasty by naming her his successor.

"Suharto is suddenly a radical nationalist," Geertz said. "I think radical nationalism is a deep strain in Javanese lives, and he's trying to tap it."

Geertz said he was struck by the comparisons that could now be made between Suharto and his charismatic predecessor, President Sukarno, whose fiery nationalistic oratory helped win Indonesia its independence in 1949 and kept him in power for almost 15 years, even if his economic mismanagement almost bankrupted the country.

"It's eerie," the anthropologist said. "It's like a re-enactment. This really looks like the last days of Sukarno, if not the very last, somewhere near the end."

Geertz is careful to insist that he does not predict that Indonesia will experience the sort of violence that swept the nation when Suharto came to power in 1965, "the year of living dangerously," in the words of Sukarno, when more than a half-million people were killed in an anti-communist pogrom.

But he said he did see troubling similarities between the chaos of the mid-1960s and that of today. And if there is violence, it could come without warning, given the usual emotional opaqueness of the Javanese. "With the Javanese, you don't see the violence coming until it happens," Geertz said. "Once this politeness and deference and controlled demeanor collapse, then all hell breaks loose."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

Anthropologist's View of Indonesia's Turmoil and Its Roots, (interview) by Philip Shenon (with Clifford Geertz), in: The New York Times (The NY Times Co.: New York/N.Y./USA), May 9th, 1998

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