Seated in a small French-style cafe in Jakarta’s towering Ciputra Mall, I was watching the Saturday morning shoppers. Ritzy ladies were picking through piles of designer clothing, much of it probably fake; dolled-up schoolgirls were parading up and down the silvery escalators; security guards were eyeing sullen-faced kampung boys leaning against walls.
"Kent," said a middle-aged voice from a table behind me, "come and join me."
It was Robbie, a slightly dishevelled teacher of English in a poorly paying local institution, a frequenter of bars such as the Sportsmans and a supporter of Newcastle United and left-wing causes. I moved my coffee to his table.
"On your own?" I asked.
"My lady friend’s downstairs doing some shopping," said Robbie. "She’ll be back later."
"More riots," I said, having decided not to ask about the lady. "East Java, West Java, Sulawesi, Sumbawa, Flores, Lombok. Must be worrying the top people."
"They’ll have moved their money to Singapore or Switzerland."
"More attacks on churches and the Chinese. It’s worrying."
"Some of the riots may be organised by fascists." Robbie’s longish hair, beard and sandals fitted in well with his political attitudes.
"Think back to the 1950’s and early 1960’s. There was trouble in those days, coming from some of the ordinary people. But much of the disruption was the work of the Indonesian intelligence agencies who were linked to the Americans. They were hoping to topple President Sukarno and bring about a right-wing military government."
"We have a right-wing government at present. Surely President Suharto doesn’t want his intelligence agencies creating chaos and fear?"
"There are two theories The first theory is that Suharto may be getting his most loyal generals to secretly build up extremist Moslem groups. These Moslem groups then weaken and divide the opposition. The opposition being the reformist generals and the moderate Moslem majority."
"How does that work?"
"It’s playing the race and religion card. You weaken the reformist generals by dividing them along religious lines. You weaken the forces of democracy by increasing the divisions between the orthodox and the non-orthodox Moslems, between the Moslems and the Christians and between the Chinese and the non-Chinese."
"That sounds too risky," I said. "The riots could undo all Suharto’s achievements."
"It could backfire if some of the anti-Suharto Generals are using the riots to destabilise the government. Some of the right-wing forces may be playing a double game. They may want to replace Suharto with another right-wing general."
"Which right-wing forces?"
"Here we come to the second theory about what’s going on. There could be some generals, or multinational companies, or governments, who don’t like monopolies being awarded to the Suharto children or to certain Chinese."
"Look Kent, the Americans may think that Suharto has become too powerful. They may be involved in economic warfare. Why did the USA want Indonesia to liberalise its money markets? So that speculators could wreck the economy? American companies can now walk in and buy things up at rock-bottom prices."
"It could be that there’s no conspiracy. It’s just that some of the top Indonesians are corrupt or incompetent or unlucky."
"Unlucky?" Robbie’s tone of voice suggested he thought I was being naive.
"The El Nino weather reduced the rice crop. That was bad luck," I said. "The IMF could be incompetent rather than conspiratorial. When the IMF talks about closing certain banks, the currency collapses."
Robbie frowned and went grey. "My gut feeling is that some manipulation is going on. It’s the Javanese way. And it’s the American way. And it’s the army’s way."
"The army could be trying to get people’s anger directed against the Chinese and not against them?"
"Could be that. Look back at the 1950’s. President Sukarno wasn’t doing everything the British and Americans wanted. In 1957 the British and American intelligence agencies organised rebellions in various parts of Indonesia. A certain Dr. Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, a former Finance Minister, is said to have worked with the British and the Americans in helping the rebels in Sumatra."
"Sumitro. The name sounds familiar."
"Sumitro is the father of General Prabowo. When the Sumatran revolt failed, Sumitro fled from Indonesia. Young Prabowo was brought up in places such as London and Zurich. After Suharto came to power, Prabowo came back to Indonesia, joined the army, learnt all about terrorism at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning in the US, and married one of Suharto’s daughters."
"What’s Prabowo’s present position?"
"He was commander of the Kopassus special forces and is now commander of Kostrad, the strategic reserve, the regiment Suharto commanded when he took power in 1965. Prabowo’s friend Muchdi now runs Kopassus and his friend Sjafrie runs the Jakarta Area Command. Prabowo’s said to be a friend of Amien Rais, the American educated leader of the country’s second largest Moslem group."
"So, who are the key players in all this," I asked, having become a little confused by all the different names.
"First there is Prabowo, rumoured to be the brains behind the idea of making the Chinese the scapegoats for the troubles and the idea of kidnapping student dissidents. Whether he is trying to defend Suharto or topple Suharto is not known. Second there is General Wiranto, the overall boss of the military, and a rival to Prabowo. Whether he is trying to defend Suharto or topple Suharto is not known. Third there is Habibie, the Vice President. He may be backing Prabowo, but he may switch support to Wiranto. Fourth there is the Pentagon. The American Defence Secretary, William Cohen, was here in Jakarta back in January and he visited both Prabowo and Wiranto. The CIA chief was also in Jakarta fairly recently. The CIA and the Pentagon are close to both Prabowo and Wiranto, but it’s not clear who is their favourite."
"The generals are the key players?"
"Remember the fall of Ceausescu in Romania, in 1989? That was the work of Romanian generals within the security services. The generals organised certain incidents of terror."
"Why terror?" I asked naively.
"People got killed and Ceausescu got blamed. That weakened Ceausescu."
"Who were these generals working for?"
"By 1989, Ceausescu was disliked by both the KGB and the CIA."
A middle aged Indonesian lady, carrying plastic bags full of vegetables, sat herself down at our table. She was small, dumpy, dressed like a kampung woman and had a lined face.
"My friend," said Robbie, with a smile of pride. "I met her in Mama’s Bar, in Blok M. She doesn’t speak English."
I shook the lady’s hand. I was feeling somewhat surprised. I had expected Robbie’s friend to be a mini-skirted teenager of the sort who frequent certain hostelries in Jakarta.
"I shall leave you two to chat," I said.