Instability In Indonesia: Is It Inevitable?


Indonesia is the archipelagic gatekeeper between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and a country whose geographic, economic, and demographic characteristics portend quite well for future regional leadership status. In all global calculations between the US and China, the strategic loyalty of Indonesia one way or the other is of primary concern, and it’s doubtful that the sleeping giant will be able to stay on the sidelines for much longer. There are already signs that Jakarta has made its choice to side with the US, as evidenced by its late-October announcement that it plans to eventually join the TPP and more recently by the Commander of its Air Force stating that his country “must be prepared for any possibility” of militarily getting involved in the South China Sea dispute (despite having no territorial claims in the region). 

At the same time, however, the US may not be content with the sluggish and rhetorical pace of Indonesia’s presumed convergence with the Chinese Containment Coalition (CCC), and its intelligence agencies may be instructed to stir up some trouble in order to pressure Jakarta to move faster and more assuredly in this direction. This means that Indonesia might find itself falling victim to a Hybrid War scenario, and if the latest terrorist attack in Jakarta is any indication, then it appears as though this process may have already begun. To clarify, at this stage the US may not intend to fully destabilize Indonesia, but rather to offset it just enough and make its decision makers uncomfortable to the point where they recognize the strategic blackmail being applied against them and reckon that it would be better for them if they just went along with whatever it is that Washington wants them to do. Despite this, as ‘controlled chaos’ always has the habit of doing, it’s foreseeable that it could quickly spiral out of control and morph into a scenario that was never intended, thus unwittingly sparking a massive crisis in ASEAN.

This following research has been adapted from the author’s forthcoming sequel to “Hybrid Wars: The Indirect Adaptive Approach To Regime Change” and focuses on the Hybrid War vulnerabilities of Indonesia. Part I provides an analyzed overview of relevant Indonesian history up to the conclusion of the Cold War, which thus allows the reader to attain the proper context with which to understand recent events in the country. Part II continues this thought progression by exploring the country’s applicable post-Cold War history and then segues into an extensive analysis of the state’s strategic imperatives. Finally, Part III builds upon the previous two in describing the seven Hybrid War scenarios that could realistically break out in Indonesia, thereby imparting the reader with a firm full-spectrum grasp of where the world’s largest Muslim and entirely maritime state may be headed in the coming future.

Big Country, Bigger History

Indonesia is both the largest country in ASEAN and the most populous majority-Muslim state. Numbering around 250 million people, it’s also the fourth most populous country in the world. As can be expected, such a gigantic state also has an extraordinarily rich history, and it’s integral for observers to acquire a general understanding of this in order to grasp the nature of the Indonesian story. Once one has a better idea of how modern-day Indonesia came to be, they will then be in a better position to forecast where it’s headed and in predicting how it may respond to forthcoming challenges along the way.

Ancient Civilizations:

Prior to the over three hundred year long period of Dutch colonization that commenced in the early 1600s, modern-day Indonesia was an eclectic mix of varied polities. The island chain was strongly influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist religions, and many of the earlier kingdoms identified with these larger civilizations, either culturally and/or in terms of the ruling dynasties. Two of the most influential of them were the Srivijaya and the Majapahit. The Srivijaya was mentioned earlier in the research when discussing Malaysia, and to remind the reader, it was a powerful naval kingdom situation on both sides of the Malacca Straits. Ruling from the 7-14th centuries, the entity played a critical role in facilitating Indo-Chinese trade, a possible foreshadowing to Indonesia’s future geopolitical position. As for the Majapahit, this upstart power came to age between the late-13th and early 16th centuries, during which it amassed a network of tributary states stretching almost throughout the entirety of Indonesia’s modern-day boundaries. If Srivijaya set the precedent for cultural and economic transfusion between India and China in the Malay-Sumatra-Java population centers of Southeast Asia, then Majapahit flexed this out to its maximum geopolitical extent and shaped the contours of the modern archipelago-civilization.

Spread Of The Sultanates:

Indonesia is nowadays a predominantly Muslim state, with its former Hindu-Buddhist identity being largely relegated to the past and existing in small ethno-geographic communities. The process began in the 13th century with the arrival of Islam, which was thought to have been brought by traders from the Indian subcontinent. It became the majority religion a few centuries later and gave birth to a scattering of sultanates, the most important of which were the Mataram and Banten. Both of them were formed in different periods of the 1500s, but the first one was concentrated solely on Java and existed until the mid-1700s, while the second one was split between western Java and southern Sumatra and stayed around until the early 1800s. What’s important to note here is that these sultanates were located in the most populous portions of Indonesia, while the outlying islands scarcely were influenced by the religion. Later on this would become an important differentiating factor that would create identity tension and result in communal violence, but it wouldn’t be until the tail end of the 20th century that such conflicts arose (or as one could cynically say, were actually provoked).

Colonial Captivity:

Moving closer to the modern era, Indonesia eventually came under the dominance of the Dutch, beginning with the Dutch East India Company in the early 17th century and eventually transitioning directly to the Dutch Empire itself in 1800. The Portuguese had actually preceded the Dutch via their trade ties with the Spice Islands (contemporarily referred to as the Maluku Islands), but they weren’t formidable enough to hold on to their conquests. Also, Dutch control in Java was briefly interrupted during the Napoleonic Wars but it was quickly returned in the subsequent peace negotiations between London and Amsterdam. Although the Dutch formally claimed what would correspond to the borders of modern-day Indonesia, they weren’t able to establish firm control over all of it until the early 1900s with the end of the Aceh War. This conservative sultanate in the northern tip of Sumatra fiercely resisted the colonizers and fought tooth and nail for their independence, only to later reinitiate their struggle in 1976 against what they considered to be the occupying Javanese authorities (which will be discussed later).

Another important aspect of Dutch rule was that Amsterdam proselytized Protestantism to the eastern isles, with some Catholic missionaries being involved as well. All told, they succeeded in turning most of the people living in the contemporary provinces of West Papua and Papua, East Nusa Tenggara, North Sulawesi, and a near-majority of the people in the (South) Malukus into loyal Christian subjects. Their identity separateness and loyalty to the crown would become a problem in the immediate years after World War II and will be discussed in the subsequent section, but in order to be realize why they felt this way, it’s necessary to speak a few words on the policy of transmigration. This ultra-controversial act started in the early 1800s and dealt with the incentivized and forced population transfers of Javanese Muslims to the outer isles of the Dutch East Indies colony, ostensibly in order to ease the overpopulation problem on their home island and provide labor for the far-off plantations. When this policy was continued and actually accelerated for some time during the post-independence era, it reactively led to accusations of “internal colonization”, especially among the Christian natives of the east that were opposed to overwhelming Javanese Muslim migration (whether via the transmigration program or carried out independently). Like the Aceh conflict that was mentioned in the above paragraph, this issue will also be discussed later on when it’s relevant to do so in depth.

World War II:

The Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies was a monumental turning point in the islands’ history, as it quickly crippled the European colonialism of centuries’ prior and irreversibly set Indonesia on the course of independence, albeit after a brief but extraordinarily brutal occupation by Tokyo. The Japanese Empire had long been eyeing the islands due to their copious export of oil, but it wasn’t until the Dutch embargoed its sale to Japan in July 1941 that the later seriously considered militarily intervening to seize this crucial resource. The invasion began in December of that year and continued until the end of the war, since the Allies pretty much ignored most of the colony in their regional liberation operations. This was much to the woe of the local population, however, as they had to endure a disastrous famine that killed over two million people, suffer under physical hardships such as forced labor and summary executions, and put up with the Japanese’s large-scale resource plundering.

If there was any silver lining to this dark cloud, it’s that the Japanese worked hand-in-glove with pre-war nationalist and independence leader Sukarno in order to keep control, but this ironically had the effect of the purported ‘puppet’ using his patrons in order to cleverly create the conditions for an independent state. Sukarno’s collaboration with the Japanese is well-documented and the reader can research the specifics of how he manipulated his country’s occupiers to develop and expand the institutions necessary to guide Indonesia to independence after the war, but in short, the Japanese had earlier envisioned granting the islands independence at some undetermined time and were thus amenable to his structural suggestions. The Allied advance had a lot to do with why Tokyo sped up their implementation and granted Sukarno and his country considerably more freedom in the latter days of the conflict, as they didn’t want to fight a stay-behind occupation war at the same moment as they were confronting the Allied surge. These later factors combined in such a way so as to set the stage for Sukarno’s declaration of Indonesian independence on 17 August, 1945, two days after the Japanese formally surrendered.

From Colony To Outright Independence:

Indonesia’s path to independence wasn’t as clear-cut as unaware observers might have assumed. The island nation had to fiercely fight back against their Dutch re-occupiers in the immediate post-war aftermath, with their struggle being referred to as the Indonesian National Revolution. The Dutch gained international notoriety for undermining the various peace accords that were signed, while at the same time some of the Indonesian revolutionaries earned a fear-inspiring reputation for the wanton violence that they unleashed during the Bersiap period. For the most part, global opinion stood on the side of the Indonesians, and even the Netherlands’ Western allies eventually abandoned it in favor of siding with Jakarta.

As Amsterdam reluctantly lurched towards granting its long-held colony independence, it attempted one last hurrah in the form of thrusting the federalized United States of Indonesia format onto the fledgling state. The freedom-fighting Republic of Indonesia was a constituent entity of this arrangement and comprised most of Sumatra and half of Java, while the rest of the colony was broken up into 15 other states, the most notable of which was “East Indonesia”. This unit was comprised of all of the islands east of Java and Borneo, with the exception of West Papua which remained under direct Dutch rule until 1962. Geographically speaking, East Indonesia was the largest territorial unit in the nascent country and also had a comparatively separate identity, being heavily Christian, non-Javanese, and relatively loyal to the previous colonial authorities.

The United States of Indonesia, and consequently, the state of East Indonesia, only existed from December 1949 until August 1950. Sukarno understood the divisive intentions of the Dutch when they foisted the federalist form of government onto his country, and despite the certain strategic benefits that this may have bequeathed the constituent states, it was seen as largely being contrary to the country’s overall unity. Accordingly, he took steps to centralize control of Indonesia step by step, absorbing the federal states nearest the Republic of Indonesia until only the state of East Indonesia remained. It, too, was eventually dissolved and a unitary state was proclaimed in its place, but not before a minor rebellion in the South Maluku islands.

The self-proclaimed Republic of South Maluku rose up in opposition to what they proclaimed was a blatant violation of the autonomy clauses inherent in the constitution, and despite this movement having the support of the Dutch, it did somewhat encapsulate legitimate concerns in that part of the country. Nonetheless, it was quickly defeated and the federalist structure was replaced. To this day, however, the idea of a specific region and/or ethnic group agitating for broader autonomy or outright federalization (to say nothing of the independence movement in West Papua) has been a perennial fear in the minds of the country’s decision makers, as they’re acutely aware of the degree to which uncontrollable decentralization or outright devolution could impact on national cohesion. While it will later be seen that the government is open to pragmatic cooperation with such movements like in the case of Aceh, it is resolutely opposed to granting regions independence (e.g. West Papua) or ever returning to the federal structure that was temporarily in place during the United States of Indonesia.

Cold War Challenges:

Ideological Consolidation

One of the first things that Sukarno after the success of his unitary consolidation was to promote the ideology of Pancasila, the five-point “embodiment of basic principles of an independent Indonesian state” formally enshrined in the Constitution. It stipulates the unofficial ideology of Indonesia as being a monotheistic, nationalist, just, welfare state that practices representative democracy. Another tactic that Sukarno attempted was to tacitly ally himself with the Communist Party of Indonesia in order to strike a balance between the nationalist and Islamist opposition in the country, which woefully had the effect of making the US highly suspicious of his motives.

Early Revolts

This led to Washington covertly supporting the 1958 dual destabilizations caused by the so-called Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PRRI, based in Sumatra) and the Permesta Rebellion in North Sulawesi, both of which were defeated rather quickly. While the PRRI was more of an outright coup attempt, the Permesta had the carefully constructed veneer of representing local grievances that had lingered since the dissolution of the East Indonesian federal unit. These sentiments, however widespread they may or may not have been among the locals, likely wouldn’t have resulted in anything of notice had it not been for the CIA’s supportive involvement, but it’s still worthwhile to draw attention to the fact that the center-periphery divide still existed to a certain degree. This – the divide between the capital and the provinces, and the potential for foreign intelligence agencies to incite and aid anti-government rebellions there – will later come back to reemerge as a defining theme when the research analyses the contemporary Hybrid War threats facing Indonesia.

Islamist Fears

Even prior to the PRRI and Permesta revolts, there was some contained tumult brought about by a sporadic Islamic insurgency fought by Darul Islam. This group was the progenerator of mostly all other Islamic movements in the country, including the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiya, and it was specifically agitating for the nationwide imposition of Sharia law. It sparked disturbances in Aceh, Central Java, and South Sulawesi before it was put down in 1962. Up until that time, it played a role in inspiring the “Islamist opposition” to Sukarno and actively proliferated its militant ideology throughout the country. As a result, the general concept of creating an Islamic State in Indonesia continued to persist even after the group’s dissolution, which correspondingly makes it the godfather of the radical Islamic threat that’s currently facing the country today.

The West Papua Problem

To simplify a complex, long-running, and still ongoing issue, the Dutch retained control of West Papua after granting Indonesia independence and only relinquished it to the UN in 1962 per the New York Agreement. This understanding maintained that a vote would have to be held on its ultimate status before 1969, which culminated in the hyper-controversial “Act of Free Choice” that formally incorporated the mineral-rich former Dutch colony into the Indonesian state. Critics of the process allege that the latter vote was nothing more than a highly pressured intimidation campaign against local leaders and that a popular referendum (which wasn’t ever held) would have unequivocally granted the territory independence.  Despite largely falling out of the global consciousness, an abroad-based independence movement still vocally agitates for West Papuan independence, and there are still rebel groups active on the island itself.

In response to this, the Indonesian authorities have taken what can mildly be described as a heavy-handed crackdown in the province, enforcing extensive restrictions on foreign visitors (aside from energy- and mining-related employees) and placing thousands of troops in the region. The military has also been accused of killings and even genocide, and while this has been difficult to prove because independent journalists are mostly prohibited from reporting there, it still raises alarming questions about the form of control that the Indonesian government exercises over the far-flung and resource-wealthy province. Similarly, in what is suspected to be a means of weakening regional identity and further splitting the independence movement there, Indonesia decreed in 2003 that the western portion of Papua Province should be separated to form its own entity called West Papua. According to reports, there are plans to further subdivide the previously unified province into a constellation of other Papuas such as Central and Southwest Papua, adding credence to the theory that the sparsely populated province is being administratively cut up for political and not practical purposes.


Just as it sounds, this was a policy of confrontation that Indonesia practiced against Malaysia from 1963-1966 in the island of Borneo. Sukarno didn’t believe that Malaysia should attain ownership over the formerly separate British colonies of Sarawak and North Borneo, and he thus initiated a low-intensity jungle conflict aimed at weakening its control over these territories. No territorial changes occurred either during or after the confrontation, but the Malaysians did receive pivotal support from the British that likely made all the difference in why they were ultimately able to hold their ground. As hated as the two sides were to one another during the heat of the moment, they’d later bury the hatchet and come together in forming the ASEAN bloc in 1967, with Suharto’s overthrow of Sukarno playing a major role in Jakarta’s foreign policy reversal.

Suharto’s CIA-Assisted Coup Against Sukarno

As was described at the beginning of this subsection, the US was alarmed by Sukarno’s tacit political alliance with the Communist Party of Indonesia, and Washington grew progressively fearful that Jakarta’s non-aligned and pragmatic foreign policy in bettering ties with the USSR and China would turn his country into one or the other’s implicit ally with time.  In response, they sought to overthrow him via a calculated and still rather nebulous coup d’état brought about via the events provoked by the still-mysterious 30 September Movement. This group kidnapped senior military officials ostensibly in order to preempt what they said was a CIA-inspired coup against Sukarno, but General Suharto (who by that time was a very high-ranking and influential establishment individual) reacted by using the situation as a pretext to sideline Sukarno and place himself into power.

It’s not universally agreed upon what exactly happened during that time, but the author believes that that either the 30 September Movement may have been a truly pro-Sukarno supportive organization that prompted Suharto and his cohorts to initiate their coup before schedule or a group of useful idiots or outright anti-government operatives that were provoked or contracted into initiating the events in order to create a semi-plausible public pretext for Suharto’s power grab. No matter where the truth lies, it’s indisputable that the CIA had not only a history of interest in overthrowing Sukarno (e.g. the PRRI and Permesta Rebellion), but that it strategically supported Suharto’s faction prior to their successful coup attempt.

After they seized power, they accused the 30 September Movement of wanting to have installed a communist government and consequently unleashed a bloody purge of all suspected communist elements in the country. The death toll was at least half a million people but is suspected to reach as high as two million, with the CIA having gave the new authorities the names of thousands of Communist Party of Indonesia members and supporters so that they could be hunted down and slaughtered. After the orgy of bloodshed slowed down and the coup authorities attempted to exercise governance over their country, Suharto initiated what he termed the “New Order”. He intended for this to represent a radical split from Sukarto’s policies in all ways, and being the opposite of the deposed president, the new leader engaged in a pro-corporatist economic policy, militant anti-communism, and a stridently pro-Western foreign policy. All of these proved advantageous for the US’ Cold War strategy in the region though they came at the obvious expense of the USSR’s and China’s, further presenting circumstantial evidence that the US purposefully engineered the coup against Sukarno.

East Timor Invasion

The most controversial foreign policy move that Suharto engaged in was the December 1975 invasion of East Timor (officially Timor-Leste), a former Portuguese colony on the eastern part of Timor Island. Due to the Carnation Revolution of 1974 that had earlier resulted in a dramatic change of government in Portugal, Lisbon abandoned all claims to its overseas colonies (with the exception of Macau) and allowed them to pursue independence.  East Timor entered into a transitional political phase and was eventually thrown into civil war between two competing factions, with the leftist-affiliated FRETILIN unilaterally declaring independence at the end of November 1975.

A little over a week later, Indonesia invaded the territory and forcibly occupied it, killing almost a third of the population via violence and famine. The US and Australia secretly welcomed the invasion because they saw it as an effective deterrent to stopping any communist government from taking root in the nascent country. They would eventually betray their regional proxy after throwing their weight behind the UN-supervised independence referendum that would later be conducted in 1999, one year after Suharto’s own Western-engineered overthrow, but at the time, all Western and pro-Western forces saw a confluence of strategic interest in Indonesia’s invasion and subsequent occupation of East Timor, no matter the human cost that this would entail and whether or not they voiced this publicly.

Aceh Insurgency

The northwestern tip of Sumatra has long been recognized as the country’s most conservative Muslim bastion, and its people have historically be fighting against all manner of outside invaders. Be it the Dutch, the Japanese, or even, as some of their proponents allege, the Javanese occupiers, the Acehnese have traditionally put up a formidable resistance in the name of their own state or autonomy. The latest conflict being referred to began in 1976 and didn’t end until 2005, but to describe this three-decade-long insurgency in as concise of a manner as possible, it can be summed up as the dedicated efforts of the Free Aceh Movement to establish an independent Sharia-guided state in their natural resource-rich area of Indonesia.

According to the World Watch Institute, Aceh provided 1/3 of Indonesia’s LNG in the early 1970s and helped the country become the number one exporter of the world for this resource, despite only 5% of the revenue being given to the regional government. Even by 2005, the Council on Foreign Relations figured that the province was accounting for around a quarter of all of the country’s oil and natural gas output. While the disparity in resource revenue sharing was the main catalyst for the insurgency, another growing problem was the locals’ irritation at Javanese transmigration, which some of them felt was infringing on their local cultures. Faced with these pressing issues, the Acehnese ethnicities (of which there is a handful) banded together under the banner of regional nationalism and Islam to oppose the central government in Jakarta.

Part of the reason that this region always felt separate from the unified Indonesian state is because it used to have its own 400-year-old independent sultanate prior to the conclusion of the Dutch colonization war in 1903. The Javanese transmigrants were seen as internal colonizers and Banda Aceh (the regional capital) didn’t want to be given the ridiculously low share of 5% of all energy revenues that originate from its jurisdiction. The Islamic factor was also an influence as well. Tengku Hasan Muhammad di Tiro, a former high-ranking member of Darul Islam, was actually the founder of the Free Aceh Movement, so it’s little wonder that he eventually negotiated for Sharia law to be the official judicial model for his province, despite this not having anything to formally do with the energy and transmigration grudges that the region held against the central authorities. When the conflict finally came to a close via a 2005 peace agreement, Sharia law was recognized per an earlier 2003 accord and the province was allowed broad autonomy under which one of the privileges was to retain 70% of all energy revenues.

To be continued