chapter  4
14 Pages

Walking a tightrope: civil society under Suharto

Indonesia had no tradition of separating state and society prior to the colonial period. During the period of the kingdoms, state and society were a single entity. Furthermore, the notion of a separation between state and religion, as had occurred in Europe during the Enlightenment, never really applied to Indonesia. The kings of the old empires of Majapahit and Srivijaya were seen as the incarnation of God’s will over his people; their reign was incontestable and ordained by God. Outwardly, the ruler’s power was manifested in the hierarchy within his kingdom, in the layout of his court and estate, as well as in his spiritual abilities. The ‘modern kings’ of Indonesia, i.e. its presidents, built their legitimacy upon the same features and symbols. For instance, Suharto carefully erected his legitimacy upon an impression of divine legacy and descent, following the tradition of the old Javanese kings. When, how and whether civil society emerged in Indonesia are questions

that are difficult to answer. Even in pre-colonial times, groups and institutions already existed that would today fall under the category of civil society. Examples of these predecessors of modern civil society were, for instance, mutual self-help groups such as kelompok kematian (burial associations), beras perelek (funeral insurance group), selapanan (weekly meetings), arisan (a saving and credit group), lumbung paceklik (food security group) and others. In rural areas, many of these associations have survived until today.1 During the colonial era, the first national organizations emerged. Some authors, like A.S. Hikam, connect the emergence of civil society with modernization. In the nineteenth century, when mercantilist capitalism arrived in the Netherlands East Indies, vast economic changes took place and profoundly transformed society. Industrialization, urbanization, and modern education brought about social changes and a new consciousness among the indigenous elite, a development which resulted in the foundation of modern social organizations at the beginning of the twentieth century.2