Friday, February 8, 2013

Indonesia Part I: Palpatine or Suharto's New Order?

General Suharto - a model for Palpatine?
If I could ask George Lucas one question, I would ask if Indonesian history influenced the development of the Star Wars saga.

Over the next few weeks, I'll explore some of the striking similarities between modern Indonesian history and the Star Wars saga. In Part I: Palpatine or Suharto's New Order?, I begin by comparing the rise of the Empire with authoritarianism in Indonesia.

First, it is worth recounting a bit of Indonesian history. In 1945, Sukarno, leader of the revolution against Dutch colonialism, became president of Indonesia. However, the country's young democracy proved unstable. The parliament was riven with factionalism and corruption. During the late 1950s, several islands in the outer rim of the archipelago attempted to secede. While the separatists were suppressed, conservative army leaders feared that Sukarno was planning to ally with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). In September 1965, when army officers allegedly sympathetic to the communists attempted to launch a coup, General Suharto organized conservatives and defeated the coup. The army instigated a purge of suspected communists, leading to the death of over 500,000 Indonesians. During the next few years, the parliament slowly transferred power to Suharto until by the 1970s it had become a rubber-stamp for President Suharto's policies.

Sound familiar? Suharto's rise in Indonesia nearly mirrors Palpatine's rise in that Galaxy Far, Far Away. In the Prequel Trilogy, the Republic Senate was mired in corruption and unable to rule effectively. During the Clone Wars, Separatists situated along the Outer Rim launched a bid for independence. Out of fear and desperation, the Galactic Senate voted Palpatine greater military powers. Ultimately, Palpatine solidified his rule with Order 66, the wholesale purge of the Jedi. The ascension of both dictators was gradual and abetted by the duly elected legislature. Political elites in the galaxy and in Indonesia faced military and economic threats and responded with authoritarianism. As Padmé noted in Revenge of the Sith, both elites and the masses applauded during democracy's death throes.

There are also superficial similarities in the vocabulary of authoritarianism in Indonesia and the Empire. Both regimes referred to themselves as "the New Order" in a deliberate attempt to mark their regimes as different from and superior to democracy (Orde Baru is the Indonesian translation). Palpatine's speech in Revenge of the Sith proclaimed a new era of peace and prosperity, just as Suharto promised stability and prosperity to a populace tired of wars and economic stagnation. Palpatine's New Order even attempted to erase the memory of what had come before, to the point where in A New Hope Luke had never even heard about the Jedi. Suharto, while nowhere near as successful in rewriting history, nonetheless attempted to control historical narratives and recast the army as a central player in the anti-Dutch struggle.

Many other scholars have noted that Palpatine's name has a Roman ring to it, just one letter away from palatine (of the famous Palatine Hills). However, "Palpatine" also sounds vaguely Indonesian. Many Indonesian names have three or four syllables and end in a vowel. Moreover, just like Palpatine, traditionally many Indonesian leaders only had a single name (e.g., Suharto, Sukarno). The novel Darth Plagueis explains that Palpatine chose to forbear his given name in protest of his family's political ideology. However, it's actually fairly rare throughout history for leaders to have only one name. Even the Roman emperors, often known popularly by a single name, such as Augustus or Tiberius, actually had much longer personal names. Again, perhaps the use of a single name might just be coincidence, but it is intriguing.

Of course, Lucas has acknowledged the Roman emperors and Adolf Hitler were more immediate influences on the development of Palpatine and his New Order. However, the story of Indonesia was not atypical of newly independent countries during the 1960s. The constant barrage of news about young democracies like Indonesia's succumbing to authoritarianism helped breed the pessimism that characterized the 1970s. When Lucas was writing Star Wars, it might well have seemed like democracy was doomed to fail outside Europe and North America. One can only wonder if the story of the Galactic Republic would have been different if Lucas had begun writing in the late 1980s, during the Third Wave of Democratization.

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