‘Democracy isn’t always pretty’: Human rights in post-Suharto Indonesia
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‘Democracy isn’t always pretty’: Human rights in post-Suharto Indonesia

indonesia-logo  “I SHED a tear. I did not know why,” says Ariel Heryanto, the Herb Feith Professor for the Study of Indonesia at Monash University as he reflects upon watching President Suharto’s resignation on television on May 21, 1998.

“Perhaps trauma and vague memories of the victims of the regime.”

Suharto took power in 1966, ushered in by the killings of up to a million alleged communists in a matter of months. A secret CIA cable from 1968 described the event as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.”

For more than three decades afterwards, dissidents would be jailed, tortured and violently suppressed by the iron fist of a military dictatorship. The New Order muzzled the press, tried to eradicate the language and culture of ethnic Chinese Indonesians, and strictly dictated the lives of women.

These things would soon change with Suharto’s retirement, ushering in Indonesia’s democratic transition known as Reformasi.


General Suharto (L) in the days after the September 30th Movement in 1965, preceding what the CIA has deemed one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century. Source: National Security Archive

SEE ALSO: US supported mass killings of half a million Indonesians in 1965

The Fall of Suharto

“I thought I would probably see Suharto go in my lifetime, but I didn’t think it would be so soon,” said Ima Abdulrahim, Executive Director of The Habibie Center in Jakarta, one of the country’s leading thinktanks on democracy and human rights, founded by Suharto’s successor BJ Habibie in 1999.

“Seeing it happen was amazing, of course. I was under the belief we would see the end of Suharto with the death of Suharto by natural causes,” Ima, who was a masters student in the UK at the time and received the news on the phone from her mother, told Asian Correspondent.

Disbelief at his willingness to step down was compounded by personal experience – her father was imprisoned for 14 months in the late 1970s for student activism.

“I was always against Suharto,” said Ahmad Pathoni, a seasoned journalist whose career kicked off when he landed a job with Agence France Presse shortly after the fall of the New Order. He had stopped attending classes to participate in the student protests despite that he “never considered myself an activist”. The mood in May 98 was “a mix of optimism and fear”, Ahmad said.


Indonesian students sit on the edge of a window of the parliament building next to a banner displaying the student’s opinion of former president Suharto 22 May, 1998. Source: AFP/ Emmanuel Dunnand

Dr Adriana Venny Aryani, a commissioner at the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), was a masters student at the University of Indonesia in Salemba, central Jakarta. This campus was the epicentre of student activism from which demonstrations would march to the parliament or presidential palace.

“During that time, Suara Ibu Peduli (Caring Mothers’ Voices) was the centre of Reformasi activism for me,” she said, reflecting the broad coalition of the women’s movement along with pluralist and Islamic student groups, who eventually toppled Suharto.

Freedom to kill

The end of the New Order, while greeted with jubilation by democrats worldwide, would spark waves of communal violence across Indonesia. Freed from the fear of a military dictatorship, communities’ longstanding ethnic or religious disputes and local conflicts over resources turned deadly.

“It was crazy,” reflects career journalist and Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia Researcher Andreas Harsono. Data collated for his forthcoming book Islam, Race and Power: Democratisation and Violence in post-Suharto Indonesia shows no less than 90,000 people were killed in violence prior, during and after the fall of the New Order across the archipelago from Aceh to Papua.

“Indonesia has sadly failed to come to terms with nearly all its dark pasts: in 1945, 1948, 1963, 1965, 1980, and 1998,” Heryanto told Asian Correspondent. “Why? There has been neither the interest, nor the pressure, nor capacity to do so. Most, if not all, the mass-violence incidents are the regular and regulated. They are state-sponsored.”


A boy walks past a mock cemetery is seen as a symbol Suharto’s regime victims as activists hold a people tribunal to judge Suharto’s alleged crimes before he stepped down in 1998 in Jakarta on February 12, 2008. Source: AFP/ Adek Berry

In what is now referred to as the Tragedy of May 98, women were targeted among riots aimed at Chinese businesses and neighbourhoods immediately prior to Suharto’s resignation. Some 168 women were raped in Jakarta alone according to initial estimates, with a further 300 reported across Indonesia.

Dr Venny of Komnas Perempuan notes that not a single person has been prosecuted for these crimes, nor widespread sexual violence amid killings in places like Aceh, Poso, Ambon and Papua during the years following. “The perpetrators have never gone to court because [officials] said: ‘this is a conflict, this is an anomaly’”, she said.

When elected in 2014, rights groups expected Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to address the massacres of 1965-66 and other major mass killings. Two years later he vaguely ordered the Attorney General’s office to address past human rights abuses. But as of today, progress on addressing the massacres remains virtually non-existent. Victims and their families remain stigmatised and harassed.

Asked about the major achievements of human rights during Reformasi, Harsono paused before replying: “not much”.

Press freedom

Today, US democracy watchdog Freedom House considers Indonesia to be only “partly free”, particularly due to government restrictions on its press and internet.

Under Suharto, freedom of speech and the press were tightly supressed. Indonesia’s most celebrated author Pramoedya Ananta Toer was jailed for 14 years under the regime for allegedly promoting communism in his writings, along with hundreds of other activists and intellectuals. Press freedom under Suharto hit a new low in 1994 when the New Order banned three weekly magazines: Tempo, Detik and Editor.

Indonesia’s post-Suharto presidents quickly cast off many of the media’s shackles, including importantly getting rid of an restrictively expensive media licencing system. Harsono told Asian Correspondent that in 1990 a licence for Monitor Weekly cost 1 million Rupiah, the equivalent of roughly 10 billion Rupiah (US$710,000) in today’s currency.


This file photo taken on May 16, 1998 shows an armoured personal carrier patrolling a torched street in Jakarta’s Chinatown after rioting. Source: AFP/ Emmanuel Dunnand

According to Freedom House, “Indonesia’s media landscape is vibrant and diverse, though outlets’ editorial positions frequently correspond with their owners’ interests”. In 1998 there were 258 licenced newspapers in Indonesia. This is a number that has since exploded to 43,000 “so-called news organisations”, said Harsono – the most of any country worldwide.

SEE ALSO: French journalist banned from Indonesia for documentary on human rights abuses

Neverthless, Indonesia remains at 124 on Reporter Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. The international media watchdog has argued that Jokowi has not kept his campaign promises, his presidency is continuing “to be marked by serious media freedom violations, including drastically restricting media access to the Papua and West Papua provinces (the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea), where violence against local journalists continues to grow.”

Moreover, according to RSF many journalists report self-censorship to avoid prosecution under Indonesia’s blasphemy and electronic information transaction laws. While Indonesia is ranked lower than neighbouring East Timor, it still fares better than all other Asean member states.

“We want freedom of speech, including those who are wrong, those who are misleading, including those who promote hate speech,” said Harsono. “But not those who promote violence. We cannot tolerate that. In that sense I think there has been progress.”

Women and Reformasi

Indonesia’s As Dr Venny told Asian Correspondent that the National Commission on Violence Against Women thinks of itself as “the first daughter of Reformasi”. It was established by presidential decree in October 1998, after President Habibie gave a public apology for sexual violence against women during the May riots. Indonesia’s formidable Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) was also established under Habibie.

Harsono notes that the establishment of a children’s rights commission, however, was an abject failure. While child marriage has declined significantly in Indonesia over the past three decades, UNICEF reports that more than one in six girls are married before the age of 18.

Moreover, the establishment of institutions has not necessarily translated into better rights protection for Indonesian women. Indonesia is yet to introduce national legislation against sexual harassment and Venny says the article on rape in the criminal code is “very weak”.


People take part in a rally calling for women’s rights and equality ahead of International Women’s Day in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 4, 2017. Source: Reuters/Fatima Elkarim

SEE ALSO: Educated, urban Indonesian women at higher risk of violence – study

The activist group Menghitung Pembunuhan Perempuan (Counting Dead Women: Indonesia) recorded 168 murders of women during 2017 in Indonesia, all but four of which were committed by men. Some 50 percent of these women were killed by their intimate partner.

A government survey in 2017 found that one in three Indonesian women reported having been the victim of physical, emotional or sexual violence at the hands of their partner or somebody else in their life.

Indonesia is also far off its target of reaching its aim of 30 percent women’s representation in national parliament, a recent report from the Jakarta-based Women Research Institute (WRI) arguing that without significant stronger affirmative action it could only achieve 17 percent.

Indonesians from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community have been  increasingly targeted by discrimination and violence in recent years. This is despite the fact that “we have some cultural traditions that respect homosexual life,” such as in Central Java and Sulawesi, Venny told Asian Correspondent. She cites rising Islamic conservatism and political opportunism as the primary factors.

“There are a lot of outcomes and hope,” according to Venny, who pointed to the commission’s successes in promoting gender mainstreaming in policy and establishing partnerships with law enforcement to promote women’s rights. Nevertheless, she adds: “what we struggled for from 1998 is still going.”

SEE ALSO: UN rights chief bemoans ‘extremist’ anti-LGBT views in Indonesia

Some Indonesians remain more equal than others

Under Suharto’s regime, ethnic Chinese Indonesians were targeted for cultural assimilation. Chinese language schools were shuttered, newspapers banned, and cultural practices forced into secrecy.

The primary target of mass violence in 1998 which spurred the downfall of Suharto, Chinese Indonesians have benefitted greatly in the Reformasi era argued Charlotte Setijadi, a historian and Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

“Chinese people symbolise New Order repression in a way that wasn’t experienced by other ethnic groups,” she told Asian Correspondent. “For a lot of ethnic Chinese like myself, we never really knew what it was to be Chinese.”

SEE ALSO: Indonesia is brightest hope for democracy in Asean

Today, Confucianism is one of Indonesia’s official state religions, Lunar new year is a public holiday, and prominent Chinese Indonesians can be found in virtually all walks of Indonesian life. The case of Jakarta’s former governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, targeted by hardline Muslim groups for his Christian faith with a strong undercurrent of residual anti-Chinese racism, is held up by some as evidence of limited change.


A worker walks past graffiti that reads “Ahok is an infidel” in reference to Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama during ongoing demolition work in the red-light area known as Kalijodo in Jakarta on February 29, 2016. Source: Adek Berry/ AFP

But on the whole, argues Setijudi, race relations have improved immensely. “People’s political consciousness are far more intertwined than being concerned with their own ethnic concerns,” said Setijudi, noting that unlike in neighbouring Malaysia, Indonesians do not tend to vote along ethnic lines. The Habibie Center’s Ima agreed, stating that race relations are far healthier in contemporary Indonesia than under the New Order and compared to many other comparable countries, including the United States. “I feel we’re in a better place.”

Nevertheless, according to Setijudi said Chinese Indonesians “became a token case study of post-Suharto reforms”, obscuring rights advances for other marginalised groups like women and ethnic and religious minorities. “Reforms in terms of minority groups have been glossed over”.

What might the next 20 years look like?

Harsono believes that the coming decades will be dominated by debates over the relationship between Islam and the state, as Islamist hardliners grow ever-more vocal in their demands. For example, Indonesian parliament is currently considering revisions to the criminal code which would outlaw zina – the Islamic conception of adultery – which would make pre-marital sex and homosexuality jailable offences.

“Political Islamists want to impose what they consider Islamic Shariah into the society. I do not have a position on Shariah per se, but it is mostly used to discriminate against minorities – women, LGBT people,” he said.


Retired civil servant Maria Catarina Sumarsih, whose son Wawan was killed during the political turmoil of 1998, takes part in a weekly “Kamisan” silent protest against violations of human rights outside presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 17, 2018. Source: Willy Kurniawan/ Reuters

SEE ALSO: ‘Dark forces’ of intolerance spreading in Indonesia, say parliamentarians

In terms of religious rights, however, there are some signs of improvement. Local animist religions have finally been recognised by the state. “You do see little gestures like that,” said Setijadi. “But on the whole we need to be wary of the rights of minority groups regressing.”

For Ima of the Habibie Institute, however, contestations over religion, identity politics and intolerance are part and parcel of an open political system. “You will always have these hiccups,” she said. “Democracy isn’t always pretty.”

“The young generation are very smart now, so we are relying our hopes on them to make the human rights struggle realised in Indonesia,” added Venny.

“Of course, there’s always ups and downs,” reflected Ahmad. “But things can only get better.”