Ousting Suharto

By Maggie Helwig | 1998-07-01 12:00:00

A few months ago, almost anyone watching Indonesia would have predicted that Suharto would die in office, holding onto dictatorial power until his last breath.

But behind the scenes, a democracy movement had been growing for years, emerging into the public eye in 1996 when the PDI, one of the three officially sanctioned political parties, underwent a government-organized internal coup aimed at getting rid of party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, who had made an attempt to challenge Suharto's rule. Since then, the democratic opposition had built towards the "elections" of 1997, and the presidential selection of March 1998, as their key organizing moments, and began, in January this year, an all-out campaign to depose Suharto.

Protests began in March

Of course, the obedient Parliament appointed Suharto to a seventh term in office on March, but only in the face of protests on a scale never seen before under this regime. The security forces launched a crackdown in response, arresting hundreds of people and beginning an accelerated campaign of "disappearances."

Meanwhile, Indonesia's "bubble economy" was bursting, helped along both by the Suharto family's massive corruption, and by mismanagement from the IMF, who imposed inappropriate and intolerable measures in exchange for a multibillion dollar bail-out. The economic crisis, which sent prices for staple foods soaring almost out of the reach of ordinary people, was the final spark that ignited the long-simmering anger and frustration of the people of Indonesia.

In some cases these feelings spilled over into rioting, which often - probably with the encouragement of the security forces - included a poisonous element of anti-Chinese racism. The democracy movement had to grow and mature at great speed to be able to provide an alternative, more constructive way for people to channel their anger.

On May 18, thousands of students occupied the Parliament building, demanding Suharto's resignation and immediate and sweeping reforms. Over the next days, their numbers grew to tens of thousands. Miles of barbed wire and 40,000 soldiers turned the rest of Jakarta into a deserted city, while protests of up to 50,000 people gathered in other cities, including Yogyakarta, Bandung, Surabaya and smaller centres - it is estimated that about one million people demonstrated outside of Jakarta. Even some military personnel went over to the side of the students: in Jakarta, Marines donated buses to take people to Parliament and military cadets helped train the protesters in dealing with provocateurs. In Ujungpandang the head of the regional military command spoke at an anti-Suharto rally.

Under unprecedented pressure from the grassroots, the elite broke down and began to question their loyalty to the tottering dictator. Finally, on May 20, General Wiranto, commander of the armed forces, privately asked Suharto to step down. He announced his resignation the next morning.

However, Suharto's resignation - though a tremendous victory for the democracy movement - was only the first step in bringing true reform to Indonesia. Suharto's vice-president, B.J. Habibie, who was sworn in as president, is no one's idea of a democrat. He has always been extremely close to Suharto - he has been called Suharto's foster son - and is not a particularly impressive man, known best for squandering huge sums of money on impractical high-tech projects. The fundamental structures of the authoritarian regime, including the army's iron grip on politics, have not yet been altered.

What Protests Accomplished

The student protesters have succeeded in destabilizing a monolithic and apparently untouchable system. They have succeeded in opening up political space to an extraordinary degree; suddenly it seems that everything can be said. Indonesia, overnight, has one of the freest presses in South-East Asia. New political parties seem to form daily, and press conferences on human rights abuses in West Papua are held openly in Jakarta. But all of this could easily be lost unless serious, concrete political reforms are made quickly; and these will only be made with continuous pressure both from the democracy movement in the country, and its supporters outside.

Among the first priorities are ensuring the speedy release of all political prisoners (Justice Minister Muladi has agreed that he will release some, but has stated that release will not be granted to many others, including members of banned political party the PRD, East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, and thirteen aging and very sick men who have been imprisoned since 1965 for their alleged involvement in a communist coup attempt); pressing the government to repeal the subversion law, the "hate-spreading articles" and all other laws restricting freedom and speech and expression; making sure that the electoral laws are rewritten to be genuinely democratic, not just adjusted in a few cosmetic ways; and, perhaps most importantly, starting the process of demilitarizing Indonesian society, taking away the army's "dual function," which guarantees significant military involvement in all the country's social and political affairs.

Remember East Timor

It is also very important not to lose sight of East Timor. Indonesia cannot really claim to be a democratic country until it is able to settle this matter peacefully and fairly, and a U.N.-supervised referendum is still the best way to achieve this. Indonesian troops must be moved out of East Timor beginning immediately and Timorese political prisoners must be released.

The democracy movement, and the student movement in particular, is well aware that their work is not done. Though some have chosen to concentrate on the elections promised for next year, many have kept a focus on grassroots action. Protests have gone on almost daily since Suharto's resignation, though on a smaller scale for the moment, and students and others continue to organize, and demand genuine reform. The Habibie government must be kept aware that if they backslide on their promises of political reform, millions of people can be called back into the streets.

International pressure remains important as well. Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy has called on the Habibie government to release all political prisoners, a welcome action but one that does not go nearly far enough. Governments around the world collaborated with the Suharto regime far too long, and the many statements "welcoming" his resignation seem strikingly two-faced. If the Canadian and other governments seriously regret their years of complicity with Suharto, the least they can do is to openly and strongly support the students, and the others at the forefront of the ongoing struggle for democracy in Indonesia.

Maggie Helwig is a Toronto-based poet and activist in disarmament and human rights issues.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1998

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1998, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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