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I think it is Soeharto’s worst crime that he has made Indonesians afraid to think,
afraid to express themselves.
Adnan Buyung Nasution, 27 March 19931

A nationwide student protest movement played an instrumental role in forcing the resignation of President Soeharto on May 21, 1998 and in opening the door to democratic reform in Indonesia. Students and faculty emerged at the forefront of the reform movement in large measure because they publicly spoke their minds, courageously and consistently ignoring a variety of repressive laws, regulations, decrees, and abusive practices that have long limited political and intellectual freedom on Indonesia’s campuses and in Indonesian society. At the time this report went to press, the momentum of the reform movement and the government’s embrace of reform initiatives had rendered many of the constraints unenforceable for the time being, but significant constraints continued to exist both on paper and in practice. Human Rights Watch believes that reform has not gone far enough. To achieve lasting results, the rights to free expression, association, and assembly, so forcefully claimed by students and faculty in the months immediately prior to the resignation of Soeharto, must be given full legal and institutional protection.

This report examines the legacy of Soeharto’s authoritarian rule for scholarship and academic life in Indonesia, identifying seven continuing barriers to critical inquiry and exercise of basic rights by members of the Indonesian academic community.2 These barriers are the products of government-imposed ideological conformity and the overt hostility to organized political opposition that marked the rise of Soeharto and the army in 1965-67, but also include far-reaching institutional controls targeted on the universities.

President Soeharto’s “New Order” government was not uniformly hostile to the academic community. Many academics and students backed Soeharto when he first assumed power, and the government’s emphasis on rapid economic growth created opportunities for a range of academic specialists. As Soeharto consolidated his power, however, he eventually turned his attention on the universities, which were emerging as a leading source of opposition to the authoritarian policies of the new government and the increasing political prominence of the military. In response to student protest movements in the 1970s, the government twice cracked down hard on the academic community. Although the effects were most pronounced in the social sciences and the humanities, the government’s repressive response to the protests had devastating consequences for academic freedom and for freedom of expression in society more generally.

After the crackdowns in the 1970s, political controls over academic life in Indonesia were among the most intrusive in the world. Incoming academics were subjected to mandatory political background checks, students were subjected to compulsory on-campus ideological indoctrination sessions, political expression and activity were outlawed on campus, and students and academics who directly challenged the government were prominent among Indonesian dissidents imprisoned for exercising their basic rights to free expression, assembly, and association. In addition, a wide range of publications was censored, speakers were barred from campus by police and military authorities, seminars were monitored and subject to cancellation at the discretion of the authorities, and academic research was stymied by labyrinthine state research permit issuance procedures.

The student protest movement that toppled Soeharto in 1998 did not spring into being overnight, but rather was the product of dissatisfaction with the government that had been building for years. Academics were prominent among the New Order’s critics for more than two decades, and campus protests in the 1990s formed an important part of growing pressures for greater political openness and respect for citizen’s rights in Indonesia. In the last years of Soeharto’s rule, these pressures led to a number of concessions by the government. Because government relaxation of controls, where it occurred, was not accompanied by formal repeal of regulations legitimating the intrusive policies sketched above or by the implementation of institutional protections for basic rights, however, the scope of citizens’ freedom to express views and debate government policies continued to depend on splits between Soeharto and the powerful military, splits within the military leadership itself, the zealousness of local administrators and officials, and a speaker’s personal connections with power holders.

The result was continuing uncertainty about the boundaries of the permissible. This uncertainty, together with periodic government crackdowns on dissent and intimidation of those who delved into matters that the government viewed as sensitive, created a climate hostile to intellectual innovation and vigorous debate. The lack of clear boundaries also created a black market in ideas, a continued gap between what people said in private and what they were willing to say in public, depriving the society of the intellectual dynamism that results from open expression of competing viewpoints.

Until Soeharto’s resignation, open analysis and inquiry into subjects such as the calamitous events of 1965-67 that accompanied Soeharto’s rise to power, the growing wealth of the president’s family and his close associates, discrimination against the ethnic Chinese, and military operations in such places as East Timor, Aceh, and Irian Jaya were all but impossible. Many other subjects, such as government corruption and nepotism, the entrenched and prominent political role of the military, and the absence of truly democratic political institutions might or might not be off-limits depending on shifts in the political winds. Members of the academic community were not the only ones whosuffered—controls were imposed throughout Indonesian society—but students and faculty, well-placed to contribute to and enrich public debate on such issues, were frequent targets of the government’s repressive policies.

In Indonesia today, all candidate teachers, as well as applicants for jobs in a wide range of other professions, are subjected to mandatory political background checks designed to screen out all individuals alleged to have had affiliations with communist or leftist organizations in the mid-1960s. Under the screening procedures, family members of such individuals, including children and grandchildren, in-laws, and nephews and nieces, are also suspect. The screening procedures cast an ideological pall over education, keep many qualified individuals out of the teaching profession, and, because the criteria for exclusion are vague and unevenly implemented, create an environment in which the threat of being named an ex-communist or sympathizer, whether by government officials or by colleagues seeking to settle personal scores, continues to poison intellectual life in Indonesia.

Book censorship is institutionalized in Indonesia. Under a law still in effect, all works which in the view of the attorney general “could disturb public order” are subject to censorship. Under this law, hundreds of novels, historical studies, religious tracts, and books on political and social controversies have been banned, including scholarly works on subjects from early twentieth century social movements, to liberation theology, to the rise of Asia as a center of global capitalism.

By law, Indonesian citizens can still be imprisoned for expressing dissenting views. Under Soeharto, individuals who challenged the militaristic underpinnings of New Order rule or attempted to organize independent political opposition were made the object of aggressive campaigns which included show trials, prolonged imprisonment, public scapegoating, and, at times, physical intimidation and torture. The primary victims were leaders of ethnic and religious separatist movements, but also included outspoken political dissidents who dared to attempt to organize political opposition to Soeharto. Some of the most prominent victims were from the academic community. Although political space for dissent has expanded dramatically, broadly worded laws limiting freedom of expression and association remain on the books.

Since the early 1980s, students’ introduction to campus life has been a mandatory, state-sponsored session in the state ideology, Pancasila, held on- campus prior to their first semester in college. These indoctrination sessions, known as P4 (short for Pedoman Penghayatan dan Pengamalan Pancasila, a difficult to translate title which has been rendered in English as Upgrading Course on the Directives for the Realization and Implementation of Pancasila), stress rote memorization of formulaic precepts legitimating New Order rule. The P4 sessions have been suspended for academic year 1998-89, but it remains unclear whether the government intends merely to revise the curriculum or to abolish the sessions altogether.

Under Soeharto, student political expression and activity was outlawed on campus, campus-wide student councils were abolished, and all student organizations and activities were placed under the direct supervision and control of university rectors. Rectors, in turn, were made accountable to military and civilian authorities for implementation of the policies. In 1990, the restrictions were partially lifted and campus-wide student councils were allowed for the first time in over a decade. With the success of the student protest movement in 1998, the restrictions now have little practical effect, and the new minister of education in the post-Soeharto government has indicated that they are under review. At the time this report was written, however, the ban had not yet been formally repealed.

Among the most deeply rooted legacies of New Order rule is the pervasive militarization of Indonesian society. In the Soeharto era, militarization was reflected on campus in routine intelligence-gathering operations and surveillance of student life, arbitrary decrees from military authorities restricting students’ right to demonstrate, the use of combined police and military force to contain campus rallies (the police in Indonesia are part of the armed forces), and the frequent harassment, arrest, and sometimes torture of campus activists. The military continues to have authority to monitor campus affairs and to intervene on campus whenever it deems necessary in the interest of “national stability.”

Finally, academic inquiry and expression continues to be subject to government control. Although the climate for research has improved significantly, barriers to autonomous academic inquiry remain in place, including onerous state research permit requirements and laws which were used in the past to keep dissidents off campus and to limit the scope of discussion and debate in academic seminars.

At the time this report was being prepared, institutional pillars of the old regime had come under assault and some already had begun to collapse. For the first time in twenty-five years, independent political parties, labor unions, and professional organizations were being allowed to form. Some restrictions on the press had been lifted, Indonesia’s notorious anti-subversion law was under review, some political prisoners had been released, and the government party, Golkar, was no longer giving orders but was fighting just to survive. On campuses, demands for greater autonomy were being voiced openly and newly installed Minister of Education Juwono Sudarsono had indicated that government restrictions on student activity would be reconsidered.

The Indonesian constitution invokes freedom of expression and other basic rights, and Indonesian education law recognizes the principles of academic freedom and scientific autonomy. The success of the student protest movement and resignation of Soeharto have created an opportunity to give renewed substance to those provisions and bring their implementation into line with internationally recognized human rights standards. Through the release of this report, Human Rights Watch seeks to encourage the Indonesian government to undertake a systematic dismantling of Soeharto’s authoritarian legacy and to implement guarantees for citizens’ exercise of basic rights.

1 Adam Schwarz, A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia in the 1990s (St. Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin Pty. Ltd., 1994), p. 237. Dr. Nasution is a pioneering Indonesian legal aid and human rights activist, a legal historian, and a practicing attorney in Jakarta.
2 The report does not address conditions in East Timor, the formal annexation of which by Indonesia in 1976 has not been recognized by the United Nations. The international status of East Timor is beyond the scope of this report.

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