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Indonesia: The Post-Soeharto Crisis

Testimony before the House International Relations Committee Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific by Sidney Jones, Human Rights Watch

Indonesians have had more freedom in the last two weeks than they have had in the last three decades, but exhilaration is already being replaced by concern over the number of obstacles that lie in the path of political reform. The state of the economy, the weakness of political institutions, and the unfinished power struggle within the elite are just a few of those obstacles.

The U.S. has a critical role to play here to ensure that President Habibie's commitment to reform does not weaken.

  • It needs to continue to work toward ensuring that Indonesians have an opportunity, as soon as possible, to have a president and parliament of their own choice. Without a leadership that commands popular support, economic recovery will be all but impossible.
  • It needs to continue to use what economic leverage it has in such a way as to help alleviate the worst hardship most Indonesians will have experienced in their lifetimes but without seeming to give a seal of approval to the Habibie government. The Indonesians we're in touch with on a daily basis -- grassroots organizations from Sumatra to Irian Jaya -- believe that continued conditioning of IMF and donor assistance on following through with political reform is crucial, but so is emergency aid.
  • It needs to respond to the growing pressure in Indonesia for accountability of the Soeharto government by investigating the assets of the Soeharto family in the U.S. although they are not believed to be extensive. There has been widespread popular support in Indonesia for a suggestion by the National Human Rights Commission in Jakarta that an independent commission of inquiry be set up to look into the Soeharto wealth.
  • It needs to find ways to enhance support for the nongovernmental organizations and independent media that will be monitoring the new government's actions on political reform and protection of human rights, despite a conservative backlash against the U.S. that has already made itself visible in Jakarta and Surabaya. It also should encourage direct consultation between the new government and NGOs.
  • It needs to continue to press the army for a full-scale investigation into the disappearances of political activists, four of whom remain missing, and Congress could help by holding hearings on U.S. links with Kopassus, the special forces suspected of involvement in these and other abuses.
  • It needs to work with other members of the Consultative Group on Indonesia to encourage the new government to begin a reconciliation process with the people of East Timor, a process that can only begin with the release of Xanana Gusmao. But it is critical for those in Congress concerned about East Timor to consult with the leaders of mass organizations in Indonesia, some of whom also support a change in policy toward the territory.
  • It needs to do all this in a way that encourages and supports the pressures for reform from within Indonesia rather than seeming to create a separate agenda from outside.

Mr. Chairman, I believe there is an urgency to the agenda I have outlined above, because the "spirit of reform" so evident now in Indonesia could be set back by social unrest or contradictory impulses within the political elite. The next three months are going to be key.

That said, I would like to look at the gains and setbacks or "non-accomplishments" of the last two weeks and then address more specifically what the U.S. can do.

The Gains

1. President Soeharto is well and truly gone; he is not sitting behind the scenes pulling the strings of a Jakarta puppet.

2. Independent trade union leader Muchtar Pakpahan has been freed, his union and presumably all others are now free to operate, and the government has announced it is planning to ratify ILO Convention No.87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize.

3. Anyone is free to organize or join the political party of his or her choice, even though the law prohibiting the formation of new parties has not been repealed, and parties are being created or resurrected from the distant past at the rate of about one a day. Golkar, the ruling party, has already been deserted by two factions within it, each of which has formed a party of its own. The political free-for-all is exciting, but it has also brought on unmistakable signs of nervousness within the military.

4. The leading news magazines that were closed down in 1994 are now officially free to reopen and plan on doing so, despite the economic crisis.

5. The Education Ministry has announced an imminent end to the ban on university political activity (the program known as "Normalization of Campus Life") and a suspension of the Pancasila training programs that were widely seen as a kind of political indoctrination program.

6. Soeharto appointees and family members of the political elite are resigning by the dozens from the People's Consultative Assembly or MPR, Indonesia's highest representative body that chooses the president and vice-president and sets the broad guidelines for national policy. These resignations, under popular pressure to end nepotism and corruption, suggest that if this body were to be called into special session in the near future to select a caretaker president or set a date for new elections, it could be far less representative of the old guard than is currently the case (more on this below).

7. President Habibie made a high-profile visit to a major ethnic Chinese area of Jakarta to call for an end to racism and urge those who fled anti-Chinese violence to return to the country.

8. On June 1, a court in Semarang, Central Java, acquitted four East Timorese of transporting bomb-making materials on the grounds that there was no evidence against them. The court threw out the testimony of one witness that had been extracted under torture. To our knowledge, this was the first acquittal ever of East Timorese arrested on charges related to political activity and suggests the highly politicized courts may also be affected by the reform spirit.

9. Public debate is underway now over whether the police should be separated from the armed forces and put under the Ministry of the Interior. (Since the Ministry of Interior traditionally has been led by an army general, the change might be more form than substance, but the idea of separating the police from the army is a sound one.)

The Setbacks

If all of the above steps are welcome and exciting, it must be recognized first, that the popular demand for reform is so great that the Habibie government had little choice but to go with the flow. This should not detract from the value and importance of these measures, but they do not appear to have gained the new government much in terms of credibility or legitimacy. Second, many of these steps have only gone halfway, as in the very limited release of political prisoners, or they require legal changes to give them any kind of permanent underpinning. The fact that political parties are free to form by government fiat does not mean that the pressure should cease for repeal of key laws on the political system.

1. Of the close to 200 political prisoners in Indonesia, dozens of whom are imprisoned for non-violent political activity, only four have been released. Both President Habibie and Justice Minister Muladi have said that political prisoners who are Marxist, opposed to the Indonesian constitution, or convicted for criminal offenses will not be released. Not only should Indonesians have the right to freely express their opinions on any subject, including Marxism and the constitution, but in the case of those detained, the determination of who was a Marxist or an anti-constitutionalist was made by a politicized court system at the behest of a now discredited government. The government's exclusion of these three categories means, among other things, that the eleven students linked to a left-wing party called People's Democratic Party (Partai Rakyat Denokratik) will not be eligible for release. The government has also rejected the release any time soon of Xanana Gusmao.

2. The army continues to play a powerful role, in a way that may slow down or possibly even reverse the reform process in the long term. Gen. Wiranto (commander of the armed forces and Defense Minister) has acted over the past few months almost as a guardian of the student movement, and he appears to have effectively sidelined his rival, Soeharto son-in-law Prabowo, who was widely suspected as being responsible for major human rights violations. Gen.Wiranto has also encouraged a reform movement within the military, announcing, for example, the armed forces' support for a two-term limit for the presidency. But whether the military will permit a review of the concept of its role in social and political affairs (dwifungsi), whether it will support inquiries into past abuses, whether it will follow through with investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the recent "disappearances," whether its tolerance of free speech and demonstrations will begin to wane as the cacophony of democratic debate moves into high gear, all of these questions are up in the air. Even more problematic is the military's response if the country's economic woes produce more outbreaks of rioting and unrest: then a real unraveling of democratic gains would not only be possible but likely.

3. President Habibie's visit to the ethnic Chinese district of Jakarta was an important step, but it leaves unresolved the question of how Indonesia begins to win back the trust of this part of its population. Anti-Chinese sentiment remains dangerously high, and it may get worse as the economic situation deteriorates. Some of the solutions proposed are frightening: a group in North Sumatra urged the government to do more to encourage ethnic assimilation, a phrase that has been a code word in the past to justify discrimination. A member of parliament in Jakarta has said in the last two days that by fleeing abroad to Singapore and Malaysia (when their homes and shops were being attacked), ethnic Chinese showed a lack of a sense of nationalism, and the assets of all who fled abroad should be investigated. President Habibie himself, instead of promising better protection from the Indonesian security forces at times of unrest, suggested that the ethnic Chinese form their own vigilante squads for self-defense. (In this regard, it is worth noting that the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission said in a statement on June 2, 1998 that the rioting on May 13-14 that led to a death toll now estimated at 1,188 and during which security forces in many areas seemed to stand by unwilling to take action, appeared to have been triggered by an outside group. The Commission called on the government to undertake a full investigation.) It is imperative for the Habibie government and any aspirants to national leadership to tackle the question of how to end discrimination and make Indonesia a safe place for people of all ethnic backgrounds to live. Appointment of a national commission to examine this issue, from the standpoint of equal opportunity and ending discrimination, might be a good place to start. Not only social harmony but also economic recovery depend on finding a solution.

4. The government has announced that it has no plans to change policy on East Timor. No political reform program can be complete without a review of the areas where major human rights violations have been committed and where disaffection with the Indonesian administration is so high that armed guerrilla movements are able to attract significant popular support. Given the investment by the military in East Timor, in terms of time, resources, and human lives, a change in policy will not be easy, but it is important not to let East Timor slide off the reform agenda so easily. Opposition leader Amien Rais has publicly stated his support for a referendum in East Timor, although in recent days he has warned of the dangers of disintegration. Influential members of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in the country, as well as many in the Indonesian NGO movement have also urged a change in policy.

5. There is growing concern about the political and economic repercussions of President Habibie's plan to delay parliamentary elections until early 1999 and the selection of a new president until well after that. No solution is ideal, but the option chosen by Habibie appears to guarantee that he will stay in power for almost two years. Given the economic and political problems facing Indonesia, the need for a leader with a popular mandate is more acute than ever.

There are two major proposals on the table for how and when to hold elections, each with several variations, and both rooted in the current Indonesian constitution. President Habibie proposes having a special session of the People's Consultative Assembly or MPR later this year to approve changes to the election and political party laws and to set a new date for elections to the parliament or DPR. (The MPR consists of all 500 members of the DPR plus 500 others appointed by the president and by the parties represented in the DPR.) Those elections would be held in the first half of 1999, and sometime thereafter, the newly elected MPs, joined by their appointed colleagues would meet to elect a new president and vice-president.

A second proposal, favored by several ministers in the current cabinet as well as some opposition leaders, is to call a special session of the current MPR for July to select a new "caretaker" administration that would serve until new parliamentary elections could be held sometime in 1999. Different formulations for the caretaker administration have been proposed, ranging from a single individual to a five-member presidium consisting of four civilians and one military officer. A variant of this proposal would merely lessen the interval between the selection of the caretaker and the holding of parliamentary elections.

The advantage of the first is that the new president would be chosen by a much more representative body than is currently available; the disadvantage is that Habibie, whom many in the country distrust, would stay in power until late 1999. The advantage of the second is that it puts a finite time on Habibie's tenure; the disadvantage is that the selection of a caretaker or caretakers could be highly contentious -- there is no obvious consensus candidate. In response to concerns that the MPR that would select the caretaker is the same old body that elected Soeharto less than two months ago, proponents of this option argue that the combination of popular stigmatization of crony appointees, the process of "recall" whereby existing parties can effectively expel unwanted members, and the reformist atmosphere now prevailing will militate against a non-reformer being chosen.

It is not for the U.S. to favor one option over another, but it could provide a useful service in supporting as many fora for public debate on these issues as possible, encouraging President Habibie to discuss his preferred option with key NGO and student leaders and listen to their reactions, and perhaps funding public opinion surveys whose results can be published in the unrestrained media of today's Indonesia.

Specific Steps the U.S. Can Take

1. There is no question that aid is needed and needed badly. Food shortages are a real danger; delivery of government services is threatened. As recently as last week, we advocated conditioning further disbursements of IMF aid on concrete steps toward political reform, some of which have been taken or promised. If President Habibie makes an effort to consult with the students and NGOs who set the reform process in motion, if he commits himself to a definitive schedule for elections designed to give Indonesia a new president as soon as possible in as open and fair a procedure as possible, if he succeeds in removing legislation from the statutes that penalizes peaceful dissent and restricts political participation, and if he continues to release political prisoners, including those from East Timor, disbursements from international financial institutions should proceed, on the understanding that they can always be suspended again if the political situation deteriorates.

2. The U.S. must end its relationship with Kopassus, the army special forces, until all allegations of past and present abuses have been thoroughly investigated. Those allegations include not only the disappearances of activists from January through March but also the killings recently disclosed that took place in Irian Jaya in 1996 and 1997 during counterinsurgency operations in the Mapnduma area, following the release of researchers taken hostage by the guerrilla group, the Free Papua Movement (OPM). The U.S. and other CGI member countries played a major role in putting pressure on the Indonesian government to find the missing persons; it must not allow that pressure to ease until the remaining four persons are accounted for, and those responsible identified and prosecuted.

3. Freezing Soeharto family assets in the U.S. would be a step much appreciated in Indonesia, particularly at a time of great economic distress. We have not been able to find any comprehensive list of the family's holdings here; they are not likely to be extensive, but this is one case where symbolism is important. Any initiative that Congress can pursue to uncover such assets would be widely welcomed.

4. There appears to be a backlash building among some conservative groups in Indonesia against U.S. support for NGOs involved in the pro-democracy movement, in part because of a perception that the U.S. gave Soeharto the final push. The U.S. should not allow the expression of such sentiments to deter it from support for strengthening civil society at a time of political transition but it may want to explore ways of addressing that backlash.

5. The U.S. should support the positive moves that have taken place without reducing the pressure for further reform. President Habibie should be urged to undertake more releases of political prisoners following the releases that have already occurred and to appoint a commission to address questions of racism and discrimination, particularly against the ethnic Chinese, in the wake of his visit to Glodok, Jakarta.

The general attitude Congress should take toward Indonesia is not that nothing has changed, but that with President Soeharto gone, anything is possible.

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