Arrests of political activists and opposition leaders during the Soeharto era in Indonesia have been well documented. Soeharto and his military ran a police state whose tentacles reached into virtually all islands and villages of the archipelago. Journalists were often arrested and magazines were banned. It was unlawful to make statements deemed insulting to the president and legal restrictions on free expression were strictly enforced.1
After the fall of Soeharto in May 1998, it was hoped by many that Indonesia would enter an era of liberalization, in which fundamental human rights principles, such as freedom of expression, would be respected. Since May 1998, Indonesia has opened up at a rapid rate in many areas of society. Political activism has become a raison d'etre for a newly invigorated and politicized youth. Jakarta's political landscape has also opened up, exemplified by a flowering of civil society groups, political parties, labor unions, and a proliferation of new, uncensored media.
Soeharto's first two successors, President B.J. Habibie and President Abdurrahman Wahid, took a laissez-faire approach to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Both took concrete steps to address past abuses. By the end of Wahid's tenure most political prisoners, convicted during the Soeharto era, had been released. More important for the future of Indonesia, the era of politically motivated trials in Indonesia appeared to be over.
Demonstrations (known as aksi) against all levels of government became a common sight among the traffic jams of central Jakarta.2 Small groups of individuals holding up banners and decrying the latest issue are a regular sight outside the parliament, various foreign embassies, and the Supreme Court. Most of these groups are left alone, painting a picture of free expression and free assembly in modern day Indonesia.
But this is only part of the picture. Although Soeharto is no longer in power, many of the institutions he created and nurtured remain. They have deep roots in both political culture and law. Dismantling a thirty-two-year legacy of authoritarianism cannot happen overnight. This will require committed, reform-minded political leadership.
Unfortunately, there are few signs that President Megawati and her administration have such a commitment. The daughter of Sukarno--Indonesia's first president, who led Indonesia to independence, and a founder of the non-aligned movement--Megawati's presidential style is often compared to that of a monarch, which may explain her use of "lese majeste" laws intended to make the head of state inviolable, or above criticism.
Megawati's time in office has been marked by economic instability, domestic terrorism, and, perhaps most crucially, a resurgent military. While virtually all Indonesian political commentators--and many in the civil administration and military itself--agree that the military was the root of the problem during the Soeharto period and remains in desperate need of wholesale reform, the military and President Megawati have formed close bonds on many sensitive issues.
Because of her weak political position, Megawati immediately began accommodating military interests to strengthen her power and authority. Her leanings towards the military were also a result of her mistrust and uneasy relationship with the Islamic parties in her coalition government. However, Megawati's concessions to the military have come at a high price. Previous efforts under Wahid to reform the military by refocusing it on national defense instead of acting as an occupying force and carrying out police functions--all of which led to systematic human rights violations--have been pushed back under Megawati. This has been exemplified by the establishment of two new provincial military commands in Aceh and Maluku in 2002. The launching of military action in Aceh in May 2003 can also be seen as an attempt to satisfy hardliners in the military intent on wiping out the separatist movement there.
Within this context the relationship between Megawati and the military appears to have been mutually beneficial. However, despite consolidation of power at the top, Megawati's national popularity is, in fact, critically weak. Widely condemned for failing to respond adequately, or sincerely, to the October Bali bombings, she was also seen by the electorate as weak for having bowed to Western pressure over the bombings.
Megawati has also failed to address endemic corruption in both the bureaucracy and the judiciary. She has been much criticized for continuing to support an attorney general under investigation for corruption and a convicted felon as parliamentary speaker. More recently Megawati has also personally borne the brunt of public condemnation for price-hikes on staples in January 2003.
Historically, Indonesian presidents have been able to largely ignore public dissent because they were elected by the national assembly without popular participation in the vote. However, a constitutional amendment in August 2002 mandating direct election of the president and vice-president means that Megawati cannot afford to be as complacent as her predecessors. In theory this amendment should increase the legitimacy of the presidency. In practice it means that Megawati will have to face Indonesia's voters directly and on her own merits. As the elections approach, the government increasingly has responded with criminal prosecutions of persons who have taken part in public acts of protest against Megawati or her administration. As Hendardi, chair of PBHI (Perhimpunan Bantuan Hukum dan Hak Asasi Manusia Indonesia) in Jakarta, summarized the situation to Human Rights Watch:
1 See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, Academic Freedom in Indonesia: Dismantling Soeharto Era Barriers (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998); Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, "Release Prisoners of Conscience Now!," A Joint Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Report, June 1998; Human Rights Watch/Asia, "Press Closures in Indonesia One Year Later," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 7, no. 9 (c), July 1995; Asia Watch, "Students Jailed for Puns," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 5, no. 5, March 1993; Asia Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Asia), "Anatomy of Press Censorship in Indonesia," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 14, no. 12, April 1992; Asia Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Asia), "Indonesia: Criminal Charges for Political Caricatures," A Human Rights Watch Press Release, May 13, 1991; Asia Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Asia), "Indonesia's Salman Rushdie," A Human Rights Watch Press Release, April 10, 1991.