A long jail term and the loss of a Rp 5 million (AU$2,777) a month salary would be enough to take most people's appetite away, but ever ebullient Aberson Marle Sihaloho is in the mood for fried fish. It's Ramadan so the canteen at parliament house is empty but for we two non-Muslims. The whole fried fish, vegetables and rice appear quickly and are consumed with gusto as Aberson expounds on his favourite theme, how only a return to the letter and spirit of the 1945 Constitution will allow the realisation of democracy.
Charged with insulting President Suharto, the Armed Forces and parliament during a speech at an open forum last July, Aberson faces almost impossible odds to win his case. No one accused of these crimes has ever been found 'not guilty'. Also, he will not be able to contest the May 29 parliamentary election. Supporters of Megawati Sukarnoputri didn't make the list of approved candidates.
This outspoken, optimistic 58 year-old Christian Batak from Pematang Siantar, North Sumatra, has ridden out many political storms since his student activist days in the mid-sixties. He has been a member of parliament, or the House of Representatives (DPR), for 20 years on a PDI ticket.
He has often told the army to return to barracks. Political parties, not the army, represent the people and should have the say, he maintains.
Then, early last year, he circulated a petition nominating Megawati Sukarnoputri for president in 1998. It carried the plea: 'If you want to improve democracy, fill in this form'.
According to the prosecution, he took another unforgiveable swipe at the army in the July speech outside the headquarters of Megawati's PDI by saying: 'See those tanks, those bullets? All bought with the people's money, yet used to shoot the people'. They also say he told his enthusiastic listeners that the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) choosing the president will be fundamentally undemocratic. The MPR meets once in five years for two weeks - it next meets mid-1998.
Just doing a parliamentarian's job? Perhaps. But it was enough to earn him the enmity of everyone in power. Article 134 of the Criminal Code threatens those who insult the president with seven years jail. Article 207 threatens 18 months for those who insult other authorities.
Despite constitutional provisions to the contrary, he says, 'the freedom to express thoughts through speech and writing is very weak. As in my case. I am being charged although I am a member of parliament. Just imagine - even a member of parliament is controlled by the president. The constitution is not implemented. The government runs the country based on their authority - the rule of the rulers!'
The main cause of this problem, in Aberson's opinion, is the unconstitutional mechanism for the presidential succession. Article One of the constitution identifies the MPR as 'the embodiment of the people, which holds the sovereignty of the state'.
'But who is meant by the MPR?', Aberson goes on rhetorically. 'Article Two, Paragraph One: "The People's Consultative Assembly shall consist of members of the DPR augmented by delegates from the regional territories and groups in accordance with regulations prescribed by statute". That means, the majority of the MPR must come from parliament, the DPR.'
'So I ask - why in recent times are only 40% of the members of the MPR chosen by the people through a general election? Sixty per cent are chosen by the president. How can an MPR like that say they are the embodiment of the people? And if the MPR isn't the embodiment of the people, can their decisions be said to reflect the will of the people? No they can't. This is what I've been saying in various speeches and forums. Where is the evidence that Pak Suharto's becoming president continuously all this time is the will of the people?'
'Now let's go to Article six, Paragraph two', he continues the lecture. '"The president and the vice-president shall be elected by the MPR by majority vote". So, those who choose the president must be the members on an individual basis, not the leaders of the factions. That's not what has been happening. Individual members have no role. If they don't follow the faction guidelines they will be recalled. We no longer represent the people. We represent an organisation.'
How would people react if Aberson were found guilty, I ask? He was not sure. 'The reaction is always controlled', he said. 'If they react it must be silently within.'
'Freedom is just a formality, an appearance,' he said. 'If we ask is the general election in accordance with the constitution, it clearly is not. It doesn't function to realise democracy. At the moment it's only for show - the appearance of democracy, of law, of freedom.'
'It's all a pretense,' Aberson said. 'It is not real'.
Sharon Tickle is the Brisbane-based Australian correspondent for Suara Merdeka and a Master of Arts candidate at the Queensland University of Technology's School of Media & Journalism.