Jul 21, 2019 Last Updated 2:20 AM, Jul 1, 2019

Women's Congress

The Women’s Congress was held in Yogyakarta 14-18 December 1998, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the first All-Indonesia Women’s Congress (Kongres Perempuan Indonesia), which was also held in Yogya in 1928.

A committee of five from Jakarta were the main organisers. Among them were Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, Indonesia’s foremost feminist lawyer, and Australian-trained political scientist Chusnul Mar’iyah.

The congress was replete with historical resonances. The organisers wanted to hark back to the Kongres Perempuan of 1928, seeing a particular strength in the term perempuan (woman) over wanita (lady, the common New Order term for women). They also wanted to distinguish themselves from Kowani (Kongres Wanita Indonesia), which replaced the original Kongres Perempuan and which was later so thoroughly co-opted by the New Order.

Among the historically important figures in attendance was the octogenarian S K Trimurti, a nationalist, the first woman to hold a ministerial position in Indonesia (1947-48), and a national treasure. More remarkably, the first speaker at the seminar was Sulami – a former leader of Gerwani, incarcerated for almost two decades and speaking publicly for the first time since 1965.

Chusnul Mar’iyah in her opening speech stressed that the issues of most concern to women

should be placed on the political agenda of all the parties that will contest Indonesia’s first real election since 1955 this year. Nursyahbani Katjasungkana spoke of the need to recognise differences between the various groups of women.

Three particularly divisive issues surfaced on the second and third days of the congress. These were the inclusion of Gerwani and thus the legitimisation of communism, the inclusion of lesbians, and finally and most contentiously the centralism of Jakarta. There were strident debates and several disruptive tactics. A walk-out aimed to register a protest against what some saw as the Jakarta feminists’ overly radical and ‘fashionable’ agenda. It became so difficult for the Jakarta committee that an alternative committee of three non-Jakarta delegates had to be elected to chair the congress proceedings.

At one point in the proceedings a labourer, baby at her breast, took the microphone demanding to be heard, despite question time being over. Very eloquently she drew attention to the struggle of workers to find a voice in such a forum. This was not to be just a talk-fest for the Jakarta elite.

Many felt disappointed that the congress was unable to fully express the feeling of solidarity with which it had been originally conceived. But most felt it was an achievement to have come together as women from all over Indonesia and from all walks of life. For the first time in a generation they were able to express their views without constraints. The networking that went on was probably of far greater importance than the congress itself.

A presidium consisting of 14 representatives was elected with Nursyahbani as the Secretary General. This presidium, responsible for implementing decisions of the congress, comprises all groups represented at the congress, including farmers, labourers, lesbians and prostitutes. This is the first time that the claims of some of these groups as women have been recognised.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

Women on the move

After three decades of patriarchal conformity under the New Order, women are once more a force for change.

Krishna Sen

On December 15, 1998, 500 women from 26 provinces of Indonesia met to take stock of the legacy of the New Order and to chart future directions. As so often in the NGO movement during the last decade of the Suharto regime, the planning was done in Jakarta, the money was sought abroad, and the contradictions bred by 33 years of repressive rule surfaced to dampen the optimism with which the women had come to Yogyakarta. But that so many women came to talk and listen and assert themselves in all their differences was itself a triumph.

When the Suharto regime came to power in 1965, it not only destroyed the communist mass organisation for women Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, Indonesian Women’s Movement), but transformed the whole basis of women’s participation in politics. New Order propaganda damned Gerwani as an organisation of whores and legitimised the brutal massacre of 1965-66 in large part by constructing a litany of crimes by women. In prisons across the country, women were molested, raped and tortured. These stories, long suppressed, began to emerge in the last years of the New Order. Old women in their 60s and 70s, released after years of imprisonment, became martyrs in the eyes of the new women’s movement that emerged in the 1980s.

What happened to the dozens of other women’s organisations which once flourished in the political turmoil of the Sukarno years has yet to be documented. But in the early New Order autonomous women’s organisations disappeared. Women’s representative bodies became ‘wives’ organisations. Wives of civil servants were obliged to join Dharma Wanita (literally, Women’s Duty), and duty-bound to support their husbands’ work. The PKK, the village level institution through which many of the government’s family welfare measures were implemented, was committed to the five duties of a woman, which started with her role as wife and mother. Women, politicised in the nationalist struggle and mobilised in Sukarno’s populist politics, were domesticated in a state controlled by the military.

While women were politically reduced to the status of men’s appendages, economically they were pushed and pulled out of homes into the work place. As the Indonesian economy expanded, vast numbers of women joined the workforce, largely in the low-paid manufacturing sector, but also in white collar middle class professional jobs. The New Order’s dependence on global financial institutions ensured that development policies, particularly from the early 1980s onwards, had to take gender issues into account. This created women bureaucrats with an interest in promoting the discourse of women’s equality.

The new women’s non-government organisations (NGOs), which emerged from 1983 and grew rapidly in the 1990s, drew on all of these women who were not primarily wives and mothers. They were working class women, middle class professional women, and femocrats within government and semi-government institutions.



Not just in Indonesia, but in Asia generally, women’s movements are often seen as an urban middle class luxury. The earliest women’s NGOs were established in Jakarta and other cities in Java. The first women’s NGO was Yayasan Annisa Swasti (Yasanti), established in 1982 in Yogyakarta, followed in 1985 by Kalyanamitra in Jakarta. But in the 1990s the movement is no longer restricted to either Jakarta or the middle class.

Many of the workers’ strikes in the early 1990s were led by women. Two of the most prominent organisers of the recent Indonesian labour movement are women: Marsinah, who was raped and killed in 1993, and Dita Sari, still in prison for organising massive strikes in Surabaya in July 1995. Marsinah’s politics were born out of her experience as a working woman. Dita’s activism was inspired by her reading of Leninism. Neither perhaps would see themselves as acting for women as such. But they represent the diverse paths of women’s politicisation in the late New Order.

Nor did the so-called urban middle class women’s organisations pursue a middle class agenda. Kalyanamitra’s earliest work was with domestic servants. Yasanti started its work among rural and working class women facing domestic violence. Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity for Human Rights), one of the earliest of the new breed of women’s associations, concentrated on the rights of migrant workers.

Post-graduate student Yanti Muchtar argues in her thesis that the women’s NGOs were by the 1990s not primarily led by urban middle class women. They were established and led by first-generation migrants to cities. These women had the intellectual capital of the middle classes, but not the access to consumer goods that defined Indonesia’s new middle class. Some of these women were influenced by peoples movements overseas. Others were radicalised by their work among labourers, peasants and prostitutes.

By the end of the New Order, the women’s movement in Indonesia was a broad-based social movement. Its various factions were articulated across the breadth of Indonesia’s socio-political spectrum.

The Indonesian National Women’s Coalition for Justice and Democracy was established the day before Suharto resigned. Forty one prominent women intellectuals, mainly from Jakarta, signed the declaration. It was sent out to women’s groups throughout the country. The Women’s Congress in Yogyakarta in December 1998 was the result of the commitment of this group of women to come together and to confirm the political power of women across the nation. Not surprisingly, the congress did not end in the creation of a singular women’s movement speaking in a national monotone. It was a triumph of the diversity of Indonesia and of its women over 33 years of state-controlled uniformity.


Krishna Sen teaches at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

Tomorrow, in Timor Lorosae

Freedom in East Timor is no longer a dream. But the transition to freedom is full of danger.

Richard Tanter

With his extraordinary announcement that Indonesia is prepared to accept self-determination in East Timor, President Habibie opened the way to great hope, and at the same time to great danger in East Timor.

The Timor colonial folly had several years ago reached the limits of political possibility. No rational Indonesian interest of any significance was being served by continuing occupation. Abri careers have long since ceased to be made in Timor; the oil in the Timor Gap is divisible by three countries as easily as by two; and the drain on the shrunken state budget was unending. The decision by the hitherto ever-reliable Australian government to abandon Indonesia was profoundly shocking.

In December 1975, newly oil-rich Indonesia led by the Smiling General was the darling of an anti-communist United States reeling from the fall of Saigon. In 1999, beggarman-poorman Indonesia knocking on the door of the IMF is in no position to indulge the expansionist fantasies of its dead and disgraced generals.

The keys to diplomatic change were the United States and the United Nations. Under Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the UN has been persistent in its search for peace in East Timor. The Clinton Administration is no longer willing to protect an Indonesia embroiled in a hopeless war. International financial negotiators have made clear their irritation with Indonesia’s expensive colonial folly.

Indonesia has recognised reality, and made a public commitment at the highest level to self-determination in the country Timorese now love to call Timor Lorosae. That cannot now be retracted. The commitment has been made when world diplomatic and media attention is focussed on Indonesia to a greater degree than at any time since 1965. Xanana is out of prison, the resistance umbrella organisation CNRT he leads is well-organised and without serious internal conflict. The Indonesian political public is now informed about the realities of East Timor, and there is much to gain for both sides in an orderly transition to self-government and then self-determination.



Yet there is reason to be fearful for the future of East Timor, primarily because of the conflicting actions of different parts of the Indonesian government. The most significant immediate problem is the arming of Timorese civilians who are in favour of continued integration into Indonesia. No policy is more certain to simultaneously bring terror and distrust to the people of East Timor, to derail the peace process, and to destroy any vestige of international respect for Indonesia’s political leaders.

Most worryingly, the arming of the paramilitaries may be evidence of disintegration of the Indonesian armed forces command structure. It is possible that General Wiranto’s claim that the paramilitaries were to be unarmed was a knowing lie. Perhaps Abri headquarters made a covert decision to follow a Nicaraguan model. Abri would withdraw but leave behind in East Timor politically reliable and well-equipped pro-Indonesian contras with orders to derail the peace process in the short term, and to use terror to destroy an independent Timor. Certainly on past experience Indonesian intelligence organisations are capable of such thinking.

With Abri’s political standing inside the country at possibly its lowest ebb since the 1945 revolution, and an economically crippled Indonesia crucially dependent on massive international aid, and with the world’s media scrutinising Indonesia, it is hard to conceive of a more counter-productive plan for President Habibie and his successor.

More likely is that after the sudden shock of Habibie’s announcement, longstanding vague plans at the regional headquarter level to expand the existing Timorese paramilitaries were rapidly updated. Additional pressure came from prominent beneficiaries of Indonesian rule fearful of the future. What is unclear is whether local commanders or intelligence officers acted on their own initiative, or perhaps at the suggestion of Abri factions hostile to General Wiranto and President Habibie when they decided to arm the paramilitaries as a contra force. Either way, a breakdown of Abri command may have been involved – with frightening implications for Indonesia in 1999.

The role of the United Nations in facilitating negotiations is now central. Ambassador Marker’s proposal to first establish self-governing autonomy in East Timor and then move towards an appropriate form of self-determination offers the most likely basis for an orderly and peaceful transition after two decades of war. Yet possible Indonesian pique, the fears of pro-Indonesian Timorese, or an ill-considered rush for immediate independence by some East Timorese challenging CNRT’s authority could sabotage such negotiations.

Most importantly, and most difficult to achieve, the UN Security Council needs to establish and deploy a peace-keeping force throughout the territory. The Security Council is likely to be reluctant to undertake yet another thankless and hazardous peace-keeping task.Yet the mountainous terrain of East Timor and the highly dispersed population will demand a substantial presence to be effective. The reluctance of the Security Council will increase in proportion to the degree of intra-Timorese violence and the amount of political chaos in the transition period.

Consequently, enormous responsibility rests with both East Timorese and Indonesian political leaders and diplomats. Xanana Gusmao, Bishop Belo, and Mario Carrascalao have demonstrated a capacity to handle such responsibility. Xanana has stressed the need for reconciliation, abjuring revenge, and has frequently forsaken short-term and narrow advantage for the sake of long-term and widespread political benefit.

It is not so clear that present Indonesian leaders have such capacities. President Habibie’s courageous decision was not followed through decisively. Within Abri in particular, there was clearly a reluctance to make a constructive response. Megawati Sukarnoputri reminded the world more of Indira Gandhi the nationalist dictator, rather than of Cory Aquino the courageous democrat, when she rejected out of hand the possibility of East Timorese self-determination should she become president. Indonesian parliamentarians, safe from the challenge of political responsibility, spoke in tones of infantile regression about the ingratitude of the Timorese children who, having spurned Indonesia’s good intentions, should be simply abandoned forthwith. Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, repeatedly humiliated by his masters, and outplayed diplomatically for a decade by Ramos-Horta, has shown no sign of recognising Indonesia’s enormous moral responsibility.



Facing self-government, East Timorese political figures will have to deal with an extraordinarily difficult set of policy choices. These include issues of language, law, administrative structures, economic issues ranging from basic food provision to the renegotiation of the Timor Gap treaty, and above all demilitarisation after the habit of war. However, the most immediate task is to ensure the acceptability of whatever is agreed upon in the UN-facilitated talks to the majority of East Timorese. Timorese of all persuasions feel sidelined from these talks while their futures appear to be negotiated over their heads.

In the parallel case of Palestine, Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Authority is widely discredited amongst Palestinians, in large part because of the secrecy of negotiations and lack of consultation between the PLO leadership and the mass of Palestinians both in occupied Palestine and in the diaspora.

The question of a referendum as the end-point for self-determination is therefore a fundamental goal for CNRT (National Council of Timorese Resistance). If there is a chance for any agreement to be discussed and approved on the ground in East Timor, the result is much more likely to be effective in providing a stable framework for transition to effective self-determination.

Fortunately CNRT has consolidated a complex two-way flow of both information and decision-making structures, spanning from Cipinang Prison in Jakarta to East Timor and beyond to CNRT external leadership and to the ever-increasing numbers of activists and intellectuals emerging from East Timorese diaspora communities around the world.

It is possible that Indonesian authority and its administrative organisations will fall apart very rapidly. The most important immediate key issues are demilitarisation, security, and the abjuring of revenge, each of which is capable of being exploited by opponents of self-determination.

After all the suffering flowing from war and occupation, it is inevitable that many East Timorese will feel extreme bitterness towards Indonesians in the territory. They will feel even more bitter and violent towards East Timorese they regard as collaborators. After the end of World War 2 in Europe, the French Resistance summarily executed some 40,000 French citizens held to be collaborators with the Nazi occupation. One can well imagine the fears of some East Timorese faced with the prospect of Indonesian withdrawal.

Two decades of war have had a profound effect on East Timorese society. Will it be possible for the habits of violence and secrecy, necessary for survival under alien occupation, to be forgotten? CNRT has begun to think through these problems. Its peace plans now stress the importance of demilitarisation, the disbanding of domestic military forces, and the role of the United Nations in maintaining peace in the transition period.

Yet the trauma of violence knows no party, no nationality. Xanana Gusmao and Bishop Belo have both stressed the need to eschew revenge and build a society based on compassion. The first step towards peace is to forget the simple-minded notion of ‘collaborator’. In 24 years of Indonesian occupation, the families of even the most ardent supporters of independence have had to make compromises with Indonesian authority. Lives are not always lived politically. CNRT will have to move rapidly once Indonesian authority begins to crumble.

CNRT has indicated some understanding of the position of innocent Indonesian citizens in East Timor. Indonesia is sure to demand guarantees of protection for its citizens. However their numbers are now so large that there will have to be complex plans made to actually manage the process of withdrawal of Indonesian troops from the mountains and countryside to the towns, and from there to Indonesia itself. Much can go wrong. Here again, the question of how large a UN presence can be expected is important.


8 February 1999.

Richard Tanter is Professor of International Relations at Kyoto Seika University, Japan. He has been writing on East Timor issues since mid-1975.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

Habibie's fling

Just before an election, Habibie finds the temptation to buy himself a TV network too hard to resist.

Ishadi S K

On 23 November 1998, Tempo news weekly reported that a group around President Habibie tried to take over the private television network SCTV.

Television and radio have become crucial campaigning media, especially during the ‘reformasi’ that began in March and reached its peak with the end of the New Order on 21 May 1998. Television coverage, first by the private stations, then also by state television TVRI, made a strong contribution to the reformation process.

Its ownership structure suggested that television should have remained under the control of the New Order in those days. But it’s interesting that in practice this did not substantially influence broadcasting policy and the packaging of news. Probably the energy of the students, and the economic and political atmosphere generally, forced television to move beyond the control of its owners. The professionalism of the broadcasters, most of them idealistic young graduates from the newsprint industry, demonstrated a modern, competitive, open, intelligent style of television journalism. Viewers - bored with the slow, monotonous and biassed style of TVRI pre-reformation - lapped it up. Private television (followed by TVRI from early May) became a medium close to the spirit of reformation and democracy.

Media observers Golding and Murdock once said that television cannot be understood in isolation from its political and economic environment. This idea reinforced an earlier theory of ‘agenda setting’, in which the media play a huge role in selecting who and what is presented to society as news. The economic environment includes ownership and advertising. Since business everywhere is close to the political elite, the economic and political structure influences programming and news reporting.



The Tempo news item about Habibie then fits quite well with this concept of Golding and Murdock. A political elite who want to make use of the media will try to control it through its finances.

Now is a great opportunity for any political elite to take over the media. First, because all television stations desperately need fresh money to survive. Second, because the government, in particular the Information Minister, is busy bringing about ‘reformasi’ in the media. Cleaning up television stations whose ownership is tainted with corruption and collusion is certainly on his agenda.

Third, private television has become extremely popular and was before the financial crisis among the most profitable business sectors. Rather than establish a new network, which will take time to show a profit, much the best way is to acquire an existing one. Especially just before the 1999 elections.

The very real question now is, does this Habibie move not simply plunge Indonesian television back into the New Order? How can television ever become a neutral medium, free from political bias, a source of even-handed information for all? Perhaps it’s no more than a philosophical question, a utopian one. Even in the United States, where freedom is guaranteed under the First Amendment, the press is dominated by barons close to those in power.

Actually, if Tempo was correct in reporting that Habibie’s group had taken over SCTV (and Indosiar, another private network) merely for political reasons, it hardly makes sense. It would be so much easier to just use TVRI, which is after all government-owned. If the problem is that no one watches it, reform it into an effective source of news! If TVRI presented news in a more realistic way and didn’t go overboard in its partiality, it could become a compelling campaign tool.

Anyway, the experience of reformasi earlier in 1998 proved that a combination of enthusiastic students as a pressure group and the professionalism of television broadcasters can actually neutralise the power of the owners. Television must always belong to the public, a medium for everyone. Because it must use a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is a limited resource within the public domain. But also because television is such an important medium to teach the people democracy and to keep an eye on government.

Haven’t we all vowed never to repeat the wrongs of the last 32 years? Once we realise that I think that anyone who still tries to acquire a private television network in these times is merely ‘taking over’ something that was born in the sins of the New Order.


Ishadi SK is a senior broadcasting executive with a reputation for promoting an independent mass media. He was appointed Director-General of Radio, Television and Film in the ‘reformasi’ Information Ministry in May 1998, but lost his job five months later for unclear reasons. ‘There is a bureaucratic environment that still will not face reality’, he said at the time.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

A hero passes on

Y B Mangunwijaya (always known as Romo Mangun) died of a heart attack on 10 February 1999, moments after presenting a paper at a Jakarta symposium. On 6 May 1999 he would have turned 70.

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Not reformasi, transformasi!

Students have been far too timid.

Y B Mangunwijaya

Open letter to the University of Indonesia alumni association

With all due respect, I’m not surprised the reformation movement has run aground because (as I already said at our meeting on 16 May 1998 at the University of Indonesia) the reformation movement as a whole is wide of the mark. Just imagine, by analogy, if our leaders in 1945 had merely asked the Governor General of the Netherlands Indies (Suharto) to resign, and then demanded a special session of the Dutch parliament (the New Order parliament led by Harmoko, Abdul Gafur and company) in order to appoint a new Governor General and new deputies for him. Wouldn’t that have been absurd? But that’s precisely what’s happening today. People are not demanding total transformation but merely a reformation or a new adapation of an order that is already gone. Reformation (‘re’ means to repeat) is indeed what we have in the present Habibie government.

From the very beginning I have been urging Transformation or Revolution (a peaceful one). To me the biggest disaster in the history of our republic was the implementation of the 1945 Constitution, which Sukarno himself said at the time was ‘merely a temporary constitution, a lightning or revolutionary (extreme emergency) constitution… which will later have to be improved and expanded’ (18 August 1945 in front of the revolutionary parliament). Yet since then it has come to be regarded as a permanent and final constitution, one that logically and structurally permitted and even pushed every Indonesian president to become a dictator at any time.

Moreover, a highly centralised state of 200-250 million people cannot possibly be democratic. It will always be corrupt and fascistic – even more so than the New Order was. Clearly the process of improving and expanding the 1945 Constitution needs to be orderly and properly phased, but I’m saddened that University of Indonesia alumni still want to maintain the 1945 Constitution. We do need to maintain the Opening Declaration of the 1945 Constitution, but its body must be completely renewed and adjusted to today’s and tomorrow’s conditions.

That can only be done by a constitutional assembly properly set up through elections run not by the Habibie government but by a legitimate (not only legal) team of independent people trusted by the people.

So long as University of Indonesia graduates insist on maintaining the 1945 Constitution, so long as they want only reformation and not transformation, there is no hope that our republic can be healed of all the perversions of the last 40 years. Virulent cancer cannot be cured with skin cream or herbs but has to be operated on. That can be done in various ways, but obviously not by means of a special session of the ‘Dutch parliament’ to choose a ‘new Governor General’, nor can it be done under the ‘Constitution of the Dutch/ Japanese period’.

Not reformation but transformation is what we need. Revolution, but a peaceful revolution like (not identical to) the one wrought by the act of open democracy of 14 November 1945 under the inspiration of Sutan Syahrir and Mohammad Hatta. This act brought parliamentary democracy to life in Indonesia. It was not a ‘silent coup’ as is so often claimed, but a change that won the blessing of the Republican President and Vice-President of the day.

Of course this will require careful preparation. However, we live in 1998. Politics is not merely the art of the possible, but also means preparing to make possible that which is not yet possible.

Salam transformasi,

Yogyakarta, 17 October 1998

Y B Mangunwijaya was a novelist, Catholic priest, architect and social activist.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

Blood in the streets

The anger and the bullets are real. So why do student demonstrations reek of melodrama?

Chris Brown

Sometime after dark on Friday the 13th of November, I found myself staring at three men lying motionless in the gutter. From under the body of one of them a black pool crept silently. A dozen people converged, suddenly crowding close enough to touch, but none did. In the flashes of light from their cameras, the puddle flickered dark red.

All of the victims were too stunned to speak even as some of us lifted them up, trying to carry them out of the line of fire and into the tear gas and vomit haze of Atma Jaya University. I had already seen soldiers beating stretcher crews who could only huddle protectively over their charge. The eyes of the man I helped carry, the one bleeding heavily, were open but lifeless, body utterly limp. I don’t know if he survived. I went back to take more pictures.

The long day-into-night on the street to the north of central Jakarta’s Semanggi overpass was immediately dubbed Bloody Semanggi (Semanggi Berdarah) in the local press. It is certainly deserving of infamy. For no clear reason, soldiers repeatedly attacked peaceful demonstrators and killed an unverifiable number of people. I saw, and later saw pictures of, wounded people being taken away by soldiers; no one seems to know where.

However, without implying the slightest disrespect to all those who risked their lives at Semanggi to confront the military, nor to those who were gassed, beaten, wounded, or killed, one thing became clear to me that night: the degree of predetermined drama that surrounded the event even as it happened was out of proportion to the event itself. That sense of unreality troubled me in the ensuing days, and grew greater as a momentum of popular protest that had seemed revolutionary evaporated into thin air.


The greatest number of the injured were beaten with clubs. But the most shocking aspect of the tragedy was that soldiers fired at unarmed civilians. Each time it happened the street seemed to become a war zone, an appallingly unequal massacre. Despite dogged denials from the armed forces (Abri) that live ammunition was used, doctors came forward with bullets extracted from victims.

Of the thousands of rounds fired that night, most were not real bullets. But even plastic pellets fired from assault rifles can cause nasty wounds, and from close range the composition of the projectile becomes a moot point. Judging from the shell casings I picked up at the scene, however, more than half the rounds were blanks, a fact not often mentioned in the Indonesian press and widely misunderstood by Indonesians at the scene, but one that goes a long way towards explaining why many more were not hurt.

Fear was amply justified. No one but the soldiers had any way of knowing the truth when they first opened fire, nor again with each ensuing volley. The crowd fled, but did not disperse. Impressively enough, after each wave of horror, students moved back into the street and, angry though they were at the deaths and inhumanity, insisted on maintaining peaceful confrontation. They clamped down immediately on anyone caught throwing stones, or hurling excessively pointed insults, at the soldiers. It was truly a heroic exercise of restraint. They even organised open soapbox forums (mimbar bebas), with handheld loudspeakers, only a few feet away from the ranks of armoured troops.

Some people recited exaggerated poetry in affected voices, as has long since become the custom at tamer demonstrations of the past, to the point where ‘to recite poetry’ (berpoesi) has practically become a synonym for political protest. Others came to the fore to cry and lament their fallen classmates, posing cooperatively for cameras. Some gave pointed analyses of what they felt was simply the continuing Suharto regime. And eventually, while students still sat on the pavement, the shooting began again.

In answer to the shots, far back up the street people beat on metal lampposts, on guardrails, on barrels, raising a unified din that drowned out even the unplaceable roar of the crowd itself, which for days had offered an audible beacon to anyone searching for the latest protest. Such eerie, syncopated percussion almost seemed too choreographed to be spontaneous. The masses, as they are called to distinguish them from the students, were heterogeneous at first, men and women of all ages.

As night fell young men stayed on. They were far less aggressive than even spokesmen on the side of reform have tended to admit. They damaged none of the glass-walled skyscrapers lining the street. Some were ‘armed’ with slingshots. When attacked, others threw stones. Perhaps to conserve ammunition, soldiers also stooped to throwing stones; an absurd sight, as they juggled plastic shield and assault rifle to wind up for a throw.


By now you probably know this story. It will have already entered history. Who knows but if by the time you read this some greater tragedy will have overtaken it. The curious part, however, is that it was destined to be history even before it happened. On the fourth and last day of the special session of the People’s Consultative Assembly MPR tension was at a peak. Representatives from the world press were on hand. The slogans of many groups in the street, Forum Kota and Front Jakarta in particular, had shifted from ‘reformasi’ to ‘revolusi,’ soon to become ‘revolusi sampai mati’ (revolution unto death). Cameras waited in the gap between opposing lines. The sound of gunfire was literally the cue to switch on the spotlights.

Yet as surely as the problem of heightened melodrama surrounding news events is associated with mass media around the globe, let us not be too quick to blame the media in Indonesia. The influence of news cameras in making all the world a stage and provoking us to ‘act,’ if rarely to action, presumes a habit of being represented, an accommodation to having each our 15 minutes of fame, foreign to New Order Indonesia.

Further, counter to a degree of positive liberalisation of formal press controls in past months, a more insidious latent liberal tendency has intensified. In a variation on the Enlightenment legacy, top editors and reporters, at least in the established media, are inclined to take the caveat of a ‘responsible press’ (as a prerequisite of its freedom) a little too much to heart. The tentative retreat of government pressure has heightened concerns about the provocative effect ‘real’ news may have. Loathe to see the blame for riots and death laid at their feet, self-censorship is more rampant than ever.

To give only a single example, the first very tense protest near Suharto’s house after the Semanggi incident, though attended by local camera crews, failed to rate a single word of mention on either RCTI or SCTV nightly TV news, to say nothing of the government station, leaving the impression that the day had passed uneventfully. Perhaps this was the point of people who during the special MPR session cavorted about with cardboard TV cameras and plastic-bottle-on-a-stick microphones, eliciting hilarity from everyone but the legitimate press. Or perhaps the satire, which seems to have become something of a tradition at least since the last elections, pointed more cynically to the empty formality of protest.

The week after the Bloody Semanggi incident was surprisingly quiet. At the site where the heroes of the reformation (pahlawan reformasi) fell, a steady stream of people covered hundreds of feet of cloth with messages of condolence for the victims, and with denunciations of the government, both well deserved. Yet the phrase pahlawan reformasi has an odd ring, a hint of halfway measure out of place to the calling of a hero. It is an effort to lay claim to the dramatic force of historic revolutions. It was as if the reformation was already past, and its defining moment needed to be savoured. A similar nostalgic licence rang through as well in the curious words of an Indonesian reporter I ran into several days after the Event (when I had shielded her from a line of soldiers sweeping past). She made a point of thanking me ‘for saving my life, and especially my camera.’


Not only the pervasive sense of exaggeration seems markedly dramatic. There is also the related concern that people may not be what they seem, that they might only be acting. The ‘security volunteers’ (Pam Swakarsa), who claimed to have gathered of their own accord to protect the special session and the nation, turned out to be largely destitute men bussed in from outside Jakarta. They were paid 10,000 rupiah or more a day to attack student demonstrators. Known by the koranic headbands they wore and the bamboo spears they brandished, they were nevertheless suspected at every opportunity to be moving incognito among the crowds. Intel operatives were also known to be working among the students and demands to produce ID cards were not uncommon. After the deadly conflict at Semanggi, faced with proof that real bullets were fired, military officials even raised the possibility of infiltrators in the army impersonating soldiers.

So what is the point of noting a touch of melodrama in a legitimate tragedy? Calling attention to aspects of stagecraft in Indonesian politics risks coming off as yet another analysis of how Java is like a shadow play. No matter if true that as yet unnamed influential people are certainly pulling strings to effect counter-demonstrations, incite riots, and otherwise further their own nefarious purposes (e.g. the Pam Swakarsa); the point is larger than a cultural metaphor. In the past (notably the early 60’s), formal drama such as ludruk theatre was used to articulate protest and broaden support for change. Now activists seek, whenever possible, to supplant direct confrontation with an impressive but formally limited dramatic substitute. Drama has become a field of contest in its own right, for students at least the preferred field of contest.

Towards the end of the night, after the third attack by soldiers, some people ran out of patience. They began sporadic attacks with molotov cocktails. They were a factor in forcing soldiers to retreat. The bombs were clearly not prepared in advance, and not always made properly. Most of the attacks fell short, but in front of the university several scored direct hits on army lines. Not long afterwards, student leaders and military commanders agreed to a truce for the night, averting an improvisational escalation that might have changed the character of reformasi irrevocably.


Chris Brown is a postgraduate student in anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

New Order old school

The struggle for democracy has slowed because ‘opposition’ leaders, all of them schooled under Suharto, are afraid of the people.

Arief Budiman

Suharto is corrupt. He killed a lot of people, just like Pinochet. He built an unstable political system. But he did more. He ran a school that produced politicians, including opposition politicians, who cannot change the system.

If the opposition could just unite, total transformation would be easy. If the students in May ’98 had been given wholehearted support by Gus Dur, Megawati and Amien Rais (the so-called Ciganjur group), Habibie would never have survived as president, and Abri would not have dared shoot more students in November.

In the real world, Gus Dur on 17 December accused the students on Radio Netherlands of accepting $300,000 from the CIA. While students were demanding Suharto be put on trial, Gus Dur went to meet him to suggest national reconciliation. How could this happen?

First, because the Ciganjur group all obtained their leadership role ‘from above’. They are not activists who rose up through the ranks. Gus Dur and Mega got it through their families. Amien Rais is an academic used to working with the government, who became an oppositionist only after the government threw him out.

The students are totally different. They grew up with playground battles, and now proudly fight the military, ‘to reform the nation and the state’. (This is not unusual – the historical boundary between the criminal and the revolutionary hero is often vague, also in the history of our own revolution).

Second, the Ciganjur group learned their politics in a strong repressive system, where someone could become a major ‘oppositionist’ just by criticising the government. By contrast, when Sri Bintang Pamungkas set up his Pudi party and announced its purpose was to replace the government, he ended up in gaol together with the PRD.

The Ciganjur leaders, who now have the historic task of leading the nation, would never have done that. Suharto taught them that opposition (the word was banned in those days) just means polite criticism. Never say ‘change the government’, because that is revolt and subversion. These were the lessons of the New Order school.

The students never went to the New Order school. They see things quite simply. If the government is wrong, change it. Full stop. The proof is there. This government with its parliament is the result of an election fraudulent in every way. Most of its personnel, including the president, are tainted with corruption. What are we waiting for?

The New Order school has done its work well. Its graduates, including the Ciganjur leaders, still hold fast to their text book lessons. Yet ironically the room to manoeuvre they now enjoy was largely created for them by the students, who even now carry on the struggle, unsupported by the Ciganjur leaders. If the students are successful in creating a more democratic system, it is the Ciganjur group, and not the students, who will benefit most.

When Megawati’s PDI headquarters were attacked in 1996, it was the PRD who most energetically defended her. The PRD leaders are still in gaol today. Megawati and her other PDI leaders have never visited them in gaol or even said thank you. This too is a New Order lesson, never to deal with radical groups, let alone with ‘commies’.

Now the students know they have to reposition themselves. They are pioneers and they have played that role well. But now they realise that having cleared the ground, the ‘garrison troops’ who need to carry their struggle to completion are not there. Now they have a dilemma. If they carry on pioneering, they will get tired. Their role as moral force is based on the assumption that other players will (to change the metaphor) pick up the ball and run it to the goal. Yet they cannot turn themselves into garrison troops, because that would mean becoming a professional political party with money.

That is why we are here now. Our graduates from the New Order school feel more at home working with the government than with the masses below. That is the success of Suharto.     ii

Arief Budiman is professor of Indonesian studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Abridged from an article in Tempo, 4 January 1999.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

The electoral reforms

Parliament on 28 January approved the legal foundation that will govern the new political party system and the ‘99 election. A complete draft of the law had not yet emerged by mid-February. Here we note some points crucial for the outcome and credibility of the election.

Jim Schiller

Political Parties

With over 140 parties there will be clashes over who has the right to use similar names and symbols.

To be eligible to participate, parties must have executive boards in 9 (out of 27) provinces, and in half the towns and districts in each of those provinces.

New parties will need at least 10 seats in the national assembly to stand at the 2004 election.

An advisory team of 11 reputable individuals headed by Dr Nurcholish Madjid has been appointed to consider applications by the 140+ political parties to compete.

Candidates will be elected proportionally by province (thus not on a district basis as initially envisaged), but a party's winning candidates will be chosen on the basis of district results.

Managing the election

Election committees (KPU) at various levels will manage the campaign and election. All parties are represented, but government retains 50% of the votes. This is an improvement. However, some party seats will go to Golkar, so the government is likely to have a majority.

Independent Indonesian and international observers will be permitted to monitor the election. Management of the election will be more transparent than ever before. The risk of getting caught for those tempted to intimidate voters will be far greater.

The armed forces

The number of unelected Abri seats in the People’s Consultative Assembly MPR (super-parliament) has been reduced from 75 to 38. But this could still make the armed forces the 5th or 6th biggest faction in the MPR! In provincial and local assemblies they have been reduced to 10% of the seats.

Civil service

Parliament could not agree on whether civil servants should be politically neutral. The government then issued a compromise regulation, one it modified two days later. The regulation allows civil servants to vote and, provided they take leave from office, to join political parties. The revised regulation allows for one year of leave on basic pay. However, the ‘neutrality’ of the civil service can still be easily circumvented. Local civil servants could have their spouses or children run for office, or just take leave and accept payment from Golkar or other parties to make up for salary loss.

Electing the president

The new MPR will have 700 seats (old MPR 1000).

238 Seats will be appointed (old MPR 575), including 38 military, 135 regional and 65 group representatives.

Two big questions remain. Who will choose the 65 group representatives - newly elected national and local assemblies, or the present Golkar and army controlled assemblies? The law says they will be decided by the groups themselves! By what procedure will the new MPR elect the president? For example, if there are many candidates, will the candidate with the most votes win, or will a 50% + 1 majority be required?

Provincial and local elections

Local politics has the best prospects for empowering ordinary Indonesians and for giving the election credibility. Provincial and local assemblies will be elected at the same time as national assemblies, but there has been almost no public debate on how this will happen.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

Off to the polls

Indonesians will vote in June. Can they escape from the dead hand of past elections?

Jim Schiller

Indonesian newspapers say 1999 is the year that will decide Indonesia’s future, but that the coming elections have the potential for national disaster. As I write, the remnant national assembly (DPR) has just completed negotiating rules for the June elections (see box). A legislature stacked with people from the Suharto regime, now called the Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism Order, had the task of reforming the system which put them in office. Initial comments on the reforms have been mixed. Will the laws be widely accepted? If they are, will the elections implemented under them be seen as fair enough to give the elected government a chance to govern?

To consider those questions we need to consider what elections are supposed to do, and then what they have been expected to do in Indonesia.

Democratic theory sees elections as opportunities for the people to have their say. It imagines equal, independent and enlightened citizens. Votes are conceived as calculated decisions about who should govern, based on candidates’ policies and records. Government is made accountable to citizens who are empowered at the ballot box.

Even in the most homogenous and prosperous democracies, these assumptions are not fully realised. Election campaigns are not necessarily informative. Many voters do not make calculated decisions about their votes. Voters may be equal in the voting station, but they are far from equal in their wealth or capacity to influence the results. Many citizens of liberal democracies do not feel empowered by election process.

More recently, the authors of The politics of elections in Southeast Asia have focused on more mundane uses of elections. Elections, they say, may help Third World governments to appear democratic and therefore qualify for aid, investment and preferential trade from fellow ‘democracies’. Elections may also help to pacify the population. If people believe the election system is ‘fair’ they may be willing to wait for their turn to win. If citizens believe that they have had a voice and that the winning parties have received a mandate from the people they may be more willing to obey authority and to refrain from street politics.


The Suharto government never intended to empower people. It wanted elections that pacified the population and justified foreign aid. Its elections, called ‘festivals of democracy’ aimed to generate enthusiastic participation without risking power. The two political parties were meant to be supporting cast in the victory of the government party. To create the appearance of choice at a ritual without choice, the Suharto government put in place one of the most comprehensively engineered electoral processes in the world.

It began by reducing the stakes. The presidency was not filled through popular elections. Instead, the president was ‘elected’ by a mainly appointed super-parliament (MPR). The MPR consisted of 500 representatives from the national assembly (DPR), of whom 75 were military appointed by the president, plus an additional 500 presidential appointees. The voters’ choice was limited to 42.5% of the body that elects the president, and 85% of the seats in a rubber-stamp national assembly.

Since 1977 only three parties have been permitted to contest elections. They are the state party, Golkar, which had unparalleled access to private donations, and to the resources of the state, and two government-manipulated, cash-strapped, badly divided political parties, PDI (the Indonesian Democratic Party) and PPP (the United Development Party).

The government allowed only a brief campaign period. Parties found it difficult to organise outside the campaign period. Government officials, also Golkar cadre, were able to influence voters before the campaign, or during the ‘quiet week’ before the poll. The government restricted popular campaign symbols, screened prospective candidates, and banned critical campaigners. It intervened frequently to remove outspoken politicians. It also detained or threatened those who proposed an election boycott.

The most important reason for the government’s success at achieving a high turnout and Golkar victory was its control of an administrative structure which stretched from Jakarta down to the village. Local officials controlled development funds that could be used to reward the loyal. They also issue documents that are crucial in the everyday life of most Indonesians. Anyone who wants to send their children to school, sell land, or open a business must obtain the signatures of their local and village officials. This control over sanctions and rewards makes state officials powerful patrons everywhere in Indonesia, but especially in poor, isolated areas outside Java. Patronage was reinforced through intimidation by local officials, military and sometimes gangs.

Local state and village officials were required to join the government party and were given quotas for Golkar membership and votes. Retired army officers and government officials managed the Golkar campaign. Officials and family members were candidates for local assemblies. These officials also headed the committees that policed the campaign, voting and vote-counting.

The vote counting and tallying process provided little opportunity for independent scrutiny. The election ritual closed with a coerced declaration of acceptance of the results, signed by regional and national party leaders.


State Secretary Moerdiono said that ‘the [1997] election should take place quietly, full of anticipation and full of enthusiasm. ‘ The government’s aim was to carry out elections that generated enough public participation and enthusiasm to give it some domestic legitimacy and international credibility without demonstrating the regime’s need to resort to repression or fraud.

It did not succeed. The election ended up looking more like a sham than a festival of democracy. In 1997 there was more resistance to the government’s effort, more violence by and against government supporters, more negative images of the election, and more visible opposition to the election.

More than one hundred were killed in one incident in Banjarmasin. A larger number were killed in daily campaign violence scattered across the archipelago. In Madura, crowds, disgusted with alleged vote fraud, burned down voting stations and government buildings. Elsewhere in East Java unrest continued for weeks after the election.

The resistance and violence had several sources. One source was the anger and alienation that resulted from the removal of Megawati Sukarnoputri as leader of the PDI, and the government-supported, violent attack on her supporters at PDI headquarters in 1996. Thousands of her supporters saw the election as fraudulent and were ready to challenge Golkar and ‘official’ PDI campaign efforts. Thousands more joined with the Islamic party PPP and helped radicalise its campaign.

Another source was the intensity of the government election effort. In 1992 the government vote had declined 5%. In 1997 the government wanted to more than recoup its 5% vote decline in 1992. Bureaucrats were mobilised to go all out for a victory. Weekly estimates of the Golkar vote using vote count declarations, rewards for delivering 95% or 100% Golkar victories, incentive programs to win the support of Muslim leaders, and huge mass rallies in PPP strongholds were all part of that effort.

Money politics was extensive. It included incentive payments to officials, provision of cattle to villages voting 100% Golkar, and cash payments to voters. Alleged government intimidation of party supporters was widely reported. This included sending a dog’s head to a Solo PPP leader, the beating of the PPP chairman in Wonosobo, and attacks on PPP supporters returning from a rally in Jepara. The government’s overbearing effort, which included efforts to restrict mass rallies, provoked thousands of angered citizens to ignore restrictions and, sometimes, to engage in violence.

Interestingly, negative news of the intimidation, violence, vote fraud, and vote buying was widely reported. The widespread availability of internet election stories may have made journalists more daring. The monitoring of the election and related human rights abuses by the national human rights commission (Komnasham) and the new independent election monitoring committee (Kipp) allowed the Indonesian press to report anger and frustration.


The New Order set out to use an election to engineer consent. Instead it got violence and anger. So what is the legacy of 1997 and the Suharto election system? Four features stand out: a widespread suspicion of elections, a high level of campaign intimidation and violence, a suspect civil service in charge of the election, and the use of money politics.

In 1997, vote declarations appeared weeks before election day, vote counts at the village level changed at the next level, and in North Sumatra Golkar transferred votes to the pro-government PDI. The fraud helped to generate a deep mistrust of authority. This increases the likelihood of future election violence, and the risk that losers will claim foul play. In the present economic and social climate, the risks of rejection and violence are high.

The use of intimidation and violence by government supporters and opponents was a major feature of the 1997 campaign. The cost of intimidation, in lives and in the poor image of the election was high. Many party supporters became more militant. Government mobilisation of crowds was matched by the PPP and by Megawati supporters. Instructions restricting public rallies were largely ignored and crowds were frequently provoked to violence. In 1999 it is hard to imagine that crowds of a million or more could remain non-violent.

As the 1997 Jepara Golkar chairman, also the head of local government, stated in a post-election booklet: ‘as we all know the election is designed for a Golkar victory’. To do this the civil service was firmly enlisted in support of the government party through payments, opportunities for promotion and job threats if they did not deliver a Golkar victory. Local officials are now used to being part of a political machine. They will go into 1999 dispirited, with less patronage, and with a more critical society than ever before. Still, if the government party can deliver some local patronage that could sway the election outcome, especially in isolated places like Southeast Sulawesi where Golkar obtained 98% of the vote in 1997. Depending on how the election laws and civil service regulations are interpreted, bureaucrats might ally themselves with Golkar or other political parties. Officials taking sides could have a devastating impact.

Money politics was important in 1997, and is likely to be more important in the current depression. Money to buy the support of local patrons or to pay people for their vote has been a major feature of ‘democratic’ elections in Thailand and the Philippines. In 1999 it is unclear which Indonesian parties will have money to spend, or how much patron and vote buying there will be. It is certain that ‘money politics’ will be an issue in determining the election’s credibility.

Against these legacies of Suharto, all of which make it more difficult to hold a successful election, is the inventiveness and courage of Indonesia’s reformers and citizens. Reforms like the decision by Central Java university heads to turn the obligatory university student fieldwork into an extensive election monitoring program will make it harder for anyone trying to continue the practices of the Suharto period. The election laws and the ‘reform’ mood within society mean that this election will be closely scrutinised. Trying to engineer the results would be disastrous.

Jim Schiller lectures in the Department of Asian Studies and Languages at Flinders University in Adelaide. He has written on the 1997 elections for the University of Victoria, Canada, Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives series.

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