Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Making Indonesia work for the people

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Peter King

She left Sydney University with a doctorate in local government studies early in 1998, Indonesia's Year of living dangerously Mark II. Back in Jakarta, Chusnul Mar'iyah began living energetically. By her own reckoning she is only the third female Indonesian PhD in political science. That makes her one in 70 million! Resuming her old job at the University of Indonesia (UI), she plunged into the post-Asian meltdown politics of driving the New Order from power. UI students carrying the campaign into the streets came to her for advice. She was at the parliament building more than once before Suharto's overthrow was finally clinched on 21 May 1998. Amid the erratic liberalisation of what she likes to call Habibie's New New Order (Orbaba -Orde Baru Baru), she evolved into a prominent national expert and media personality.

The elections followed in June 1999, and opposition figures Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri won the top two jobs in October. Chusnul found herself deeper in than ever. How to push ahead with reformasi in the era of its democratic legitimacy? Indonesia's abortive affair with parliamentary democracy in the 1950s made clear the risk of failure. The task was the same as it had been in the 1950s - to preserve democracy and the republic, and to offer people the chance of a decent life. But Chusnul's political language is quite new. To a surprising extent, it derives from the 1980s and '90s western discourse of civil society and feminism.

She tells her UI students that she was already on the streets back in 1979, a student aktivis rallying for the overthrow of Suharto's authoritarianism. She was already prominent in the environmental umbrella group Walhi and other non-government organisations (NGOs). And she was a feminist. Her teacher mother and education department official father in the East Java village where she was born had always encouraged her to think about education and a career. She read Simone de Beauvoir. But she has always been a strongly committed Muslim. Today many know her for her feminist readings of the Qur'an. 'I stand for gender justice', she says, but as a Muslim.

The Prophet had only girl children, but he always showed them to the people with pride. Perhaps naively, Chusnul likes to point out that his last and youngest wife, As'iyah, aged seventeen when he died, is responsible for recording ten times more sayings of Muhammad (hadis) than his celebrated son-in-law Ali. Chusnul likes to quote the leading scholarly feminist of the Arab world, the controversial Professor Fatima Mernisi of the University of Rabat, Morocco, who famously insists on revising the traditional Qur'anic, 'Man is the leader of women' to 'Man is the protector of women'. Together with the Women's Coalition for Justice and Democracy, Chusnul campaigned among the pre-election political parties for '32 per cent affirmative action'. They wanted the parties to feminise their candidates one per cent for every year of Suharto! (In the end only 38 women managed election to the 500 strong parliament.)

Chusnul is quite consciously pressing several other moderen discourses on her long-stifled fellow countrypersons as well. Her view of civil society requires that NGOs should have power and legitimacy, that courts and universities should be autonomous, that the fight against corruption should be transparent, that conflicts should be resolved non-violently, that federalism is the answer to the current crisis of the unitary state.

A decisive moment here was a jungle encounter she had to dialogue with the military commander of the Aceh separatist movement, Abdullah Mohammad Syafi'ie. His men were bristling with guns, which they refused to put aside, and she was shocked. A visceral hatred of violence lies at the heart of her feminism - women and children are the main victims of war. Aceh suffers from a two-sided tyranny of the gun - the Indonesian army on one side, Acehnese separatists on the other.

All this brings her regularly into the myriad hectic debates of women and student groups trying to make sense of reformasi. It is important work - the heavy hand of the New Order is far from dead. She commutes constantly around the republic. In Irian Jaya, now called Papua, she directly queried the Papuan consensus in favour of independence (merdeka) at any cost. In West Kalimantan she joined a team to help resettle Madurese victims of violence by aggrieved Malays and Dayaks. In Maluku and Aceh she has been involved with hands-on peacemaking through Indonesian Alert for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

Gus Dur

She is much in demand, and much in collision, not only with New Order remnants ('The military is very much afraid of me, I think'), but also occasionally with those most famous leaders of reformasi, President Gus Dur and Vice President Megawati. Over what? Embedded authoritarianism and patriarchy, for one thing. Chusnul concedes Gus Dur has a 'gender perspective in his opinions'. But at an open house meeting in his Jakarta home in January 1999 she asked him: 'Could a woman lead NU?' (Nahdlatul Ulama or NU has 30 million mainly rural Muslim followers. For many years before he launched his PKB party for the 1999 elections, this religious organisation was Gus Dur's political base.) His reply: 'Don't dreamnot yet!'

Just before last year's election she appeared with Gus Dur on a TV panel. Again she raised the issue of lack of democracy within NU. Gus Dur was notorious for having his way in NU by decree. 'What you say everyone must follow', she said to him. He replied: 'This is me: it's up to you'. That is, take it or leave it. He then made a joke about woman as a chicken (babon). It left a bad impression with the viewers. Afterwards Chusnul found she had achieved some fame by association with the maligned hen!

After the election Chusnul also sharply criticised Megawati in newspaper interviews and on TV. In Mega's one and only programmatic speech during her presidential bid (such as it was), she failed to make a single reference to women or the gender issue. Chusnul berates Mega for failing to include women in her inner circle and for never attending women's gatherings. She 'shows no gender concern', says Chusnul, who also worries about her obtuseness: 'Mega doesn't understand anything.'

With her signature smile, her memorable (after a while) signature phrase 'Do you mind?', her confident crash-through manner, and her tastefully decorative scarf (never quite a jilbab), Chusnul Mar'iyah has emerged as a determined upholder of due process and civility in post Suharto politics. Seven years immersed in Australian feminist and civil society debates have left their mark. To be more than a little vulgar, AusAID and the Australian taxpayer got their money's worth in supporting Chusnul over quite a long PhD enrolment.

But it is all rather a balancing act. Her Rp 500,000 a month 'salary' - little more than AU$100 - does not actually pay her mobile phone bill. She makes do with paid lectures and public appearances, supporter-subsidised internal travel, and separately funded university graduate teaching, where user pays is beginning to apply. Projects funded mostly from overseas, by USAID in particular as well as by private German and American foundations such as Ford and the Asia Foundation, keep her on the go.

She recently crossed the orbit of George Soros and his Europe-based multi-multi million dollar political philanthropy in support of struggling civil societies everywhere. He flew her to Paris and Budapest for consultations in February. So far she is adopting a wait and see approach. She is not impressed with his recent purchases in the Indonesian cigarette industry.

Plenty of temptation besets the still fairly junior lecturer, who would like to own a BMW as well as reform Jakarta's democratic elite, but actually lives fairly humbly in 'my slum', albeit air conditioned and about three long stone throws from Suharto's Menteng mansion. She lives with her sister and brother-in-law, both high school teachers. To retain credibility, she must guard her independence, she says. She rejected two lucrative offers as ministerial adviser, but may accept an offer to advise parliament (the DPR) on committee reform.

Let's talk

What then is the ultimate meaning of an activist life like Chusnul's in the context of Gus Dur's faltering steps towards reform? Chusnul's challenge is to Indonesiansociety at large - to women and men, Javanese and Outer Islanders, victims and persecutors, rich Chinese and poor becak drivers, Christians and Muslims - everyone. Her message, for those who want to hear - and with some rhetorical embellishment - might be summed up as follows:

Let us Indonesians renounce all violence and threats thereof. Let us grasp our democratic opportunities. Let us practice the civility which our religions, traditions and acquaintance with the better side of Europe have taught us. Let's have constructive dialogue with each other without let-up or limit.

Yes, Papuans and Acehnese and many other 'outers' are victims of a Java centric past dictatorship (or two) - but so are the Javanese! We have all been and maybe still are victims together. That is why we must talk through our future together. We would all like to secede if that would save us from the return of a Suharto, but the pressing question is: Can we make Indonesia work again for the people?

You are nevertheless prepared to fight for independence? Is that now the best way? Will we really be better off with 26 (now 29 or 30) separate sovereignties after the Timor experience? Why not try the special autonomy the government is offering, or the federalism that Amien Rais says he would offer? Why not pour into conflict resolution and creative political solutions the energy you are expending on a possibly futile struggle with a powerful and determined centre? Anyhow let's discuss it!

You want revenge and punishment of the guilty? Why not try the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which is coming soon? But anyhow let's talk.

It is quite a performance. And it is impurely echoed in the muddled but nevertheless impressive efforts of the president to engage Acehnese and Papuan secessionists, intimidatory generals and ailing ex-dictators, militant Muslims and aggrieved Chinese and Christians in his own dialogues for reconciliation. Gus Dur dismisses and then 'misses' the disgraced General Wiranto and calls round for supper; Gus Dur denounces but then undertakes to pardon Suharto whatever the court may decide about his corruption; Gus Dur promises to open the Papuan Congress last May (and subsidises it to the tune of a billion rupiah) when its agenda is obviously all about independence.

As I say, it's been quite an act by Chusnul, Gus Dur and other authentic protagonists of reformasi. But will they, can they, in the end succeed in - to borrow Chusnul's words - 'making Indonesia Raya happy'? More to the point, can Greater Indonesia (Indonesia Raya) make its unhappy minority peoples happy? And can the palpably disintegrating unitary republic be held together, with or without federalism or real provincial autonomy?

Quite frankly, I think not. Constructive disintegration needs to be considered, especially for Papua. But Chusnul, I am told, thinks that supporters of an independent Papua inhabit 'an unreal world'. For her, 'Papua is a part of Indonesia,' and conflict should be solved by dialogue. But, for Papuans, Papua has never been part of Indonesia. And if conflict cannot be resolved, what then? Should the army be made ready for another exercise in exorcising unreality on the lines of East Timor?

Despite her years in Australia Chusnul is no friend of Australian peacemaking in East Timor, which arguably helped save the fledgling Indonesian democracy of late 1999 from itself. Equally hard choices for the Jakarta elite, and soft opportunities for military mayhem, are looming in Papua. Australia will inevitably be drawn in again. It is not too late for the friends of civil society to come together across the Timor Gap, but blind faith in Indonesia Raya is not going to be helpful.

Peter King (peterk36@cpi.kagoshima-uac.jp) is visiting professor at the University of Kagoshima Research Center for the Pacific Islands, in Japan. Contact Chusnul at (cmariyah@indosat.net.id). She recently wrote 'The Indonesian political transition: Democracy and women's movements - experience and reflections', to appear soon in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

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