Nov 21, 2018 Last Updated 6:53 AM, Nov 20, 2018

Learning to talk

Published: Sep 22, 2007

Unlike Suharto, Habibie is too weak to ignore the people.

Gerry van Klinken

B J 'Rudy' Habibie, thrust into the presidency when Indonesia's elite deserted Suharto after the May riots, cuts a slightly ludicrous figure. While newspapers endlessly repeated demands to end nepotism, Habibie, to mark Independence Day, proudly pinned the nation's highest medal on his wife. As far as most people knew, she had been distinguished only by service to her husband.

Yet the world of the post-Suharto elite is transformed. The mansion in which they live has had a bomb through the roof. The peasants are banging at what's left of the door. And the elite can no longer agree among themselves what to do next. Once they could dismiss the clamour from below as so much noise. Today they are learning to talk.


The nation's crisis is overwhelming. In July the economic slide that triggered it all went into its second year. Inflation was set to soar to 80% or higher. Growth, a robust 6-7% for years, may plummet to -15%. The rupiah's value against the US dollar wallows at a fifth what it had been in better times. 'No country in recent history, let alone the size of Indonesia', said the World Bank in a report, 'has ever suffered such a dramatic reversal of fortune'.

The number of Indonesians unable to buy basic necessities will quadruple to 80 million by year's end. Everywhere they are taking justice into their own hands. They scooped prawns out of commercial ponds and joyously looted coffee plantations. They staked out vegetable plots on the 'unused' lands of the rich, including Suharto's famous Tapos farm. In August some of the nation's best economists lambasted Habibie for lacking a crisis plan.

Meanwhile pressures multiplied on other fronts. Suharto left mass graves scattered from end to end of this vast archipelago. Regions long plagued by military operations now took advantage of the lifting of press controls to speak out.

Horrific stories of human rights abuse surfaced for the first time in the mainstream press as National Human Rights Commissioners in August opened the first of the graves in Aceh, one of Indonesia's most ignored trouble spots.

Persistent demonstrations in East Timor in June, obviously backed by the entire community, and then in Irian Jaya in July, threatened to make those regions ungovernable. Jakarta responded by offering 'autonomy' to East Timor, by withdrawing combat troops from there and from Aceh, and by mumbling less coherently about improving things in Irian.

On yet another front, ethnic Chinese Indonesians who had fled abroad after becoming the target of riots in May were reluctant to bring their money back. Habibie made soothing sounds but could offer them no guarantees of security.

Kissing babies

For years Habibie told people how Mr Suharto had promised he would one day be president. But when he was made vice- president in March he could not have guessed his slight frame would have to fill the top job within two months.

Once sworn in, he was a president with no political base. He initiated generous gestures in all directions. Many high profile political prisoners were released, including Ratna Sarumpaet, Sri Bintang Pamungkas, and Muchtar Pakpahan. (East Timor's Xanana Gusmao and the PRD's Dita Sari were among those to remain in gaol).

He recognised several independent unions - SBSI for workers, AJI for journalists. He lifted restrictions on new print media licences. He invited new political parties to register with the Interior Ministry. Hoping to forestall further riots, he persuaded the IMF to allow him to restore subsidies on several key items of food.

He abandoned Suharto's remote image and began kissing babies. If at times he was accorded less than the respect he desired, he was in no position to wield Suharto's favourite onomatopoeic threat to gebuk, or 'thump' opponents.

Yes, Habibie remained unconvinced that Suharto was corrupt. He also wore New Order methods of controlling opposition like an old cardigan. But persistent 'guerrilla' tactics by Megawati supporters made him back down from plans to attend the congress of the Suharto puppet version of the PDI. The backdown proved he would never be another Suharto.

Best of all, he promised elections by May 1999 and set in motion legislation to reform the draconian New Order electoral laws.


Contrary to many predictions, also in this magazine, Abri showed no interest in taking over power. Armed forces commander Wiranto needed all his energies to combat a popular backlash against New Order militarism.

Wiranto also faced deep divisions within the forces, created by an anxious Suharto in recent years. Main troublemaker in this regard was Lt-Gen Prabowo Subianto. Suharto had pushed his ambitious son-in-law up through the ranks till he was far ahead of his class-mates.

Prabowo is a Shakespearian Richard III figure, his cruel rage perhaps derived from his well-known impotence, the result (many say) of a war injury. But his fascination with covert methods, first demonstrated as a captain in East Timor in the late 1980s, proved his undoing. In late August an internal military investigation resulted in his dismissal for kidnapping anti- government activists earlier in the year. But was it enough?

Even if Wiranto's own house had been in order, he might have argued the way soldiers did in Brazil and Argentina during the 1980s - let civilians take the rap for failing to halt the economic nosedive.

Indeed, the world is now less friendly to military regimes than it was when General Suharto took over in 1965. The Cold War is over. The price of oil, which fuelled Suharto's regime, collapsed years ago. Globalised information makes it more difficult to impose oppressive ideologies.


To win his elections, Suharto had relied on a big bureaucratic machine. Now Golkar is a shadow of its former self.

Habibie's man in Golkar, executive chairman Akbar Tanjung, only just fought off an internal challenge by retired soldiers allied with Suharto himself in early July. Incredibly, Suharto still controls the vast slush funds Golkar always used to win elections, and he seems keen to use them against his successor. A Golkar without Abri support appears likely.

Golkar, in other words, has become a nice little mud wrestling pit, like an Eastern European communist party after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Nothing, but nothing, is off the agenda. None of the sacred symbols of the New Order are any longer taboo - not the Pancasila ideology, not the 1945 Constitution, not even a united Indonesia. Where once to speak of human rights was un-Indonesian, now everyone from Suharto's children up talks human rights as if the nation's future depends on them, which indeed it does.

Learning curve

Suharto's very strength invited oppositionists to focus on him as the source of the nation's troubles. But Habibie's weakness means those who want change have had to look away from the presidency towards Indonesian civil society itself. The learning curve, not just for the elite but also for a society kept dumb by sheer terror for half a lifetime, seems impossibly steep.

One reason for the only dim euphoria among many activists is that they don't always like what they see. Many of the new political parties appeal to religious sentiment rather than to more universal as well as more pragmatic considerations of social justice and welfare. Shadowy elite figures still get away with dirty tricks like fomenting riots. Too much public discourse focusses on individuals rather than on the why and how of revitalising institutions that will outlive them.

However, the reality is that Habibie's weakness is creating a negotiating culture not seen in the New Order before. Suharto had a murderous army in his personal grip. Habibie does not. He came to power amidst riots so severe they brought down his venerated master. He has a salutary fear of the chaos the masses can cause if he displeases them. What else can he do but placate?

It is possible that calls for law-and-order by those hankering after the fleshpots of the New Order may yet cut short this window of opportunity. More likely is that, even if Habibie does not last much longer, the next president will be little different to Habibie. For now, this may be the new Indonesia.

The onus is now on civil society to stop craving for a strong president and start negotiating the constitutional shape of a more democratic Indonesia, in which, despite their secret admiration for Suharto-style dictators, the elite will have learned to talk.

Gerry van Klinken edits 'Inside Indonesia'.

Inside Indonesia 56: Oct-Dec 1998

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