Sep 26, 2020 Last Updated 8:00 AM, Sep 25, 2020

The slow birth of democracy

Published: Jul 02, 2000

Two years after Suharto, authoritarian values remain strong. But new groups are emerging to challenge them.


Suharto already looked vulnerable before the last New Order election in 1997, when riots broke out in various places. Then economic crisis followed, and the state fell into disarray. Kidnapping activists in early 1998 was merely the pinnacle of reaction by a disorganised state under increasing pressure. I was myself a target. We didn't have much choice but to try to stop the state from doing worse. I could not help feeling we were toppling a political order. The kidnapped activists were close to me - some disappeared after chatting with me in my office or at home.

Many people volunteered to work for Kontras in early 1998 because it offered leadership for their desire to resist state violence. Not just students but nurses and doctors wanted to volunteer. We knew then change could no longer be delayed.

But after Suharto fell, it was his corruption rather than his human rights crimes that became the centre of debate. Human rights cases became a kind of political commodity for the various civilian elites. They were used to gain concessions from the military. Corruption was different. There was no resistance from the military there. As a result anyone who wanted to be a democrat talked about corruption, even if they were Suharto's cronies.

When President Abdurrahman Wahid wanted to abolish the decree banning communism (TAP MPRS 25/ 1966) he was greeted with a strong negative reaction from society itself. Yet it was that decree that turned the New Order into something authoritarian right at its beginning by aiming to control ideology. Many of these social elements now threaten to topple the president. That, to me, shows how strong the New Order still is, albeit with a civilian face.

Gus Dur is such a contrast with the previous president. He's a religious teacher, a human rights activist, and a symbol of reconciliation. Indonesia today needs Gus Dur. As a democratic ideas person, he far exceeds any other political force in Indonesia. He is ready for democracy, but he is not as effective as he might be because he is surrounded by conservatives.

Formally speaking, the New Order is finished. But it survives in many prominent individuals and in values. Everywhere we see people talking about reformasi but protecting the New Order. I don't think there is a single political party without New Order figures in it. The New Order vision remains strong within them through their views on ideology and on society. Many political elites remain fearful of worker and peasant movements, which they describe as anarchism. They deliberately avoided mentioning labour and land issues during the last election.

The law, too, remains essentially New Order. Corruption is being dealt with using legal instruments that were never able to bring corruption to book during the New Order.

Almost the entire civil bureaucracy remains under the control of old New Order forces. They treat all questions about the abuses of the past as an attack on themselves. A mutualism has emerged between the bureaucracy and Suharto to resist calls for accountability.

The forces for renewal too are in confusion. Many of them have joined the new government. They are lost to the ongoing need to control the system. Many members of non-government organisations (NGOs) have joined the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR). Others have become party members. Intellectuals too have gone inside. This represents the loss of an enormous non-partisan resource that used to be available to push for change. What we have seen the past year does not make them look like a strong force for change from within either. Outside forces are still more effective. I think this is still a moment of crisis.

New groups

After the fall of Suharto many NGOs seemed to lose their sense of direction. They only had in mind toppling Suharto, so that when he was gone they were confused. But now we are seeing a new potential emerge. Throughout Indonesia, previously uninvolved teachers, workers, and journalists are creating a whole range of new institutions. These aim to fight corruption, resist violence, work for human rights. They call them Corruption Watch, Parliament Watch, Military Watch, and their numbers are extraordinary. We in Kontras have been overwhelmed by requests from the regions to help set them up. In these places people are completely new to political activism.

Not just the New Order has died these last two years (even though it survives in some forms), but the pro-democracy forces experienced the same problem. They have become a part of the new political system, while intensive opposition promoting democratisation outside the system is exercised by these newer groups. The new groups have a much better perspective on democracy than those who just focused on Suharto. They are questioning an authoritarian bureaucracy. No one has ever thought of that before. They believe parliament needs to be supervised. That's new too. Parliament was always just an appendage to power.

Then there is the military. Once it was the biggest taboo to criticise them. Now people even in the remote interior are openly setting up Military Watch organisations. There's one in Kalimantan, in Sulawesi, even in Madura. They're not good at media work yet. But they are quite well organised, and effective. They want to control the village military official (Babinsa) who tries to charge 'security' fees. They reject military interference in land conflicts or in the village head election. They may not make the papers but they are a real force.

Unfortunately the human rights struggle is sometimes claimed by certain groups - religious or ethnic - rather than by the whole society. This is very worrying. Instead of seeing the crimes of the state as abuses of human rights, people see them merely as a struggle between certain political forces. They see the 1984 Tanjung Priok massacre, for example, as a religious struggle, and this view lets Suharto off the hook. The May 1998 violence is seen the same way. Worse, it becomes a bargaining chip.

During the Indonesian East Timor inquiry of which I was a member, some portrayed the generals as belonging to one religious group and being 'scapegoated' by another. Military generals could no longer use their old political basis to protect themselves, so they began using religion and ethnicity. This is an enormous setback to the struggle for human rights.

However, I have a child, a year and a half old. I hope he will live in a better Indonesia - more democratic, better able to feed its enormous population, and having civilised values. In twenty years time, I'm optimistic it can be achieved.

This article was composed from an interview conducted with Munir by Gerry van Klinken on 16 May 2000. Contact Kontras by email:

Inside Indonesia 63: Jul - Sep 2000

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