JOURNAL | INDONESIA 360 By: Jim Della-Giacoma
Sixteen years after it suddenly ended, some Indonesians seem to be forgetting what the “New Order” was really like. Nostalgia is not forbidden in a democracy and elected politicians habitually reinvent the past. Yet the rebranding of the late President Soeharto’s 32-year authoritarian regime during the 2014 election cycle as an era of strength and domestic stability demands some fact-checking.
“It seems Indonesia isn’t going anywhere,” lamented Soeharto’s daughter’s Siti Hediati Soeharto, popularly known as Titiek, while on the campaign trail in Yogyakarta for the Golkar party, the political vehicle of her late father. "I want to continue to take the struggle [of my father] forward.”
It is true that reformasi has not brought Indonesia to the Promised Land that many expected when the regime changed. Those who feel left behind remember the New Order as a time when fuel and key staples were cheap, there was security and the government got things done. Outrageous examples of corruption were not allowed to dominate the headlines.
Reformasi has an image problem and lacks a public champion. The New Order is synonymous with one man, but responsibility for reformasi is shared by many. Unlike life under an authoritarian ruler, there is no single person who can take credit for the sweeping political renovation that came after 1998. The four presidents who have led the country since then were each only one member of a relay.
But rather than being on the same team, they were also competitors reluctantly handing on the baton to an opponent. A race started by BJ Habibie as a sprint has transformed into a slow walk as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono prepares to leave office in October. In between, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Soekarnoputri each stumbled along at their own pace. Caught up in the complex task of governing a complicated nation, demonstrating the high cost of the New Order’s repression and violence was a lower priority. Some have been more focused on promoting their limited legacies than critiquing the period that preceded them.
It was a simpler time under Soeharto but much has changed in the world since he ruled, and the clock cannot be turned back. The New Order’s development through rigid five-year plans, fixed exchange rates and generous subsidies was underwritten by windfall profits from oil exports. Now a net importer of fuel, voters dependent on this largesse use elected representatives to resist the end of subsidies. The legacy of this policy is a budget burden of around $40 billion a year, most of it flowing into the private fuel tanks of the influential middle class, rather than toward education, health care and infrastructure. Pushed and pulled by competing interests, in a democracy there is no easy way to decide who wins and who loses. Indonesia’s floating exchange rate and open stock exchange allow global markets to pass instant judgment on the perceived merits or weaknesses of every important policy choice made by domestic leaders.
The New Order had far fewer elections, limiting itself to one big event every five years. It only permitted three parties to run, and voters had no say in picking the president – and there was only one choice anyway. Retired military officers dominated appointments in regional governments, bringing discipline and reinforcing central control across the archipelago. Development was carried out with little discussion, as Soeharto was assumed to know what policies were best for the nation, even if in the later years they seemed to disproportionately benefit his own family. Pointing this out was risky business. Foreign correspondents only did it when they were leaving or had ended their assignments. Contrary ideas and the people who expressed them were suppressed. There were sweeping colonial-era laws in place and jail time waiting for those who criticized the president.
As voters choose their next leader, it is worth remembering Indonesia’s authoritarian past as time of control, repression and violence. Those who struggled to end the New Order and suffered because of it should not be forgotten. Recalling the brutal tools that maintained the regime shows how Indonesia has changed for the better. It also reminds us why the New Order is best not rehabilitated.
In September 1989, I was a provincial newspaper journalist in Australia. Serendipitously, I found myself on a short reporting stint in Zimbabwe and Sudan. I returned determined to become a foreign correspondent. To be a better reporter, I wanted to interview people in their own tongue and was determined to master a foreign language ahead of any future overseas assignment.
I thought China was ripe for change and resolved to learn Mandarin. A friend who grew up speaking Chinese suggested I speak with his father, a former British military intelligence officer in Hong Kong and a language teacher, who then was working at a think tank in Sydney. “You’re too old to learn Mandarin,” he told me bluntly. I was 23. “And besides, you’re a journalist and there is no story there as the Communist Party will still be in power in 20 years’ time.” He proposed an alternative. “Go to Indonesia, master the language, and wait for the dictator to fall. It will be a much better story.”
He was right. Twenty-five years later, the Communist Party firmly controls the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, Indonesians are preparing to choose their president directly via the ballot box in July. They have done so twice before, peacefully and fairly to the point that the international community now regards the country’s elections as unremarkable. It is an enormous challenge to implement one of the world’s largest elections and not without a few hiccups, but it is now accepted that Indonesia can do it to a standard that rivals India and the US.
When I arrived to study in Yogyakarta in June 1994, Indonesia was an authoritarian country. Soeharto had brought it to the doorstep of middle-income status, dressed in a political straitjacket. While a long way from its violent beginnings, and acquiring some of the trappings of modernity such as high-rise buildings and satellite TV, the last four years of the New Order was a time when freedom of speech remained restricted, publications were closed, journalists jailed and political activity limited. Activists disappeared, and in occupied East Timor summary executions were common. The security and legal apparatus was used to crush dissenters rather than uphold the rule of law. Elites were co-opted with spoils that a growing economy could provide. But for critics who chose to challenge the regime’s dictates, there was a life of intimidation and threats. If they did not buckle, then state-sanctioned violence was used against them.
This was my sixth visit and I had received a scholarship from the Australia-Indonesia Institute to research my master’s thesis. Impatient to leave, I instead wrote a quick desktop study in the university library. My paper focused on the “keterbukaan,” or openness period that began in 1988 when restrictions on civil liberties briefly eased. Naively, I predicted the forces unleashed there would “thaw the authoritarian ice age of Soeharto’s New Order.” I did not know that this window for dissenting voices would soon be slammed shut. Days after I arrived in Yogyakarta, the publications Tempo, Editor and Detik were banned.
The crime of these three newsweeklies had been to expose dissent within the ranks of government about the controversial purchase of 39 former East German Navy ships by BJ Habibie, who was then the research and technology minister. Under the title “Habibie and those ships,” Tempo reported that the price of the vessels had been marked up more than 60 times. The cancellation of the publications’ printing licenses put many journalist friends of mine out of work.
The struggle against the closure of the magazines led to the creation of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI). With the limited political space available, its members tried to keep the issue of media freedom alive, including by holding social events such as a post-Ramadan gathering called “halal bihalal” on March, 17 1995. As small as this group was, it could not be tolerated and authorities tried to crush it. I was still lingering when plainclothes police swooped in at the end of the event to arrest some of its organizers. My photos of the raid were exclusive, but even with the excitement of the scoop it was jarring to see the authoritarian state at work on people I knew and with whose struggle I identified.
Raids like this were common but have been forgotten, especially by those who ordered them. The brutal way the New Order kept people in line has been replaced by a messy, chaotic system of electing leaders and governing. The downtown hotel where the AJI raid took place is history, torn down and built over by the Grand Indonesia luxury shopping mall. Some commentators equate military experience as producing leadership that is “tegas,” or firm. They say the country needs more plain dealing rather than indecisiveness and complicated ways of doing things.
But given the terror that the New Order waged on its own people in the name of firmness, this is burnishing some ugly history. It also misunderstands the present: one recent survey by the polling company Indikator found that only 5 percent of voters regarded being firm as an important criteria for leadership. Being honest (43 percent), paying attention to the people (28 percent), being able to lead (9 percent) and having a reputation for being free from corruption (7 percent) were given greater weight.
I would have many close encounters with late New Order brutality. On July 27, 1996, an urgent pager message got me out of bed early on a Saturday morning. Thugs had surrounded the headquarters of the then-Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) on Jalan Diponegoro in Jakarta’s Menteng district. Guided by plainclothes men with hand-held radios, the group was there to evict supporters of Megawati Soekarnoputri, then the symbol of political opposition. Her loyalists were holed up, refusing to recognize that a stage-managed conference had just removed her as party leader. They would not follow the new government-backed party chairman. This day would end in widespread rioting in Jakarta, a dress rehearsal for 1998.
Technological backwardness made it harder to report and easier to censor. During rioting that followed the raid, I paused from watching the mayhem to send in dispatches from public payphones. Before the world could watch the Reuters television images of the raid and riots, the video needed to actually get out. On this day, intelligence agents blocked the single satellite feed point at Indosat on Jalan Merdeka Barat. It is hard to imagine that such a choke point existed when today most everyone shopping at the Grand Indonesia mall down the street has video and Internet access in their hand and a Facebook account to share what they see and think of the world. Maybe this does create information overload, but it is also a bulwark against going back to a time when Indonesians knew too little about what was going on in their own country.
In the 1990s, foreign correspondents were the mice and authorities the cat in this game of controlling the news. Within hours of the raid on the PDI headquarters, we had gotten around the obstacles and our version of events was on CNN. Officials were confused how we did it. In fact, my girlfriend had flown to Singapore with a video in her backpack, sent on a weekend “shopping trip” courtesy of the bureau. Throughout the day our “pigeons” flew with progressively more dramatic pictures as the riots only got worse. After nightfall, I watched a man trying to clamber out the window of a burning building in Central Jakarta. Losing his grip on a makeshift rope, he plunged to his death. The loss of life on that day was limited, but it was a prelude to 1998 when I counted hundreds of charred bodies in a morgue on the same street. At this time, Indonesia was still trying to protect its image as a successful story of development and using all the tools of state censorship to ensure contradictory reports were not aired.
A few days after the raid on the PDI, Lt Gen Syarwan Hamid, then head of the Indonesian military’s social and political affairs section, held a press conference at military headquarters. He pointed the finger at the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) for being behind the riots. This “party” was self-proclaimed and unregistered, and no one could vote for it. The leftist PRD leaders were regular fixtures on the Jakarta protest circuit, and I knew them well enough, including its head, Budiman Sudjatmiko, who is now a legislator for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) that eventually succeeded PDI.
This group had led the occupation of the Dutch and Russian embassies in December 1995 to mark the 20th anniversary of the invasion of East Timor. I had not seen any of its key figures outside the PDI headquarters. I asked the general: was he making scapegoats of this group?
My impertinence made the three-star livid. “Assumptions like that are too cheap, too naïve,” he replied, almost shouting. Kompas daily reported the exchange the next day on its front page. A journalist there later thanked me for asking a question he dared not ask himself. This allowed local media to report the exchange in full. Readers would then assume the opposite of what was said would be the truth. Similarly, foreign news agencies reporting an event of state violence allowed local media some cover to then report on the dispatches published overseas. Internationals played an indirect role in keeping the domestic audience informed about what was going in their own country. It may be hard to imagine in today’s Indonesia of hypercompetitive and unrestrained reporting, but the media under Soeharto was meek, mild and cowed.
Soon after his press conference, Hamid and his adjutants surrounded me in the car park. “You speak good bahasa Indonesia,” he observed, but it was not a compliment. “You must have an Indonesian girlfriend. We will find her,” he said, before he walked off. He never did, for my girlfriend was American. But without the protection of our foreign passports and special visas, there was much to fear about the Armed Forces, which back then included the police. The greatest threat I faced was expulsion.
When they were caught, the PRD cadres were lucky to be brought to show trials and not go missing. Once in court, their conviction and incarceration was assured. I still had my press card and was able to report their trials. But cut off from political avenues to express their ideas, the repression of the New Order was pushing the most militant among these activists in a more extreme direction. Some were making bombs and considering terrorist tactics. Frustrated Timorese were also working on bringing their fight to Jakarta with explosives rather than more embassy protests. Right up until the New Order ended, some lesser-known activists would disappear and never be found. Those responsible for these disappearances were from an Army Special Forces unit known as the Rose Team (Tim Mawar), then under the command of Prabowo Subianto. No one has ever been prosecuted for these crimes. Is this the kind of “firmness” that Indonesians desire?
Fighting the latent remnants of New Order attitudes is a struggle for democratic Indonesia. During its 32 years, generations were trained in the authoritarian way of doing things. Their thoughts were conditioned and behavior skewed during a period when human rights were abused and democratic values weak. The raid by Special Forces soldiers on a Yogyakarta prison in March 2013 is an example of this ever-present challenge. When off-duty soldiers blasted their way into the correctional facility to execute four men detained on charges of murdering one of their colleagues, the commandos thought they were above the law in conducting a private vendetta. They felt it was their right to play prosecutor, judge and executioner.
For a few days, it looked liked the old rules of the New Order applied. Masked men conducted the operation with well-trained military precision, but the two-star general heading the Central Java military command’s first response was to deny any Army involvement, rather than pledge to openly investigate the possibility soldiers were behind this heinous crime. He seemed to forget that Soeharto’s rules of media repression, control and silence no longer applied. Under the glare of a 24-7 news cycle, it soon became apparent to President Yudhoyono and his brother-in-law Gen. Pranomo Edhie Wibowo, the Army commander, that greater transparency was required in a democracy.
Six days after the raid, Pranomo acknowledged that Special Forces soldiers were responsible. It was a dramatic about-face by the military. Pranomo, now retired and a member of the governing Democratic Party, was motivated to come clean as much by public pressure as by the need to protect his own image and political ambitions. Loyalties run deep and the president, also a retired general, still praised the soldiers’ “warrior spirit,” camaraderie, loyalty and honesty in (belatedly) admitting their actions. It is unclear who ordered them to come clean. Tried in an open military court, 12 soldiers were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of between four months and 20 days up to 11 years. Being punished for their roles in execution-style killings was an important departure from the New Order mentality that usually gave impunity to military personnel who committed serious crimes. This was progress, but the forced way in which accountability came about showed that it was not an unequivocal victory for democratic values.
The soft-spoken Soeharto stayed in power for 32 years, as Indonesia’s growing economy gave him an increasing ability to doll out enormous patronage and buy more time in office. Behind him was the military carrying a big stick; state violence, fear, media censorship and strictly limited political representation were other tools employed as needed by the regime. Sixteen years after he resigned, the specter of Balkanization is long gone in a country that is stable as well as mostly at peace and unified. Waves of regional violence in the first years after Soeharto left quickly receded; terrorism and other crimes in the last decade have been dealt with more through open court trials than mysterious killings or disappearances in the middle of the night. Dissent these days is as easy and safe as sending a tweet to the president.
Governance is uneven, and inequality remains a stubborn feature in the archipelago. Corruption is endemic, but now out in the open thanks to a free press and the courageous Corruption Eradication Commission. Undoubtedly, Indonesia remains an imperfect democracy and a work in progress, and reformasi has been a complex mix of pluses and minuses.
But looking back on the New Order, Indonesians should be proud that they are a long way beyond the Soeharto years. The electoral process itself is proof of the enormous changes in the way that government is run as well as the attitudes of leaders and citizens. It is a competition that takes place with an atmosphere more akin to a party that voters dress up for, than a violent competition where the best-armed win. A diverse and free media is the platform though which much campaigning takes place. While some kinds of manipulation still exist, fear and intimidation are not widespread; the results are now hard to predict. Indonesians are participating in democratic handovers of power that were unimaginable during the New Order. Any lingering nostalgia is for a past best left to history.
Jim Della-Giacoma is a visiting fellow at the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. He can be reached on Twitter at @jimdella.