'New Order' nostalgia is for a past best left to history
July-September 2014
By: Jim Della-Giacoma

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.

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