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

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.

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