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The cornerstone of true democracy

A few years ago I was asked by a human rights group to write a column for their now defunct newsletter. The following was the first of those columns. It was written and published shortly before the most recent national elections and serves as a snapshot of the time; better still it is a bit of a time capsule. It is interesting to see which hopes were dashed, which worries were fulfilled, and which concerns became more or less acute in the intervening years.

As usual, the visuals were not published with the original piece, but added for my own amusement on this rainy day in Manado.

Human Rights in Indonesia
Patrick Guntensperger
Jakarta, June 10, 2009
General Soeharto with a rather sheepish Mountie

Gus Dur taking
one of his trademark naps

There have been four Indonesian heads of state since Soeharto’s 30 year dictatorship ended when he was forced to step down during the Asian economic crisis in 1998.

Dull technocrat

 He was succeeded by his vice-president, Habibie, who stepped up and lasted less than two years until he was deposed by Abdurrahman (Gus Dur) Wahid. Gus Dur ran things until Indonesia’s founding dictator Soekarno’s daughter, Megawati Soekarnoputri was appointed president by her party (PDI-P) in 2001.

In the country’s first direct election, she was soundly trounced by one of her former cabinet ministers, another retired general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He assumed the presidency and, at this writing seems poised to win a second mandate at the polls when, at the beginning of July this year, the people once again cast their votes for both the head of state and the country’s vice-president. It is unlikely that a run-off election will be necessary, as SBY, as he is fondly known, is likely to win a clear majority, but if he doesn’t, he will almost certainly be installed as president for five more years after a runoff election later this year.

From virtually any standpoint, Indonesia is becoming more democratic every day; some might even say that human rights are assuming a higher priority in this most anxious to develop of developing nations. Nevertheless, Indonesia has a very long way to go.
Megawati victorious:
Won by appointment

As a country that was run as a military dictatorship for over three decades after Soeharto and his western handlers had manufactured a “coup” for Soeharto to put down violently, there is no strong tradition of civil rights in this country. Soeharto and his generals paved the way to his unquestioned control over the vast archipelagic nation by the mass murder of anywhere between 500 thousand and a million Indonesians, using spurious accusations of communistic leanings on their part as a justification. No one has ever been brought to justice for this mass slaughter, and the generals who orchestrated it are treated in Indonesian history books as heroes of the nation.

Human rights abuses were relatively commonplace under Soeharto. During the insurgency that led to the secession of what is now the independent nation of East Timor, the TNI, Indonesia’s military, has been accused of systematic abuses of human rights. Among the people accused of specific mass murders and other abuses of human rights are a one-time head of Soeharto’s TNI, a general called Wiranto who happens to be running as Jusuf (the incumbent vice-president and current presidential candidate) Kalla’s running mate. His adjutant at the time and another military commander who avoided the taint of human rights violation was the now incumbent and soon to be new president of Indonesia, SBY.
The Megawati/Prabowo ticket:
Dictator’s daughter and professional torturer

The then head of Kopassus (Indonesia’s feared Special Forces) in Timor, Prabowo Subianto is also accused of serious human rights violations, including running “terror squads” that allegedly targeted, kidnapped and tortured to death East Timorese pro-independence activists. Ex-general Prabowo is the vice-presidential candidate to Megawati’s run to retake the presidency.

Kalla(L) and Wiranto(R):
The flaky veep and an indicted war criminal

Whatever the truth behind the allegations of human rights violations levelled at the TNI and the ex-New Order generals themselves, one thing is certain. If you’re going to vote in Indonesia this year, you’re going to vote for one of them. As Henry Ford is credited with having said, “People can have a Model T in any color – as long as it’s black.” Despite more than a decade of democracy, Indonesia is still run by what amounts to a political cartel made up of the main players and greatest beneficiaries of Soeharto’s brutal military dictatorship.

What about the issues of civil rights within a democracy? There too, Indonesia needs a great deal of work. Apart from a cultural tradition to which democracy is an entirely alien concept, the single biggest impediment to real reform in Indonesia is the cultural predisposition to take the view that holding someone accountable for an action is a far more serious breach of conduct than the action could possibly have been.
That observation is perhaps borne out by the highest profile civil rights case in the local media at the moment. A young mother was incarcerated and is on trial, facing up to six years imprisonment; her crime? She complained via text message of the treatment she received at a hospital. For the record, that was Omni International Hospital in Tangerang. Indonesia has many laws curtailing freedom of expression, even criminalising normal speech. This one was the Electronic Information and Transfer Law which makes it a criminal act to transfer or be in possession of electronic information that could be considered defamatory. Since I’m submitting this copy via email, I’m technically in breach of the same law.

SBY: The hesitant president.
The jury’s still out on his presidential human rights record

Another area in which human rights are likely to become a higher profile issue is the continued call by some factions for imposition of Sharia law in some regions. Since the decentralization that began with the fall of Soeharto, the regions have been gaining much greater autonomy, leading some areas with a dense population of fundamentalist Muslims to move toward Sharia inspired law. Since the financial crisis has been blamed on a Western-style banking system, Sharia banking is being held by some as clearly superior, lending some rather tenuous but nevertheless frequently expressed support to the broader, more general application of Sharia.
The selective imposition of these laws in some areas, Aceh in particular, but elsewhere as well, has led to rights violations. This has occurred to women particularly but also generally, as in instances of punishment by public flogging of those transgressing purely religious rules.
Islamicist political parties made a poor showing in the May national legislative elections, but this doesn’t mean that the hardliners are being generally rejected politically. For one thing, in the post-election coalition building, the dominant Democrats, the party of the incumbent SBY and likely winner of the July presidential elections, allied themselves almost exclusively with a motley collection of smaller religious-focused parties. The likelihood of stealthy, incremental imposition of laws or policies that threaten human rights of non-Muslims, and women is a distinct possibility that bears monitoring.
While Indonesia at the moment far from the worst offender as far as human rights are concerned, the potential for widespread rights violations is there. The elections will tell us something, but more than anything, constant scrutiny and exposure of violations as they occur is what is needed. This column will attempt to do that in forthcoming issues.
Patrick Guntensperger is a Jakarta-based, Canadian expatriate writer, social/political analyst, and university lecturer. His blog can be found at

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