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Indonesia is not in trouble

Wall Street Journal - March 5, 1997

Jack David, Jakarta – Pessimists say that the current political trials of a dozen labor and student activists here indicate declining stability in Indonesia, and a bleak future for human rights observance. This doom-and-gloom view is understandable, as these cases come in the wake of last summer's riot in Jakarta and the increase in violent conflicts between groups throughout the island nation. But all the same, the dire warnings are unwarranted.

I base these assessments on meetings I had the over last two weeks in connection with my status as an observer at the trials of the best known of the accused subversives: Muchtar Pakpahan, charismatic chairman of the Indonesian Prosperous Workers Union, the SBSI, and Budiman Sudjatmiko, leader of the student activists and President of the People's Democratic Party, the PRD. The people with whom I spoke here in Jakarta, including some of the accused, were not so pessimistic about Indonesia's future.

Nor does the government seem pessimistic. The government, which has a dismal record for human rights observance, does not appear worried that either domestic or international publicity of the trials will be destabilizing, despite a noisy demonstration this week by opposition supporters that held up traffic in Jakarta. The trials–under a subversion law that had not been used for several years–are not only being reported in accurate detail on the front pages here every day, but are also being closely watched by human rights, labor and legal organizations in the West. In the U.S., the AFL-CIO has just awarded Mr. Pakpahan its 1997 George Meany Human Rights Award. The U.S. State Department has monitors at the trials. Lastly, after three decades of persistent growth, Indonesia is hardly ripe for explosion.

At my visit with Mr. Budiman, he sat across from me in a crowded detention room half a block from the Central Jakarta District Courthouse where his trial shortly was to resume. Seated around the table were another of the student activists being tried separately, two of Mr. Budiman's lawyers, another foreign observer and three police intelligence agents in civilian clothing. Uniformed policemen peered through the barred window and the doorway, which was open when we arrived and remained so throughout the interview.

"Our program," Mr. Budiman explained, "is freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, [freedom] to have unions. It is shameful that our minds are on trial."

Mr. Budiman and his fellow PRD leaders insist they are not Marxists, as the government claims. In July, the PRD announced a program which included a national increase in the minimum wage and repeal of the 1985 laws subjecting to stringent government control all political activities and public institutions, groups and organizations. Ironically, though the PRD has very few members, its voice has been amplified by the prosecutions.

Indonesia's 1963 subversion law is draconian. Conviction of subversion carries either the death penalty or up to 20 years in prison, and lawyers cannot remember anyone accused of subversion being acquitted. The government says it must use the law to maintain domestic stability by preventing dissidents from exploiting tensions among Indonesia's numerous and extraordinarily diverse population groups. Deputy Attorney General for Special Crimes (subversion, corruption and economic crimes) Yunan Sawidji tells me people are allowed to criticize the government, but not if "they make it personal" or "make damage" by trying to "persuade the people to do something."

While there may be merit to the argument that economic frustration plays a role in exacerbating ethnic and religious tensions, the economic progress Indonesia has made belies claims exaggerating this factor.

What is the basis for the government's concern that dissident speech will elevate tensions to destructive conflicts? Over the past year Indonesia has seen a rise in ugly confrontations. Religious and anti-Chinese confrontations and riots broke out in Situbondo, Tasikmalaya and Rengasdengklok, all towns in Java, where half of the nation's people live. Churches, Buddhist temples, houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed. In Irian Jaya, there were riots spurred by local Irianese hostility to migrants from other islands who now dominate the economy. The most recent outbreak of violence occurred in West Kalimantan. There, conflict between indigenous Christian Dyaks and Muslim migrants from the island of Madura resulted in several hundred deaths and the destruction of millions of dollars in property. The government announced that it is opening more than 200 riot watch centers around the country to nip bloody conflicts like these in the bud.

Yet, while preventing such conflicts is a legitimate government concern, neither justification for the use of the draconian subversion law in the current trials, nor a general threat to national stability can be found in these events. There is no evidence that the increase in ethnic confrontations around the country is the coordinated work of any anti-government groups, although government officials often blame unnamed outside agitators. The July 27 Jakarta riot, which precipitated the current subversion trials, seems unrelated to the ethnic violence as it came on the heels of a purely political conflict. The subversion law generally is not being used to prosecute individuals found to be responsible for incitement of the ethnic riots.

The recent wave of ethnic riots and violent conflicts seems to have more to do with factors unique to the particular protagonists and situations than with any common factor suggesting destabilization on a national scale. Marzuki Darusman, vice chairman of the independent National Human Rights Commission, says the only thing they have in common is that most "started from a small incident" and inflamed passions "spread very quickly." The unrest of the past year does not seem to mean that the population is ready to join a revolution.

While there may be merit to the argument that economic frustration plays a role in exacerbating ethnic and religious tensions, the economic progress Indonesia has made belies claims exaggerating this factor. Economic growth has averaged 7.5% per year for several years and is expected to continue at that level. In the past 30 years, Indonesia has achieved significant annual increases in per capita income, life expectancy and the size of its middle class in addition to a diminution in infant mortality and a dramatic decrease in the percentage of people living at or below the poverty line. According to a 1990 World Bank report on poverty, Indonesia achieved the greatest reduction of any of the countries included in a 20-year study.

There is a National Human Rights Commission to which any citizen can complain and which has demonstrated willingness to oppose government positions.

These are hardly statistics which suggest an imminent revolution, though the economic progress of some is greater and comes more rapidly than for others. In the words of one local observer with a long memory, for a revolution to occur "the situation would have to be as bad as the situation was during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War. Or like the situation in 1965 when economic conditions were so bad that people could not get food for their families."

There plainly is a link between the subversion prosecutions, dissatisfaction with President Suharto, the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 29 and the presidential election scheduled for 1998. Power in Indonesia resides in one man, Mr. Suharto. Through various means, including regulating the timing and content of election campaigns, the president strictly controls the political process. Not surprisingly, corruption is rampant in Indonesia. The greed of Mr. Suharto and his family has become a bitter theme of private humor.

None of this is helped by the fact that Mr. Suharto is 75 years old and gives every indication he plans to be elected for a seventh five-year term next year. At this stage in Indonesian history, the greatest gift the president could give his country is an orderly succession. Yet, there is little sign that he is willing to open up the political process so that a new leader can emerge.

In fact, the prosecutions of Messrs. Budiman, Pakpahan and the others suggest just the opposite. They are charged with making alleged statements against President Suharto and in favor of a presidential candidacy for Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno. It was Ms. Megawati's increasing popularity that caused Mr. Suharto to orchestrate her ouster as leader of her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) last May. After two months of protests, army-supported thugs last July 27 stormed the PDI office and ejected Megawati supporters. Crowds gathered outside and later that day a riot ensued in adjacent streets.

The government immediately blamed PRD leaders for masterminding the riot. But the independent National Human Rights Commission issued a report exonerating the PRD leaders and Pakpahan, assigning blame to the army and others. Subversion charges became the government's focus.

What is the prognosis for human rights observance by Indonesia? Certainly, the prosecutions constitute another serious setback for human rights and the subversion law itself is a stain on the legal system. Yet, there is more freedom in Indonesia than the subversion prosecutions suggest. There are forceful calls for the law's repeal from both outside and inside government, and the debate is covered reasonably well in Indonesian newspapers.

There is a National Human Rights Commission to which any citizen can complain and which has demonstrated willingness to oppose government positions. Ms. Megawati has brought numerous lawsuits attacking the government's interference in her party and these too receive news coverage. The government has prosecuted soldiers for some of their abuses of citizens' human rights, although not enough, and punishments have been meted out, although they sometimes have seemed insufficiently severe. Most importantly, Indonesia for a time in the 1950s had experience with the kind of robust democratic life and political freedom for which increasing numbers of Indonesians yearn.

As I walked with prisoner Mr. Budiman down the alley from the detention room to the courtroom, no guards accompanying us, he said "I see no prospect of acquittal." In the courtroom, before the trial resumed, he chatted amiably with policemen and prosecutors. At the conclusion of the day's proceedings, before he was taken back to prison, he leisurely handed out flowers to celebrate the end of Ramadan along with PRD leaflets telling people to boycott the May 29 parliamentary elections. He passed them to spectators, policemen and prosecutors, exchanging friendly words with all. Mr. Budiman's pessimism for his own immediate future is plainly balanced with an optimism for Indonesia's future.

Mr. David is a New York attorney who has long been active in international human rights issues.