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'Dissident cleansing' - The authorities are taking no chances

Asiaweek - April 14, 1997

These are busy days for Indonesia's courts. The youthful leaders of a leftist – and therefore illegal – group are on trial for subversion. Soon, sacked parliamentarian Sri Bintang Pamungkas, a self-proclaimed presidential nominee, will face a judge. Labor chieftain Muchtar Pakpahan's case – he too is accused of subversion – is delayed only because the 43-year-old activist is in the hospital with a lung tumor. And just last week the printer of an anti-establishment magazine was jailed for 30 months.

With a general election due at the end of May, and social and ethnic unrest persisting, the government is ridding the political scene of potential irritants. It's doing so by the book – going through the courts – but few doubt the outcome. Bintang, who heads an unrecognized political party, Pakpahan, already under a four-year sentence for inciting rioting, and the leftists all expect to be found guilty even though the evidence presented so far in the trials has failed to impress observers such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the International Bar Association. "The system supports Suharto, who clearly wants us jailed," Bintang told Asiaweek before being taken into custody. Though seldom imposed, the maximum penalty for subversion is death.

Defending such cases is virtually impossible. Prominent lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution heads Pakpahan's defense team. He has never won a subversion case. He keeps trying, he says, because his constant failures "will hopefully heighten public awareness about changing the system." But the odds are stacked against him.

Bintang, a wiry 52-year-old intellectual, has already been convicted of insulting President Suharto. Now he and two other leaders of his party are in trouble for sending out greeting cards calling for a boycott of the election and for Suharto to step aside during next year's nominations for president.

Before the card incident, Bintang and his associates began drafting changes to the Constitution and criticizing the government in their speeches. Those actions heightened official anger. Pakpahan is accused of spreading ideas at odds with the official state ideology Pancasila. The leftists, originally suspected of inciting the Jakarta riots of July 27, now face similar accusations, partly because of the Marxist terminology in their manifesto. For his part, Pakpahan, short and stocky, is clearly a man of the people despite his degree in constitutional law. Before his health problems, he spiced his days in court with broad grins and laughter. At one of his last court appearances he told Asiaweek that he was no revolutionary. Said he: "My goal is to achieve the acceptance that workers have rights."

Such sentiment generates support among some senior officials. Sharing the spotlight with Pakpahan is Adi Andojo Sutjipto, the Supreme Court judge who headed the panel that set the unionist free in September last year after nine months' imprisonment. Andojo's independent thinking was not rewarded. His decision was eventually overturned, Pakpahan was sent back to jail, while Andojo is barely hanging on to his job. He continues to insist that his ruling should have stood.

The authorities also have to contend with some critics too difficult to silence. Subadio Sastrosatomo, a veteran of the Independence struggle, has been questioned, but not arrested, over a 23-page booklet attacking the government's record. Officials realize that throwing a man of his stature in jail would likely be counterproductive. His private secretary has been arrested, however. Photocopies of Subadio's book, immediately banned, are being passed around the country.

Suppressing dissent carries its own risks. "If there is no opportunity for these people to participate in politics," says Buyung Nasution, "they will become more radical." No one, not least the government, benefits from that.