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Reform back to square one

Jakarta Post - May 21, 2012

Bagus BT Saragih, Jakarta – Fourteen years after president Soeharto stepped down, which marked the ushering in of democracy and reform, former student activists who took to the streets on the days leading up to the historic May 21, 1998 resignation say the country has gone back to square one with a small group of elites once again controlling the country's politics for their own interests.

Former student activist Ray Rangkuti, who currently chairs the Indonesian Civil Society Circle (Lima), said democratization had failed because politicians continued to compromise the country's political system.

"In terms of regulations and laws, our political system is actually more democratic. However, elites tend to manipulate their mechanism to serve certain interests. They have turned a blind eye to the ideals that we have been fighting for since 1998," Ray said over the weekend.

He said that the regional direct elections system, which had been praised as the crowning achievement of the country's democratization process, had failed to bring tangible improvements to the people's welfare. "Democracy is only seen as a mechanism without its true values being implemented," Ray said.

Another former student activist, Haris Azhar, now Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) coordinator, said that reform in the human rights sector only yielded legislation without sincere efforts to resolve past human rights abuses.

"We have actually seen progress in terms of human rights diplomacy in international politics. However, the lack of real efforts to deal with domestic human rights problems has led us to think that the government only cares about its standing in the international community," Haris said.

He also said that the failure to prosecute those responsible for human rights abuse had enabled them to benefit from the system. Haris blamed the administration of President Yudhoyono for this failure.

"It is so bad that precedence of impunity has allowed many human rights violators to continue to violate the rights of people as well as to serve firms or political parties," he said. "It has been 14 years since Soeharto's fall, but the political transition has been abused by those wishing to serve only their interests," he added.

And the fact that vigilante groups could grow in power against minority groups had made a lie of the claim that the country had made progress in human rights issues, Haris said. "People even have the impression that these violent groups are supported and protected by the government," he said.

Haris said that Yudhoyono shared the blame for the problem as he appeared busy securing his position until his tenure ended in 2014.

Younger activists also share the conviction that the reform movement had reached an impasse.

The chairman of the Indonesian Students' Association (PPI) in the United Kingdom, Miftachudin, said people no longer believed in the government as it reneged on the promise of reform. "The government has been inconsistent in its efforts to deliver on its promises, and as a result people have lost trust in the government," he said.

Miftachudin, however, said the heroism from the 1998 student uprising would live on. "It was a hard-won victory by our brothers in 1998, we will keep the spirit alive," said Miftachudin, who has lived in Manchester for one year.

Jusman Dalle, a college student from Makassar, South Sulawesi, said the only good thing about the reform era was that the economy continued to grow after the debilitating financial crisis in the late 1990s.

"The only positive achievement I can see in this reform era is the economy has continued to grow, although the effects have yet to reach people at all social levels," he said.