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Reformasi: 20 years after the fall of Suharto, activists reflect on Indonesia's reforms

ABC News - May 21, 2018

Iffah Nur Arifah – Twenty years ago today, the late Suharto resigned as president of Indonesia after 32 years in power.

University students and protesters, who took part in "reformasi" demonstrations and riots across the country, were beaten, jailed and kidnapped during the end of the authoritarian leader's rule.

The fall of the leader paved the way for swathes of political reforms and for Indonesia's 1999 election – the first free vote since 1955.

Two decades on, activists who were a part of the original movement have warned against complacency, urging Indonesians not to forget the lessons of the past.

'We can't abuse power anymore'

Agung Wicaksono was president of the Engineering Students Association at Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) when Suharto was re-elected in 1998.

He said the common shared feeling among students at the time was disappointment, particularly when Suharto selected his closest relatives and friends as his cabinet members.

"It was a moral movement. People struggled a lot due to the economic crisis, so we couldn't trust the government anymore," Mr Wicaksono said.

Mr Wicaksono is now the director of PT MRT Jakarta, and oversees a massive public transportation project that aims to combat the capital's infamous traffic jams.

He said he did not want to run the business like in Suharto's era, which according to him, only benefitted particular groups.

"We can't abuse power anymore," he said. "Instead we apply the principle of transparency and it is possible to do so, thanks to the reform movement."

Mr Wicaksono said although he feels the country's condition is better than 20 years ago, Indonesian people should not be satisfied with its achievements, but instead keep working for a better future.

Secret meetings, activists detained

One thing Lia Nathalia remembers about 1998 was the lack of freedom, and leading up to Suharto's resignation in May, she said the president would detain people even without strong evidence.

"That's why when we had meetings, we did it very secretly. No-one was allowed to take notes, nor exchange contact numbers," Ms Nathalia, who was a member of City Forum and involved in several street protests in Jakarta, said.

But after the reform movement, it seems Ms Nathalia is not happy either with the outcome. "We don't set a good national agenda, the emerging leaders are just busy maintaining their power," she said.

She said she hoped that the younger generation would remember the events of May 1998, so they will not lose their political direction and aim.Mixed feelings after two decades

Usman Hamid was in his fifth semester as a law student at Trisakti University in Jakarta in 1998.

He said it was a conversation with his mother about how basic necessities were getting expensive that led him and his friends to distribute food packages.

As president of a law students' association, he joined several student movements to protest the rising prices as the situation worsened.

"Then some friends had an idea to demand Suharto and his family to step down," he said. "It started on 12 May 1998 – one student even burnt Suharto's image."

Mr Hamid said there has been some decline in Indonesia since he and his fellow students fought for change.

"There have been a number of controversial, racial, and discriminative events in these past years and quite a number of attempts by political parties and elites who campaign their conservative and extreme-nationalism values," he said.

"So it's a mixed feeling... We still need to work even harder, be more patient, and do a better job after more than three decades of authoritarianism."

Women's movement grows after reforms

Yuniyanti Chuzaifah, along with 14 other women, took to the main streets of Jakarta to demand cheaper milk prices for mothers after the price increased uncontrollably.

"We were there to make noise and raise awareness that even when it comes to fulfilling the needs of babies... our country wasn't able to do it," she said.

"As females, we didn't want to be remembered in Indonesia's history as only the ones who were distributing food to protesters. We also had political demands."

After the reform, Ms Chuzaifah is glad to see the women's movement is growing in the country, giving many women platforms to raise their concerns. "This is one of the reform's achievements that we should maintain," she said.

Corruption remains an issue

Oslan Purba was not quite sure why exactly he joined the reform movement when he was a university student at North Sumatra. He was fully aware that becoming an activist meant facing death and kidnap threats.

"In many regions, including North Sumatra, students went to the local parliament building; there was rioting and looting everywhere and soon after that Suharto declared his resignation," he said.

'It's authoritarianism'

Now working as a national environmental campaigner, Mr Purba said corruption remained a big issue in the country.

"We did [the reform movement] because we didn't want this country run by corruptors, but now, although we have an anti-corruption commission, we still doubt they are brave enough [to combat corruption]," he said.

"Honestly, I'm a bit disappointed, but I remain optimistic." Mr Purba is also active in voicing human rights issue in Sumatra, particularly in Aceh province.

Press freedoms now 'exceed the limits of ethics'

In 1998, Eko Maryadi was working as a journalist with the Washington Post in Jakarta.

He remembers sitting in a traditional food seller kiosk in Jakarta, when suddenly there was a big cheer from the people after Suharto announced his resignation on the television.

"All people were yelling and I also heard students on the parliament building celebrating their win [over the Suharto regime]," Mr Maryadi, who is now the president of Southeast Asian Press Alliance, said.

Under Suharto, he was jailed after being accused of publishing material that was considered critical of the Suharto government.

At that time he was also a member of Alliance of Independent Journalists in Indonesia (AJI). But he said the period of reform had perhaps seen the media industry become too liberal in some ways, leading to support for extremist views.

"The freedom of expression [in Indonesia] has now exceeded the limits of ethics, professionalism, and freedom in our democratic life," he said.

"The challenge of media in Indonesia is to stop spreading information which promotes radicalism and intolerance."

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-21/activists-look-back-on-20-years-of-reform-in-indonesia/9783462