Margareth S. Aritonang, Jakarta – Twenty-two years ago, on May 21, history recorded the fall of an authoritarian leader in Indonesia.
Days of nationwide riots led to the ouster of the military-backed dictator Soeharto, the country's second president, who had held a tight grip on power for 31 years.
The Reform era had finally arrived, but with a hefty price tag: thousands of people lost their lives and many women of Chinese descent had to endure the crippling effects of gang rape.
Prodemocracy activists were kidnapped – some returned, alive and well, while others are still missing until today.
But the "Smiling General" was gone, and in his place, a sliver of hope. Free from Soeharto's New Order regime at last, so the people thought.
The topic has become a matter of public debate every year since then, but especially since President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo took office in 2014.
Pundits viewed his first-term election win as a breath of fresh air for Indonesian democracy, based largely on the fact that he won against Prabowo Subianto, a former son-in-law of Soeharto and a former general who was among the central figures allegedly involved in the horrific May riots.
For many, Prabowo was part of the Army elite, which had long represented the New Order's military-backed authoritarianism. Jokowi, a civilian from outside the ruling class, defeated him, and was celebrated as a beacon of hope.
The euphoria, however, appears to have been unfounded.
Many feel the ghost of the New Order still haunts the halls of power. A number of retired generals, members of the elite and cronies who gained influence during Soeharto's decades-long reign have secured strategic positions in Jokowi's administration, even today, thanks to the long-standing practice of political transactions among the country's oligarchs.
Observers have said that Prabowo's appointment as defense minister, after a second electoral defeat to Jokowi in the 2019 election, highlighted the return of the New Order. Others believe that it had never really gone away; the fall of Soeharto spelled the end of his presidency, but not the end of the New Order.
This is because Soeharto was just a face, while the New Order was a system, said historian Budiawan from Gadjah Mada University.
Budiawan explained that Soeharto's dismissal in 1998 was the result of an agreement among political elites. He argues that the New Order still has a grip on power and remains a force to be reckoned with, mainly because its central actor, the Indonesian Military (TNI), has maintained its place among the governing elite.
"The TNI is represented by retired elites who have been serving in Jokowi's administration," Budiawan said during a recent interview with The Jakarta Post. "Thus, the regime in power has never really changed."
Other military figures who support the Jokowi administration include former TNI commander Wiranto, who dismissed Prabowo from the military service due to his involvement in the 1998 activist abductions. Wiranto is a current member of the presidential advisory board (Wantimpres) and served as chief security minister in Jokowi's first-term Cabinet.
Like Prabowo, Wiranto was also implicated in the disappearance of 13 prodemocracy activists and the unresolved shootings of Trisakti University and Atma Jaya University students during protests demanding economic and political reforms more than two decades ago.
Unlike Prabowo, he has never been held accountable.
Other New Order figures with questionable human rights records include former State Intelligence Agency (BIN) chief AM Hendropriyono, who served as the military's secretary of development operations (Sesdalopbang) and minister of transmigration during Soeharto's reign. Hendropriyono led the spy agency during the presidency of Megawati Sukarnoputri, chairwoman of the current ruling Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI-P), who was seen as a potent symbol of resistance to Soeharto's rule.
The former intelligence chief also maintains a good relationship with Jokowi and his inner circle.
Hendropriyono was implicated in the 1989 Talangsari tragedy, in which an Army battalion from the Garuda Hitam Military Command in Lampung reportedly besieged an Islamist commune in the area of Cihideung at dawn, burning houses and killing villagers across the regency and in areas around provincial military commands. He too was alleged to have been implicated in the murder of prominent human rights activist Munir Said Thalib in 2004 when Megawati was president.
Much like the student shootings and activist abductions of 1998, which were declared cases of human rights violations by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), the Talangsari incident and Munir's murder have yet to be resolved.
In fact, most – if not all – cases of human rights violations involving the military have yet to be resolved, including the 1965 massacres of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members, led by Soeharto.
Other representatives of the New Order regime include, among others, Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan and Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi, both retired Army generals.
The involvement of the so-called "faces of the New Order" in Jokowi's administration revives what Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid refers to as "the rebirth of neo-developmentalist authoritarianism", as a result of Jokowi's fixation on attracting investment that echoes Soeharto's legacy as Bapak Pembangunan (the father of development).
It has also preserved the politicization of cases of human rights violations by treating human rights as a security risk, said Anton Aliabbas, a security analyst at the Imparsial human rights watchdog.
"Security actors have become political instruments. And it remains a great challenge to take legal action against the excesses of security-related policies," Anton said. "Hence the impunity."