Indonesia had one of the most tumultuous years in its modern history: economic collapse spurred student-led demands for political reform, bringing President Soeharto's three-decade rule to an end in May. His successor and protegi, Vice-President B.J. Habibie, tried to distance himself from his patron by releasing political prisoners, lifting political controls, and setting a timetable for free elections, but these measures won him little legitimacy from a skeptical populace.
The army, traditionally the country's most powerful institution next to the president, appeared weaker than any time in recent memory as more and more evidence of past abuses came to light. Rising prices, food shortages, and massive unemployment led to outbreaks of violence throughout the year, much of it directed against the small ethnic Chinese minority, widely resented for their disproportionate control of the retail economy. Poor but resource-rich provinces used the newly open political atmosphere to demand more economic autonomy.
These demands, together with major progress in negotiations between Portugal and Indonesia over political autonomy for East Timor and renewed pro-independence activity in Irian Jaya, led to the renewal of a long dormant debate about federalism as well as widely expressed fears for the country's disintegration.
By year's end, there was no sign of economic recovery, and it was impossible to know whether Indonesia was on its way to pluralist democracy, prolonged upheaval, or both.
The year began with the free fall of the Indonesian currency, an outbreak of anti-Chinese riots, and the beginning of student protests with a view to influencing the outcome of the planned session in March of the unopposed "re-selection" of President Soeharto by Indonesia's version of an electoral college. The economic decline and political unrest were both exacerbated by Soeharto's announcement on January 21 that B.J. Habibie, an unpopular Cabinet minister with a penchant for expensive showcase projects such as a national airline industry, was his choice for vice-president. Soeharto's son-in-law, Gen. Prabowo Subiyanto, helped fuel anti-Chinese sentiment by making veiled references to "traitors" who took their money abroad.
As campus protests escalated and security tightened in February, well-known political activists began to "disappear," abducted from their homes or workplaces in what was clearly an organized operation. On March 10, Soeharto was duly reappointed to a seventh five-year term, and the consensus among political observers at home and abroad was that only violence in the streets followed by army intervention, or Soeharto's death, could prevent him serving out the full term. Discontent escalated with the announcement on March 14 of a new Cabinet that included Soeharto's daughter and several cronies; it was seen as a clear sign that Soeharto had no interest in reform of any kind.
Student protest became a lightning rod for demands for change, gaining widespread support from the middle class and among the political elite, including parts of the military. International outrage over the "disappearance" of activists and pressure for clarification of their whereabouts led to the led to the creation of a new organization, Kontras, to work on behalf of the families of the "disappeared," and to the eventual resurfacing of several young men in April and early May. Pius Lustrilanang, the first to give a public account of his abduction, torture, and detention, set an example for others; the evidence they produced pointed directly to the involvement of the army special forces, Kopassus, and to General Prabowo, former Kopassus commander.
On May 4, the government announced a gasoline price hike, fulfilling strictures set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Riots erupted immedately, with the worst violence in Medan, North Sumatra, much of it anti-Chinese. On May 9, Soeharto left the country for a meeting in Egypt. On May 12, four students were shot dead, apparently by army or police snipers, following a demonstration at Trisakti University in Jakarta. The next day, the worst violence Jakarta had seen in decades broke out and continued for three days, with security forces standing by as mobs torched Chinese shops and homes. Over 1,000 died, many of them non-Chinese shoppers or would-be looters trapped in burning shopping malls. Foreign embassies and companies evacuated staff and dependents, and thousands of Chinese-Indonesians fled the country.
President Soeharto cut short his visit to Cairo and returned home, but it was too late. Political support among those closest to him had evaporated, and by May 19, student protestors had occupied the national parliament building, with tacit military endorsement. Promising at first to step down after new laws were drafted and an election held at some indeterminate time in the future, Soeharto then bowed to public pressure (and the resignation of half his Cabinet); on May 21, he turned over power to Vice-President Habibie. In a development of almost equal import, General Wiranto, commander of the armed forces and defense minister, emerged the victor in a power struggle with General Prabowo, whose allies were suspected not only of the "disappearances" but also of shooting the Trisakti students and organizing the Jakarta riots. (In August, Prabowo admitted his role in the "disappearances" to a military investigating board and was dismissed from the army; in September, it was announced that he would be court-martialled, even though he was now a civilian.)
President Habibie formed a new Cabinet that dropped the most notorious cronies and political hardliners, but his efforts to include opposition figures failed; such was his association with Soeharto that none agreed to serve. Within days, he announced a series of steps designed to demonstrate his reformist credentials, including the release of two of the country's best-known political prisoners, labor leader Muchtar Pakpahan and former opposition parliamentarian Sri Bintang Pamungkas. By late August, more than one hundred other prisoners had been freed, with the notable exception of East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao; Budiman Soejatmiko, Dita Sari, and other political organizers associated with the leftist People's Democratic Party (Partai Rakyat Demokratik or PRD); and several men linked to a coup attempt in 1965.
In June, Habibie announced an "action plan" for human rights that included ratification of key human rights treaties. By the end of the year, the government had ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the International Labour Organization's Convention 87 Concerning Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize.
Ordering the Justice Ministry to draft new laws on political parties and elections to be presented to the People's Consultative Assembly in late 1998, Habibie also lifted controls on political party formation, including a Soeharto-era ban on the PRD. By September, more than seventy parties had registered with the Home Ministry, most of which were likely to lack the mass base necessary under a new draft law to compete in parliamentary elections.
The print and broadcast media enjoyed virtually full freedom after Soeharto's fall for the first time in thirty years, and well over one hundred licenses for new publications were issued by the Ministry of Information between June and August. The news magazine Tempo, banned in 1994, reopened in October. A controversial draft law on demonstrations was tabled in July, designed to place curbs on any demonstrations of more than one hundred persons. The National Human Rights Commission and rights activists denounced the bill as a curb on internationally recognized rights, and by October, it had become the first piece of legislation in years defeated by popular protest. (A less restrictive version was passed in its place.)
July saw a number of issues come to the fore that remained unresolved by the end of the year. Violence against the ethnic Chinese, and ethnic Chinese women in particular, was one. Soon after the May riots in the cities of Jakarta, Solo, and Surabaya, reports began to emerge of mass rapes and other forms of sexual assault against ethnic Chinese women in a systematic, organized fashion. The reports were followed by graphic descriptions and photographs that appeared on the Internet and that became the basis for public protests from Beijing to Los Angeles. General Wiranto announced in June that an army investigation had uncovered no evidence of rape; rights organizations said victims were too frightened or traumatized to come forward or had fled the country. The government appointed a fact-finding team to look into the May violence, including rape, on July 24. (As of late October, the team had not issued its final report.) In August, the Internet photos were conclusively proven false, and questions had arisen about some of the rape data initially collected. Advocacy groups reporting the rapes meanwhile were subjected to harassment and theats from unidentified callers, while racist groups emerging in the new climate of free speech played on the fear of ethnic Chinese by warning of new assaults on the community. The murder in October of Ita Martadinata, a Jakarta woman whose mother was deeply involved in the rapes investigation, only increased that fear.
Also in July, a series of pro-independence demonstrations broke out in towns across Irian Jaya on the anniversary of a 1961 proclamation of independence by an armed nationalist group, the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM). In Jayapura and Biak, the army opened fire after attacks on local security personnel. One student and one policeman died in Jayapura; the death toll in Biak was at least one demonstrators and perhaps more, as the military tried to suppress information on casualties. Rights groups said the demonstrations had been inspired in part by a letter sent on May 22 by members of the US Congress, urging, among other things, a political dialogue on Irian Jaya. The deaths fueled separatist sentiment, coming as they did after revelations in May of grave human rights abuses in the area around Mapnduma, Jayawijaya district, during military operations there in 1996-97 following the army's rescue of hostages taken by the OPM.
These revelations, as well as new evidence on the widespread atrocities in Aceh, a region on the northern tip of Sumatra, during counterinsurgency operations there in 1990-91, generated pressure on the government to look more systematically into past abuses. (The deportation of hundreds of Acehnese "migrants" from Malaysia in late March caused an international outcry, as some of those sent back were clearly refugees who had fled Aceh in the early 1990s and had good reason to fear persecution in Indonesia.
In August, as the National Commission on Human Rights was looking into the possiblity of setting up a "truth commission" for Indonesia, a respected Muslim leader, Abdurrahman Wahid, announced the establishment of a non-governmental Commission on Truth and National Reconciliation to look into past abuses in Aceh, Irian Jaya, and East Timor. Not to be outdone, the government in early September announced the formation of a National Reconciliation Commission, a body whose mandate did not appear to include exposing the truth or seeking justice.
Attention to past military abuses also led to demands for troop withdrawals in special security zones called "military operation areas" (daerah operasi militer or DOM). Most of Aceh was considered such an area, as were parts of Jayawijaya district in Irian Jaya. In August, General Wiranto apologized to the people of Aceh for the abuses they had suffered and declared the "DOM" status revoked. But on September 2, as troops began to leave from the city of Lhokseumawe, popular anger boiled over. Violence directed against the departing soldiers soon turned into a more general riot, amid accusations that the rioting had been sparked by the military elements themselves to ensure their continued presence in Aceh (where some had lucrative commercial operations).
On East Timor, the UN brokered an agreement between the Habibie government and Portugal on August 5 in which both sides committed themselves work toward an agreement on "wide-ranging autonomy" for the former Portuguese colony considered by Indonesia to be its twenty-seventh province and by the UN to be under Portuguese administration. Indonesia agreed to drop its insistence that a precondition of negotiations must be acceptance of Indonesian sovereignty, although it continued to reject the idea, widely supported inside East Timor, of a referendum on independence. Pro-independence demonstrations took place before and after the agreement, without interference from the army. Shortly before the agreement was signed, Indonesia announced it was pulling combat troops out of the territory, but days after the first 398 were pulled out, another 263 "army health personnel and police" were sent in. By August, some 1,000 soldiers had been sent home, but East Timorese leaders did not consider the withdrawals significant, as thousands of troops, not considered "combat" forces, remained in place.
In September, fresh violence broke out across the country as the impact of the economic collapse became increasingly felt. Riots in Medan and Bagan Siapi-api in North Sumatra and in Kebumen and Cilacap, Central Java were particularly violent, with Chinese shops and homes again targeted. The government's response included allegations that the unrest was due to "communist" forces.
Beginning in July, murders began of suspected practitioners of black magic in East Java by mysterious groups of men called ninjas. By October, over 140 people had been killed, and over ninety of those belonged to one Muslim organization, the Nahdatul Ulama (NU). The NU had aligned itself with popular opposition leaders Megawati Soekarnoputri against President Habibie, and its leaders and the East Java police were among many suggesting the ninjas were linked to the army. By late October, revenge killings against suspected ninjas had begun.
The reform process continued to lurch forward, with a major debate shaping up on the role of the armed forces and the announcement in September of the repeal of the hated Anti-Subversion Law that had been used repeatedly by Soeharto to detain political opponents.