In a changed Indonesia, some fear a ‘backlash’ against freedoms

Indonesia has changed significantly since Soeharto resigned in 1998 but activists say new threats are emerging.

A couple with their daughter outside the House of Representatives. They are wearing head bands calling for reform and peace. They are sitting on the edge of the fountain with their daughter in between
Indonesians went to visit the House of Representatives after Soeharto's resignation [File: Kemal Jufri/AFP]

Medan, Indonesia – On the morning of May 21, 1998, Indonesia’s then-leader Soeharto stood in the Presidential Palace and addressed the nation.

For weeks, protesters had filled the streets amid soaring prices of fuel, cooking oil and rice as a result of the Asian Financial Crisis.

The unrest had spread to cities across the country. Shops and businesses of the country’s ethnic Chinese were attacked and there were violent clashes between protesters – mainly students – and security forces. On May 12, four students had been shot dead during a demonstration at Trisakti University in Jakarta. In all, more than 1,000 people had been killed and there were reports of rapes of ethnic Chinese women.

After 30 years in power, the military strongman sometimes called the Smiling General, announced he was resigning with immediate effect.

Suharto announces his resignation. His vice president BJ Habibie is standing nearby, and there is an Indonesian flag behind. Suharto is reading from a sheet of paper
Indonesian President Soeharto announcing his resignation as his Vice President BJ Habibie looks on at the presidential palace in Jakarta [File: Agus Lolong/AFP]

Standing next to Soeharto was his vice president, BJ Habibie, who would take over the top job and allow Indonesians freedoms that had been denied during Soeharto’s decades in power – a time when activists disappeared and the military was deployed in the restive regions of Aceh and Papua.

The administration of the charismatic Soekarno, who led Indonesia to independence from the Dutch in 1945, became increasingly chaotic and in 1965, an abortive coup attempt led to the killing of millions of suspected Communists.

Amid the chaos, Soeharto’s emergence in 1968 was initially greeted with optimism. Many hoped his New Order administration would bring calm and prosperity.

But despite its early promise, the New Order modernisation eventually came to embody a highly-centralised government that focused on consolidating power, and an emboldened military designed to support Soeharto and his determination to stay in the presidential palace, whatever the cost.

Since his surprise resignation, Indonesia has embraced democracy, if imperfectly, and has had five different presidents chosen through free and independent elections.

FILE PHOTO: Indonesian President Joko Widodo casts his ballot during elections in Jakarta, Indonesia April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo
President Joko Widodo was elected for a second term in 2019. Indonesia will choose its next president in 2024 [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

The economy has also recovered from the 1998 crisis and is now the second-fastest growing in the G20, behind India and ahead of China. Indonesia hosted the group’s annual gathering in Bali last year as its current president, Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, also tried to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine.

There have been challenges, however, and concerns that legislation including the new Criminal Code and the Omnibus law – as well as the rise of hardline religious groups – could erode the hard-won freedoms of the past 25 years. There have also been accusations that some of the corruption, cronyism and nepotism that blighted the Soeharto years still runs rife across the country.

On the anniversary of one of Indonesia’s most significant historical moments and with the next presidential elections set to take place in February 2024, Al Jazeera asked activists, academics and human rights advocates how the country has changed in the 25 years since Soeharto’s dramatic fall from power.

Andreas Harsono, researcher at Human Rights Watch Indonesia

“We were not naive when we were trying to topple the Soeharto rule in the 1990s but we really did not anticipate that we would see the rise of Islamism and religious zealots in post-Soeharto Indonesia with Shariah-inspired discriminatory regulations against gender, sexuality, and religious minorities.

“There have been 45 anti-LGBT regulations and at least 64 mandatory hijab regulations, out of over 700 rules in post-Soeharto Indonesia. Obviously, the biggest one is the new Criminal Code.”

Damai Pakpahan, feminist activist

“Indonesia changed dramatically for at least the first five years post 1998. A lot of laws and policies changed that focused on women and the women’s agenda. We got the Law on the Elimination of Sexual Violence in 2004 under former President Megawati Soekarnoputri and, in 2007, we got the Anti-Trafficking Law during the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presidency.

“We also had the Presidential Directive on Gender Mainstreaming in 2000 under President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur). We also changed the age for marriage from 16 for women and 18 for men to 19 years old for both women and men in 2019, after lobbying from feminist groups. Last year, we got the new Sexual Violence Eradication Law.

“Women’s interests are heard by the state now at a legal level. But we are also facing a backlash where women and girls are not able to freely choose what they want. The rise of conservative Islam has forced some women, girls and even babies to wear hijab. We also have a backlash in the form of discriminatory or unconstitutional local laws around Indonesia which mostly target women and minority rights.”

Yohanes Sulaiman, lecturer in international relations at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani

“At the time, I was in Madison, Wisconsin in the United States. I remember more about when I found out about 9/11 but, if I’m not mistaken, I read about the fall of Soeharto online.

“Back in those days, when people had demonstrations or public protests, the cities were eerily quiet in Indonesia. Shops would close down and students were told to go home quickly and quietly. We feared the military a lot. They were basically the kings as they were in power.

“Nowadays, I think they are far less arrogant, more approachable and more respectful of the law. When I was a kid, I saw an officer who was stuck in a traffic jam. He simply got out of his car, slapped a traffic policeman and told him to get his car moving. I was flabbergasted. I think the status of Chinese has changed a lot too and to some degree for the better. I think people are less discriminatory nowadays, though of course except for the usual suspects.”

Ian Wilson, lecturer in politics and security studies at Murdoch University

“I was doing my PhD at Murdoch University in Perth and watched Soeharto’s resignation on TV on campus in excitement, but also in apprehension. We just saw this wave of people say ‘No, we’ve had enough’. It happened so quickly.

“There was no fundamental electoral democracy in Indonesia pre-1998 and we have seen big structural reform in that area which has been imperfect but important. More regional autonomy has meant that a new generation of Indonesians have grown up with a different set of political expectations about power. There is an expectation now that the government should be clean and serve the public good.

“While there has of course been some democratic backsliding, public support for electoral policy has remained high and people support public elections. This prevents the wishes of political parties to capture the system so they can control it. It is harder now for elites to push things forward. The next few years after the elections in 2024 will be fundamental for Indonesia.”

Source: Al Jazeera