Magazine article New Internationalist

Indonesia: Power of Protest

Magazine article New Internationalist

Indonesia: Power of Protest

Article excerpt

'WHAT do they think about Indonesia in your country?' asks an Indonesian student, as we wait for a taxi in Jakarta. He adds with a cheeky grin: 'Do they think we are still rioting?'

It is true that many Westerners doubted my sanity in visiting Indonesia at this 'unsafe' time. But I replied: 'Well, people in Australia know the election happened and there was no violence then. And this makes them happy,' I reply.

This answer pleases him. His posture straightens and he says proudly: 'Yes, there was no violence. It was democratic. It's good.'

I had been told that Jakarta was smoggy, crowded and ugly. But, amidst the locals' frenzy and excitement over their newly won ability to speak, vote and hope to recreate freedom, I could pay little attention to the scenery. For anyone who has become disillusioned, bored or blase about democracy, Jakarta is the place to rediscover what politics is meant to be all about.

This year Indonesia had only the second free national election in its entire history. The collection of 17,000 islands had a variety of local rulers till the Dutch colonized the country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When they finally left and Indonesia won its independence after World War Two, a new form of colonialism from within took their place - the island of Java dominates a centralized system of political and military rule.

This began under the populist independence leader Sukarno who was elected President in the last free elections in 1955. But it reached the height of its oppression under General Suharto, who violently took power ten years later (see box). For the next 32 years, a form of elite and military rule controlled land, natural resources, the legal system, bureaucracy, business and freedom of speech. It became stronger and more vigorous with age, mimicking eternity. A joke circulated in Jakarta that an Egyptian mummy rose to life and saw in his tomb an American, an Australian and an Indonesian. The mummy, in a rather arrogant tone, said he'd never heard of the US or Australia and said their two nationals must be frauds. But the mummy jovially asked the Indonesian: 'Tell me, is Suharto still the Javanese King of Indonesia?'

The first to challenge Suharto, in the mid-1990s, were the students who pounded the city streets with their idealistic visions of democracy, arguing for an end to the military's unquestioned power and for freedom of speech. The reporters chased them with their tape recorders, collecting their evermore-ready soundbites. Some academics and intellectuals stopped pussyfooting about and joined in. Then the economic crisis hit in 1997: the price of rice quadrupled and employees were sacked or saw their wages fall by 77 per cent. Faced with no job to go to and a seemingly ineffectual government response to economic disaster, almost everyone joined the protest - from stock-brokers to sweatshop slaves.

The shooting by snipers of four students at Trisakti University on 12 May 1998 triggered rampages and the city erupted into rioting. In the days that followed, seemingly as a part of the military's crackdown and subsequent attempts to present themselves as restorers of law and order, organized gangs roamed the streets. Around 1,900 people died, hundreds of rapes were committed and $265 million worth of damage was done to property.

Fortunately, this terror did not dent the courage of the demonstrators. In one dramatic rally they actually occupied the parliament building and scaled its roof, as shown on the cover of this magazine. At the end of May, Suharto was forced to step down and a provisional President, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, took his place. Habibie agreed to hold free elections, and around 100 million people voted in June this year - making Indonesia the world's third biggest democracy. (Political commentator Olle Thornquist notes it is actually the second biggest since so few Americans actually vote.)

Even though the election rallies are over by the time I arrive in Jakarta, the protests continue while the votes are being counted. …

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