1998, A Year of Living Precariously

The Suharto regime is entering 1998 in a state of profound crisis, unprecedented in the regime's 32-year history. During the past twelve months, the regime has suffered a number of political and economic disasters and its international reputation has been irreparably damaged. But as the regime approaches its collapse, it will do its utmost to cling on to power by reinforcing its apparatus of repression.

The escalation of repression in occupied East Timor since the award of the Nobel Prize to Bishop Belo and Ramos-Horta in December 1996 has exposed the regime to unprecendented scrutiny and condemnation at all levels of the international community.

1997, a year of escalating political and economic crisis

For the first time since Suharto took power, the general election in May 1997, the sixth to be held under Suharto's New Order, was exposed to the world as a sham. The enforced removal of Megawati Sukarnoputri as chair of the PDI in 1996 and the bloody assault on the party's head office on 27 July provoked nationwide indignation and worldwide condemnation. More than 20 million people turned their backs on the event by refusing to take part. The forces of democracy succeeded in turning this attempt to legitimise the regime into a mockery. There is growing support within civil society for an end to the army's dual function, the repeal of the corporatist political laws of 1985, and an end to the authoritarian Suharto regime that has ruled the country since 1965.

Outbursts of social unrest across Java, in West Kalimantan and Bandjarmasin reveal the extent to which the New Order regime has stifled channels for the democratic resolution of economic and social conflicts. In many cases, the security forces were themselves targetted by local communities incensed by economic changes imposed from above in total disregard for people's basic interests and needs. The many attacks on police command posts reflect widespread revulsion for this arm of the armed forces in its role as the advanced guard, defending corrupt local government officials.

For nearly six months, forest fires raged in Kalimantan and Sumatra, destroying at least one and a half million hectares of tropical forest and caused a deadly smog to blanket large areas of Indonesia and the region of South East Asia. Timber companies which enjoy the protection of the regime were clearly identified as the culprits. The fires also exposed the regime to intense international condemnation for its failure to respond with effective measures and its disregard for the human misery caused by the calamity.

In July, the Indonesian economy was plunged into a grave monetary and economic crisis, the repercussions of which are likely to endure for many years. The 'economic miracle' so highly praised by western governments, financiers and investors has suddenly ground to a halt. For years, Indonesian people were led to believe that economic development - 7 percent annual growth and the much vaunted elimination of poverty - would promote the nation's prosperity and that the sacrifice of basic democratic rights was a price worth paying. As the myth crumbles, the regime's claim to legitimacy has come under renewed challenge.

The economy was brought to its knees by crippling foreign debts doled out to the private sector, especially to politically well-connected companies and banks. The foreign influx of capital was used primarily for projects unrelated to people's welfare, for speculative property ventures and prestige projects. The fifty per cent fall in the value of the rupiah since the crisis began has caused disarray in the private sector, resulting in bankruptcies and layoffs. Prices of basic commodities have risen sharply, driving millions already on the poverty line to destitution. Heavy cutbacks in the construction and manufacturing sectors have already thrown hundreds of thousands out of work; the level of unemployment is set to rise in all parts of the country.

A bailout worth $38 billion, announced in October by the International Monetary Fund, has failed to stop the rot caused largely by uninhibited capital accumulation by the extended Suharto Family and their cronies, by a corrupt and self-serving banking system, and a system of monopolies protected by the bureaucracy. Virtually all Indonesian economists agree that collusion, corruption and nepotism lie at the heart of the crisis.

The crisis has been further aggravated by prolonged drought that has led to falling living standards in the Javanese countryside and famine in other islands. The drought has taken a particularly heavy toll in West Papua where up to a thousand people are estimated to have died since July and a quarter of a million villagers are at risk from starvation and famine-related diseases. The bitter irony is that while the death toll rises inexorably because of the lack of aircraft to deliver urgently needed relief supplies, the Freeport/Rio Tinto copper-and-gold mine continues to extract millions of dollars in profits for the US and UK based companies and for Nusamba, a company which is run for Suharto by one of his closest business associates, Bob Hasan.

Prospects for 1998

The security forces have already been placed on high alert in anticipation of political unrest leading up to the March session of the MPR at which Suharto will be appointed to serve a seventh term as president. Uncertainty about the dictator's state of health and the veil of secrecy over moves to appoint his vice-president and likely successor are symptomatic of the political morbidity of the regime. A country of two hundred million people ia being held to ransom at a moment of grave crisis as Suharto plots and schemes, pondering his options in order to safeguard his personal wealth and the continuation of authoritarian military rule. The most striking aspect of the political scene in Indonesia today is the deep chasm between the open clamour in civil society for change from top to bottom and the paralysis within elite circles with no one daring to challenge an ailing, greedy and power-hungry dictator to step down. As the New Order struggles with its own internal convulsions, civil society is turning its thoughts to the post-Suharto era when political structures will have to be overhauled and the basis for a genuine democratic state will have to be laid.

Not satisfied with the array of special powers already in his hands, Suharto has demanded that the MPR re-instate special emergency powers that he felt confident enough to relinquish ten years ago.

Events during the past year have shown that the New Order regime has lost control of people's thoughts and actions; its credibility is at an all-time low. The worsening economic crisis can only accelerate the process.

Corporatist management of society was first challenged six years ago by the independent trade union, the SBSI, which has survived despite persistent harassment. Two years later, journalists created the Alliance of Independent Journalists, AJI which has become a major source of alternative reporting. Megawati's election in 1993 to chair one of the three officially-endorsed political parties leading to her removal three years later, was followed by courageous initiatives to set up alternative political parties, first the Peoples Democratic Party, PRD, then the Indonesian Democratic Unity Party, the PUDI.

Leaders of all these alternative political organisations, having affirmed their right to exist in accordance with the universal freedoms of association and expression, have been or are now serving heavy sentences or facing trial. Until 1996, the regime made do with laws about 'sowing hatred' or 'showing contempt for the head of state' to secure convictions. But in the past year, the draconian anti-subversion law which carries a maximum penalty of death has been taken out of the closet and used on a scale unequalled since the post-1965 show trials which were staged to destroy the Indonesian Communist Party and its millions of followers.

Today, people are facing subversion charges not only for setting up alternative parties but even for disseminating leaflets or for being grassroots NGO activists. The slightest expression of criticism by anyone with a political following is now branded as subversion.

On the labour front, strikes and disputes were running at a rate of three a day even before the economic crisis struck. The level of unrest can only escalate as redundancies begin to bite, wage levels are frozen, unemployment soars and traditional holiday bonuses fail to materialise at a time of falling living standards.

East Timor

As Bishop Belo has stated on a number of occasions, the level of repression in East Timor worsened dramatically during 1997. The crackdown has extended also to East Timorese students in Java. But the very structures created by the forces of occupation are turning against their masters, even including privileged East Timorese who became members of the local or national assemblies or senior officials in the puppet administration.

The meeting last July between Nelson Mandela and the jailed leader of the East Timoresr resistance leader, Xanana Gusmao, greatly enhanced the reputation of the resistance internationally. In an attempt to turn the tide of public opinion, the forces of occupation are now trying to brand the resistance as 'terrorist' on the basis of unsubstantiated reports about the killing of civilians, who almost certainly died at the hands of the occupiers.

Yet despite the strength of international support for East Timor and strong pleading from Mandela, Suharto and the armed forces show no signs yet of making even minimum concessions. It is becoming increasingly obvious that radical change in East Timor is dependent on fundamental political change in Indonesia, ushering in a democratic system of government. The looming crisis in Indonesia is the best hope for fundamental change in East Timor.

1998, a year of living precariously

For human rights activists around the world, the coming year is likely to see dramatic changes in Indonesia which will require more actions to support the pro-democracy forces and further enhance Indonesia's reputation under Suharto's rule as a pariah state.

There are two possible scenarios. The changes could be peaceful, paving the way for a civilian takeover. They could however be violent should Suharto die in office, leading to conflict between the vice-president who will automatically take power and military circles unhappy with the new dispensation. This would bring in its wake more state violence and human rights abuses, even possibly a bloodbath.

1998 will be especially significant for TAPOL which celebrates its 25th anniversary in August. We are looking forward to a year of greater activity than ever, alongside solidarity groups around the world. We hope in particular that the solidarity movement for East Timor will broaden its horizons to encompass solidarity for the pro-democracy movement in Indonesia. The two are human rights issues which are inextricably linked.

London, 31 December 1997

KdP Net
Sun, 4 Jan 1998

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