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


Medan, Indonesia – On the morning of May 21, 1998, the then leader of Indonesia, Suharto, stood in the presidential palace and addressed the nation.

For weeks, protesters had filled the streets amid rising prices of fuel, cooking oil and rice due to the Asian financial crisis.

The unrest had spread to cities across the country. Shops and businesses belonging to the country’s ethnic Chinese were attacked and there were violent clashes between protesters – mainly students – and security forces. On May 12, four students were shot dead during a demonstration at Trisakti University in Jakarta. Overall, 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, also known as the Laughing General, announced that he would step down with immediate effect.

Indonesian President Suharto announces his resignation as his Vice President BJ Habibie watches at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta [File: Agus Lolong/AFP]

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

The administration of the charismatic Sukarno, who led Indonesia to independence from the Dutch in 1945, became increasingly chaotic, and in 1965 a failed coup led to the deaths of millions of suspected communists.

Amid the chaos, Suharto’s rise to power in 1968 was initially greeted with optimism. Many hoped that his New Order administration would bring peace and prosperity.

But despite its early promise, the modernization of the New Order eventually came to epitomize a highly centralized government focused on consolidating power, and an emboldened military designed to defeat Suharto and his determination to remain in power at all costs. presidential palace to continue to support.

Since his surprise resignation, Indonesia has embraced democracy, albeit imperfectly, and five different presidents have been elected through free and independent elections.

FILE PHOTO: Indonesian President Joko Widodo casts his vote in 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 elect 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 meeting in Bali last year as the current president, Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, also sought to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine.

However, there were challenges and concerns that legislation including the new Penal Code and the Omnibus Act – as well as the rise of hardline religious groups – could erode the hard-won freedoms of the past 25 years. There are also allegations that some of the corruption, cronyism and cronyism that devastated the Suharto years is still rife across the country.

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

Andreas Harsono, researcher at Human Rights Watch Indonesia

“We were not naive when we tried to overthrow Suharto rule in the 1990s, but we really did not foresee that we would see the rise of Islamism and religious fanatics in post-Suharto Indonesia with Sharia-inspired discriminatory regulations against gender, sexuality, and religious minorities.

“There are 45 anti-LGBT rules and at least 64 mandatory hijab rules, out of more than 700 rules in post-Soeharto Indonesia. The biggest is of course the new Penal Code.”

Damai Pakpahan, feminist activist

“In any case, Indonesia has changed radically during the first five years after 1998. Many laws and policies have 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 Sukarnoputri and in 2007 we got the anti-trafficking law under the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

“We also had the presidential directive on gender mainstreaming in 2000 under President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur). We also changed the age of marriage from 16 for women and 18 for men to 19 for both women and men in 2019, following lobbying efforts from feminist groups. Last year we got the new law on the eradication of sexual violence.

“Women’s interests are now represented by the state at a legal level. But we are also facing a backlash where women and girls are not free to 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 across Indonesia, which mainly target women and minority rights.”

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

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

“At that time, when people had demonstrations or public protests, Indonesia’s cities were eerily quiet. Shops would close and students had to go home quickly and quietly. We were very afraid of the army. They were actually the kings as they were in power.

“Today I think they are much less arrogant, approachable and respectful of the law. When I was a kid, I saw a cop stuck in a traffic jam. He simply got out of his car, slapped a traffic cop, and told him to move his car. I was stunned. I think the status of Chinese people has also changed a lot and to some extent for the better. I think people are less discriminatory these days, but of course with the exception of 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 saw Suharto’s firing on campus TV with excitement, but also concern. We just saw a wave of people say, ‘No, we’ve had enough’. It happened so fast.

“There was no basic electoral democracy in Indonesia before 1998 and we have seen major structural reforms in that area, which were imperfect but important. More regional autonomy has meant that a new generation of Indonesians has grown up with different political expectations of power. It is now expected that government should be clean and serve the public interest.

“While there have of course been some democratic declines, public support for electoral policies has remained strong and people support public elections. This prevents political parties from wanting to conquer the system so they can control it. It is now harder for elites to move things forward. The coming years after the 2024 elections will be fundamental for Indonesia.”


Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.