1998 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 5.0
Civil Liberties: 4
Political Rights: 6

Ratings Change

Indonesia's political rights rating changed from 7 to 6, its civil liberties rating changed from 5 to 4, and its status changed from Not Free to Partly Free, following an easing of restrictions on freedoms of association and expression in the wake of President Suharto's May 1998 ouster.


Peaceful student protests, mounting anger over the cronyism and corruption that brought Indonesia's economy to its knees, and a final explosion of rioting and mayhem in Jakarta and other cities swept President Suharto out of office in May 1998 after 32 years of often brutal authoritarian rule. Suharto's failure to plan for the inevitable transition left the world's fourth most populous country, once cynically hailed by some as a paragon of political stability, tottering at an historical crossroads. His successor, Vice President B.J. Habibie, inherited Indonesia's most severe economic crisis in a generation, including soaring unemployment and severe food shortages. By year's end, the Suharto-era power structure remained largely intact while students, trade unionists, human rights activists, and journalists continued to push Habibie into legalizing many once-banned activities, and the new president outlined plans for elections in 1999.

President Sukarno proclaimed Indonesia's independence from the Dutch in 1945. Following a left-wing coup attempt in 1965, the Army Strategic Reserve, headed by then-General Suharto, led a slaughter of an estimated 500,000 suspected Indonesian Communist Party members. In 1968, two years after assuming key political and military powers, Suharto formally became president.

Under Suharto's highly-centralized regime, economic development lifted millions of Indonesians out of poverty. But the president's family and cronies held interests in some 1,200 companies and controlled key trading monopolies. Rampant corruption drained state resources. In addition, authorities heavily restricted political and social freedoms. Suharto allowed only three political parties: the ruling Golkar; the Christian, nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI); and the Muslim-oriented United Development Party (PPP). However, neither the PDI nor the PPP functioned as a true opposition, and the 500-seat parliament had little independent power. In theory, the 1,000-member People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), consisting of the parliament plus 500 appointed members, elected the president and vice president every five years. In reality, the MPR merely rubber-stamped Suharto's decision to hold another term.

In 1996, a government-backed, rebel PDI faction ousted Megawati Sukarnoputri – the daughter of the first president and the leading opposition figure – as PDI leader, touching off the worst rioting in the capital since the mid-1970's. The May 1997 parliamentary elections followed a violent campaign. With the government having banned Megawati and several other PDI figures from running, the PPP became the party of protest. Official results gave Golkar 74 percent of the vote; the PPP, 22 percent; and the PDI, 3 percent.

By early August, the growing Asian financial crisis had forced the government to float the rupiah. Years of profligate borrowing and poor investment decisions had left Indonesian companies with some $80 billion in debt owed to foreign banks. As money began fleeing the economy, Indonesian companies began selling rupiah to cover their dollar-denominated debts. This triggered a vicious circle, as the rupiah's slide brought companies even closer to default. In late October, the government agreed to a $43 billion International Monetary Fund-led stabilization package conditioned on banking sector reforms and a reduction in trading monopolies owned by Suharto's relatives and cronies.

By January 1998, the rupiah's 70 percent tumble from its July level had caused food prices to skyrocket. Attacks against the ethnic Chinese minority, which had been accelerating in number since 1996, continued across Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, and other parts of the archipelago. Because Suharto had allowed a handful of ethnic Chinese to become prominent tycoons, many Indonesians accused ordinary ethnic Chinese traders of having gained their wealth through government connections. Many of the attacks appeared to be orchestrated, leading to speculation that the government was instigating the riots to deflect attention from the economy.

By February, students began demonstrating across the country over soaring prices and unemployment. These protests later made unprecedented demands for Suharto's resignation. Suharto repeated his pledges to reform the economy but took little action.

On March 11, Suharto had the MPR re-elect him for a seventh term. As protests intensified, police often violently attacked students who tried to take campus demonstrations into the streets.

In early May, Suharto raised prices for fuel, public transportation, and electricity by as much as 70 percent, provoking rioting in Medan and Ujung Padang. On May 12, security forces shot and killed six students during a demonstration at Jakarta's Trisakti University – the first students killed in several months of demonstrations – setting off three days of devastating riots across the country. Organized groups, believed by some to be soldiers, instigated deadly arson attacks on ethnic Chinese businesses, raping and killing ethnic Chinese women. The official National Commission on Human Rights later reported the rioting killed at least 1,188 people in Jakarta, mainly looters trapped in burning stores, and faulted security forces for failing to curb the mayhem.

The deaths of the Trisakti students caused unprecedented calls for Suharto's resignation from within the establishment, and soldiers allowed students to stage a sit-in at the parliament building. With his support among rank-and-file soldiers clearly crumbling, Suharto resigned on May 21. He was immediately succeeded by Vice President B. J. Habibie, a long-time crony with little support in the political and military establishments. General Wiranto, the defense minister, consolidated his position over the armed forces by demoting General Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto son-in-law and the commander of the strategic reserves.

During the summer and fall, students continued demonstrating to demand Habibie's resignation, early elections, an end to the military's formal role in politics, and an investigation into Suharto's wealth. Habibie released some political prisoners, scrapped the ban on political parties, and ended numerous bans on freedom of expression and association. In November, a special session of the MPR scheduled fresh elections for June 1999, to be followed by an MPR session in August that will elect a new president. In December, prosecutors questioned Suharto on corruption allegations and indicated that charges could be forthcoming. Forbes magazine has estimated Suharto's personal wealth at $16 billion, and his family's overall wealth at $40 billion.

The country's political outlook is unclear. After three decades during which Suharto forcibly depoliticized society opposition figures have few grassroots connections to draw upon. Not surprisingly, many of the new political parties have formed around existing Muslim organizations. Some fear that this could introduce religion into politics for the first time in decades. Perhaps the best-positioned presidential candidate is Amien Rais, a Suharto critic and the leader of the urban Muslim-based, 28-million strong Muhammadiyah organization. Megawati Sukarnoputri is also expected to compete as the PDI's candidate on a secular, nationalist platform.

Indonesia also experienced a severe social crisis. Poverty had returned to mid-1970's levels; inflation leveled off but only after reaching an annualized rate of 82 percent in the first three quarters; and food prices were still punishingly high. With the banking system paralyzed by bad loans and corporate bankruptcies mounting, the economy was expected to contract 13.7 percent for the year, with tens of millions of people facing severe poverty and hunger. The hardship was blamed for the sporadic rioting, arson, and looting against ethnic Chinese businesses that continued throughout the archipelago.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Indonesians lack the democratic means to change their government. While many of the tight restrictions on political activity and free expression that characterized the Suharto era have been lifted, the existing power structure will remain in place at least until the June 1999 parliamentary elections. Even then, the presidency will continue to be indirectly elected. Under the doctrine of dwifungsi (dual function), the armed forces are responsible for territorial defense and for maintaining internal cohesion. The military currently holds 15 percent of seats in national, provincial, and district legislatures, and it is not yet clear whether they will be forced to relinquish this perogative. Moreover, the overarching consensus-oriented Pancasila philosophy, which Suharto had used to justify restrictions on human rights, is still considered to be the guiding state ideology. While the 1999 elections will undoubtedly be freer than the tightly-controlled exercises that took place under Suharto, the government has yet to articulate fully the electoral laws and rules.

The most severe rights' violations occur in Aceh, East Timor, and Irian Jaya (separate reports on East Timor and Irian Jaya appear in the Related Territories section). In the resource-rich Aceh province on the tip of Sumatra, the military's counterinsurgency operation against Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) separatists peaked between 1989-92, although there have been continuing reports of killings, incommunicado detentions, and other abuses. In April, the New York-based Human Rights Watch estimated that hundreds of Acehnese are being detained without charge or trial. In early August, Defense Minister Wiranto offered an unprecedented apology for past army abuses in Aceh, and pledged to withdraw fully combat troops from the province. Several weeks later, rioting flared as the last contingent of soldiers pulled out. Soldiers fired on rioters and the army postponed the withdrawal. Some observers accused the military of instigating the unrest as a pretext for maintaining troops in Aceh. Also in August, the Legal Aid Foundation, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) with branches throughout the country, said that 10 mass graves had been found in the province, believed to contain the remains of hundreds of people killed by soldiers during counterinsurgency operations in the early 1990's.

The judiciary is not independent and is rife with corruption. The executive branch appoints and can dismiss or reassign judges at will. Police frequently torture suspects and prisoners.

Human rights groups have documented an apparently organized campaign of attacks, public gang-rapes, and killings of ethnic Chinese women in several cities during the mid-May riots, with at least 100 women and girls attacked in Jakarta alone. Numerous human rights groups have accused soldiers of instigating and participating in the attacks. In the ensuing months, activists investigating the attacks received death threats, and in October unknown assailants brutally murdered an ethnic Chinese woman in Jakarta who had counseled the rape victims.

The Agency for Coordination of Assistance for the Consolidation of National Security (BAKORSTANAS) has wide latitude in curbing alleged security threats. The Habibie government has maintained the 1963 Anti-Subversion Law, which Suharto had used to imprison hundreds of political prisoners for peaceful dissent. In April, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) released a report on six anti-subversion trials that it observed in 1997, which it said were characterized by improper procedures, witness tampering, and other irregularities. The ICJ criticized the Anti-Subversion Law for allowing authorities to detain suspects for up to one year without charge, which it said contributed to torture and ill-treatment of detainees. The Suharto government had also jailed hundreds of people, many of them political dissidents, under sedition or hate-sowing statutes, and had frequently cited alleged Communist threats to chill free expression and justify crackdowns on political and social activists.

In the months after taking office, Habibie released several political prisoners, including labor leader Muchtar Pakpahan. However, several dozen political prisoners are still jailed, including Dita Indah Sari, a labor activist who in 1997 received a six-year term for organizing a 1996 strike.

Under Suharto, security forces violated human rights with impunity. While it is too early to detect any real improvement, the new government has taken the positive measure of acknowledging that abuses have occurred. In December, authorities opened the court martial of 11 members of Kopassus, an elite security force, on charges of kidnapping more than 20 anti-Suharto activists earlier in the year. Survivors had reported being tortured, and by year's end, at least 13 kidnap victims were still missing. However, critics charged that the soldiers were used as scapegoats to protect former Kopassus leader and Suharto son-in-law Prabawo Subianto, who had been sacked from the armed forces in August after a military inquiry found that troops under his command were responsible for abductions and torture.

Under Suharto, authorities frequently denied the permits required for public assemblies and demonstrations, and police often forcibly broke up peaceful, unsanctioned demonstrations. In 1998, student demonstrations that began in February played a pivotal role in Suharto's downfall. Police and soldiers generally tolerated campus demonstrations, but violently repelled students who tried to take their protests to the streets. As protests continued after Suharto's ouster, police opened fire on demonstrators at times, either with rubber bullets or with live ammunition. More than 15 people were killed in clashes in mid-November as students protested during a special meeting of the MPR. Earlier, in October, parliament adopted a law allowing demonstrations and guaranteeing freedom of speech. However, the law made organizers of demonstrations responsible for the conduct of participants, which could make organizers legally liable if demonstrations get out of control.

During Suharto's rule, the approximately 286 private newspapers and magazines operated under frequent threats from authorities to kill sensitive stories, and they practiced considerable self-censorship. Political coverage on TVRI and other state-owned media heavily favored Golkar. Suharto supporters own all five private television stations, and until recently, coverage favored the ex-president. However, in the weeks following Suharto's mid-March re-election, the print media began openly criticizing the president, and private television stations reported on student demonstrations and revelations of torture by the armed forces. By August, the Habibie government had issued 60 new publishing licenses, including licenses for magazines that had been banned by Suharto. However, the rupiah's slide in value sent the cost of imported newsprint soaring, forcing some provincial papers to close. In recent years, authorities had arrested several journalists associated with the independent Alliance of Independent Journalists or with underground political publications. The Alliance and other press groups now operate legally.

Under Suharto, authorities frequently imprisoned NGO activists, restricted them from public speaking, and raided their offices. The Habibie government scrapped a permit requirement for gatherings of more than ten people, and NGOs now operate more freely. However, as the October murder of a Jakarta NGO activist (see above) indicates, human rights protections in post-Suharto Indonesia are still fragile. Meanwhile, the official National Commission on Human Rights continued to gain credibility by investigating the violence that surrounded Suharto's final days in office.

In addition to being targeted for violent attacks in recent years, ethnic Chinese face severe cultural, educational, and business restrictions. Islam is the official religion, and 90 percent of the population is Muslim. In recent years, numerous churches have been razed during attacks against ethnic Chinese, many of whom are Christian. Christians often have difficulty obtaining permits to build churches. Women face discrimination in education and employment opportunities. Female genital mutilation is widely practiced. Thousands of street children live in Jakarta and other cities.

In the fall, there were at least 182 murders of Koranic teachers and alleged black magicians on Java. Observers said the killings appeared to be organized, and some suspected the army's involvement.

The Habibie government ended the de facto monopoly of the government-controlled All Indonesian Workers Union. It also signed an International Labor Organization covenant on freedom of association and recognized the dissident Indonesian Welfare Labor Organization, headed by Muchtar Pakpahan. In a country where the military frequently intervened on behalf of factory owners in labor disputes, workers are now holding their largest strikes in decades. Yet actual guarantees for labor rights remain poor, and factory owners routinely ignore minimum wages, dismiss labor activists and strike leaders, and physically abuse workers.

In addition to the wholesale graft and influence-peddling carried out by the Suharto family, corruption is pervasive at all levels of government. Ordinary citizens reportedly must pay bribes to receive routine services, and security forces frequently take bribes to ignore labor abuses and other civil liberties violations.

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