1999 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 3.5
Civil Liberties: 4
Political Rights: 3

Ratings Change

Indonesia's political rights rating changed from 4 to 3 due to growing efforts by parliament to transform itself into a check on presidential power.


Just months after he took office, opposition politicians began calling in mid-2000 for Indonesian President Abdurahman Wahid to resign or be impeached for alleged corruption and for failing to deal with violent separatist conflicts, sectarian violence, weaknesses in the military chain of command, and economic malaise. Wahid's parliamentary supporters accused opposition legislators of misusing their authority, and were pledging late in 2000 to keep the president in office.

Following a four year, intermittent war against the Dutch colonial rulers, Indonesia achieved full independence in 1949. After a series of parliament-led governments collapsed, the republic's first president, Sukarno, concentrated power in the presidency in 1957 under a so-called "Guided Democracy." Amid continued political turbulence and economic decline, the Army Strategic Reserve, headed by General Suharto, crushed a coup attempt in 1965 that it blamed on the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). The army reportedly backed the subsequent massacre of some 500,000 suspected PKI members, many of them ethnic Chinese. Suharto assumed key political and military powers in 1966 and formally became president in 1968.

Suharto's autocratic "New Order" regime forcibly depoliticized society and gave control of key companies and trading monopolies to the president's family members and cronies, while launching development programs that helped lift millions of Indonesians out of poverty. Suharto allowed only three political parties: the ruling Golkar; the nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI); and the Islam-oriented United Development Party (PPP). However, neither the PDI nor the PPP worked as a true opposition, and the 500-seat parliament had little independent power. Every five years the 1,000-member People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), which consisted of the parliament plus 500 appointed members, formally approved Suharto's decision to hold another term.

The regional financial crisis that began in July 1997 contributed to a sharp fall in the value of the rupiah, as highly leveraged companies sold the currency to cover dollar-denominated debts. By January 1998, the rupiah's slide had sent food prices soaring. Following months of unprecedented anti-government demonstrations, the deaths of four student protesters on May 12, and three days of urban riots in mid-May, Suharto resigned on May 21. Vice President B. J. Habibie, a long-time crony, became president.

While 48 parties contested Indonesia's freest elections in decades on June 7, 1999, the three Suharto-era parties and two parties linked to long-standing Muslim groups won the most seats. Final results for the 462 contested parliamentary seats (38 seats are reserved for the military) gave the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), the successor to the PDI and led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the first president, 154 seats; Golkar, 120; PPP, 58; the National Awakening Party, led by Wahid, the leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim social group, 51; the National Mandate Party (PAN), led by Amien Rais, the former leader of a 28-million-member Islamic social organization, 35; and 16 other parties, 44.

Meeting to choose a president from among competing candidates for the first time, the MPR elected Wahid president and Megawati vice president in October 1999. The vote came after Habibie withdrew his candidacy amid controversy surrounding a bank scandal, his decision to drop a corruption probe into charities controlled by Suharto, and his policies that culminated in East Timor's independence in September.

Seeking to assert control over the military, in February 2000, Wahid suspended from the cabinet the last armed forces commander under Suharto, General Wiranto. The move came one month after an independent commission called for the attorney general to investigate Wiranto and 32 other officials over the military's alleged backing of militias that committed widespread abuses in East Timor in 1999.

By the spring, opposition legislators increasingly criticized Wahid over his seemingly aloof leadership style, scandals involving his private masseur and the rice distribution agency, and the controversial arrest in June of the central bank governor on corruption charges. Opponents also denounced Wahid for failing to curb separatist violence in Aceh and West Papua and violence along religious lines in the Moluccas, where the Associated Press estimated in mid-June that clashes between Christians and Muslims had killed more than 3,000 people since January 1999. Sectarian violence also flared in Sulawesi and Lombok.

By mid-year, investors had sold the rupiah to 16-month lows on fears that the government would fail to meet its commitments to the International Monetary Fund to privatize debt-laden state companies, reform the largely insolvent banking system, and restructure private sector debt. During the August MPR session, Wahid responded to growing calls among lawmakers for his resignation by reshuffling his cabinet and ostensibly handing day-to-day management of the administration to Megawati. The PDI-P pledged in November to support Wahid until his term expires in 2004, but a group of MPs led by Rais, the PAN leader and current MPR speaker, continued to call for Wahid's removal.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

While Indonesians can elect their legislators through elections, much of the Suharto-era political system remains in place. The president holds key executive powers but is indirectly elected, and the military holds seats in parliament. However, the MPR voted in August to scrap the military's 38 seats in 2009, and parliament is transforming itself into a forum for debate and a check on presidential authority.

The 1999 parliamentary elections were reasonably free although not entirely fair. Several domestic groups said that Golkar supporters illegally used welfare funds for campaigning and had tried to bribe voters. The election laws continued to require parties to accept the consensus-oriented Pancasila philosophy that Sukarno and Suharto had used to limit political mobilization. The law also hampered the formation of regional parties by requiring parties to show support in one-third of Indonesia's provinces in order to contest elections.

While the rule of law is weak throughout the country, the most serious human rights violations occurred in West Papua (see separate report in the Disputed Territories section) and to an even greater extent in Aceh, a resource-rich province of 4.6 million people in northern Sumatra. The army continued to be implicated in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, rape, and other abuses against suspected members or sympathizers of the separatist Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) insurgency. The guerrillas reportedly carried out extrajudicial killings of soldiers and of civilians who allegedly assisted the army, while intimidating the population and raising money through extortion. In November 1999, Aceh Merdeka leaders rejected Wahid's offer of a referendum on autonomy for the province.

The government and Aceh Merdeka secured a ceasefire in May and extended it in September until January 2001. However, Amnesty International said in September that despite the ceasefire, by some estimates 120 people had been killed since June, mainly civilians, and "abductions, torture, and unlawful killings are taking place on a daily basis throughout Aceh." Aceh Merdeka pulled out of scheduled peace talks in mid-November after 38 people were killed as police tried to block access to a pro-independence rally that drew some 400,000 people in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

Another area of concern was West Timor, where the United Nations Security Council and Western governments criticized Indonesia's failure to disarm pro-Jakarta militia, which used violence and intimidation to obstruct repatriation of East Timorese refugees. Some 250,000 refugees had fled to West Timor in early September 1999 to escape attacks by pro-Indonesian militia after East Timor voted for independence from Jakarta in an August 1999 referendum. After militia killed three UN workers in Atambua, West Timor, on September 6, 2000, the UN pulled its staff from the camps and suspended its voluntary repatriation program. By year's end, some 100,000 refugees remained in West Timor.

During the year, international human rights organizations called for investigations and trials into crimes against humanity and other crimes committed in East Timor in 1999 and into thousands of unresolved cases of extrajudicial killings, "disappearances," torture, and other abuses throughout Indonesia during the Suharto era. Authorities named 23 suspects in the East Timor violence and began some investigations, but no one had been charged by year's end. Elsewhere, the few prosecutions for human rights violations by security forces have tended to focus on junior officers and generally resulted in light sentences. In May, a court sentenced 24 soldiers and one civilian to between eight and a half and ten years in prison for shooting to death 57 students and teachers in Aceh in July 1999. While the sentences were some of the heaviest punishments ever given to Indonesian soldiers, critics said they were too light and that authorities had failed to punish the commanding officers.

Parliament approved a bill in November authorizing tribunals to try past human rights abuses including crimes against humanity, provided that both the president and parliament approve any such ad hoc tribunal. However, Indonesia currently does not have laws on crimes against humanity or torture, and it was unclear how the new law would be interpreted in light of a July constitutional amendment passed by the MPR affirming that criminal laws cannot be applied retroactively.

The moves to hold security forces accountable for past abuses occur in the context of efforts to redefine civil-military relations. While the military still has parliamentary seats, legislators have created the legal basis for civilian control over the military. This replaced the longstanding doctrine of dwifungsi (dual function), which gave the military a formal role in both defense and politics. Wahid appointed a civilian defense minister in 1999 but at times appeared unable to control the armed forces, which are poorly supplied, lack effective leadership, and are prone to breakdowns in the chain of command. Some human rights groups accused security forces of fomenting violence in the Moluccas by supporting rival factions.

Another unresolved issue from the Suharto era concerned the huge fortunes amassed by the former president and his family. Following lengthy preliminary proceedings, Jakarta's district court said on September 28 that it was dropping all corruption charges against Suharto on health grounds. A September 13 explosion at the Jakarta Stock Exchange that killed 15 people was the latest and deadliest in a series of bombings that coincided with major developments in the corruption case against Suharto.

Wahid has made some efforts to reform the judiciary, including naming new judges to replace Suharto cronies and creating an ombudsman's office to investigate judicial misconduct. However, the judiciary continued to have limited institutional capacity, and corruption remained a problem. Anecdotal evidence suggested that security officers continued to torture suspects to secure confessions and to abuse prisoners. Prison conditions continued to be poor.

The government generally respected freedom of expression and tolerated opposing political views. The private print media reported relatively freely on all aspects of politics. Radio and television are both public and private.

Student organizations, trade unions, and other groups regularly held peaceful demonstrations. Legal aid, human rights, and environmental nongovernmental organizations operated fairly freely, although numerous activists and humanitarian workers have reportedly disappeared or been killed in Aceh. The official National Commission on Human Rights continued to criticize abuses by the armed forces and in January implicated senior military officers in the violence in East Timor in 1999.

Violent attacks against the ethnic Chinese minority continued, although there were far fewer attacks than in Suharto's last years in office. The government maintained some cultural, educational, and employment restrictions on ethnic Chinese citizens, although authorities permitted the community to celebrate publicly the Lunar New Year for the first time since 1967. Women continued to face unofficial discrimination in education and employment opportunities. Anecdotal evidence suggested that in the Muslim community female genital mutilation continued to be practiced widely.

Workers can join independent unions, bargain collectively, and hold strikes. However, employers frequently ignored minimum wage laws, dismissed labor activists and strike leaders, and occasionally physically abused workers.

In the Berlin-based Transparency International's 2000 corruption Perceptions Index, Indonesia tied for 85th place out of 90 countries with a score of 1.2 on a 0 to 10 scale. The top-ranked and least corrupt country, Finland, received a 10. In the absence of adequate judicial and administrative enforcement, property rights remained fairly weak.

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