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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

HOW MUCH FREEDOM?

Indonesia is moving at its own pace toward democratic reform. But political activists sometimes pay a heavy penalty for going too fast for the government

By Keith Loveard in Jakarta


TWENTY MONTHS IN PRISON for helping two dissident journalists distribute material offensive to the government. As the sentence was handed down in Jakarta's Central Criminal Court on Aug. 24, Danang Kukuh Wardoyo looked stunned. The 18-year-old office boy stood silent for a minute, unsure what to do, before walking over to talk to his lawyers. In the gallery, a few activists shouted abuse at the judges, but the show of defiance did not last long. After eight days, the trial of Indonesia's youngest political prisoner was over.

"I am very disappointed," Wardoyo told Asiaweek in the court room. "I am not a criminal. All I did was sweep the floors and make the coffee." The pathos of his case was underlined a week later when the two journalists he was accused of assisting, Ahmad Taufik and Eko Maryadi, appeared in the same court. Watched by a packed gallery of sympathizers, the members of the rebel Alliance of Independent Journalists were each sentenced to 32 months' imprisonment - setting off pandemonium in the corridors as protesters taunted security guards.

As Suharto's presidential term approaches its end, Indonesia waxes and wanes between openness and authoritarianism. A period of press freedom that began in 1992 ended last year when three publications, including the respected Tempo newsweekly, were closed. This year, a succession of political arrests has gone hand-in-hand with moves to improve the human rights of former political prisoners and to scrap a system that required any gathering of more than five people to be licensed by the police. In Indonesia, knowing how far protest - or even criticism - can go without tempting arrest is an elusive skill.

Just a few years ago, things were more clearcut - and more bloody. I recall arriving in a village in East Timor shortly after the day in 1991 that troops killed as many as 100 demonstrators in the capital, Dili. As I watched, the military were carrying out intensive searches of vehicles. While it is true that a close encounter with armed soldiers can be unnerving for anyone, the look of sheer fear in the eyes of one woman as she got down from a bus told me more about what had been going on than any eyewitness account ever could.

Some people have tried to explain why the troops behaved in the way they did in Dili; others have said the killings can never be forgiven. But one thing is certain: that day still represents the darkest moment for civil rights in post-independence Indonesia. All that happened before and has happened since is measured against it. So, how does 1995 compare with 1991?

These days, many Indonesians are undoubtedly concerned about the state of human rights. Others feel that tough government action is the price that has to be paid for national unity. "There are so many different groups and so many different views among us that there has to be some limit to freedom," says a Jakarta worker. "We are not ready for democracy and freedom of speech. It would only lead to chaos."

Former home affairs minister Rudini believes that economic growth dictates that a balance has to be struck between freedom and control. "All countries have some combination of security approach and prosperity approach," he says. "The question is how long the military should be in a dominant position." Anyhow, he says, democracy is growing. "There has been a lot of progress in freedom of speech over the past 10 years, but it will take time before we can enjoy, and handle, the level of freedom of, say, the U.S. or western Europe."

While political control at the top levels of society may be loosening, acceptance of the status quo is still taught in classrooms and mosques in villages and towns across the country. One graduate recalls her compulsory social work in a village in Java. "I was horrified to hear the preacher telling everyone they had to accept their position in life, accept the fact that they could never have anything more. They were telling people that the rich were born to be rich, and they were born to be poor."

Indoctrinated or not, most Indonesians do accept the state of the nation's politics, and have few arguments with it. In the main, their lives are better than they were a decade ago and their daily tasks are little affected by lofty concepts of freedom or democracy. A young Indonesian journalist now working for the BBC in Britain agrees: "Seeing Indonesia from London makes it look all bad, a succession of problems. But when you get home, you see it in a different perspective. For most people, things are not so bad."

For all that, visiting regions such as Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, where a separatist movement was bloodily suppressed in the late 1980s, is an oddly disconcerting experience. At times of trouble in these areas, smiles are rare and people watch you pass with guarded expressions on their faces. Are they frightened that being friendly with strangers might be misunderstood by the ever-present military? Whatever is going through their minds, it is clear they do not like what is happening to their lives.

Those Indonesians who persist in fighting the system, however respected they may be, can expect it to fight back. Sri Bintang Pamungkas, until earlier this year a parliamentarian with the Muslim-based United Development Party, faces trial on charges of insulting Suharto. The accusations spring from a visit the president made to Germany last April, when he was met with violent protests. On his return to Jakarta, Suharto said his government would take stern measures against any Indonesians involved in the incidents. Pamungkas, who was in Germany at the time on a lecture tour, is accused of helping to organize the demonstrations and of calling Suharto a "dictator" during a lecture. While he agrees he did witness one of the protests, he denies any involvement in organizing them. Last month he was named by army chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Suyono as one of 15 people behind an "organization without form" linked to the banned Communist Party of Indonesia. Pamungkas has privately acknowledged he expects to go to prison for up to six years.

Conditions for political prisoners are usually better than for ordinary criminals. Veteran journalist Mochtar Lubis, jailed by both the Sukarno and Suharto regimes, recalls being approached by the prison governor during one of his incarcerations and asked if he had trouble with his teeth. "When I told him there was nothing wrong with my teeth, he told me there should be, because then I could have a weekly visit to my dentist. Every week after that, I was taken home for an afternoon to see my family." Other prominent prisoners have also received special facilities. Subandrio, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister under Sukarno, lived in his own cottage on the grounds of Jakarta's Cipinang Jail until his release in August.

But activists who have worked against the unity of Indonesia can expect no such treatment. Luhut Pangaribuan, a director of the Legal Aid Institute who has defended many critics of the government, says that when he visited Aceh last year, he discovered prisoners who had been held for years without trial. Others who were brought to trial had suffered physical mistreatment during detention. Human rights sources allege that other Aceh militants simply disappeared. "Only the lucky ones get as far as court," says one activist.

Many lawyers believe the creation of an independent judiciary is a more important prerequisite to genuine freedom than any move at this stage toward greater democracy. "Before the judges try a case, the decision is already in their pockets," says Pangaribuan. "The courts are easily controlled by the government. From the beginning, we always knew it would be difficult to win a political trial." But a few recent cases - notably last week's defeat of the government in the Administrative Appeal Court over the revocation of Tempo magazine's publishing license - suggest that some judges are now more prepared to be independent.

The work of lawyers is made more difficult by intimidation. When Pangaribuan represented Fretilin leader Xanana Gusmao, who for more than a decade had fought Indonesian troops in East Timor, the Dili courtroom was invariably packed with military intelligence officers in plain clothes. No local people were brave enough to show their faces. Gusmao was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1993, later reduced to 20 years. In a 1993 case in Jakarta in which he unsuccessfully challenged the need for permits for meetings, Pangaribuan came out of the court building to find three of his car tires had been slashed and acid had been thrown over the paintwork. He acknowledges that his wife, who is a law lecturer, sometimes suggests it would be better for him simply to be a well-paid commercial lawyer. But he says his family has been able to adapt psychologically to the constant pressure and now considers it normal.

A.M. Fatwa says intimidation was for a long time a factor in his life. A leading member of the progressive Muhammidiyah Islamic organization, he was also an outspoken activist with the Petition of 50 - a prominent grouping of government critics who in 1980 called on Suharto to justify his rule before Parliament. After being subjected to a number of bans, including limitations on traveling, Fatwa was routinely pulled in by the intelligence services and held for as long as a week. He was finally jailed in 1984 for being the instigator of a Petition 50-backed "white paper" criticizing the official version of anti-government riots at the Jakarta port of Tanjung Priok. In that incident, about 100 local demonstrators were gunned down by soldiers. Sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment, Fatwa was released in 1993 after what he describes as an improvement in the political climate, paired with submissions to the president by then minister of religion Munawir Sjadzali.

It is generally believed Fatwa was singled out for prosecution because of his popularity with Muslims at a time when many were increasingly dissatisfied with the government. He says: "There was a plot to arrest, try and sentence me heavily, as a form of shock therapy not only to me personally, but also to the people as a whole, and especially to Muslims." The activist is nervous about talking to the press, since his release is conditional on his good behavior. But that does not stop him sometimes speaking candidly about what happened to him. "I and my family were the victims of terror," he says. "I tried to express the aspirations of the people for justice, and there was a risk involved in that. I had to accept that risk. There's no point in being sorry about it, or in being sick at heart at what happened to me. Nor I do feel any need for revenge."

Political soothsayer Permadi says he enjoyed his five months in jail, before and during his trial on charges - trumped up, he says - of insulting Islam. Permadi, who claims to be able to forecast the political future of Indonesia, was accused of describing the Prophet Muhammad as a dictator at a seminar last year. "In prison, I made friends with all the robbers, murderers and rapists, and they were all protecting me," he says. "All the hoodlums too. Now if I have any trouble, all I have to do is get in touch with their friends." Permadi was jailed for seven months by a Jogjakarta court, and then released days after the sentencing last August. He is now awaiting appeal. Thousands demonstrated outside the court when he was sentenced.

Like Fatwa, Permadi sees his arrest and trial as a deliberate attempt to remove him from the public stage. In an interview with the Sunday edition of Media Indonesia, produced under contract by former employees of Tempo, he said his trial was a conspiracy. "I've been told this by a number of sources, including senior military and police officers. They said the word was that Permadi had to be tried for whatever reason that could be found, so long as he was tried." He believes the aim of his prosecution was to sideline him until at least the next elections in 1997.

The soothsayer told the newspaper: "I do not want a revolution, but if demonstrations are stopped and petitions are refused, a revolution will certainly occur. That is the law of nature, the law of God." Permadi's comments led publisher Surya Paloh to voluntarily close the Sunday paper for a month, in a bid to forestall what many believed would be a revocation of his license. Two weeks later, in a discussion with Asiaweek, Permadi had no qualms about repeating his prediction. "Nobody wants a revolution, but if the government never provides an answer to the aspirations of people, there will be one."

While many of Indonesia's most prominent political prisoners are now free again, their places behind bars have been taken by a new generation of dissidents. Best known abroad is Fretilin leader Gusmao, but there are also hundreds of separatists from Aceh, Islamic idealists from Lampung and a new wave of journalists and pro-democracy activists, many of them from Jakarta itself. Also in detention are a number of soldiers. They have been either sentenced or are waiting to go before a court martial for allegedly using unnecessary force in incidents this year in Irian Jaya and East Timor. That the military should be held accountable this way is seen as a definite sign of progress on the civil rights front. This, though, will be little consolation for Danang Kukuh Wardoyo, who is serving his 20-month sentence in Jakarta's Salemba prison, in the company of the capital's petty criminals.


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