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In a changing Indonesia, some fear a backlash against freedoms | Political news

In a changing Indonesia, some fear a backlash against freedoms |  Political news


Medan, Indonesia On the morning of May 21, 1998, Soeharto, then leader of Indonesia, stood at the presidential palace and addressed the nation.

For weeks, protesters have filled the streets amid soaring fuel, cooking oil and rice prices in the wake of the Asian financial crisis.

The unrest had spread to cities across the country. Shops and businesses belonging to the country’s ethnic Chinese have been attacked and there have been violent clashes between protesters, mostly students, and security forces. On May 12, four students were shot dead during a protest at Trisakti University in Jakarta. In total, more than 1,000 people were killed and cases of rape of ethnic Chinese women were reported.

After 30 years in power, the military strongman, sometimes referred to as the Smiling General, has announced his resignation with immediate effect.

Suharto announces his resignation.  Its vice-president BJ Habibie is standing nearby, and there is an Indonesian flag behind it.  Suharto reads from a sheet of paper
Indonesian President Soeharto announces his resignation as his Vice President BJ Habibie looks on from the presidential palace in Jakarta [File: Agus Lolong/AFP]

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

The administration of the charismatic Soekarno, which led Indonesia to independence from the Dutch in 1945, grew increasingly chaotic and in 1965 a failed coup attempt led to the murder of millions of suspected communists .

Amidst the chaos, the emergence of Soehartos in 1968 was initially greeted with optimism. Many hoped that his administration of the New Order would bring calm and prosperity.

But despite its early promise, the modernizing New Order ended up embodying a highly centralized government focused on consolidating power, and an emboldened military designed to support Soeharto and his determination to stay in the presidential palace no matter what. the price.

Since his surprise resignation, Indonesia has embraced democracy, albeit imperfectly, and had five different presidents chosen in free and independent elections.

FILE PHOTO: Indonesian President Joko Widodo votes during 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 choose 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 gathering in Bali last year as its current president, Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, also tried to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine.

There have been challenges, however, and concerns that legislation, including the new Penal Code and Omnibus Act, and the rise of extremist religious groups could erode hard-won freedoms over the past 25 years. . There have also been accusations that some of the corruption, cronyism and nepotism that marred the Suharto years still runs rampant across the country.

On the anniversary of one of Indonesia’s most significant historical moments and with the next presidential elections scheduled for February 2024, Al Jazeera asked activists, scholars and human rights defenders how the country had changed in the 25 years since Soeharto’s dramatic fall from power. .

Andreas Harsono, researcher at Human Rights Watch Indonesia

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

There have been 45 anti-LGBT regulations and at least 64 mandatory hijab regulations, out of more than 700 rules in post-Soeharto Indonesia. Of course, the most important is the new Criminal Code.

Damai Pakpahan, feminist activist

Indonesia changed drastically for at least the first five years after 1998. Many laws and policies changed, focusing on women and women’s agenda. We got the Elimination of Sexual Violence Act in 2004 under former President Megawati Soekarnoputri and in 2007 we got the Anti-Trafficking Act under President 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, after lobbying by feminist groups. Last year we had the new Sexual Violence Eradication Act.

Women’s interests are now heard by the state at the legal level. But we also face a backlash where women and girls cannot freely choose what they want. The rise of conservative Islam has forced some women, girls and even babies to wear the hijab. We also have a backlash in the form of discriminatory or unconstitutional local laws around Indonesia that primarily target women and minority rights.

Yohanes Sulaiman, Lecturer in International Relations at Jenderal Achmad Yani University

At the time, I was in Madison, Wisconsin in the United States. I don’t remember when I found out about 9/11 but, if I’m not mistaken, I read about Soeharto’s downfall online.

At that time, when people held protests or public demonstrations, cities were eerily quiet in Indonesia. Shops were closing and students had to go home quickly and quietly. We were very afraid of the military. They were basically the kings because they were in power.

Today, I think they are much less arrogant, more approachable and more law-abiding. When I was a kid, I saw an officer stuck in a traffic jam. He simply got out of his car, slapped a traffic cop and told him to drive his car forward. I was flabbergasted. I think the status of the Chinese has changed a lot too and to some extent for the better. I think people are less discriminatory these days, of course, except for the usual suspects.

Ian Wilson, Lecturer in Political and Security Studies at Murdoch University

I was doing my PhD at Murdoch University in Perth and watched Soehartos’ resignation on campus television with excitement, but also apprehension. We just saw this wave of people saying No, we’ve had enough. It happened so fast.

There was no fundamental electoral democracy in Indonesia before 1998 and we have seen great structural reforms in this area which have been imperfect but important. Greater regional autonomy means a new generation of Indonesians have grown up with a different set of political expectations of power. Government is now expected to be clean and to serve the public good.

Although there has of course been some democratic backsliding, public support for electoral politics has remained high and people support public elections. This prevents the wishes of political parties from taking over the system so that they can control it. It is now more difficult for the elites to get things done. The next few years after the 2024 elections will be fundamental for Indonesia.




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