Usman Said surveys the stainless steel plaques bearing the names of his fallen classmates at Trisakti University in Jakarta. Twenty years ago this week soldiers gunned them down amid escalating protests that within days would topple the dictator Suharto.
Snipers that day held off ambulances, leaving the young men in their early 20s to bleed to death. Said, who now heads Amnesty International in Jakarta, takes some solace that their deaths weren’t in vain. “We have freedom of assembly and speech and the press,” Usman says. “These freedoms are what we fought for.”
By any objective measure Indonesia’s democratic transition, or Reformasi, has been a success. Power has transferred peacefully between five presidents – two of them directly elected. Simmering conflicts in Aceh and elsewhere were eventually quelled with devolved powers and autonomy.
“Compared with where we started in 1998, it is significant that power is being alternated between administrations through electoral means,” says Philips Vermonte, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.
Back then a financial crisis erased more than 80 per cent of the rupiah’s value against the dollar. The government, which then subsidised fuel, was forced to hike prices more than 70 per cent owing to pressure from the IMF and international lenders. That drove up the price of everything from rice to instant noodles.
A series of reforms restored confidence. The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), set up in 2003, went after crooked politicians, judges and public officials. It remains popular. Decentralisation of political power that granted local governments sway over education, health, environment and other areas made it tough for another strongman to take Suharto’s place.
“It was a necessary down payment to bring peace and democracy at the time,” says Vasuki Shastri, author of Resurgent Indonesia: From Crisis to Confidence.
Devolved powers and the right of citizens to elect everyone from district chief to president have helped cultivate a crop of political reformers, including the incumbent, President Joko Widodo.
Widodo, known to everyone as Jokowi, made a name for himself first as mayor of the mid-sized town of Surakarta and then governor of the capital Jakarta with common sense initiatives both big and small. In Surakarta, he moved street vendors away from busy thoroughfares to ease congestion and offered free health care to the poor. In Jakarta, he started long delayed infrastructure projects including the MRT, or Mass Rail Transit, system.
Buttressing this emerging crop of leaders was a free press and a ballooning middle class. Indonesia’s experiment with democracy contrasts sharply with failed recent attempts from Libya to Cambodia.
But Indonesia’s endemic graft, while less pronounced now, has proved a hard habit to break. Entrenched elites, some dating back to the Suharto era, and a surge of religious conservatism has stalled momentum for reform.
Take decentralisation. At a stroke in 1999, Suharto’s successor, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, devolved authority. The move gave local governments the right to levy taxes. It also gave the localities a piece of the roughly US$50 billion Jakarta doles out in transfer payments every year. The aim was to make government more accountable to local sensitivities rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of Suharto and Sukarno, who lead Indonesia to independence.
In most cases, though, the effort amounted to a boondoggle for local elites. Setting up a local government was a sure way to tap into public funds. The number of provinces, regencies – the next level of administration – and municipalities ballooned to 536 from 325 before decentralisation. Corruption metastasised from Jakarta throughout the country. The KPK has jailed 90 governors, regents and mayors in the 15 years since it was established.
Corruption has also rendered the country’s courts unreliable, undermining the country’s hard won freedoms and its prospects for extending economic growth, says Professor Tim Lindsey, an Indonesian legal expert at the University of Melbourne.
The result is an unreliable and opaque judicial system that inconsistently enforces the law. That’s a problem when each ministry can churn out dozens of regulations per month. The criminal code comprises roughly 800 articles. The country’s hard won freedoms and economic prospects are at risk, Lindsey says. “There is no shortage of laws but they are inconsistently enforced, if at all,” Lindsey says. “If people and businesses feel courts are too risky they will find alternatives.”
Last year the Supreme Court reprimanded or delayed promotions for 40 lower court officials for taking bribes. None were fired. In 2014 the KPK jailed for life the former chief justice of the constitutional court, Akil Mochtar, for taking bribes to influence elections. “The prevalence of corruption in the judiciary is a severe obstacle to systemic reform,” Lindsey says.
And while Widodo’s cabinet has largely avoided scandal, political reform has stalled. Widodo ran from a promise during the 2014 campaign to reserve cabinet posts for experts. Instead he resumed the practice of bartering plum positions to forge alliances in parliament. Widodo opposed reforms that would make it easier for parliamentary parties to nominate candidates for presidential election. The result is a cabinet filled with three former Suharto-era generals. One, Wiranto, who uses one name, is wanted by the UN for crimes against humanity for atrocities committed by the Indonesian military in East Timor while he was their top general. Another, Luhut Pandjaitan, Widodo’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs, has said publicly he doubts the existence of mass graves of victims from the country’s 1965 anti-communist purges.
Widodo’s administration has been conservative and cautious. It is considering revisions to the criminal code that would ban all sex outside marriage and make it a criminal offence to defame the president.
“What’s surprising about Indonesian democracy after all this time is how much of it remains on a knife’s edge,” O’Rourke says. “Authoritarianism has been a recurring risk since the fall of Suharto.”
Also crimping reform is the country’s 2008 blasphemy law, which made illegal public expression deemed insulting to one of the country’s six official religions. So far, 100 people have been charged under the act and 19 jailed – including the reformist governor of Jakarta, Basuki Purnama, after a court ruled he had insulted the Koran while campaigning.
“This law is used to corner progressives and politicians like Ahok who try to bring reform,” says Human Rights Watch analyst Andreas Harsono, referring to Purnama’s nickname.
While religiosity blooms here, extremists push their agenda. This week, families of Islamist militants, including children as young as eight, carried out five attacks in Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya. It was a reminder that the violence that helped oust Suharto two decades is not far away.
At Trisakti, Said recalls having gone home soon before the soldiers opened fire because late afternoon rain had mostly dispersed the protesters. No one in authority was made to account for his classmate’s murders, including Wiranto.
Democracy can’t be taken for granted, he warns. “Suharto’s cronies are gone,” he says. “But they can come back.” ■