After 25 years of reform, Indonesia’s democracy back on slippery slope

The potential return of the military in civilian life and no commitment to resolve past abuses, paint a grim picture of democratic backsliding.

Dio Suhenda

Dio Suhenda

The Jakarta Post


Never forget: A student walks past May 12 Reformation Park in Grogol, West Jakarta, on Wednesday. The park was built in memory of four students who were killed in a demonstration demanding reforms in May 1998, when riots also took place targeting those of Chinese descent.(JP/Dhoni Setiawan)

May 22, 2023

JAKARTA – Twenty-five years since the start of the Reform era, which had carried the hopes for democracy and stronger civil rights, the nation finds itself in a familiar position, with renewed efforts to bring back what observers fear to be the hallmarks of the autocratic New Order regime.

Beginning on May 12, 1998, Jakarta was consumed by ten days of racially-charged rioting that shook the entire country, sparked by a student-led peace march that went awry. Four Trisakti University students were shot to death by security apparatus and chaos ensued.

Soeharto eventually stepped down on May 21 that year, and the Indonesian armed forces crucially stepped away from their role in civilian affairs, allowing democracy to flourish.

But now, hard-won civil liberties are under attack and the Indonesian Military (TNI) eyes a return to prominence through a proposed revision to a law that, if passed, may see even more active and retired military officers enter politics and the civilian bureaucracy.

“The democracy we fought for is one where the TNI is responsible solely for protecting the nation’s sovereignty from foreign threats,” Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid told The Jakarta Post.

“But if the military is allowed once again to return [to public office], it will become a threat to the country’s democracy, since it puts soldiers back in front of the people,” said Usman, who was a Trisakti student at the time of the riots.

The proposed TNI Law revision is the latest attempt, activists say, to further entrench the military in civilian life, following last year’s move by the Home Ministry to install active and retiring officers as interim regional leaders in a process that many had deemed lacking in transparency.

Skeletons in the closet

For many, the May riots remain a big blot in the nation’s history. Subsequent governments have been criticized for letting the violence, which encompassed rape, murder, looting and arson, go unanswered.

A state-sanctioned fact-finding team has reported that 50 women were raped in the midst of the chaos, and that some 1,200 lives were lost, even though it is likely to be more.

And although President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in January became the first Indonesian leader to acknowledge the riots as “gross human rights violations” and showed remorse, activists such as Usman insist that offering apologies was not enough.

“Rioting, looting and sexual violence are part of the collective memory that is closely tied to May 1998,” he stated. “Unfortunately, to this day, there has been no concerted effort from the government to resolve this.”

Indonesian International Islamic University (UIII) political analyst Philips Vermonte concurred, saying that this was homework left unfinished since the start of the Reform era.

In recent occasions commemorating the riots, families of the fallen victims criticized the state’s decision to prioritize non-judicial settlement over bringing perpetrators to trial.

Failing democracy?

The potential return of the military in civilian life, as well as the absence of commitment to resolve past rights abuses, have served to paint a grim picture of democratic backsliding, one fraught with attacks on civil liberties and the systematic undoing of democratic institutions.

Many observers have pointed to the new Criminal Code as evidence that aspects of the New Order era are rearing its ugly heads once more. Despite widespread protests, lawmakers passed into law last year a new code replete with draconian provisions that many fear would stifle freedom of expression and privacy, among others.

Insults to the president and other state institutions have been upheld over national security interests, and protesting without permission is banned if it “harms the public interest.” Adultery and cohabitation, previously in the realm of privacy, are now regulated by the state.

Concerns of a failing democracy have not been helped by repeated attempts by Jokowi’s political allies, a coterie of surviving New Order relics, to extend the presidential term limits beyond what the Constitution has mandated.

Chronic corruption was also on the rise as the country’s ranking on the global Corruption Perception Index last year fell to the worst point since Jokowi took office in 2014. Instead of bringing together a line-up of model citizens, the government became a potent source of graft convicts.

Immanuel Ebenezer, head of the ’98 Activist Association and the Jokowi Mania (JoMan) volunteer group, suggested that the President was forced to face the “insurmountable” task of dealing with power-hungry oligarchs.

“It’s all because of the oligarchs and their kleptocracy actively trying to control democracy,” Immanuel was recently quoted by as saying.

“They are the ones taking food off of the people’s plates.”

Others argued that the problem is institutional. “The democratic system in Indonesia is just not strong enough. If it was, democracy would prevail no matter who the president is,” Philips told the Post recently.

“We have the institutions to safeguard democracy, but the culture [to uphold it] is just not there.”

The dean of UIII’s social sciences faculty suggested that a strong democratic culture should start from the nation’s political elite.

“[The 1998 demonstrations] paved the way for a direct multi-party election system. Everything is set up to be democratic, but I am not sure if the parties themselves have a functioning internal democratic system,” he said.

Meanwhile, senior political researcher Siti Zuhro of the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) said next year’s elections would be the biggest stress test for Indonesia’s “still-fragile” democracy.

She pointed to the recent problems in law enforcement as a reason to be concerned about the 2024 election, in addition to the repeated efforts to delay the polls.

“It’s impossible to have a healthy election if the law enforcement system supporting it isn’t healthy either,” the analyst said on Wednesday.

Siti was referring to the recent trials involving two police generals, one found guilty of premeditated murder and another serving life for drug trafficking.

A lower court has also recently overstepped its jurisdiction by calling for a delay to the elections.

“How can we be sure that the 2024 election will be free of any malicious attempts to delegitimize it?” she asked. (tjs)

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