Indonesia marks its 20th anniversary as a democracy this month. The country won its independence from the Netherlands in 1945. But, for 30 years, the military ruler Suharto led the country. He resigned in 1998 as a result of the Indonesian Reformasi, or reformation.
Now, 20 years later, many Indonesians are examining the promises kept and broken during its democratic experiment.
The democratic experiment
President Suharto, a former army general, seized power in 1965 after his military killed as many as one million suspected communists, opposition supporters and minorities.
Suharto helped make the Indonesian government more modern. But he also restricted civil liberties. And he used his power to increase his family wealth by tens of billions of dollars.
Suharto resigned on May 21, 1998. The country was in economic and political crisis. There were years of huge protests and riots. Ethnic Chinese became victims of targeted killings and other attacks. Western countries also pressured Suharto to resign in answer to human rights abuses in East Timor.
After his resignation, freedom of speech laws were established in Indonesia. This permitted the growth of an independent media. Conservative Islamists also gained greater power. They formed the Islamic Defenders Front in 1998 and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council in 2000. It supports rule by Islamic law, called sharia.
Freedom of expression
In May of 1998, Indonesian novelist and filmmaker Richard Oh, lived in Pluit, an ethnic-Chinese neighborhood of North Jakarta.
He told VOA he remembers seeing trucks of young men destroying homes, and attacking and raping ethnic Chinese women in apartments near his home.
Oh later wrote two books based on those events, The Pathfinders of Love and The Heart of the Night.
Oh said the subject of free speech is complex. He said it is not as if there was no freedom of expression under Suharto and total freedom in the democratic era. During Suharto’s rule, Oh said, there was some non-political artistic expression. Now, in his words, “there is the Information and Electronic Transaction Law that could be invoked by anyone. Freedom of expression has also been usurped by intolerance… and, more importantly, disregard for social unity.”
Andreas Harsono sees the situation a little differently. While media freedom is not perfect, he says, it has surely improved since the Reformasi.
Harsono is a Human Rights Watch researcher, former reporter, and creator of Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists.
He also said that civil society is getting stronger.
Harsono argues that the biggest issue facing Indonesian democracy is the relationship between Islam and the state of Indonesia. He described it as “problematic.”
He added that the Reformasi has not succeeded in ending discriminatory rules and government departments, such as the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Also critics argue that Indonesia has not dealt with many human rights abuses of its recent past. Public discussion of the mass killings of the mid-60s is rare. And, little action has been taken about calls for investigations of that violence.
Indonesian human rights activist Maria Sumarish says even current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the first non-military president in Indonesia, has not been successful on human rights.
“President Jokowi committed to resolve cases of gross human rights violations and to end impunity for them,” she said, adding that there have never been any steps to do this. She also expressed her concern over the appointment of several Suharto allies to important positions in government.
Still fighting corruption
Indonesia may have problems to face 20 years after the Reformasi. However, its “experiment” produced what remains the world’s third-largest democracy today.
The country has seen some success in fighting corruption. Just in April, the former speaker of the Indonesian legislature, Setya Novanto, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for stealing money.
Novanto is one of the most powerful Indonesian politicians ever to be found guilty for corruption.
Adnan Topan Husodo of Indonesia Corruption Watch called the decision, “a new milestone for anti-corruption efforts in Indonesia.”
I’m Phil Dierking.
This story was originally reported by Krithika Varagur for VOANews.com. Phil Dierking adapted the story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
How do you feel Indonesia is moving forward since becoming a democracy? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
commit - v. to make (someone or something) obligated to do something
communist - n. a person who believes in communism or is a member of a political party that supports communism
disregard - v. to ignore (something) or treat (something) as unimportant
impunity - n. freedom from punishment, harm, or loss
intolerant - adj. not willing to allow or accept something
invoke - v. to mention (someone or something) in an attempt to make people feel a certain way or have a certain idea in their mind
milestone - n. an important point in the progress or development of something
society - n. people in general thought of as living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values
usurp - v. to take and keep (something, such as power) in a forceful or violent way and especially without the right to do so