How quickly passions can turn, even against a dictator! Professional diplomats occupying ivorian towers above the streets are possibly the poorest of prophets, Roger Smith explains as he paints a first-person picture of how students led Indonesia to embrace democracy 10 years ago.
The fall of Soeharto…a perspective from the street
By Roger Smith Wednesday 21 May 2008 marks exactly a decade since the fall of arguably Asia’s most enduring 20th century dictator. One of the most striking aspects of what occurred in Indonesia at that time is just how wrong Australia’s diplomatic and academic elite were about Soeharto and his ability to cling to power. Typical of the commentary in the two years before Soeharto’s fall were these comments by former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Richard Woolcott, in an article published in the Jakarta Post daily on 31 August 1996: “It would be misguided for Australians, despite the recent political rumblings in Jakarta, to expect rapid or radical change or even serious instability in the near future in our large, restless, very different, yet very important northern neighbour”. Woolcott was not alone in his assessment. Even once the economic crisis began to bite a year later, the smart money, we were told at a briefing by the US Embassy, was still on Indonesia not being too badly affected due to its strong economic “fundamentals”. So why was it that he fell from power so ignominiously leaving political and economic ruin in his wake? And why did Indonesia chose an imperfect but relatively functional representative democracy after Soeharto, rather than another military dictatorship which some cultural relativist experts would have us believe is more suited to Indonesia’s development? Was the end of the New Order regime really so difficult to predict for observers of events in the archipelago in those final years? ANU Indonesia expert Ross McLeod recently released a paper The Soeharto Era: From Beginning to End arguing that Soeharto’s New Order regime was inherently unsustainable due to its dependence on a franchise system that necessitated ever-increasing corruption and private taxation to pay off elite interests so they would maintain their loyalty to the regime. Commenting as an ordinary Australian living in Jakarta at the time, I would say that McLeod’s analysis is instinctively correct. From a more prosaic perspective, though, Soeharto’s fall was essentially two-pronged: (1) a political crisis commencing in 1996; and (2) an economic one that followed a year later in 1997. My perspective is not that of an academic, but rather as an interested observer who was living and working in Jakarta at the time and mixing with ordinary Indonesians. This is what I saw. If there is a single day that marked the beginning of the end of Soeharto, it was 20 June 1996. I recall this as a typical, dry-season Jakarta day with smog-filled horizons during Indonesia’s boom years. A façade of high rise glitter and fancy shopping malls barely concealed the struggle of every day existence in the kampungs where the majority of the population lived. Ironically, it was a day that I had looked forward to for some time since it marked the opening of a new toll road that would finally complete the missing link between the two main ethnic Chinese suburbs of Kelapa Gading and Pluit where I taught English classes, thus enabling me to by-pass the shocking muddy slums of the northern reaches of the city. The magnificent new toll road did open that day, but it was a seemingly inauspicious event 2,000 kilometres away in provincial Medan that was to have far more serious ramifications for the future of Indonesia. The country’s rulers had decided that the daughter of Indonesia’s first President had to be removed as leader of the small Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), one of two minor political parties permitted to compete in stage-managed general elections held every five years. They did so by coercing PDI officials to convene an extraordinary party congress in Medan to unseat Megawati and replace her with a government stooge named Soerjadi. However, rather than accept the results of PDI’s Medan Congress, the party faithful fought back. Thousands of supporters, mostly drawn from the urban poor and lower middle classes, flocked to PDI’s national party headquarters in Jakarta vowing to block the newly-appointed delegates of the Congress from taking up their positions. Even more worrying for the Government, PDI HQ quickly became a rallying point for pro-democracy activists. Day after day, speakers lined up to deliver speeches criticising Soeharto’s regime. Suddenly, the inconsequential matter of the leadership of a minor Indonesian political party was starting to generate unprecedented international interest. An Indonesian journalist resident at the local boarding house where I lived was filing stories about PDI’s leadership with an Italian news outlet. A street demonstration by thousands of Megawati supporters ended in a violent clash with the military outside Gambir Train Station on the same day as the Medan Congress. Rumours were that a protester had been killed. I was surprised to hear this incident reported that same evening by an Australian satellite TV station that we were able to receive at the English language school where I worked. But the incident was strongly censored in the local press and most Indonesians knew nothing of what had occurred. The PDI crisis caught Soeharto off guard. He had not expected such a strong reaction to Megawati’s removal. So, in the early hours of 27 July 1996, he arranged for the party headquarters, by now packed with the PDI supporters, sympathizers and activists, to be violently attacked in a raid led by armed thugs. A number of people were killed in this attack. Riots broke out in the surrounding neighbourhoods and many large buildings were burnt and destroyed. What is interesting, however, as the crackdown grew over the following months in the lead-up to the May 1997 general elections, is that the bulk of the urban-dwelling populace of Java viewed the government’s crude maneuverings with increasing distaste and even disgust. Each measure taken against Megawati to block her from competing in the 1997 election, together with the anti-subversion show trials of pro-democracy activists and the later imprisonment of another prominent dissident, Sri Bintang Pamungkas, in March 1997, just seemed to make the urban working poor angrier and more resentful, while the middle classes also became restless. By disallowing Megawati’s PDI from competing, Soeharto actually de-legitimised his own elections – an election sufficiently stage-managed with garden variety electoral fraud that his ruling party Golkar would have easily won anyway even with Megawati’s participation. The May 1997 election campaign was, in fact, marked by unprecedented rioting between supporters of Golkar and PPP, the only remaining legitimate party still permitted to compete. Over 100 people were killed in one incident of fighting between Golkar and PPP supporters in Banjarmasin alone. Large numbers of campaigners spontaneously formed a movement known as MegaBintang – a combination of Megawati supporters and Bintang which was the party symbol for the conservative Muslim-based PPP. The government then promptly banned use of the movement’s banners, T-shirts and slogans. The comment of a motorcycle taxi driver during the 1997 election campaign summed it up when he remarked to me: “30 years of this – the people can’t win!” In the 12 months after the 27 July riots, there were also a number of other incidents of significant communal violence, and these were reported and commented on in the Indonesian media. This included Situbondo, East Java, in October 1996, Tasikmalaya, West Java, in December 1996, Rengasdengklok in January 1997 and West Kalimantan in early 1997. But it wasn’t just domestic events that marked trouble for Soeharto. The regime’s foreign policy agenda, usually ably led by Ali Alatas, was turning increasingly sour. In a major diplomatic blow, East Timor’s Jose Ramos-Horta and Archbishop Belo were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1996. At the same time, the Clinton Administration was under intense pressure to display a hard line over human rights abuses in Indonesia. US House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich even called for an investigation into whether Indonesia received US foreign policy favours in exchange for political donations to the Democratic Party from a couple connected to Indonesia’s Lippo Group. The political atmosphere was by now tinder dry and it was in this scenario that the Government of Thailand on 2 July 1997 made its now infamous decision to devalue the baht. The Asian Economic Crisis hit Indonesia slowly at first, but then like a steam train. The value of the rupiah plummeted from around Rp 2,400 to the US dollar in July 1997 to around Rp 10,000 just six months later. The twin crises – one political and the other economic – fed into one another like a giant destructive vortex closing banks, sending companies broke and putting millions of workers out of a job. The government tried everything to stop the downward spiral: calling in the IMF, closing insolvent banks, proposals for a currency board system and even an “I love Rupiah” campaign. But nothing worked because in reality it was a political crisis. While elections could be rigged and formal political structures manipulated to the government’s content, the New Order regime could not do the same for the economy that was by now completely intertwined with global market forces. Soeharto could not force foreign investors to have confidence in his ability to rule in the same way he could force Indonesian voters. The strong economic “fundamentals” didn’t really matter to the extent that they were incapable of covering up a political system that by 1997 had become totally dictatorial, corrupted and dysfunctional. As 1997 turned to 1998, there was panic buying and a rush on the grocery stores. Rice was hoarded and some food riots broke out. The US Embassy at this time conducted confidential polling and the results indicated that there was only one group left in Indonesia that still wanted Soeharto to remain as president – the ethnic Chinese. By February, with the economy in a tailspin, Soeharto was poised for another five year term as Indonesia’s ruler. His People’s Constituent Assembly or MPR, virtually hand-picked, was 100 per cent certain to constitutionally seal Cendana’s iron grip on the nation until 2003. Meanwhile, with opposition leaders either sidelined or in prison, something extraordinary happened. On 25 February 1998, I was informed by human rights activist Poncke Princen that a significant event was to take place that afternoon at the University of Indonesia’s Salemba Campus where Soeharto’s New Order regime had began 32 years earlier. Sure enough, when I arrived at the scene, about 1,000 protesters had gathered and erased the words “New Order” from a sign reading “Welcome to the campus of the struggle of the New Order”. The final act of the unfolding drama was set. If the students wanted struggle, they certainly got it. The next day, the demonstration had spread to the University of Indonesia’s Depok campus. From there, it spread to campuses across Jakarta and to Yogyakarta’s prestigious Gajah Mada University where effigies of Soeharto were being burned. Soon the entire Indonesian student body was alive. Makeshift command posts were set up to distribute food to the increasingly desperate communities surrounding the campuses. Even mothers’ groups were established to provide back-up, and one group of very prominent middle-aged women was arrested in the middle of the Hotel Indonesia roundabout for protesting about the price of milk for infants. It had turned into a middle class revolt led by students and fully backed by the masses of urban poor. By April, virtually every campus in the archipelago had erupted in peaceful protest. In many cases, academic staff joined in. The slogan was “reform or revolution”. On 4 May 1998, the government announced large fuel price hikes. Demonstrations in Medan turned violent. Molotov cocktails were increasingly being used. The killing of four Trisakti University students in Jakarta on May 12 was the final spark. Although controversy remains over the extent to which they were coordinated by General Probowo – possibly in an attempt to emulate Soeharto’s original counter coup style rise to power – there was no doubting the genuine anger of those mobs pouring onto the streets of Jakarta on the afternoon of May 13 and all day on May 14. I witnessed destruction on an extraordinary scale. In one incident on the corner of Jalan Matraman Raya and Jalan Pramuka, I saw crowds of young men from the kampung do battle for hours with heavily armed riot police and soldiers who were trying to defend their station. Whenever the crowds surged too far forward with cries of reformasi, the police opened fire and the crowds would scatter. But they refused to completely disperse since they vastly out-numbered the security forces. Eventually, one of the protesters hurled a burning object in the direction of the police line setting the police station ablaze and burning it to the ground. The mobs then rushed forward smashing a nearby Fuji camera store and making a giant bonfire in the middle of the street out of the seized merchandise. Smoke from the burning electronics goods was so thick that it created a twilight-like darkness over the street. By nightfall on May 14, fires were still burning from the wrecks of vehicles and buildings. This scene was repeated at dozens of locations across the shattered city. Soeharto returned home from an overseas trip to his devastated capital with over 1,000 dead and an estimated 5,000 buildings damaged or destroyed. He came back to find the Assembly that two months earlier had unanimously appointed him to another five-year term now occupied by students with banners denouncing the corruption and abuse of his rule. Abandoned by his own Golkar power base, Soeharto was finally forced to bow down at 9:00 am on Thursday, 21 May 1998. Perhaps the best metaphor for those heady days on the streets of Jakarta is that of a memorable 1970s disaster movie. It was like a towering inferno in which the tiny brushfires of the leadership of an obscure political party and the devaluation of a neighbouring country’s currency turned into a monstrous unstoppable firestorm that brought a colossal economy crashing and a tyrant to his knees. It was a time when the forces of dictatorship, democracy, capitalism and Islam all converged. In doing so, Indonesia’s end-of-millennium story tells us – a decade on – much about the world we live in today. – Roger Smith, Canberra, May 2008 Roger Anthony Smith was originally trained is a lawyer. He worked for nearly 10 years to further human rights in Indonesia and Timor Leste. After returning to Australia in 2004, he was national research officer for Relationships Australia for two years and now works on skills and labour issues for the Australian Government, while continuing to work, as a member of CLA, on liberties, rights and equality issues