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Indonesia Fears New Era Of Repression

by Satya Sivaraman

Deep-seated hatred within Suharto-era military and civilian politicians
(IPS) JAKARTA -- Three years after a student-led popular uprising toppled the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, there are disturbing signs that little has changed in the authoritarian attitude of the country's military and police forces.

Now, with Indonesia's economic and political scene in deep crisis, many analysts fear that the chaotic situation might become an excuse for powerful vested interests to try and take the country back to its sordid past.

The latest reminder of how the remnants of Suharto's "New Order" era still remain influential came on June 8, when gun-toting Indonesian policemen arrested 40 labor and human rights activists from 11 countries attending an Asia-Pacific Solidarity Conference at a resort outside Jakarta.

The police claimed that the foreign delegates did not have proper visas -- they said tourist visas were not good enough -- to attend a conference in Indonesia, and should be deported. But the immigration authorities cleared them of all charges and let them go free.

Even more reminiscent of the Suharto era was an attack by the Angkatan Kabaah Muda, a Muslim fundamentalist paramilitary group affiliated to a major Indonesian political party, on the local organizers of the conference, soon after the foreigners were arrested and taken away.

The militiamen, armed with swords and sticks, beat up staffers of INCREASE, a policy research NGO that organized the conference, and vandalized their property.

"The draconian action against a peaceful gathering of international activists discussing economic and human rights issues is an indicator that the forces of the New Order are getting stronger and could make a comeback if they are not resisted," said political activist Budiman Sudjatmiko, who was among the local participants detained and released by the police.

"The police and its thug friends have made a complete mockery of every value and principle that this nation has been struggling to establish in the last three years, along with the sacrifices that have gone with this struggle," said a strong editorial this week in the Jakarta Post entitled "Democracy in Peril."

"With a single stroke, the raid on the conference has simply turned back the clock on the nation," it said.

Condemnations of the incident poured in from organizations around the world as governments whose citizens were among the foreigners arrested exerted diplomatic pressure to ensure their release.

"The police tactics have clearly boomeranged and they have had to back away but there is no guarantee that they will not step up their attacks on local organizations who want to raise issues deemed too sensitive or critical of the old regime," said Jim McIlroy of the Democratic Socialist Party from Australia, who was among those arrested.

Many local political analysts believe that the real reason for the police action was the deep-seated antagonism within Suharto-era military and police officials against some of Indonesia's student leaders turned political activists like Budiman and Dita Sari, both of whom took part in the conference.

Budiman and Dita had been imprisoned for three years by the Suharto regime for "seditious activities" and released following the ouster of the Indonesian dictator in May 1998 and pressure from a worldwide campaign.

The Party for Revolutionary Democracy (PRD), a left-wing organization set up by Budiman and other student activists, played a crucial role in the popular uprising against Suharto. They believe this is a reason for their being marked out for victimisation by the police and military.

Despite the installation of a freer, parliamentary democracy in Indonesia after the Suharto era, the past three years have seen many incidents showing the continuing legacy of the former dictator.

Most well known internationally are the violations of human rights by Indonesian armed forces fighting separatist forces in the provinces of Aceh and West Papua, and their suspected role in fomenting intra-religious violence in parts of the country.

But what is less known is the way the institutions that kept Suharto in power for 32 years still exert an extra-judicial influence on day-to-day political activity, and their continued attacks on civil and political rights of those they consider hostile to their interests.

What is worrying to many here is the fact that the latest instance of police high-handedness comes in the context of a deteriorating economy as well as growing political turmoil over the possible impeachment of Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid in early August.

Fears of return to when foes of Suharto regime were hunted down
Wahid, who has denied accusations by his foes in the parliament of involvement in corruption deals, is facing a minor rebellion against his presidency not just from politicians but also the bureaucracy, police and military.

For instance, an attempt by Wahid to sack Lt. Gen. S. Bimantoro, the national police chief, earlier this month ended in a fiasco when the official refused to leave his post and thus left Indonesia in the dubious state of having two police chiefs operating simultaneously.

Wahid himself has been accused of trying to mobilize street protests by his supporters from the Nahdalutul Ulama, a moderate Muslim group he headed before becoming president, to stave off impeachment by getting a special session of parliament next month cancelled.

"Nobody is really sure who is in charge and in this kind of situation there are many forces that can take advantage of the chaos to consolidate their power," says Agung Widjaya, a political analyst in Jakarta.

Pro-democracy activists are worried about trends that have emerged in recent months that point to a return to the bad old days, when all those who were opposed to the Suharto regime were hunted down as "communists" and persecuted.

In early June, for example, a new group calling itself the Anti-Communist Alliance, or AMK, raided bookshops in Jakarta and burned books that it alleged were "communist propaganda."

"The military and police are encouraging the formation of paramilitary groups, like the AMK which often uses the symbols of Islam, to attack political groups they don't like," says Anom, a political activist who was among student leaders kidnapped and tortured by the military during the last years of the Suharto government.

According to him, sections within the Indonesian security forces are trying to project themselves as upholders of "law and order" and even parliamentary democracy, even if in practice, they have been inciting violent clashes among different ethnic or political groups.

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Albion Monitor June 24, 2001 (

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