Language Sites
  • UCAN China
  • UCAN India
  • UCAN Indonesia
  • UCAN Vietnam

Indonesia still chasing 20-year-old reform goals

Regime critics say lax law enforcement is hobbling democracy and creating room for widespread human rights abuses

Indonesia still chasing 20-year-old reform goals

A member of the Islamic Students Association (HMI) is beaten and arrested by police officers as the group holds demonstrations in Jakarta on May 21 marking the 20th anniversary of huge street protests in the Indonesian capital. (Photo by Konradus Epa/

Konradus Epa and Katharina R. Lestari, Jakarta

June 5, 2018

Mail This Article
(For more than one recipient, type addresses separated by commas)

In May 1998, Gabriel Sola and some of his fellow students were kidnapped by military personnel from a boarding house in Jakarta after they staged a rally against then-president Suharto's military dictatorship.

Sola was a student at the Jakarta-based National University and a member of the Union of Catholic University Students of the Republic of Indonesia.

At that time, university students across the country were taking to the streets demanding that Suharto step down after the former army general seized power in 1965 following the mass killings of up to one million suspected communists.

"We were detained in [a darkened] house for one night and interrogated by military personnel, who questioned us about why we staged the rally," Sola told

"We said we want democracy to be restored," he said. 

Twenty years after that fateful protest, activists again took to the streets of Jakarta on May 21 to commemorate the event and continue their push to better protect their human and political rights.

This followed another rally outside the presidential palace two months earlier on March 26 by students and activists from East Nusa Tenggara province demanding President Joko Widodo take "special steps" to stop human trafficking. 

In retrospect, Sola may be considered one of the more fortunate detainees from that period two decades ago, critics of the regime contend, as he was not tortured prior to his release.

However this was not the case for other young activists such as Mugiyanto, a student at the state-run Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta who also served as an activist for the Indonesian Students Solidarity for Democracy.

Mugiyanto claims he was kidnapped from a house the group was using as its base in Jakarta and tortured by military personnel.

He said he was blindfolded and taken to several places including the District Military Command and the headquarters of the Army Special Forces (Kopassus) in Cijantung, East Jakarta.

"I was only wearing underpants when they interrogated me. I was blindfolded, electrocuted and tortured again and again," he said.

"I was beaten. My face was ruined. I couldn't even eat," he said.

But other activists say the sacrifices by students like Mugiyanto and Sola were not made in vain.

Following extensive protests, riots, targeted killings of Chinese Indonesians and pressure from Western countries over human rights abuses in East Timor, Suharto finally stepped down on May 21 of that year.

Victims of human rights abuses carry banners during the May 21 protest. (Photo by Konradus Epa/                                            


Widespread rights abuses

Soon after Suharto's resignation, a number of reformist agendas were rolled out emphasizing the supremacy of law, the eradication of corruption, collusion and nepotism, the restoration of democracy, military reform, and regional autonomy.

But two decades later they still have not fully materialized.

"The product of the 'new order' now resides in the presidential palace," said Mugiyanto.

He was referring to the appointment of Wiranto, a retired army general who served during the nation's transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, to the cabinet. He was appointed the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs in July 2016.

"That was the biggest blunder of the Widodo government. How can someone who was allegedly involved in human rights abuses become a minister?" Mugiyanto asked.

A special court supported by the U.N., the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU), issued an arrest warrant for Wiranto, the former defense minister, in 2003 over the bloodshed surrounding Indonesia's attempt to influence East Timor's vote for independence in 1999.

The families of some of the students who died during skirmishes with the military two decades ago also have less than fond memories of life under Suharto's rule.

"I know exactly what my son and other students were fighting for that year," said Maria Catarina Sumarsih, whose son Benardinus Realino Norma Irawan was killed during a large protest in November 1998. At the time he was enrolled as a student at the Catholic University of Atma Jaya in Jakarta.

"And what they were fighting for is still far from being realized. The reformist agenda has been hijacked by those who cling to the 'new order' regime," she said, citing Wiranto as a case in point.

Sumarsih described Suharto as an authoritarian leader who was militaristic and corrupt. She said the country was further undone back then by a "moral crisis" afflicting high-ranking state officials.

"One characteristic of a democratic state is the [rule of law] and the proper enforcement of those laws," she said. "Those who commit human rights violations must be punished. Forget about impunity."

An activist holds up a poster during the commemorative rally in the capital. (Photo by Konradus Epa/


Law losing credibility

According to political analyst Lucius Karus, this failure to uphold the law has stoked fears among minority groups that feel they are being discriminated against.

"Weak law enforcement has caused widespread corruption," he said.

In such circumstances, "people tend to hew more to discriminatory practices and try to bridle the freedom of others, particularly minorities," he added.

"On the other hand, freedom of religion, expression and assembly are all ingredients of a good democracy."

Karus said that while there is a movement in Indonesia to usher in clean governance, the ripples of this are still not conspicuous in society.

"Corruption is everywhere. We also have political dynasties. This all stems from the law's lack of supremacy," he said.

Indonesia is a fertile breeding ground for radicalism due to the apparent contempt in which the law is held, providing leeway for radical groups to impose their will on others, he added.

UCAN needs your support to continue our independent journalism
Access to UCAN stories is completely free of charge - however it costs a significant amount of money to provide our unique content. UCAN relies almost entirely on donations from our readers and donor organizations that support our mission. If you are a regular reader and are able to support us financially, please consider making a donation. Click here to donate now.
La Civiltà Cattolica


Support Our Journalism

Access to UCAN stories is completely free of charge - however it costs a significant amount of money to provide our unique content. UCAN relies almost entirely on donations from our readers and donor organizations that support our mission. If you are a regular reader and are able to support us financially, please consider making a donation.

Quick Donate

Or choose your own donation amount