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How Indonesia Puts a Silent Hand on Those Who Talk Politics

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 1998


A group of professors and businessmen get together for dinner at a local hotel to talk about politics and economics. In most countries, this sort of activity is considered harmless, even dull.

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Not in Indonesia. Here a seemingly innocuous seminar can become the focus of accusation and denial - and a good illustration of the way repression works in Southeast Asia's most economically and strategically important country.

In all likelihood, no one who attended this particular dinner in early February will be jailed. But onetime colleagues are no longer speaking to each other. A participant who sent a memo alerting the government about the meeting has gotten a better job. And people who care about politics in this country now have even more reason to think twice before talking in the presence of others.

"The trust has disappeared because of this controversy. It's very sad," says Anggito Abimanyu, a wiry and youthful university lecturer who took part in the fateful Feb. 5 seminar here in Yogyakarta. The city has a sophisticated, laid-back style that befits a place known for culture, education, and one of the royal families of Indonesia's main island of Java. There are few tall buildings, many of the streets are lined with flowering trees, and the local roofers favor a reddish clay tile that darkens with age and lichen.

In recent weeks the city's many students have given Yogyakarta an edgy air, repeatedly calling for the government of President Suharto to take responsibility for causing Indonesia's economic crisis. They want the poor protected from rising prices and unemployment, but they also want "reformation," a code word that to many people means an end to Mr. Suharto's 32-plus years in power.

Back in February Yogyakarta was calmer, although the talk of reformation had long since begun. Indonesia is not an Orwellian dictatorship where "war is peace" and the government alone says what truth is. But it nonetheless pays to hide behind euphemisms when discussing politics. Openly calling for Suharto to let someone else rule is out of the question; instead, people venture to wonder about "succession." The government has several blanket laws useful for imprisoning critics and closing offending publications.

Controversial meeting

In a country where the lines are invisible, it's hard to know if you've overstepped one until it's too late. That is what seems to have taken place in a conference room at the Radisson Yogya Plaza. The meeting's participants were part of an informal think tank led by Amien Rais, a political scientist at Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University.

Mr. Rais is also the leader of a Muslim organization that claims 28 million members. In Indonesia, where the majority of the population professes faith in Islam, Rais's religious activities give him unofficial political stature.

Several of Rais's colleagues from Gadjah Mada, including economics lecturer Abimanyu, attended the dinner, as well as some prosperous businessmen who are among his supporters. Professor Abimanyu says the group listened to papers on political, economic, and legal reform and discussed the economic crisis and the rescue package proposed by the International Monetary Fund.