Indonesian Regime Retains Grip, But Faces, and Allows, More Dissent

Economic freedoms, Western criticism fuel internal clamor on rights

AMID on-again, off-again international criticism of its human rights record, Indonesia's authoritarian regime faces growing popular pressure from within the country.

In the last year, the government of President Suharto has grappled with a wave of labor unrest over implementing a new minimum-wage law, environmental objections against turning scarce rice fields into golf courses, student demonstrations against the state lottery, and even a political protest outside the country's parliament, an event that would have been impossible just a few years ago.

Human rights activists and Western diplomats say political repression remains widespread in Indonesia. The first of 22 students arrested last year for demonstrating at the parliament was sentenced yesterday to four years in prison for criticizing Suharto.

But new pressures, fermented by economic liberalization and Western criticism of human rights and labor abuses, have prodded a measure of official tolerance. The government has rescinded the Army's right to block strikes, urged Jakarta factories to pay the new $1.79 daily minimum wage, and suspended plans for new golf courses. It has also ended the lottery, allowed more debate in the press, and accepted greater international scrutiny of East Timor and other trouble spots.

``Democratization and openness are at the grass roots. This regime has been reigning for more than 25 years. But there is now inside pressure because of economic reforms, mounting labor problems, and concern about pollution and the environment,'' says Frans Hendra Winarta, a human rights lawyer with the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation in Jakarta.

So it was with dismay that human rights activists watched Washington ease its pressure last week, suspending for six months its investigation of Indonesian labor practices and backing away from lifting special trade privileges linked to improved conditions for workers.

Indonesian and Western analysts said the move was a trade-off in anticipation of President Clinton's planned trip to Jakarta in November for a summit meeting of the forum on Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation.

Western analysts say the action shows Washington will not push human rights if it hurts business; they say the United States wants to avoid further trade skirmishes in Asia amid tense relations with Japan and an impending decision on trade with China. ``Washington didn't need another firefight now,'' says a Western diplomat.

While business groups applauded the US's conciliatory gesture and saw it as an attempt to sustain economic ties with Indonesia's sprawling domestic market, human rights activists were critical. Asia Watch, an American rights group that had urged the Clinton administration to withdraw Indonesia's tariff and quota privileges on furniture, toys, and electronic goods, admitted Indonesia has made some progress on human rights. But the decision, it said, let ``Indonesia off the hook.''

A recent State Department report on worldwide human rights noted that corruption in the legal system here remains widespread; that torture, extrajudicial arrests, and detention are common; and that the powerful military continues ``to be responsible for the most serious human rights abuses.''

Still, diplomats and rights activists say that in the last year, the government has become more sensitive to world opinion. Journalists, diplomats, and human rights organizations were allowed last year to observe the trial of East Timor resistance leader Jose ``Xanana'' Gusmao, and human rights organizations have enjoyed greater freedom in monitoring abuses. ``There is a will by the government to create a credible attitude of concern in human rights,'' says another Western diplomat.

Some observers trace the new openness to official recognition that the vast archipelago can no longer be controlled by military might. Following an abortive coup attempt in 1965 after which Mr. Suharto came to power, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were massacred in a military-led crackdown on dissent. ``This society is getting more aware of its rights,'' says a human rights activist. ``They know that if they want to control the country, they can't go back to the system of 1965.''

Still, dealing with separatist rebellions in Aceh, Irian Jaya, and especially East Timor is still considered the domain of the military. Detentions without charges and disappearances continue on East Timor, and the government has yet to account for more than 60 people believed missing from the military shooting of East Timorese citizens in November 1991. Human rights activists say most are thought to be dead, and that they were buried by the military.

``Timor is the most important point of confrontation within Indonesia,'' says another Western political observer. But he notes that ``the Indonesians seem very surprised to see that a limited number of Timorese perpetuate this idea that a Timorese nation will exist.''

``Their solution is to make Timor like the rest of Indonesia. But it's not going to work,'' says a third, senior Western diplomat.

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