Indonesian Critics Operate in Shadowy Margins

In Indonesia you're free to do and say what you like, but don't go too far. The government calls it "freedom with responsibility;" opponents call it repression and are campaigning for reform.

Thirty years after he gained power following an abortive coup and anticommunist massacres in 1965-66, President Suharto has transformed this nation of over 200 million and 17,000 islands into a carefully balanced political system defined by an invisible line of tolerance. Cross the line and you could get a telephone call warning you to back off. Persist and death threats might just turn out to be real.

Threatening calls

A few weeks ago, Jakarta-based politician Sri Bintang took his criticism of the government too far. "They called me at home and told me they would seek me out and kill me," claims Mr. Bintang, a fast-talking former parliamentarian.

Mr. Bintang has set up an unofficial opposition political party called the Indonesian Democratic Union Party and says he'll run independently for the presidency in elections scheduled for March 1998. "My objective is quite simply to overthrow the government," he affirms. Educated in the United States, he now teaches industrial engineering at a local university.

Besides opposition politicians, journalists are the other group most likely to cross the line. "If you write something the government doesn't approve of, they call up the chief editor and tell you to stick to the official press releases. We call it the 'phone culture,' " explains a journalist working for an Indonesian business daily. "Sure, you can write about whatever you like, but you have to be careful," he adds. Fuad Syadruddin, a journalist, was beaten to death in his Yogyakarta home in August 1996, apparently in connection with his reports that a local official had bribed his way into office.

Taboo subjects include the president's family, East Timor, human rights, and Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of former President Sukarno and a popular political figure recently ousted from her party by the government. For insulting the president, offenders can face several years in prison.

"The press is not free because the government can revoke press licenses whenever they want," complains Goenawan Mohamed, former editor of Tempo Magazine, a popular local-language news weekly that was closed down by government censors in June 1994.

Clandestine awards

Despite the risks, a hard-core group of activists still ignore government threats. In a smoky back room of Jakarta's Legal Aid Institute, a focal point for pro-democracy campaigners, a young man who was tortured by the police in July was presented with a freedom award. He was involved in riots that followed the removal of Ms. Megawati from office. As his supporters chanted antigovernment slogans at the ceremony, some whispered nervously that secret service agents had infiltrated the meeting.

Clandestine publications also provide a forum for views that are otherwise too risky to pronounce openly. Independen, a monthly, is one such publication. Its writers, members of the unofficial Alliance of Independent Journalists, contribute anonymously and the magazine is printed secretly.

"The funny thing is that we have generals and government officials who read the paper too," explains one contributor to the magazine. Penalties for involvement with the underground press can be heavy - four Independen journalists are currently in prison.

Even if many agree with antigovernment rhetoric, few seem prepared to push hard for change. In Indonesia, stability is valued over democracy. Known as the "New Order," Suharto's regime perfectly reflects that ethos, offering its citizens economic growth and development in exchange for suppressing many basic freedoms.

Floating somewhere between Burma's dictatorship and Thailand's money-dominated liberalism, Indonesia's political model is characterized by its vagueness. In an address to the nation this August, Suharto summed up the paradox of Indonesia's "authoritarian democracy": "Differences of opinion and political struggle are healthy in a democracy," he declared, before warning that they "must follow a constitutional and legal course."

Call it what you will - Oriental despotism or Asian-style democracy - it's a system that does at least seem to work, say pro-government observers.

"Why would we want democracy when we have achieved so much with this system?" comments an industrialist in Jakarta. "Jakarta's streets are a lot safer than New York's, and we are getting richer. Look at countries like India if you want to see what happens to large nations that practice democracy."

Governing ideology

Indonesia's nationhood is nevertheless a fragile amalgam. Till now, the ideological cement for this diversity has been a vague set of five principles known as Pancasila. A local equivalent of France's "liberty, equality, and fraternity," Pancasila asks Indonesians, 90 percent of whom are nominally Muslim, to believe in one God while calling for justice, democracy, unity, and a fair society. Providing a broad philosophical umbrella for Indonesia's diversity, Pancasila's fuzziness is also its strength.

"It's not really an ideology. It's like poetry. It depends on how you interpret it," says Mr. Goenawan, now a director of the Jakarta-based Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information - a nongovernmental group that trains journalists to participate in alternative media activities.

As Indonesia considers a future after Suharto and is increasingly drawn into a dynamic of global exchanges, the pressure for change is growing, raising questions about an uncertain succession. "There is a feeling here that we are coming to the end of an era," comments a diplomat here.

"The greatest impetus for change is among the young. They have a need for opposition," adds Michael Backman, an Australian political analyst in Jakarta. After being deposed as leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) in June, Megawati has become a powerful symbol of the opposition, evoking memories of her father, President Sukarno, who was Indonesia's first president after it won indepedence from the Dutch in 1949.

A soft-spoken former housewife, Megawati was thrust into the spotlight following riots last July 27, protesting her replacement as PDI chief. An establishment politician, however, Megawati says she has no intention of rocking the boat. "I don't want to change the system," she explains. "I would just like to put the nation back in the right direction by reestablishing a fair balance between the president and the parliament and ensuring the Constitution ... is respected."

For many, such moderation is a harbinger of the kind of change Indonesia can expect after Suharto.

"Those who want to replace Suharto are not for change. They simply want to duplicate Suharto. I don't think I'll ever see democracy in my lifetime," says Goenawan.

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