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In Jakarta’s dockland, Tanjung Priok, the poor still live in foul shanty settlements built on stilts over the fetid water. But at least they can talk more freely than in the bad old days.

It is five years since the downfall of Suharto, who had held Indonesia in the grip of a military dictatorship for 33 years following a bloody coup and clampdown that cost an estimated 700,000 lives. Suharto was finally swept from power by a grassroots movement calling for reformasi. Political prisoners were released, trade-union rights were restored, restrictions on freedom of assembly and the press were removed; political parties emerged to contest the first democratic general elections in 44 years.

In the new democratic climate the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), responsible for so many past abuses, faced public condemnation, forcing them on to the defensive. There was talk of the TNI being drastically reformed and of their territorial commands being dismantled. Serious efforts to push these reforms were made during the 15-month presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid but he was replaced by Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s charismatic first leader, Sukarno. Under Megawati, the TNI is making a comeback and is pushing for restoration of the political clout it enjoyed under Suharto.

Justice has been a dominant theme for civil society in post-Suharto Indonesia but the obstacles have been formidable – in 2002, a UN Special Rapporteur described Indonesia’s judiciary as ‘the most corrupt’ he had ever seen. The police force has been separated from the army and given responsibility for internal security and law enforcement, but it too has a reputation for corruption and often treats demonstrators brutally.

Competing with Havana: hand-rolling cigars in the Bahamas, Cuba’s northern neighbour.
Chris Stowers /
Panos Pictures

Reformasi culminated in the enactment of two human-rights laws in 2000, incorporating international human-rights statutes and providing for ad-hoc courts to try crimes against humanity during the Suharto era. The new laws set in motion investigations into numerous crimes from that time, including the mayhem in East Timor after the UN referendum in 1999. Following strong international pressure, an ad-hoc court for East Timor has been sitting since 2002. Many senior officers named in investigations were not indicted, while of the 18 men indicted, all but one have been acquitted. Investigations into other Suharto-era atrocities have stalled, faced with the inevitable strong resistance from the armed forces.

In Aceh and West Papua, there is strong resistance to Jakarta following years of military suppression and abuses. Jakarta has granted ‘special autonomy’ to both provinces, hoping to undermine secessionist aspirations. When Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch in 1949, Papua was not included because it was geographically and ethnically distinct and was groomed for independence until Indonesia invaded in 1962 and ‘incorporated’ the territory in 1969. An estimated 100,000 Papuans have been killed since the mid-1960s and resistance to incorporation, under the surface in the Suharto era, is now very vocal. The recently established Papuan Presidium Council, whose chair was assassinated in 2001, enjoys wide support.

In Aceh an independence movement has been active since 1976. For years Aceh was a ‘military operational area’ and although this was lifted in 1998 military operations have continued, bringing an average daily death toll of 15 in 2002. An accord on the cessation of hostilities was signed last December and casualties have since fallen but the accord is very fragile.

There has also been serious communal strife in the Maluku islands (the ‘Moluccas’) since 1999, setting Muslims against Christians. Thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have become ‘internally displaced’. The army’s élite force, Kopassus, played a role in instigating this strife.

Indonesia’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy has been far from smooth and under the present political leadership more reverses can certainly be expected.

Carmel Budiardjo

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Map of Indonesia. Click to enlarge.

At a glance

Leader: President Megawati Sukarnoputri
Economy: Gross national income (GNI) per capita $680 (Malaysia $3,640, Australia $19,770).
Monetary unit: Rupiah.
Main exports: petroleum, textiles, gas, wood, electrical appliances.
Indonesia has been accorded a kind of ‘Little Tiger’ status as it pursues the East Asian model of export-led growth. It was hit hard by the regional financial crisis in 1997 and the aftershocks did much to seal Suharto’s fate. Domestic and foreign investment are still very low.
People: 214.8 million. Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country after China, India and the US. Population density varies enormously from Java with 640 per sq km to Kalimantan with just 10.
Health: Infant mortality 33 per 1,000 live births (Malaysia 8, Australia 6). Access to safe drinking water: 90% of urban people and 69% of rural.
Environment: Indonesia is made up of around 13,000 islands. It has dense rainforest, particularly in the north. The burning of huge areas of forest in 1997 caused a smog which covered the whole of Southeast Asia. Illegal logging depletes the forests at a rate of 56.6 million cubic metres a year, much of it conducted or protected by the military.
Culture: The range of ethnic groups is vast but the principal ones are: Malay, Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, Balinese, Ambon.
Language: Bahasa Indonesia is the official language, very similar to Malay and written in Roman script. There are hundreds of local languages, including at least 200 in West Papua.
Religion: Muslim (86%), Christian (10%), Hindu (2%, mainly in Bali).

Sources: World Guide 2003/2004; State of the World’s Children 2003; Human Development Report 2001.

Last profiled February 1993

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star ratings

income distribution INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Poorest 10% have 4% of income, richest 10% have 26.7% (US 1.8%:30.5%).
1993 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Rich in natural resources but also increasingly exporting manufactured goods such as consumer electronics. Debt is still high, though, at $133 billion in 2001.
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position of women

POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The law recognizes equal pay but women generally have lower-paid jobs. The authorities pay little attention to maltreatment of women forced to go abroad for work. Domestic violence and rape are rarely prosecuted. 1993 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
87%. The financial crisis pushed millions more below the poverty line, with damaging consequences for the number of children in school.
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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A marked improvement in the post-Suharto era.
1993 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
67 years (Malaysia 73, Australia 79).
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life expectancy


NI Assessment [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Almost any government would be an improvement on the Suharto dictatorship but social justice and the basic needs of the poor still have a low priority. The rule of law is fragile, with gangs of thugs running protection rackets in many cities, in the absence of a reliable police force. Most political parties woo their supporters not by identifiable political programmes but through money-politics. There is a thriving NGO community, dealing with advocacy and social-justice issues as well as community development.

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