The Magazine

RUNAROUND SUHARTO

Jan 22, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 18 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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HANKS TO AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI, I found myself clawing through the muddy Indonesian jungle to catch a glimpse of feeding orangutans. This was a brief diversion, a two-hour detour from the city of Medan, in northern Sumatra. Our group was in the country to meet with Indonesian human-rights advocates. Khomeini's role in all of this? The bitter lesson absorbed by Americans that it is foolish to neglect the opposition in countries governed by friendly dictators.


Indonesia may be the most important of such countries. It has been ruled by General Suharto for 30 years, since he led the suppression of a communist power-grab. With over 200 million people, it is the fourth most populous country in the world, and the largest Islamic one. Its economy has been growing at an annual rate upward of 6 percent for the last decade, giving it a per-capita income of about $ 3,000. Thus, it is following in the path of Asian prosperity blazed by the "little tigers" -- but with a population mass that could give it major weight in global economics and politics.


Although Indonesia scored 13 out of a worst-possible 14 in Freedom House's survey of worldwide freedom last year, it vividly illustrates the distinction publicized by Jeane Kirkpatrick (and for which she was lacerated): that between authoritarian and totalitarian states. There is no doubt that in Indonesia power flows from the top down. But there is also a good deal of " social space." Indeed, the regime seems very much on the defensive under the combined pressures of its economic success (which has generated a burgeoning middle class, thirsting for freedoms), the anticipation of change as Subatto grows old, and the collapse of communism as an ideological threat used to justify authoritarian controls. Indonesia, like the rest of Asia, may yet have to contend with China; but it will be with China as a power, not as a model.


Signs of restlessness abound. During my visit, the Indonesian bar association was holding its convention.


The losing candidate for chairman complained that his opponents had resorted to "cheap tricks" by characterizing him as a "government candidate." Meanwhile, the chief judge of the State Administration Court -- a new court created specifically for the adjudication of grievances by citizens against government officials -- admonished new justices as he swore them in: "If we rule against a government official's policy in favor of the people, we will be accused of lacking nationalism. We will be branded as judges who are not aware of consensus, family values, and development. We must be ready to be blamed."


The official, state-run labor organization was also holding its convention, opening with a speech by President Suharto and closing with a speech by Vice President Sutrisno. The convention's dutiful fealty to the government notwithstanding, the outgoing chairman criticized his own organization for having "done only little for workers since its establishment," adding that " workers are reluctant to join because they know they will gain nothing from it" ; therefore, "many workers want to set up their own labor unions."


On trial for insulting the president was a former member of the (rubber- stamp) legislature, who had organized demonstrations by Indonesian expatriates in Germany during a visit there by Suharto. The legislator lator, Sri Bintang, was stripped of his seat, but was fighting back with lawsuits of his own, challenging his expulsion.


The ordeal o Bintang was not the only reminder of Indonesian authoritarianism. Seven Western human-rights advocates arriving in East Timor to commemorate a massacre of five years ago were detained and promptly deported "for their own safety." And a "national discipline campaign" was launched in Jakarta by 15,000 volunteers empowered to ticket jaywalkers and litterers -- even to mete out on-the-spot punishment, such as push-ups. (The military comman- der in charge was reported as acknowledging, however, that discipline had "yet to catch on.")


One activist joked that, in Indonesia, "general elections mean elections by t he generals." The press is still cowed following the forced closing in 1994 of three weeklies -- including the nation's most popular, Tempo -- for their c ritical reports about government activities. The closings prompted the creation of an independent journalists association, which enrolled 300 members. The regi me has struck back by barring the se members from belonging simultaneously to the official journalists association -- a prerequisite for employment by all licensed publications.