Indonesia: Local Reforms vs State Terrorism


Amrih Widodo

Since the death of four Trisakti University students at the hands of military sharp-shooters at the beginning of May, few districts or municipalities in Indonesia have been unaffected by the waves of reformasi. The initial demands for reform at the district level, however, mostly centred on national issues such as demonstrating solidarity to the martyred students, expressing concerns for the riots on May 13-15, condemning the Military’s brutal treatment of the demonstrators, and demanding Suharto step down. These demands did not become local issues until almost the end of June, a historically pivotal shift which signalled the possibility of a social revolution, particularly in rural Java.

Two issues arise: 1. What is the direction of these regional reforms? 2. What are the implications for the process for democratization, particularly in rural areas, and what effect will they have on the coming general election?

Local interpretations of reform have been dominated by issues of land disputes, access to basic needs, and thorough and open investigation of KKN (corruption, collusion, and nepotism) practices by state functionaries. Coupled with the increasing number of unemployed people, scarcity of food, and frustration at the halting process of KKN investigations, the reform movements could - and in a number of cases have - turn themselves into either a 'daulat' action in which the local leaders are toppled and replaced by the people's own choices, or simply into mass riots and lootings like those that have occurred in urban areas. These local reforms, on the one hand, have certainly served to destroy the mechanism by which the government party, Golkar, has guaranteed its majority vote in general elections. On the other, local reforms have exorcised the New Order hegemony, preparing the rural population for a more democratic and fair general election. They may also eventually serve as an institutional bridge to fill in the gap between the concentration of the elite mass-media on issues of national politics and the more concrete issues affecting the people at local levels. At the same time, local reforms can create an institutional and systemic channel for electoral opinion.

The emergence of evidence of killings of more than 150 Islamic teachers and reform leaders in the last few weeks has directed attention elsewhere. The well-organized murders, mostly of religious leaders from the traditional Islam organization Nadhlatul Ulama by ninja-style killing squads or by local masses instigated by those ninja-style provocateurs, has inevitably reminded Indonesians of the practices of state terrorism that have become the standard practice of the New Order political engineering in the past three decades. Commander-in-Chief General Wiranto stated that these mysterious killings were the manifestation of elite political conflicts. But the chairman of Nadhlatul Ulama, Abdurrachman Wahid, accused cabinet ministers of involvement. Regardless of the truth of their statements, it is a matter of fact that these killings have revived the atmosphere of terror prevalent during Suharto's reign. They run counter to local reforms and the development of more democratic institutionalization of the electoral system, a development which may benefit reactionary political factions. Unfortunately, terror still seems to be seen as an effective means for political manoeuvres in Indonesian politics, which means that social unrest and terror will prevail at least until the general election in May 1999.

WATCHPOINT: Social unrest and terror will continue to pervade Indonesian regional life, at least until the general election, regardless of the country's economic condition.


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