Indonesia: Ramadan In Indonesia Baru


Professor Virginia Hooker

Ramadan, the sacred month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, began on 9 December 1999. It is welcomed joyously and used as an opportunity to review, reflect and forgive. The Indonesian media carry special features during Ramadan and last December through to January was no exception. Most newspapers acknowledged that 1999 was a bad year for human rights abuses but balanced this with editorials arguing that Ramadan brings renewed hope.

Reflecting this cautious spark of optimism is the slogan 'Indonesia Baru' (New Indonesia) which seems to have replaced 'Reformasi'. In newspapers and on television, experts debate the ideals of this 'New Indonesia' and most frequently discussions centre on the concept and implementation of human rights. Hasballah Saad, the Acehnese appointed to head the newly created Ministry of Human Rights, outlined its aims at a national workshop organised by the Indonesian Human Rights Commission (and funded by the New Zealand government) in early December. A convincing speaker, he stressed that it would take time to build a culture of human rights in Indonesia and that his Ministry was working to disseminate such a culture, to strengthen national institutions for human rights, and to create mechanisms to protect human rights. He admitted that at present the main challenges were the lack of processes for reporting abuses and for implementing laws.

Hasballah is a respected figure in Jakarta and his views receive good press coverage. He believes that the 'vertical' violations of human rights which occurred under the Soeharto regime have now spilled over into 'horizontal' violations - worker against worker, ethnic group against ethnic group, school gang against school gang. In this context he includes investors who he says have the right to have their investments protected from corporate malpractice. To assist in overcoming these horizontal abuses of human rights Hasballah has called on other Government Departments, NGOs, and the Human Rights Commission to concretise (as he puts it) the concept of human rights and to assist in their protection.

Ramadan was also the time of public scrutiny of some senior military figures who were called to appear before three separate bodies: a parliamentary tribunal, the East Timor Human Rights tribunal, and the National Commission for Human Rights. Each tribunal received wide press coverage. Akbar Tanjung, Chair of the DPR (Parliament) made a public statement (on 15 December) stressing the link between human rights abuse in Aceh and demands for separatism. If human rights offenders in Aceh were not brought to trial, he said, there would be no resolution of the troubles in Aceh. Hasballah Saad made the same argument for Irian Jaya, stating that 'unsolved human rights abuse cases in some areas could incite separatist movements' (10 December). Official rhetoric is encouraging but the results have yet to be seen.

Despite the continuing violence in Eastern Indonesia and Lombok (which causes despair to so many in Indonesia who are struggling for change) there are some new elements which keep the small spark of optimism glowing. Firstly, the tribunals investigating human rights abuses prove that accountability is now being taken seriously. Secondly, the Parliamentary tribunal questioning senior generals accused them of failing to show remorse or repentance. This had never before been officially called for. Thirdly, there is an increased expectation that restitution be part of any reconciliation. One example was the President's statement in December that Soeharto would be pardoned only if he returned misappropriated funds. Finally, the domestic press seems free of censorship and publishes a variety of articles which are critical of all in public office including the President. Republika, even more than Kompas, is forthright in its views about the success or otherwise of government policies. It seems to carry a particularly vigilant brief to monitor legal reform and its editorials regularly question the sincerity, rigour and efficacy of the call from Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) for 'the rule of law'.

WATCHPOINT: Under increasing pressure and scrutiny from both domestic and international observers, how will Gus Dur prove he is in control? Will he choose economic performance, rule of law (human rights enforcement), clean-up of the military, a truth and reconciliation tribunal, or another surprise? Each has implications for the old order so whichever he chooses, there will be counter-moves designed to weaken his presidency.


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