Indonesia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


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Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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After taking office in August 2001, President Megawati Sukarnoputri brought steady leadership to Indonesia compared with the 21-month rule of her erratic predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid. It was not clear, however, if she had the vision or political will to tackle her country's daunting political and economic problems. They included a slumping economy, endemic corruption, a corporate sector run aground by huge debts, multiple violent ethnic and religious conflicts, and a separatist conflict in oil-rich Aceh Province. Megawati took office after a special assembly ousted Wahid for incompetence and corruption, giving the world's fourth most populous country its third president in a little more than three years.

Indonesia won full independence in 1949 following a four-year, intermittent war against its Dutch colonial rulers. After several parliamentary governments collapsed, the republic's first president, Sukarno, concentrated power in the presidency in 1957 in what he called "Guided Democracy." Amid continued political turbulence and economic decline, the army, led General Suharto, crushed a coup attempt in 1965 that it blamed on the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). In the aftermath, the army reportedly backed the massacre, between 1965 and 1967, of some 500,000 suspected PKI members, many of them ethnic Chinese. With the army's support, Suharto rebuffed Sukarno's efforts to stay in power and in 1968 formally became president.

Suharto's autocratic "New Order" regime jailed scores of dissidents, banned most opposition parties and groups, and allowed only three parties to contest elections: the ruling Golkar party, the nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), and the Islamic-oriented United Development Party (PPP). At the same time, the government introduced programs that helped lift millions of Indonesians out of poverty. Economic development, however, was highly uneven. The president's family members and cronies enjoyed easy access to bank credit and control of major businesses and trading monopolies, while authorities seized land for logging and mining without compensating affected villagers.

By 1997, years of poor investment decisions and profligate borrowing from weakly supervised banks had left Indonesian companies with some $80 billion in foreign debt, much of it denominated in dollars. As the Asian financial crisis began chipping away at the value of the rupiah, making debt service more expensive, Indonesian companies increasingly sold local currency to cover dollar-denominated loans. This triggered a vicious cycle, as the selling further sunk the rupiah and brought companies even closer to default. To stave off a private sector debt default, the government agreed in October 1997 to a $43 billion loan package arranged by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for public spending cutbacks and the breakup of business monopolies held by Suharto relatives and cronies.

Suharto made few efforts to meet Indonesia's IMF commitments. Doing so would have caused widespread hardship to ordinary Indonesians and, perhaps more importantly to the president, damage business interests of his family and key supporters. By January 1998, the rupiah's slide had sent food prices soaring. Suharto resigned on May 21 following months of unprecedented antigovernment demonstrations, the killing of four student protesters by soldiers on May 12, and three days of devastating urban riots in mid-May. Vice President B. J. Habibie, a long-time crony, became president.

Habibie proved to be a weak leader, but he scaled back many repressive measures and oversaw preparations for early elections in June 1999. In Indonesia's first free vote in decades for 500 parliamentary seats, Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), the successor to the PDI, won 154 seats; Golkar, 120; the PPP, 58; the National Awakening Party, led by Wahid, then leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim social group, 51; the National Mandate Party, led by Amien Rais, the former leader of Indonesia's second largest Islamic social organization, 35; and 16 other parties, 44. In addition, 38 seats were reserved for the military.

Though his party came in fourth in the parliamentary vote, Wahid was elected president in October 1999 by Indonesia's national assembly. The People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) also chose as vice president Megawati, the daughter of the republic's first president. The elections were significant because previously the assembly, which consists of the parliament plus nearly 200 appointed representatives, simply rubber-stamped Suharto's decision to hold another term. Days before the MPR voted, Habibie withdrew his candidacy amid controversy surrounding a bank scandal, his failure to pursue corruption charges against Suharto, and his policies that led to East Timor's independence from Indonesia in September.

Wahid moved quickly to assert civilian control over the military, appointing a civilian defense minister and sacking from the cabinet Suharto's last armed forces commander, General Wiranto. Wahid removed Wiranto in February 2000 after an independent commission implicated the general and 32 other officers in the 1999 killings of hundreds of civilians in East Timor by soldiers and pro-Jakarta militia. However, the president's repeated criticism of parliament and aloof and erratic leadership style drew the ire of opposition legislators. By summer 2000, they were threatening to impeach Wahid over scandals involving his private masseur and the rice distribution agency, his economic policies, and his failure to contain the insurgency in Aceh and deadly ethnic and sectarian violence in the Moluccas, Borneo, and Sulawesi.

The MPR's ousting of Wahid on July 23, 2001, ended more than a year of political and economic uncertainty and paved the way for Megawati, as vice president, to succeed him. She soon put together an economics team made up of respected professionals. They included Dorodjatun Kuntjorojakti, the ambassador to Washington, as coordinating minister for economics. The IMF responded to the political changes in September by releasing a $395 million tranche of a $5 billion aid package, suspended since December 2000. However, the new administration, stocked with Suharto-era elites, moved slowly on promised legal reforms, privatization of state firms, and sales of distressed assets. Indonesia's multilateral and bilateral donors in November pledged $3.14 billion for 2002, which was $1.7 billion less than last year, and conditioned $1.3 billion on Jakarta's efforts to speed up privatization, strengthen the legal system, and clean up the banking sector.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Indonesians can choose their legislators in free and reasonably fair elections but do not elect their president, who holds most executive power. Instead, the president is chosen by the People's Consultative Assembly, which consists of the entire 500-member parliament plus 130 regional representatives chosen by provincial legislatures and 65 members representing various business, labor, and social constituencies. The parliament, a docile body under Suharto, today vigorously debates government policy and sees itself as a check on the president's power. Domestic watchdog groups accused Golkar supporters of illegally using state welfare funds for campaigning and bribes prior to the 1999 parliamentary vote. The next presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2004.

Indonesia's human rights record is far better today than it was during the Suharto era. However, the rule of law is weak throughout the archipelago and serious abuses take place in West Papua and to an even greater extent in Aceh, a resource-rich province of 4.6 million people in northern Sumatra. In Aceh, low-level fighting has continued unabated despite a ceasefire signed in May 2000 between the government and Islamic rebels demanding Aceh's independence. "Violence has escalated over the past year and civilians continue to suffer grave human rights abuses at the hands of both the Indonesian security forces and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM)," Amnesty International said in June. The conflict killed an estimated 1,600 people in 2001.

The army continued to be implicated in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, rape, arbitrary detention, and other abuses against suspected GAM members or sympathizers, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Divided into eight factions, the guerrillas reportedly committed extrajudicial killings of soldiers and of civilians who allegedly assisted the army, while intimidating Aceh's population and raising money through extortion, the two rights groups said. In 1999, GAM leaders rejected Wahid's offer of a referendum on autonomy for the province.

A special tribunal set up to try soldiers and militia fighters accused of killing hundreds of civilians and other grave crimes in East Timor following the territory's 1999 independence referendum made little progress by year's end. Facing international pressure to bring to justice suspects in the 1999 violence, parliament and President Wahid approved setting up the tribunal in the spring, along with a second tribunal to try suspects in the army's 1984 killing of 33 protesters in the Jakarta port of Tanjung Priok. Ordinary Indonesian courts have rarely prosecuted soldiers and police for human rights abuses, and the few convictions generally have resulted in relatively light sentences. The special tribunals were set up under a 2000 law authorizing the creation of new courts to try cases of major human rights abuses and of ad hoc courts to try serious abuses committed before the law took effect, including crimes against humanity.

Police at times kill unarmed suspects or alleged criminals, and guards often mistreat and extort money from suspects in police or military custody, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Indonesia's human rights record in 2000. The military and police continue to use torture against independence supporters in Aceh, criminal suspects, and ordinary Indonesians involved in land or labor disputes, Amnesty International said in November.

Despite a series of recent reforms, the judiciary is still wracked by "widespread corruption, and judges are subject to considerable pressure from governmental authorities," the U.S. State Department report said. The report also said that police and judges frequently ignore due process rights and that prison conditions are harsh. In an effort to create a more independent and effective court system, Wahid replaced many Suharto-era judges. In addition, the government is transferring administrative and financial control over the judiciary to the supreme court from the justice department.

Indonesia's private press, freed from its Suharto-era shackles, reports aggressively on government policies, corruption, and other formerly taboo issues. Police, however, occasionally assault journalists covering local issues. Journalists reporting on the conflict in Aceh routinely face pressure from the GAM, police, and soldiers, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in August. Private radio stations must broadcast each day government-prepared news packages but can also air their own news programs. Most private commercial television networks are owned by or have management ties to former President Suharto's family.

Students, workers, and other Indonesians frequently hold peaceful demonstrations, although security forces forcibly break up some protests. Legal aid, human rights, environmental, and social welfare nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate fairly freely. However, several activists and humanitarian workers have in recent years been killed in strife-torn Aceh. Indonesia's official National Human Rights Commission investigates and publicizes reports of human rights abuses and recommends legal and regulatory changes, but lacks enforcement powers.

Violence along ethnic, racial, and religious lines has in recent years killed several thousand people in Borneo, Sulawesi, and the Moluccan Islands. In Borneo, clashes between indigenous Dayaks and Madurese migrants killed at least 500 people in Central Kalimantan province in February and drove thousands of Madurese from their homes in West Kalimantan in June, Reuters reported. The Dayak and Madurese communities in Borneo are embroiled in disputes over land, jobs, and other economic matters. Sectarian violence in Central Sulawesi province killed more than 300 people between May 2000 and December 2001, according to Agence France-Press. In the eastern Moluccan Islands, violence between Muslims and Christians appeared to abate somewhat in 2001, possibly because fighting in the past several years has effectively partitioned the two groups into separate communities. The Laskar Jihad, an Islamic fundamentalist group founded in 2000, has sent thousands of volunteers to the Moluccas and Central Sulawesi from Java and elsewhere to fight local Christians.

The Madurese migrants in Borneo are among the tens of thousands of Indonesians whom authorities resettled over the past several decades to remote parts of the archipelago from overcrowded areas. Conditions for newcomers at some relocation sites are extremely poor, while human rights activists say the influx of migrants limits job opportunities for indigenous people and marginalizes their culture. Jakarta announced in 2000 that it would no longer resettle people between islands, only within the same province. Local communities throughout Indonesia tend to have limited say on decisions concerning development projects, use of natural resources, and other economic activities.

Ethnic Chinese continued to face some harassment and violence, but far less than in the late 1990s, when violent attacks killed hundreds and destroyed many Chinese-owned shops and churches. State universities still have informal quotas that limit the enrollment of ethnic Chinese students, according to the U.S. State Department report. In a positive development, ethnic Chinese can once again publicly celebrate the Lunar New Year and other Chinese festivals. President Wahid in 2000 repealed a 1967 ban on the public practice of Chinese customs. Ethnic Chinese make up less than three percent of the nation's population, but are resented by some Indonesians for controlling a disproportionate share of commerce and private wealth.

Indonesians of all faiths generally can worship freely, although authorities monitor and have outlawed some radical Islamic groups. Violence between Muslims and Christians in the Moluccas and elsewhere in recent years has damaged or destroyed dozens of churches and mosques.

Women face unofficial discrimination in education and employment opportunities and are underrepresented in government and politics, according to the U.S. State Department report. Violence against women is a continuing concern, although there are no accurate figures on the extent of the problem. Police often do not take rape allegations seriously and avoid bringing assault charges against husbands in domestic violence cases, the State Department report said. Anecdotal evidence suggests that among Muslims female genital mutilation continued to be practiced in some areas.

Indonesia's economic woes have contributed to higher infant mortality and school dropout rates and greater numbers of undernourished children and child laborers, according to reports by UNICEF, the International Labor Organization (ILO), the government, and local NGOs. In the Moluccas, Borneo, and other conflict-wracked areas, hundreds of thousands of children have had their schooling interrupted temporarily in recent years after fleeing their homes to escape violence.

Workers can join independent unions, bargain collectively, and stage strikes, but employers frequently ignore minimum wage laws, dismiss labor activists, and hire thugs to intimidate workers or break strikes. Authorities no longer use the military to intervene in labor disputes, but they weakly enforce laws on anti-union discrimination, minimum wages, safety, and child labor. Indonesia has 43 registered union federations and hundreds of small splinter groups, although only 10 to 15 percent of the country's 80 million industrial workers are unionized. The economic crisis, moreover, threw millions of Indonesians out of work, meaning that unions generally lack the clout to bargain collectively.