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After four tumultuous years that saw a dictatorship unravel and two presidents ousted by a newly boisterous parliament, Indonesian politics took on more muted tones in 2002, while social problems continued to fester. With Jakarta's political elite jockeying for position in the presidential and legislative elections due in 2004, both President Megawati Sukarnoputri and parliament seemed either unwilling or unable to take bold steps to tackle the many pressing problems faced by the world's fourth most populous country. These include a sluggish economy, widespread graft, and weak political institutions, violent conflicts in several provinces, and the presence of a tiny but growing number of homegrown Islamic militants with possible links to the al-Qaeda terrorism network.
At year's end, however, the government appeared more willing to address at least some of these problems, working out a cease-fire with pro-independence rebels in Aceh province in December and tracking down the suspects in a deadly October terrorist attack on the resort island of Bali.
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, took on authoritarian powers in 1957 under a system that he called "Guided Democracy." Amid continued political turbulence and economic stagnation, the army, led by General Suharto, crushed an apparent 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 people, mainly PKI members and 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, the nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), and the Islamic-oriented United Development Party (PPP). In the 1990s, Suharto increasingly concentrated power in himself and family members, who received an outsized share of government contracts.
In part to sustain his power, Suharto's government launched programs that helped lift millions of Indonesians out of poverty. Pundits placed Indonesia in the ranks of the "Asian Tiger" economies as output grew by 7.6 percent per year, on average, between 1987 and 1996. By 1997, however, years of poor investment decisions and profligate borrowing from weakly supervised banks had saddled Indonesian firms with some $80 billion in foreign debt. To stave off a private sector debt default, the government agreed in October 1997 to a $43 billion loan package set up by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for cutting public spending and breaking up business monopolies held by Suharto relatives and cronies.
Suharto made few efforts to meet Indonesia's IMF commitments, while a plunging rupiah sent food prices soaring. Suharto resigned in May 1998 following months of unprecedented antigovernment protests and three days of devastating urban riots. Vice President B. J. Habibie, a longtime Suharto loyalist, became president. Having consistently backed Suharto throughout his 32-year rule, the military, then headed by General Wiranto, played a key role in easing him from office.
In Indonesia's first free parliamentary elections in decades, Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party--Struggle (PDI-P), the successor to the PDI, won 154 of the 462 contested seats; Golkar, 120; PPP, 58; the National Awakening Party, led by Abdurrahman Wahid, then leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim social group, 51; the National Mandate Party, led by Amien Rais, another Muslim leader, 35; and 16 other parties, 44. In addition, 38 seats were reserved for the military and police.
In another break with the Suharto era, in October 1999, Indonesia's national assembly elected Wahid president and Megawati vice president in its first-ever competitive vote. Previously, the body, called the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), consisting of parliament plus 195 appointed representatives, simply rubber-stamped Suharto's decision to hold another term.
Wahid increased civilian control over Indonesia's powerful armed forces, though he was less successful in jump-starting the economy or in containing the insurgency in Aceh as well as deadly ethnic and sectarian violence in the Moluccas, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi. His relations with the newly forceful parliament grew increasingly bitter in 2000 thanks to the president's repeated criticism of legislative leaders. Megawati, the daughter of the republic's first president, took office as president in July 2001 after the MPR ousted Wahid over his ineffective economic policies and alleged involvement in at least two scandals. The vote highlighted the legislature's growing role as a check on presidential power.
As president, Megawati, 55, has fostered good relations with parliament by bringing into her government all of the major parties. She has also persuaded the IMF to resume lending to Indonesia and pursued corruption cases against senior politicians such as Akbar Tanjung, the parliamentary speaker and Golkar leader. Critics say, however, that her administration has not done enough to crack down on corruption, reform the legal system, strengthen political institutions, and pursue cases against senior military officers for past abuses in East Timor and other areas.
The government may be even more reluctant to carry out reforms as the 2004 elections approach for fear of upsetting potential backers. Already, PDI-P officials reportedly fear that Tanjung's corruption conviction could undermine efforts to forge a secular electoral alliance between the PDI-P, Golkar, and the National Awakening Party. Failure to cobble together an alliance could boost the fortunes of the Islamic parties, which together hold nearly one-fourth of parliament's seats but are riven by internal power struggles and policy differences.
At the same time, some analysts say, a coalition aimed at isolating conservative Islamic parties risks creating a religious opposition bloc and deepening a secular-religious political divide that has arisen since Suharto's ouster. Islamic parties tend to favor preferential economic policies for the majority Malays and partial imposition of Islamic law.
Meanwhile, security concerns have become a leading issue in the wake of the Bali bombing, which killed around 190 people. Western and neighboring Southeast Asian governments expressed concern over the handling of the investigation into both the blast and the small cells of Islamic terrorists supposedly operating in the archipelago.
Some of these concerns may have been alleviated by the police force's diligence in gathering evidence and tracking down suspects in the Bali bombing. However, continuing problems with the military's professionalism and the judiciary's effectiveness could make it harder for the government to address the terrorism threat.
Economists predicted that the Bali bombing could knock off a percentage point from economic growth in 2003. Indonesia's economy has already been hobbled by slowing exports and lower consumer demand. Moreover, investment has declined since 1997 because of concerns, the World Bank says, with security, taxation, the legal system, labor laws, red tape, and customs administration.
Indonesians can choose their legislators in free and reasonably fair elections and will be able to elect their president directly for the first time in 2004. Currently, however, the president is chosen by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), 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 direct elections are likely to strengthen the already powerful presidency, although parliament has shown that it can check executive authority, most notably by ousting Wahid.
The armed forces, which are being weaned off their long-standing formal role in politics, are due to give up their 38 appointed lower house and MPR seats by 2004. Despite pressure to reform and scale back its involvement in domestic affairs, however, the military continues to have extensive business interests and has increased its grassroots presence. Politicians and analysts told the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review in September that the military is likely to continue wielding considerable political clout thanks to its "territorial network" of soldiers in every district and village and its burgeoning political and business links with provincial bosses.
While the government's human rights record has improved considerably since Suharto's downfall, the rule of law continues to be weak throughout the archipelago. In Aceh, an oil-rich province of 4.6 million people in northern Sumatra, the army continued to be implicated in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, tortures, rapes, illegal detentions, and other abuses against suspected guerrillas or sympathizers of the pro-independence Free Aceh Movement (GAM), according to the watchdog groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Human rights groups also criticized the government in 2002 for largely failing to bring to justice top military officers linked to human rights abuses. A special court in Jakarta, set up to try military and civilian officials implicated in the deaths of some 2,000 East Timorese in 1999, acquitted 10 of the 12 suspects it had tried by year's end. Nine of those acquitted were military or police officers, while both of those convicted of crimes against humanity were civilian East Timorese.
Amnesty International and a local group, the Judicial System Monitoring Program, said in August that the trials to date were "seriously flawed." The trials suffered from procedural flaws and the failure of prosecutors to hand down indictments and argue cases that reflected the widespread and systemic nature of the 1999 violence, the two groups said.
Security forces also enjoy near impunity even in nonconflict areas. Police at times summarily kill alleged common criminals, many of whom were unarmed, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. The military and police also often torture criminal suspects, independence supporters in Aceh, and ordinary Indonesians involved in land or labor disputes, Amnesty International said in a 2001 report.
The problem of impunity is linked to the reality that, despite recent reforms, there are "few signs of judicial independence," according to the U.S. State Department report, and government officials "often exert influence over the outcome of cases. While rarely convicting security forces for abuses, courts have recently jailed several peaceful political activists. A court in October, for example, jailed 14 members of a group seeking independence for the southern part of the Moluccan islands chain for between two and five years for raising a banned flag in the provincial capital of Ambon.
In ordinary cases, low judicial salaries lead to widespread corruption, and due process safeguards often are inadequate to ensure fair trials, the U.S. State Department report said; prison conditions are "harsh," and guards routinely mistreat and extort money from inmates.
Besides the military, GAM rebels in Aceh have also committed grave human rights abuses. Divided into some eight factions, GAM forces summarily killed soldiers as well as civilians who allegedly assisted the army, while intimidating and extorting money from ordinary Acehnese, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said. GAM rebels have also killed dozens of civic leaders, academics, politicians, and civil servants, according to the U.S. State Department report.
The cease-fire in the 26-year conflict signed in December calls for substantial autonomy for Aceh, elections for a provincial legislature and government by 2004, and a partial army pullback and rebel disarmament. The deal, however, doesn't address the rebels' core demands for independence and provides few details on the mechanism for disarmament.
Sporadic violence along ethnic or sectarian lines continued, meanwhile, in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and the Moluccas. A February peace deal formally ended a conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas that killed at least 5,000 people, displaced tens of thousands more, and destroyed many churches and mosques during 2 years of fierce clashes that abated somewhat in mid-2001. The violence, which flared at times during the year, had been linked in part to disputes over jobs, land, and other economic and political issues.
Meanwhile, some 1,000 people have died since violence between Christians and Muslims broke out in central Sulawesi in late 1998, according to a December report by Human Rights Watch. The report blamed Indonesian authorities for often failing to stop the attacks or to punish perpetrators.
In Kalimantan and other areas, meanwhile, many disputes between ethnic groups are said to be linked to the government's decades-old policy of resettling tens of thousands of Indonesians to remote parts of the archipelago from overcrowded areas such as Java. Conditions for newcomers at some relocation sites are "life threatening," according to the U.S. State Department report. Human rights activists, meanwhile, say that the influx of migrants limits job opportunities for indigenous people and marginalizes their culture. The number of vigilante killings in these areas also remains high. Jakarta announced in 2000 that it would no longer resettle people between islands, only within the same province.
Local human rights groups, such as the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, vigorously press Jakarta to investigate abuses. They also aid victims and witnesses. Indonesia's official National Human Rights Commission, though, has become "increasingly ineffective and marginalized," Human Rights Watch said in a July report.
Despite the problems of military impunity and violent conflict in some areas, Indonesia has evolved from a tightly controlled to a politically open society. Most notably, the private press, freed from its Suharto-era shackles, reports aggressively on government policies, corruption, political protests, civil conflicts, and other formerly taboo topics. The Alliance of Indonesian Journalists, however, says that threats from police and civilians lead many journalists to practice self-censorship. Press advocacy groups also criticized a law passed in November that prevents private broadcasters from transmitting their programs on a nationwide basis unless they have local partners. The government said that the bill is needed to ensure that regional news is given sufficient coverage and to create competition in the broadcast industry.
Students, workers, and other Indonesians frequently hold peaceful demonstrations. Security forces, however, break up some protests, at times with deadly force, the U.S. State Department report said.
Indonesians of all faiths can generally worship freely, although officials monitor and have outlawed some extremist Islamic groups. In a notable exception to religious freedom, Muslim mobs in the Moluccas have forcibly converted an estimated several thousand Christians, torturing those who refused, according to the U.S. State Department report.
Indonesian women face unofficial discrimination in schooling and employment opportunities and hold relatively few jobs in government and politics, the U.S. State Department report said. Spousal abuse and other forms of violence against women are a continuing concern, although there are no hard figures on the extent of the problem. Anecdotal evidence suggests that among Muslims, female genital mutilation continues to be practiced in some areas, according to the State Department report, which said that the more extreme forms of the practice apparently are becoming less common.
Indonesia is also a source, transit point, and destination for the trafficking of women for prostitution, the report added. One local nongovernmental group estimates that up to 400,000 Indonesian women and children are trafficked each year.
Ethnic Chinese continue to face some harassment and violence, though far less than in the late 1990s, when violent attacks killed hundreds and destroyed many Chinese-owned shops and churches. State universities still limit the enrollment of ethnic Chinese students, the U.S. State Department report said. Ethnic Chinese make up less than 3 percent of the nation's population, but are resented by some Indonesians for holding the lion's share of private wealth. A few ethnic Chinese have amassed huge fortunes in business, though most are ordinary merchants or traders.
Members of Indonesia's tiny indigenous minority tend to have limited say on decisions concerning development projects and the use of natural resources, according to the U.S. State Department report, which added, "When indigenous people clash with those promoting private sector development projects, the developers almost always prevail."
Indonesia's economic woes have contributed to higher infant mortality and school dropout rates and to greater numbers of undernourished children and child laborers, according to recent reports by UNICEF, the International Labor Organization, the government, and local private groups.
Workers can join independent unions, bargain collectively, and, except for civil servants, stage strikes. Employers, however, frequently ignore minimum wage laws and dismiss labor activists. Unions and other nongovernmental groups allege that employers also use plainclothes security forces--often off-duty soldiers and police--or youth gangs to intimidate workers or break strikes. Roughly 10 to 15 percent of Indonesia's 80 million industrial workers are unionized.