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Indonesia, 1998: A Great Moment in History

05 Sep 2016
By Michael V. Day
Michael_Day. Authors photo with permission.

The 1998 downfall of Indonesian dictator, Suharto, prompted resolute and emotional displays of support for a transition to democracy. This was as keenly felt by ordinary Indonesians as it was by the two rivals for the presidency, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri. The days of transition were chaotic and violent, but the excitement of Indonesians in deciding their future was palpable throughout. There was a poignant and constant sense of history in every engagement.

After the second president of Indonesia was forced from office in May 1998 and the perfume of democracy was in the air, I attended a gathering at Trisakti University in the heart of Jakarta. The lecture hall was packed to capacity by those who had come to listen to professors and protestors speak about the momentous event that had just occurred in their country.

Emotion was at unparalleled heights. This was the university where four students had recently died for democracy, shot dead by snipers at a demonstration leading up to the downfall of President Suharto. With tears coursing down his cheeks, a professor strode on to the stage and spoke eloquently about the struggle. He then halted his oratory, raised high his clenched fist and shouted “Merdeka! Freedom!”

As one, the entire assemblage echoed his call at full volume, creating a triumphant forest of fists.

For me, it was more than just a story for The West Australian. I felt I was witnessing a great moment in Indonesian history.

Later, I went with my colleague, Walkley-winning photographer Tony Ashby, to a Jakarta cemetery where the family of one of the four Trisakti ‘reform heroes’ were visiting the grave of their loved one, Heri Hartanto. Amidst continuing unspeakable grief, his mother spoke about Heri, who had been only 20 when he died: “He a very social boy with many friends—I didn’t want him to demonstrate but he did anyway.”

Tony’s photograph of Heri’s father and sister at the graveside and my story quickly appeared on the front page of our newspaper, the image a symbol of the great price paid for a form of government too many in Australia take for granted.

Now , it’s possible to look back and know that democracy, however flawed, survived in Indonesia, but then nobody knew if recalcitrant elements of the armed forces might try to claw back power and use lethal force in the attempt. Before the change, students and other democracy activists had been killed and tortured and some had simply disappeared.

This was the nervous context in which reporting was initially carried out at that time—the people had high hopes but were always looking over their shoulders. After a while, though, they became confident that there would be no turning back.

This change in mood was evident to me in June 1999 in the Sulawesi city of Parepare, the birthplace of Mr Suharto’s successor President Habibie. I sat at a table groaning under plates of sweet rice cakes listening to a group of men aged between 40 and 70 engaged in a lively but friendly discussion on a wide range of political topics.

One turned to me, his happy eyes aglow in the tropical night: “Mr Michael, we would never have spoken so openly on these subjects before!”. I wrote for my newspaper:  “Faces beamed with the joy of exercising the basic human right of discussing how their own society should be run.”

That same month I went with “Mr Tony”, hefting his trademark two cameras, to the unpretentious office of Abdurrahman Wahid, known as “Gus Dur”.

This near-blind, charismatic leader of Nadlatul Ulama, the biggest Muslim organisation in the world, had been the only person in Indonesia to have outsmarted President Suharto.

Gus Dur had challenged the dictator for years, but had survived by feinting, advancing and withdrawing with all the skill of a dalang, the puppet master of a traditional Javanese shadow play. He had even succeeded in splitting the support of those who were pushing for Indonesia to become a Muslim state.

Gus Dur was a true democrat, the greatest orator in the land. As his guest a couple of years earlier, I had seen him in action in East Java, entrancing an open-air crowd of tens of thousands. He was an hilarious raconteur, one who could deliver entrancing melodies in the midst of political speeches that were studded with jokes, scriptural references and poetry.

As we emerged from his office after the interview, it dawned upon us that he really believed that he, not the favoured Megawati Sukarnoputri, could well win the forthcoming election to become the next president of Indonesia. In my Jakarta hotel room, I typed out my story, which soon appeared in The West Australian with a heading a friend had suggested: “Gus Dur: the fox who would be king”.

Four months later, Gus Dur took office as president. It was a stunning outcome.

The forces of the old regime were to help ruin any chance of a long term for him as president but he kept the military at bay, and preserved democracy for his successor in the post, Megawati, the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno.

I felt confident that despite her somewhat quiet personality, Megawati would stand her ground. In an exclusive interview with me while Suharto was still in power and less than a year after some of her supporters were killed in an attack on her Jakarta headquarters, Megawati had been brave and forthright on the matter of human rights. She dismissed any suggestion that the military should remain dominant in politics, saying, “The strength of the nation is the people”. She defended the Panca Sila, the five founding principles of the Indonesia republic, rejecting any idea of an official religion.

“My ancestors came from Java and Bali so I have two religions in my background. I am Muslim and have my own beliefs but of course I must show tolerance to the part of my family which is Hindu.”

In the time immediately before and after the downfall of the dictator, the opportunity arose to interview many of the players involved in the push for democracy. As well as Gus Dur and Megawati,  I spoke with former Jakarta government official Ali Sadikin, Muslim leader Amien Rais, novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, university students and environmental activists.

But just as memorable were the ordinary Indonesian people, who were warmly hospitable to this Australian reporter. They spoke of their yearning for a better life, specifically of the need to rid their land of corruption, collusion and nepotism. Who could not but wish them the very best?

Michael V. Day is the former Asia Desk chief at The West Australian Newspaper. This article expands on his talk at AIIA Queensland on 23 August entitled ‘Indonesia: From Dictatorship to Democracy’.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.