Subject: Is It 'Reformasi' or Simply New Order-lite? [by Julia Suryakusuma]

The Jakarta Post

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


Is it 'Reformasi' or simply New Order-lite?

Julia Suryakusuma, Jakarta

With everyone becoming more health-conscious there's a growing trend away from unhealthy and calorific food. In most Western countries huge industries produce masses of low-cal products: margarine lite, lite spread, lite milk, slimline yogurt, Lite Licks (ice cream made from soy), lite bread and lite beer and soft-drinks.

Unfortunately, many diet foods turn out not to be not all that healthy after all. In fact, some can be positively damaging. Despite the flood of "lite" products the number of obese people in the United States has doubled since 1980 to 54 percent, and some so-called "diet ingredients" do much worse than make you fat. They have been linked to headaches, dizziness, attention difficulties, seizures, memory loss, vision problems, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and depression -- and some are said to cause brain tumors and other cancers.

This is truly a case of the "solution" being worse than the problem, but dressed up in a glossy "good for you" package. And diet food is not the only area where fraudulent claims are foisted on an unsuspecting public.

Take reformasi, for example. It started as a push to democratize Indonesia in Soeharto's wake and replace his authoritarian New Order regime with a system based on rights and equality, rather than privilege and impunity. Ten years later down a long and winding road, where have we ended up?

Yes, some things have gotten better. We've introduced basic democratic institutions, abolished military seats in parliament, granted autonomy to the regions and ratified most key UN conventions.

But our government's priorities still indicate a fundamental lack of responsiveness to pressing basic needs of the people, including food, water, sanitation, health and education. Parliament is unproductive and ineffective, beset with scandals and corruption, and horrific crimes against humanity from the past remain unaddressed. The economy is slowly growing yes, but unemployment, crime and poverty (which now applies to an estimated 50 percent of the population) are all growing faster, with increasing incidence of starvation, especially outside Java.

The government's answer is usually to cry poor: we're a developing country, they remind us. Sure, but that didn't stop them from coughing up a cool Rp 20 billion (US$2.17 million) so Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid could buy himself (another) house, in keeping with a 1978 law stipulating that former presidents are entitled to a house at the state's expense.

Hello? Wasn't the man impeached and fired by parliament for unsatisfactory performance? Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought if you're fired for not being up to the job you forfeit rewards and bonuses.

Then there's the case of Johan Teterisa who unfurled a separatist South Maluku Republic (RMS) flag in a peaceful demonstration when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Ambon (capital of the Maluku) in June last year. Teterisa was convicted of "plotting against the state" and given a life sentence. Silly me, I thought the freedom to make peaceful political protests was what democracy was all about. Not in Indonesia, it seems -- not even with Article (28E) in our shiny new Constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression.

So how does that work: Teterisa gets life for flying a flag, but Tommy Soeharto got the minimum sentence for ordering the murder of a Supreme Court judge? Meanwhile, retired military generals accused of gross violations of human rights in Tanjung Priok (1984), Lampung (1989), East Timor (1999), etc. have told the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) to get lost because it lacks authority to investigate their past actions. And there I was thinking that in the reformasi era we'd finally sort out the abuses and violence of our militarized past. Not in Indonesia, it seems.

And then there's religion. Sigh. Since reformasi in 1998, the government has consistently turned a blind eye to crimes committed by hard-line Muslims, who smash up bars, raid hotels and destroy places of worship with impunity. Local governments influenced by the hard-liners pass regulations that institutionalize discrimination against women, in direct breach of national laws and even the Constitution, but Jakarta does nothing to stop them.

Yes, articles 28E and 29 of our Constitution now guarantee freedom of religion but that sure doesn't protect harmless religious sects like Ahmadiyah from persecution. In fact, Sobri Lubis, the secretary-general of Islamic Defenders Front has now exhorted his followers to go out and kill adherents of Ahmadiyah. The government, of course, did nothing about that, but it is moving to ban Ahmadiyah, with Vice President Jusuf Kalla saying they cannot simply cancel plans for a joint ministerial decree to outlaw it, as "there are many aspects to consider".

Like what? The presidential elections in 2009, perhaps? Not the Constitution, that's for sure. Think about it -- if Ahmadiyah is banned by ministerial decree, the Constitutional Court won't be able to review it as it can only test laws produced by the House. And that will make the guarantees in articles 28E and 29 worthless, won't it?

I am sure you can still remember the New Order. We had a general in the Presidential Palace, freedom of expression and religious freedom were severely restricted and often violated, and human rights were irrelevant.

And today? Well, we still have a general in the palace, and freedom of expression and religious freedom are still restricted and violated, and human rights too are often irrelevant. Only now we have the added extras of rampant poverty and the decay of basic services, like education and health, as well as soaring commodity prices.

Yep, just like diet-lite products, reformasi is starting to produce severe headaches, memory loss and attention deficiencies (with promise of worse to come), so I propose we rename reformasi New Order-Lite. In good Indonesian tradition this can then be abbreviated to become NOL, which in Indonesian of course means "zero".

So what's the prognosis, doc? Any cures, or should we all just curl up and die?

Julia Suryakusuma is the author of Sex, Power and Nation. She can be reached at

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