Sat, 06 Mar 1999

Albright's optimism

Fair is fair. There is no denying that since the downfall of president Soeharto some significant improvements in human rights and democracy have been made under the fallen autocrat's successor, B.J. Habibie. For example, the press is freer to deliver meaningful and even critical information and analyses to the public. Freedom of expression is officially recognized, although certain acts, such as the public airing of grievances, are still subject to restrictions in order "to protect other people's rights and to ensure public order". However, the right of association was acknowledged by the revocation of Soeharto era restrictions which forbade the free formation of political parties and unions.

Most important, a general election is scheduled to be held on June 7 under new laws and regulations designed -- as far as current political conditions allow -- to assure a free and open ballot. Not surprisingly, the promise of a free general election, made by President Habibie during discussions with United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was the point which seemed to have most impressed the visiting American dignitary. "The sense that I got from talking to the President is that he is obviously devoted to having this happen -- a free and fair and open election," Albright said after the meeting.

Given the positive changes which have occurred since Soeharto stepped down in May last year after 32 years in power, Albright's optimism certainly is not entirely misplaced. Nevertheless, a few reservations to balance her optimism would not be inappropriate. Albright must be aware that not even one of the most flagrant violations of human rights committed not only during Soeharto's regime, but also during President Habibie's administration has been satisfactorily resolved. Consider, for example, the kidnaping of political activists; the violent takeover of the Indonesian Democratic Party headquarters and the resulting riots on June 27, 1997; the May 12 to May 13 riots which led to Soeharto's downfall; the Trisakti and Semanggi shootings; the killings in Aceh and East Timor; and the continuing killings in Ambon.

Since President Habibie came to power, some political prisoners have been released. However, the government still seems to be following in the footsteps of its predecessor by releasing only those prisoners it considers "safe", while continuing to keep other, more feared, political prisoners locked up. In other words, the release of political prisoners under the current administration appears to be guided more by the necessity of appeasing critics than by principle. Whether or not this is the case, such an impression does not reassure Indonesians about the government's sincerity in pushing through meaningful reforms.

As for the upcoming elections, many observers doubt that they will usher in a truly democratic government, in spite of the government's promises. The problem is that even while the voting may be fair and open, government-appointed "representatives", including those from the Armed Forces, will continue to make up a sizable part of the People's Consultative Assembly, the nation's highest legislative body. Thus, the upcoming general election does not necessarily guarantee greater democracy in the near future. Instead, the status quo could very well be maintained in one form or the other. If this happens, the nation could regress, losing any democratic gains it had made and witnessing a return to authoritarianism.

Therefore, while we appreciate Secretary of State Albright's optimism and pledge of American support for the cause of democracy in Indonesia, such faith may be premature. The best Indonesia can do for the present is to make every effort to ensure that the gains we have made are not lost. Then we can say that Albright's optimism was justified.