Wed, 24 Jul 1996

The free speech forum

The warning issued by Armed Forces (ABRI) Chief Gen. Feisal Tanjung on Monday to ban the free speech forum at the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) headquarters on Jl. Diponegoro, Jakarta, for being "unconstitutional" and inciting people "to overthrow the government" is rather disturbing. It is appalling, because one would think that such a serious charge as treason -- which carries the penalty of life in prison or the death penalty if proven in court -- should be backed up by solid evidence. So far, one has yet to see it.

Without sufficient proof, one might think that the plan is a mere excuse by the authorities to take over the headquarters from the Megawati camp and to stop Megawati Soekarnoputri -- the PDI chairwoman who was toppled in a government-backed PDI congress in Medan last month -- from continuing her fight to maintain her position.

From a layman's point of view, one can see that so far, the forum has not caused any serious disturbances except for a few complaints from neighbors and an occasional traffic jam. The open forum is a good place to channel one's disappointment and frustration; a far better choice than letting people go into the street to demonstrate, an act which may foster trouble and instability. One should also remember that the forum was organized spontaneously, and, in fact, was "born" of the authorities' own doing by ousting Megawati.

That the authorities are becoming increasingly upset and angered by the free speech forum -- the first ever held outside a university campus in the last three decades -- is understandable. Most of the statements expressed at the forum are criticisms of the government and vows of continued support for Megawati. But perhaps what is most irritating to the government is that the forum has also become a symbol of public defiance against the authorities.

Thus, Gen. Feisal Tanjung's statement should be seen as part of an attempt to remove -- once and for all -- Megawati from the PDI picture. It is apparent that from the outset, when the plan to topple Megawati was drawn, the government had underestimated Megawati and the mood of the people as well, particularly the PDI grassroots supporters. Hence, when Megawati fought back and people came rallying behind her, the authorities were not ready when the wave of protests in support of Megawati spread across the country.

One thing that concerns us most is the use of the same outdated pretexts to discredit Megawati and her supporters, such as the phrases "leftist", "plans to topple the government", or "similar to the tactics of the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI)". If the authorities have enough evidence that someone, including Megawati, has a plan to overthrow the government or is in any way related to the PKI, it would be better to bring the matter into the open and bring the suspects to court.

One has to remember that more than half of our population was born after the communist coup of 1965, and thus have no knowledge of the PKI. Repeating the same old charges over and over again without any supporting evidence will not only be counterproductive, but may also raise doubts about the credibility of the accuser.

It is no secret that some of Megawati's supporters are members of non-governmental organizations that are allegedly "leftist" in nature, and some of them may be frustrated enough with the current system to think that the only way out is to change it. But we believe their number is small. More people prefer a gradual improvement from within, and thus the process will not disrupt our national development drive.

The plan to ban the free speech forum is also an indication that the government's tolerance of differences of opinion is becoming short-fused. Hence, it is a good reminder for all of us to consider that President Soeharto has repeatedly stated that differences of opinion are normal in a democratic society. Thus, all citizens have an equal right to dissent as long as they conform with prevailing rules and do not disrupt stability. In this country, we have a Constitution that clearly guarantees freedom of expression.