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  • Southeast Asia After the CrisisChallenges of Change in Indonesia
  • Bambang Harymurti (bio)

“Goodbye to the New Order and welcome to the Era of the People’s Empowerment!” With these words, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the Indonesian Democracy Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which finished first in the 7 June 1999 parliamentary elections, concluded her official victory speech in Jakarta. The audience, made up largely of her supporters, roared in applause at what they considered to be a very appropriate ending, one that signaled a new beginning for Indonesia at the threshold of the new millennium. They believed that in November Megawati Sukarnoputri would be elected Indonesia’s fifth president by the new members of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), which is made up of the five hundred members of parliament, along with two hundred representatives of provincial assemblies and “functional groups” (groups based on occupational, religious, ethnic, and gender identification), and that she would lead the country to a more democratic, just, and prosperous future.

This is by no means a foregone conclusion, however. PDI-P, which gathered 35 percent of the popular vote, did not win enough seats to guarantee victory in the presidential elections. Even if it gains the support of the proreform Muslim parties led by Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais, which took 16 percent and 7 percent of the popular vote, respectively, it will not be assured of a majority in the MPR, where over two hundred seats are not chosen by direct election. Golkar, the current ruling party, which finished second in the popular vote with 20 percent, is working hard to build a coalition with other parties that will give it enough votes in the MPR to keep incumbent president B.J. Habibie in office. [End Page 69]

Habibie’s supporters claim that in just one year his administration has overseen the fairest elections in Indonesia since 1955; has stabilized the economy, which had been hit hard by the “Asian contagion”; has restored freedom of the press; and has made it possible for the people of East Timor to determine their future under the auspices of the United Nations. Even though Habibie was once Suharto’s protégé, his supporters believe that he has proven himself to be the right president to lead Indonesia into a more democratic, open, and affluent era.

A new era is indeed dawning for Indonesia. Suharto’s resignation on 21 May 1998 left the country to an uncertain fate. Pessimists fear that the departure of the five-star general, who ruled Indonesia with an iron hand for more than 32 years, will lead to anarchy, chaos, and even the breakup of this nation of more than 17,000 islands. Optimists predict the birth of a new and more democratic Indonesia, with a far more developed civil society.

Each of these contradictory predictions is supported by plausible evidence. The pessimists have much to be alarmed about. Separatist activity is on the increase, not only in East Timor, but also in Aceh and Irian Jaya (Indonesia’s easternmost and westernmost provinces). Ethnic clashes of unprecedented magnitude are flaring up in West Kalimantan and Batam, and religious conflicts are still smoldering in Maluku and Eastern Nusatenggara. Thousands of people have been killed in the past two years, and many more have been wounded or dispossessed. Almost 200,000 Indonesians have been classified as “internally displaced persons”; most of them live in temporary and grossly inadequate shelters. Some of these hastily built refugee camps, catering exclusively to victims on one side of a conflict, have unintentionally become fertile recruiting grounds for future warriors.

According to these pessimists, only a strong leader can overcome all these problems. If such a leader is found, Indonesia will be stable again and another era of rapid economic growth will become possible, but only at the cost of being governed by another authoritarian regime. If such a leader cannot be found, the pessimists predict that the country will be plunged into irreversible fragmentation.

The optimists, on the other hand, see the demise of the New Order regime as the end of a period in which ordinary Indonesians signed away their civil rights in exchange for...

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pp. 69-83
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