After centuries of colonial rule, Indonesia declared independence in 1945, which was finally recognized by the Netherlands in 1949. Indonesia was ruled by authoritarian regimes from independence until 1998, when democracy protests forced the long-standing leader, Suharto, to resign in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Since then, Indonesia has held democratic elections, experienced a peaceful transfer of power, and addressed a number of human rights concerns. Corruption and ties to the old system, however, have held back both economic and political progress. Indonesia also faces significant terrorist and separatist movements, although tensions in Aceh province were eased by a recent agreement with guerrilla forces.
Fossil records indicate that human ancestors inhabited the archipelago as far back as 700,000 years ago. The recorded history of modern inhabitation dates to 4000 BC. Prior to the dominance of Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms throughout the archipelago, there were alliances of seafaring city-states. Arab traders, who introduced Islam, arrived in the 11th century, as in Malaysia. One of the main realms in this early period was the Srivijaya Kingdom, which ruled in Sumatra from the sixth to the 15th centuries and introduced Hinduism and especially Buddhism to western Java, western Borneo, and the southern Malay Peninsula. The last prince of the Srivijaya Kingdom adopted Islam in 1414 and began a new kingdom on the Malay Peninsula, the Sultanate of Malacca (see also Country Study of Malaysia). Several major kingdoms developed on Java, the other main Indonesian island. The Majapahit, which ruled from 1293 to 1500, was itself driven to the outpost of Bali by the Sultanate of Malacca. The political vacuum left behind in Java was filled by the Sultanate of Mataram, established in 1570 with the support of local kingdoms in central Java.
European Colonization: A New Level of Brutality
The Portuguese established the first European foothold on the islands, but the Dutch assumed control starting in 1602 (the Portuguese kept only East Timor). The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was given a full monopoly over Indonesian trade by the Dutch parliament. It quickly gained control over key ports and established a monopoly on the lucrative spice trade, imposing its will with brute force. In 1619, the Dutch took Yagakarta (the capital of the Mataram), burned it to the ground, and created present-day Jakarta on the model of Amsterdam. Another notorious example of Dutch rule was the slaughter or deportation of the entire Banda Islands population after it was discovered the Bandans had continued trading nutmeg with the English. The islands were repopulated by indentured servants and slaves.
The VOC went bankrupt in 1799 due to its inefficiency and the interruption of trade brought on by the Napoleonic wars. After a brief period of British rule, the reconstituted United Kingdom of the Netherlands reasserted administrative control over the archipelago in 1816. Thereafter, the Dutch moved to a system of plantation farming that relied on forced labor, with rubber, spices, and coffee among the main crops (Indonesian coffee constituted three-quarters of the world’s supply at the time). Throughout the period of Dutch rule, local representation for Indonesians was denied.
In 1901, Dutch leaders adopted an “Ethical Policy,” which led to a greater investment in local education but left demands for political representation largely unsatisfied. A nationalist movement that arose in 1908 was repressed but inspired the development of several factions. Two Indonesian nationalists, Sukarno and Muhammad Hatta, led separate secular and Islamic groups. The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) also emerged in the 1920s as a strong force.
Japanese Invasion and the War for Indonesian Independence
The Japanese invaded Indonesia in early 1942 as part of a policy to control the region’s natural resources. To prevent a campaign of noncooperation, the Japanese convinced Sukarno and Hatta to take over the system of local administration, from which posts they pushed a unifying theme of nationalism. Despite the severity of the Japanese occupation, their wartime collaboration, including being decorated by Emperor Hirohito in 1943, was not considered controversial or contradictory to the struggle for Indonesian independence.
On August 17, 1945, Sukarno took advantage of Japan’s quick withdrawal to issue a declaration announcing Indonesia’s independence, and a provisional constitution was put into force. Drawing upon Japanese-trained soldiers, the nationalist movement initially fought against a British force that had been ordered to prevent postwar chaos, and then fought against the Dutch, who eventually reassumed administrative control. Although the Dutch slowly regained control of the islands, the nationalist movement was resilient. The Dutch queen Julianna formally recognized Indonesia’s independence on December 27, 1949. During the struggle for independence, it is estimated that 6,000 Dutch and 150,000 Indonesians were killed.
Sukarno: “Dictator for Life”
Sukarno assumed the dominant political position in independent Indonesia as head of state. Although a new constitution provided for parliamentary democracy, with the executive chosen by parliament, national elections were not held until 1955. After the elections, political parties were too fractionalized for a stable government (approximately 60 parties were represented in parliament). In 1959, President Sukarno redeclared the validity of the 1945 provisional constitution, which had originally granted him executive power. In 1959, Sukarno proclaimed a period of guided democracy and formed a triad among the country’s three most important political forces: the president, the armed forces, and the Communist Party. In 1963, he declared himself president for life.
In 1955, Sukarno changed Indonesia’s foreign policy, launching the nonaligned movement at a meeting of state leaders that he hosted in Bandung, Indonesia. More significant, Sukarno established an external alliance with China and an internal one with the PKI. Sukarno also adopted an aggressive foreign policy, demanding the retaking of the western half of Papua New Guinea from the Dutch (achieved in 1963) and provoking a major confrontation with Malaysia (Indonesia withdrew from the United Nations in protest of its acceptance of Malaysia as a member despite its hold on contested territories).
The Most Brutal Counter insurgency in Indonesia’s Postwar History
Sukarno approved a PKI initiative to arm peasants and other loyal social groups with the aim of countering the growing influence of the military, which Sukarno had himself strengthened with his confrontational foreign policy. In 1965, when palace guards sympathetic to the PKI shot and killed six regular army generals on a visit to Sukarno, the head of the Army Strategic Command, Suharto, took charge and launched a counteroffensive against what many believed to be the beginnings of a Communist coup. The counterinsurrectionary campaign that followed was one of the most violent episodes of government-sponsored bloodshed in postwar history, with an estimated 500,000 Communists and suspected Communists killed and a similar number put in prison.
Suharto: The Era of the New Order
In March 1966, power transferred from Sukarno to Suharto, who was appointed president in 1967 to a full five-year term in office by the Provisional People’s Consultative Assembly. Suharto translated this into a personal reign lasting 31 years. Sukarno was placed under house arrest and died in 1970.
Suharto, with a united military behind him and the PKI effectively destroyed, instituted a much more systematic dictatorship than under Sukarno. The Suharto era was marked by a high degree of political control, including a dominant pro-government political party (Golkar) that elected him to seven successive five-year terms as president. Under Suharto, the state controlled the media and influenced the judiciary, and military and security forces were prepared to deal with insurrections, terrorist activity, and political opposition. Freedom of movement was highly restricted.
The Victory of Democracy
“Throughout Suharto’s reign, many individuals had braved imprisonment and death to stand up for human and labor rights. The democracy movement emerged, however, out of a split in the ruling party in 1996 led by Megawati Sukarnopoutri, Sukarno’s daughter and a key member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Megawati organized protests outside the 1996 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Jakarta, which were forcibly dispersed, resulting in several casualties and many more injuries. This event, known as “Black Saturday,” became a rallying cry for the opposition, whose strength grew. At the same time, Suharto found himself forced to adopt austerity measures in the face of the Asian financial crisis. When Suharto insisted on another term in office, his seventh, mass protests were organized that revealed his political weakness. Islamist parties, which Suharto had outlawed, joined the opposition in demanding Suharto’s ouster. Suharto finally resigned in 1998 in favor of his vice president, B. J. Habibie, who agreed to new parliamentary elections.
In 1999, the new parliament, the first to be elected since 1955, selected Abdurrahman Wahid as president. Wahid was impeached in 2001 due to corruption and incompetence and was succeeded by his vice president, Megawati Sukarnopoutri. Despite her landmark agreement defusing the Aceh rebellion, she lost the country’s first free national election for president in 2004 to a former security official, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The parliamentary elections held at the same time resulted in the reemergence of Golkar, the party of power under Suharto, as the majority party. It is still challenged by Megawati’s PDI-P, which holds a significant number of legislative seats. The elections also put in question Indonesian leaders’ willingness to deal with corruption and cronyism.
For much of Indonesia’s history, its citizens lived under repressive systems, such as monarchical and colonial rule, military occupation, and authoritarianism in the 20th century. Consequently, human rights were repeatedly violated. However, beginning with free parliamentary elections in 1999 and continuing with direct presidential elections in 2004, democratic politics have taken root in Indonesia. Both the 1999 and 2004 legislative and 2004 presidential elections were deemed free and fair by international observers, and with the 2004 presidential election, executive power transferred peacefully for the first time in the country’s history. It seems that the period of authoritarianism has passed.
At the same time, the new president’s military past (President Yudhoyono was formerly a military general) and ties to Golkar, the new majority in parliament, have posed questions as to the seriousness with which Indonesian leaders will continue to carry out reforms and reduce levels of corruption in government. Other issues challenging the national government are militant groups and groups seeking greater autonomy, such as in Papua and Malaku. However, Megawati’s agreement with leaders in Aceh to end the rebellion in that region was a significant signal that not all issues would be addressed by military force, and that a successful resolution of national and regional issues could be achieved. Recent elections were held in Aceh that fulfilled the peace agreement, which continues to hold. At the same time, however, the military’s ongoing violation of rights continues to aggravate local conflict.
Adopting Universal Standards
In 2005, Indonesia’s government ratified the two main covenants on human rights: the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Indonesia had been one of the last remaining countries to not ratify the agreements). In addition, the government’s human rights office adopted the Indonesian National Plan of Action on Human Rights, which “aimed at invigorating the Indonesian effort to promote and protect the human rights of the Indonesian people, in particular the segments of the community that are most vulnerable to human rights violation.” It also seeks to improve the quality of life and to reduce poverty.
In the area of labor rights, the parliament’s efforts have been decisive. The Suharto regime had a poor record in this area, particularly due to the policy of recruiting foreign investors by ensuring that they could operate in a labor standards–free zone. Independent trade union leaders and labor rights advocates were frequently imprisoned, while many workplaces were required to include Golkar-controlled union organizations. Since 1999, Indonesia has ratified all eight of the core ILO conventions (see “Freedom of Association”), one of the few countries in the Asia-Pacific region to do so. The government has also taken some concrete steps toward ensuring legal protection for freedom of association. Labor rights centers and trade unions may now operate relatively freely, although with some restrictions, and membership in independent trade unions has increased. The conventions that Indonesia has supported include those that ban slavery and child labor, those that protect the rights of association and collective bargaining, and those that guarantee a minimum wage and maternity leave, among other provisions. However, enforcement of these standards remains weak. Child labor is still a widespread problem, and key provisions, such as a minimum wage, are not widely respected.
Human Rights Practices
In most areas, however, human rights are respected in Indonesia. In practice, the rights to free expression, worship, and assembly are upheld. Although these freedoms are not uniformly respected, violations are now documented, publicized, and brought to the human rights office. Citizens are also able to petition the government on significant issues.
Nonetheless, the police and military continue to be sources of concern for human rights advocates. In 1999, East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia in a referendum approved by Suharto’s successor, B. J. Habibie. After the referendum, however, the Indonesian army carried out violent attacks throughout East Timor, and
“Indonesia recognized East Timor’s independence in 2002 only under international pressure.
Indeed, the security forces pose ongoing challenges for Indonesia’s respect for human rights, largely due to the government’s counter terrorism and counter insurgency activities. As Human Rights Watch, a human rights advocacy organization, explains:
The Indonesian armed forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI) continue to violateinternational human rights and humanitarian law with impunity. Military operations in Papua and Aceh are characterized by undisciplined and unaccountable troops committing widespread abuses against civilians, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced disappearances, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and drastic limits on freedom of movement. Torture of detainees in police and military custody is also widespread across the country; some of the detainees tortured are children. Indonesia’s executive and judicial branches regularly fail to address such abuses.
In addition to abuses committed by security forces, the government has not dealt fully with the issues of reconciliation and justice, giving impunity to the perpetrators of human rights violations under previous regimes.
The other characteristic of the Suharto dictatorship was a high degree of general corruption among the ruling elite. This legacy hangs over the post-1999 governments, with one president already impeached for corruption. Indeed, corruption infects the electoral process, business, media, the courts, and the security forces and can be said to be the principal reason preventing the achievement of an improved rating in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World survey.