A PDI-P Puzzle

by indonotes

PDI Supporters in 1999 (Source: Wikimedia commons)

An examination of the events of 27 July 1996 highlights the contraditions and limitations of democratisation in Indonesia.

In a recent post I looked at the shifting fortunes of Prabowo Subianto and his attempts to overcome his association with the Suharto regime and some notorious human rights violations. However, given the very incomplete process of Indonesia’s democratisation following Suharto’s fall, few of the main political players are uncompromised by the legacy of the Suharto years. Indeed a close examination of events surrounding the end of the Suharto regime points to the ambivalence and inconsistency of those opposing the regime. A recent episode of Mata Najwa looking at the events surrounding the attack on the PDI (Indonesian Democratic Party) headquarters in 1997 shows this well.

To understand the significance of the programme it is necessary to set some context. In the late 1990s, with Suharto’s grip on power weakening, Megawati Sukarnoputri as head of the PDI was becoming a focus for some groups looking for political change. In response, the regime backed a rival, Suryadi, who was selected to head the PDI at a government-backed Congress in Medan. Megawati and her supported refused to back down, and the PDI office in Jakarta became a centre for opposition to the regime.

It was this that set the stage for the events of 27 July 1996, when the PDI headquarters were attacked. The National Human Rights Commission found 5 people died as a result of the attack and 149 were injured (with activists citing higher numbers). Responsibility for the attack is disputed, however it seems that the attack had at least tacit approval from the highest level i.e. Suharto (see for example, the account of Alex Widya Siregar, one of those involved in the attack, as well as the account of Sutisyo, at the time head of the Jakarta Military Command). At lower levels as far as I can make out an important role was played by Alex Widya Siregar, a contact point between the regime-backed faction of the PDI-P and the military intelligence services. However, more direct official participation seems likely. One eyewitness who was the wife of a senior policeman as well as a member of the PDI-P identified police as involved in the attack. As for the military, in his account, regional military commander Sutiyoso denies that soldiers participated in the attack but accepted responsibility in an overall sense given his position as well as conceding that they may well have been soldiers dressed in civilian clothing (as he was himself). At the very least it is unlikely an attack could have occurred without the acquiescence of the senior military commander in the city.

So, back to the Mata Najwa interviews. These point to a least two puzzles. The first is why the repercussions from the attack have been so limited. One of those interviewed on Mata Najwa was Sutiyoso, who, as mentioned above was head of military forces in Jakarta at the time of the attack. One might reasonably expect this to earn him the lasting enmity of the PDI and Megawati. However, when Megawati was President from 2001 and 2004 Megawati did not press for him to be investigated. Moreover, he was re-elected as Governor of Jakarta with the backing of Megawati in 2002.

The second puzzle is what happened to the more elements that became associated with the PDI in the latter days of the New Order. The PDI started off as a corporatist body subservient to the regime, and since the fall of Suharto has fitted into an emerging oligarchy. However, towards the end of the Suharto regime the association between Megawati and her father Sukarno helped give the party an image as supporting the common man, or pro rakyat. Moreover, some socially radical groups became aligned with PDI as it defied the government. This is where another of the interviews on Mata Najwa is significant. It was with Budiman Sujatmiko, former head of the PRD (Democratic People’s Party), a left wing group with links to Unions and Student groups. His presence at the time of the attack is indicative of the way a range of forces were coalescing in opposition to the Suharto regime at the time.

To understand the limited efforts to investigate the events of 27 July 1997 and the fate of the radicals, a useful starting point is the argument of Edward Aspinall in his book Opposing Suharto. The varied strategies of the New Order regime for co-opting and coercing different groups helped undermine the coherence of the loose coalition of groups that eventually forced him from power. In these circumstances elements from within the regime as well as semi-oppositional elements such as the PDI thus came to dominate the transition to a post-Suharto order.

The result has been what has sometimes been called a political ‘cartel’ with its members competing but limiting the extent of that competition. Digging too far into the events surrounding the fall of Suharto could risk upsetting this balance of forces. This helps explain why 27 July 1997 did not end Sutiyoso’s career. So what of the radical elements that allied with the PDI at the time of the attack? A clue is offered by the path Budiman Sujatmiko. He is now a member of Parliament for the PDI-P (the successor to the PDI). His later move is part of a wider pattern, again detailed by Edward Aspinall whereby a fragmented Indonesian left has been absorbed into an elite-dominated party system.

So it seems the riddles posed by a few interviews about the events of one day are inseparable from ambiguities and alternating tendencies of an entire political system.