By Max Lane
Indonesian President Suharto's right-hand man in Cabinet, research and technology minister Habibie, is continuing a public flirtation with the leaders of the long-time anti-Suharto opposition group, the Petition of 50. The courtship has a role in the ongoing conflict between Suharto and the military.
The Petition of 50 calls for Suharto to leave the presidency and for reforms to the political party and electoral laws to allow more parties to participate.
Despite the controversy caused by a public meeting in May between Habibie and the Petition of 50 leader, Ali Sadikin, Habibie organised another public event with Petition of 50 leaders in Bandung on July 15. Once again, the enormous publicity, including lots of interviews with Sadikin, stimulated media discussion of so-called "reconciliation" between Suharto and one of the main elite opposition groups.
Since May, however, the armed forces (ABRI) leadership has continued to make statements that there is no reconciliation with the Petition of 50, who were still banned from travelling overseas.
Now, it seems, the penny has finally dropped. In a political climate where a range of organisations are demanding more and more "political openness", ABRI's position has made it appear opposed to more openness while Suharto and Habibie have been able to portray themselves as "reconcilers".
ABRI has now moved to try to correct its image. A delegation comprising the minister of defence, retired General Edi Sudrajat, current ABRI commander Feisal Tanjung, the deputy commander of the army and the minister for politics and security all made a totally unexpected visit to retired General Nasution, who has frequently made
public statements in support of the Petition of 50. As a result, General Nasution has been repeatedly advised by government and intelligence officials that he cannot travel abroad and may not speak at public meetings.
The visit, despite protestations that it was a simple visit to a sick former comrade-in-arms, was clearly a stunt, with full media coverage including group photographs with Nasution. The visit was all the more symbolic as Sadikin, in his public meetings with Habibie, had specifically raised the issue of the ban on Nasution speaking publicly or travelling. At the July 15 meeting with Habibie, Sadikin broke down and cried as he began to describe his disappointment that Nasution was still under a ban.
Now, not only did the ABRI four visit, shake hands and embrace Nasution for the photographers, but ABRI headquarters also announced that there was no ban on Nasution.
Habibie had earlier announced that Suharto had told him there were no travel bans on anyone, despite the fact that only last month Nasution was told by ABRI intelligence that he should not travel to a cultural conference in Malaysia.
To try to improve ABRI's image further, General Feisal then went on to visit retired General Dharsono, who has been a signatory of some Petition of 50 statements. After criticising Suharto in the mid-1980s, Dharsono was arrested, tried on sabotage charges and jailed for several years. He was released only last year.
The tactical game of "reconciliation" is only a game. Despite both factions' approaches to the Petition of 50, there has been no real change in the level of repression at the grassroots.
Two weeks before the Habibie-Sadikin meeting, on July 1, military personnel broke up a meeting of about 90 students at an art gallery in Condongcatur near Kaliurang, Yogyakarta. Eight students were detained, and a number of politically "offensive" paintings were confiscated. The students were from all over Java
and Bali, and were apparently coordinating various direct action campaigns.
Reports in Editor magazine hinted at connections between demonstrations at the Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic Institute in Yogya, the trials currently under way of student activists in the cities of Salatiga and Semarang, a student-military clash at the ISTN campus in Jakarta and recent protests against the US attacks on Iraq.