Four years ago on July 27, television images of the Indonesian military bashing and kicking helpless protesters exposed the world to the brutality of the Suharto dictatorship. The Australian government's and the Jakarta lobby's carefully cultivated image of the regime was shattered. It marked the beginning of the end for Suharto, who was forced to resign in May 1998 in the face of militant, student-led demonstrations.
In June 1996, fearful that Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) could out-poll the ruling party, Golkar, Suharto engineered her removal as PDI chairperson through a fake party conference that "elected" a new party chairperson, Suryadi.
Megawati's followers resisted by occupying the party's headquarters in central Jakarta and holding open air forums. As the days passed, huge crowds listened to speakers from a wide range of opposition groups who spoke in support of Megawati's leadership of the PDI, condemned Suharto and demanded he step down.
In the early hours of July 27, soldiers and hired thugs masquerading as pro-Suryadi PDI supporters, seized the offices. Knifing and bludgeoning anyone who was in or around the building, the thugs killed more than 50 people and injured scores more. Video footage later uncovered in an investigation into the incident showed government stooges leaving the PDI headquarters being handed money. In other scenes, bodies could be seen being rushed away and fire trucks used to wash away the blood. The government insisted only five people had died.
As rumours of the attack spread that day, crowds began to gather at the PDI headquarters. Soldiers, deployed on every adjacent street, blocked their access. As the day wore on, the crowds grew larger and angrier. Protesters hurled rocks and petrol bombs. Sporadic clashes continued until the afternoon when soldiers went on the offensive, chasing people through the streets, beating and arresting people. Shopping centres, banks and other symbols of wealth were torched by the angry crowds.
Although an investigation by the government's human rights commission found that the attack was organised and carried out by the military and that they were responsible for the riots that followed, Suharto needed a scapegoat.
The radical People's Democratic Party (PRD), which the regime had been itching to get rid of, was accused of "masterminding" the riots. At a press conference, head of military socio-political affairs General Syarwan Hamid announced that protesters would be "shot on sight" and ordered all PRD members to be hunted down and arrested. In all, 35 members were detained and 13 were later jailed for subversion, including PRD chairperson Budiman Sujatmiko and Indonesian Centre for Labour Struggle (PPBI) chairperson Dita Sari.
The regime repressed the PRD because it feared the emergence of a well-organised, mass worker-based radical democratic movement. The PRD had been building a movement outside the formal system set up by the dictatorship. The PRD's campaigns directly defied the official policy of treating the population as an apolitical "floating mass".
Soon after the crackdown, a report by Human Rights Watch/Asia and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre for Human Rights said of the PRD: "In 1995 and 1996, as PRD, [and it's affiliated student and labour organisations] SMID and PPBI have emerged as prominent elements of the pro-democracy movement, street protests have become larger, more frequent, better organised, less focused exclusively on the grievances of specific groups of workers or peasants (although those grievances are still forcefully raised), and more explicit about demanding political change at the top."
This assessment was also reflected in some of the dictatorship's own comments. Hamid's red-baiting of the PRD as "communist" was because the PRD prioritised organising the working class as the most important way to achieve a genuine democracy.
Commenting on the PRD's effectiveness in doing this, the army newspaper, Berita Yudah wrote: "[The PRD] operate in strategic areas, among students and workers, forming public opinion through leaflets and publications. Wherever there are leaflets and an action of over 1000 people, it's the PRD behind it. They are very clever and intelligent young people. They are not only very theoretically brilliant, rivalling any scholar, but also throw themselves into the field. They are not only brilliant orators casting a spell over the people, but also understand the people in great detail. That's the PRD."
In Surabaya, East Java, in early September, 1996, Major General Subagyo Hadisiswoyo, accompanied by several other high-ranking officers, informed the press it had captured PRD documents. He stated: "It is clear that the activities of the PRD group are not as simple as previously thought. It is obvious from its manifesto that the thinkers and planners of the PRD are very intelligent people who have a very great understanding of the course of Indonesian political developments."
The regime feared that Megawati's mass of supporters among Indonesia's urban poor might link up with, and be organised by, the PRD and its supporters among the students and workers. The only political figure arrested after July 27 who was not from the PRD or an affiliated organisation was Muchtar Pakpahan, an outspoken labour advocate and president of the moderate, US-supported trade union, SBSI. Pakpahan had also supported the free speech forums at the PDI headquarters.
The dictatorship systematically interrogated almost every political figure who had any level of co-operation with the PRD. As the PRD was at the forefront of initiatives such as Indonesian Solidarity for a Free Press, the Independent Election Monitoring Committee and the Indonesian Peoples Assembly — established to support Megawati's struggle to defend her leadership of the PDI — these interrogations were aimed at intimidating democratic activists from working with the PRD.
So effective was the campaign that, with the exception of a few principled individuals, almost all sections of the democratic movement distanced themselves from the PRD. Even Megawati, when she gave testimony at Sujatmiko's trial, claimed she had never met with him, even though, according to many PRD members, she had met with him often in the lead-up to the July 27 events.
Still seeking justice
Four years later, under the "reform" government of President Abdurrahman Wahid and vice-president Megawati, the PRD and the families of the victims of the attack on the PDI headquarters are still seeking justice.
Earlier this month, the PRD filed a 5.5 billion rupiah (US$617,000) lawsuit against Suharto for his role in the July 27 attack. The suit, filed in the Central Jakarta District Court on July 5, is one part of the party's campaign to pressure Wahid to investigate the 1996 assault.
Also named as defendants are former: armed forces chief General Feisal Tanjung, Jakarta military commander General Sutiyoso, police chief General Dibyo Widodo, army chief of staff General R. Hartono, East Java military commander General Imam Utomo, minister of home affairs General Yogie S. Memet, armed forces intelligence service chief (BIA) General Syamsir Siregar, BIA director General Zacky Anwar Makarim, attorney general Singgih, justice minister Utoyo Usman, information minister Harmoko, and Syarwan Hamid.
Sujatmiko, who was released from jail on December 23 last year, told the Jakarta Post on July 6 that the regime "declared us masterminds of the July 27, 1996, violence. They chased us, tortured us, raided our PRD branches and seized important party documents. The Suharto regime slapped me with 13 years' imprisonment in 1997, based upon unsubstantiated evidence and ludicrous accusations."
Thirty-eight lawyers are to fight the party's case, including noted attorneys Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, Munir from the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence and Apong Herlina from the Jakarta chapter of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation.
BY JAMES BALOWSKI
[The author is publications officer for Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor. Visit ASIET's web site at <http://www.asiet.org.au>.]