BJ Habibie: Between compromise, tyranny and accommodation

Arah Juang – September 15, 2019
Suharto (left) watches Habibie being sworn in as president – May 21, 1998
Suharto (left) watches Habibie being sworn in as president – May 21, 1998

Leon Kastayudha – Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie died on September 12 at the age of 83. As the third president of Indonesia, his administration straddled the upheavals of Suharto’s New Order regime and reformasi – the political reform movement that began in 1998.

Initially, Habibie’s involvement in the ruling party Golkar and the Suharto administration in no way took up the agenda of democracy, let alone human rights. Rather, his position was as a technocrat whom the New Order regime needed to promote industrialisation and technological development.

Democracy was actually opened up by the masses who wanted reformasi. The movement, which was aimed at abolishing tyranny, had already begun prior to the Asian financial crisis spearheaded by radical youth groups. Mass actions, free speech forums, spreading a discourse of resistance was everywhere. The financial crisis, which the New Order regime was unable to overcome, only accelerated this process. An explosion of protests emerged and spread across the country in January 1998. And it was not just students and workers but also included white-collar workers, the urban poor, women’s groups and housewives. All of these groups were involved in protests and organisations demanding democracy and the overthrow of Suharto. The regime responded by abducting activists, terror, shootings and other forms of reactionary violence.

Habibie, then the vice president, was appointed by Suharto to replace him on May 21, 1998, when he resigned, as part of a compromise because the reformasi movement could no longer be stemmed. Thousand and even tens of thousands of ordinary people around the country we not just demonstrating but also launching strikes, occupations and resistance against everything associated with the New Order regime. There were also protests by the masses rejecting the Special Session of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) in 1998 rejecting Habibie’s presidency because he was seen as part of the New Order.

Habibie was forced to make many compromises with the reformasi protesters demanding democracy. He ratified international agreements on workers’ rights, released the many political prisoners detained by the New Order regime, signed the Press Law, abolished the Ministry of Information and so forth.

On the other hand meanwhile, for the sake of capitalism Habibie also tried to address the system of cartels and cronies which were at the root of the New Order’s power for the sake of liberalizing the economy and regional autonomy. Habibie’s presidency was the safest exit strategy for Suharto and the New Order by accommodating some of the people’s demands while protecting the old forces.

Corruption trials against the Suharto and his cronies were indeed held. But a recording of a telephone conversation between Habibie and Andi Muhammad Ghalib – who was appointed as the new Attorney General – revealed that these would only be show trials to appease the public. A trial for Suharto’s youngest son Tommy Suharto was also held but it was ridden with irregularities. Key witnesses such as Rahardi Ramelan suddenly changed their testimonies and Tommy was found not guilty.

Habibie’s accommodation of the demands of reformasi did not mean that the Habibie regime was free of terror and repression. There was the sexual violence and murder of Ita Martadinata on October 9, 1998, an activist who had been demanding justice for the mass rape of Chinese women during the May 1998 riots in Jakarta.

In addition to this there was the deployment of troops and tanks to stop the labour movement in industrial zones who wanted to demonstrate in Jakarta. The Habibie regime also tried hard to defend the 1998 Special Session of the MPR to legitimise his power. The MPR Special Session was a New Order session involving Suharto’s ruling party Golkar, the United Development Party (PPP), the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), the Indonesian military (TNI) and the National Police – who were “elected” in the 1997 elections. In order to safeguard the session, rather than using the armed forces, reactionary civilian militia were mobilised.

Support for the New Order’s end game or the safe departure of the New Order needed to be built from a civilian and military base. From the civilian base emerged the November 1998 Ciganjur Declaration – a declaration by four prominent “opposition” figures, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, PDI Chairperson Megawati Sukarnoputri, Amien Rais and Sultan Hamengkubowono IX – which not only supported the Habibie presidency but was also designed to submerge many of the basic demands of reformasi such as the dissolution of the Golkar Party, trying Suharto and his supporters and trying and seizing the assets of corruptors.

From the military side meanwhile, then TNI commander and defense minister Wiranto (now President Joko Widodo’s Coordinating Minister for Security, Politics and Legal Affairs) played a key role in securing support for the new regime.

Repression was launched against demonstrators opposing Habibie. Wiranto even organised the formation of the Pam Swakarsa – a reactionary civilian militia armed with sharpened bamboo sticks, sickles, swards and other sharp weapons to attack demonstrators protesting the Special Session of the MPR. This repression resulted in the killing of eight people and the wounding of 226 others. In addition to this, Wiranto is also strongly suspected of being behind the Trisakti, Semanggi I and Semanggi II student shootings. Human rights violations targeted those opposed to the MPR Special Session. Seventeen people were killed during the Semanggi I shootings and 12 were killed and 217 injured during the Semanggi II shootings.

Wiranto is also strongly suspected of organising massive human rights violations during the independence referendum in East Timor. Habibie, who although he wanted East Timor to remain an Indonesian province under greater autonomy, decided to offer a referendum to be conducted on August 30, 1999, without consulting first with the military elite, including Wiranto.

The military responded by organising pro-Indonesian paramilitary group who attacked pro-independence groups in East Timor. The capital of Dili was burn to the ground and at least 1,400 innocent civilians were killed.

Right from the start Habibie rejected the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping troops. And when a UN delegation met with him on September 8, Habibie stated that reports about bloodshed in East Timor were simply lies and fiction. Only on September 13 did Habibie accept a UN resolution to withdraw Indonesian troops from East Timor and accept UN peacekeepers. The Indonesian military’s departure was accompanied by a scorched earth policy – an orgy of destruction and the killing of civilians and journalists.

After completing his role of ensuring a smooth transition, Habibie was no longer needed. He was sidelined by the Akbar Tandjung faction and his own party Golkar rejected his accountability speech as president to the MPR.

Habibie tried to garner military support by offering Wiranto the vice presidency, but Wiranto refused. In the end Habibie withdraw his nomination as president and Abdurrahman Wahid replaced him before being ousted by Megawati, the military and the remnants of the New Order regime.

Without a mass base of support, let alone political support, and the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) which Habibie founded no longer playing an important role, Habibie ended up spending most of his time in Germany.

It was only under the regime of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that Habibie returned to play a role in Indonesia as a presidential advisor. He used this move to establish the Habibie Centre, a think tank claiming to advance democracy and human rights, although it remained silent on cases of union bashing, the shooting of farmers and racism against West Papuans.

Leon Kastayudha is a leading member of the Socialist Union and a member of Socialist Youth. Arah Juang is the official website of the Political Congress of the Working People’s Organisation of Struggle (KPO-PRP) which brings together ideas and concepts from the people’s movement to build an anti-capitalist political force.

[Translated by James Balowski. The original title of the article was “B.J. Habibie antara Kompromi Tirani dan Akomodasi Massa Aksi Reformasi 1998”.]