From the CIAO Atlas Map of Southeast Asia 

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Years of Living Dangerously: NGOs and the Development of Democracy in Indonesia

Joseph I. Molyneux *

International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000


The Most Dangerous Years

On May 22, 1998, after some 31 years in power, President Suharto 1 voluntarily relinquished power in the midst of economic, political and social upheaval throughout the country. His fall from power, although precipitated by the financial collapse of the economy, was driven to its conclusion by an array of homogeneous forces consisting of student activists, labor groups, intellectuals, and NGOs. Whereas the labor groups and the intellectuals were spurred on to push for political reform because of the financial crisis, NGOs had been feverishly and clandestinely operating behind the scenes 2 at least since the ouster of Megawati Sukarnoputri 3 , the former leader of the PDI party, for the pursuit of democracy and human rights.


NGOs in Indonesia

Although NGOs could not directly engage in political activities, their activities oftentimes have had political impact. NGOs have traditionally worked with student activists in attempting to influence structural changes in government 4 , change they thought necessary because of the lack of a truly representative democracy, alleged human rights transgressions of the Suharto government as well as the apparent ineffective response of his government to the economic crisis. It was just a month earlier that Vice President Habibie was quoted as saying that the government was open to political reform but that such reform was a process which could not take place overnight. However, the students and NGO leaders desired faster reform. With President Suharto’s resignation on May 22, 1998, reformasi 5 became the central public policy focus of the succeeding government of President Habibie 6 even though many questioned the legitimacy of the transition that brought Habibie to power.

While NGOs cannot operate overtly in the political arena, the various laws controlling their activity are not effective in impeding them from engaging in various endeavors which have the potential to shape and move events of political consequences or from promoting causes that have the potential to effect structural changes in government or in government programs (Fakih, 1991, pg.7; Walker, 1996, pg. 5).

NGOs proliferated dramatically in Indonesia in the last twenty years, increasing from literally just a few hundred, based primarily in Jakarta, in the 1970’s, to approximately 3000 in the 1980s (Betts, 1987), to approximately 6000 in the 1990s (Walker, 1996). They have evolved over the years from community based organizations at the village or desa level referred to as gotong royong (“mutual self-help”) to sophisticated advocacy-type NGOs with significant international connections such as WALHI ((Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia)


The Inter-Governmental Group on Indonesia (IGGI), consisting of bilateral major donors, was established in 1968. Chaired by the Dutch Minister of Development Cooperation, it conducted most meetings in Holland (usually Amsterdam). Because of alleged human rights violations and issues relative to E. Timor in 1992, Indonesia refused to accept further Dutch foreign aid. Subsequently the functions of the IGGI were assumed by the World Bank. However, its role may be re-visited with the recent change in government. government government.


The Student Role

In Indonesia, many NGOs are an outgrowth of student activism and thusly have been employed over the years by students as a means for political expression. Emmy Hafield, the Executive Director of WALHI (an Indonesian umbrella NGO of both environmental and human rights activists) recently stated that the reason she assisted in the founding of WALHI, was to employ it as a vehicle to overthrow the government (Richburg, Diehl:1998). It was implicit in her statement that to undertake such a bold objective, via any other route, under the authoritarian government of President Suharto, would undoubtedly result in imprisonment. Indonesian political security laws and the political system itself have allowed only minimal political expression. Political campaigning is only allowed once every five years in the thirty days proceeding elections.


A Glossary of Political Terms in Bahasa Indonesia

Indonesian NGOs usually refer to themselves as Lembaga Swadaya Pengembang Masyarakat (LSPM) meaning Promoter Organization for Self-Reliance or Lembaga Swadaya Pengembang (LSM), community Self-Reliance Groups. NGOs specifically choose not to use the moniker NGO or Organisasi non permerinta because literally translated it means “non-government” , which in turn could be perceived as “anti-government”. Because of strict government controls over social organizations such as that laid out in the 1985 Law on Social Organizations ( undang-undang organizasi kemasyarakatan or ORMAS) , NGOs are required to file reports with the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as the Coordinating Minister of Political Affairs and Security to assist in government monitoring of their activities.


Some Rules of the Game

The Government of Indonesia’s (GOI) stance toward NGOs in the first part of this decade was basically one of benign neglect or equivocation , permitting them to do that which was set forth in their respective charters without much interference. However, subsequent to the UNCED Conference on the Environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, NGOs not only in Indonesia, but world-wide, grew tremendously in their capability to influence government, and to stimulate political change, by the use of networking.

In Indonesia, this was initially accomplished primarily through the International Non-governmental Group on Indonesia (Frederick and Worden, 1992, pp. 255.) The facilities of networking were greatly enhanced by significant advances in communications such as the spread of the use of the Internet, the worldwide use of cellular telephones, facsimile machines, and pagers. At the same time, due to the exponential advances in manufacturing technology in the electronics industry, the lowering production costs, the availability of these sophisticated communication devices became within the grasp of the general population of developing countries. NGO membership did not fail to embrace the fruits of this newly available technology to their benefit.


The responsibility for keeping tight rein on NGOs to ensure compliance with the law on mass organizations has fell to the two primary Indonesian intelligence agencies, BAKIN, the State Intelligence Coordinating Agency (Badan Koordinasi Intelijen Negara) and BIA (formerly BAIS), the Armed Forces Intelligence Agency. The thrust of the ORMAS law was three fold: to ensure that NGO activity was both within their approved charters and within the framework of national development priorities (referred to as General Guidelines for State Policy or GBHN), to control foreign funding, and to ensure that NGOs could not function as political parties or as a means to challenge government. In 1996, BIA, acting through the Ministry of Home Affairs, called in the heads of thirty two NGOs stating that they had been receiving foreign aid and had not reported it. Although the names of the NGOs were not publicly mentioned, it put on a chill on the NGO community visibly attenuating their activity. None of the NGOs were ever charged under the law. In 1997, BIA again called in several NGOs for the same reasons, again with no charges being filed.


Networking Revolution

Networking capabilities enhanced by the communications revolution which have taken place in the last few years provided NGOs the capability to structure world-wide alliances with each other, share limited resources, and provided instantaneous access to global media exposure. One significant result of the Rio Conference of 1992 was the dedication of both an international press agency and an internet service provider to the cause of NGOs. 7

Indonesian NGOs have recently achieved the capability to influence government with a modicum of success (whereas in the early Suharto years there was virtually no capability to influence government). This is due to a variety of reasons such as the recent dynamism brought into the NGOs from the large influx of student activists 8 , the benefits accrued to human rights and environmental NGOs from international connections, coalitions formed with IGOs, the boldness to challenge the political establishment because of the recent weakness of government brought on by the Asian economic crisis, and the sheer weight of their numbers. 9

Not all NGOs, of course, have the capability of pursuing a reform minded agenda, particularly in view of the obstacle presented by ORMAS law on mass organizations and the attendant government observation of their activities to ensure their compliance with the law. 10

Which are the NGOs that can or do pursue political reform in Indonesia? Many studies have been undertaken on Indonesia NGOs. David Korten (1988) categorized Indonesian NGOs predicated upon their development strategy. Phillip Eldrige (1988, 1989) developed a theoretical framework for Indonesian NGOs based upon their type of activity, that of development or mobilization. Fakih (1991) proposed a typology of Indonesian NGOs which groups them according to their action and structure. However, the general categories of development and advocacy, accepted by most observers of NGOs, and the typology promoted by Walker (1996:11) lends itself to easy identification of the politically active by nature of their agenda.

A casual investigation of NGOs concerned with the environment and human rights reveals a direct nexus with an activist approach to work independent of government structure. It appears, that at least in Indonesia, the fields of environment and human rights offer Indonesian NGOs the platform and the capability to form confederations with powerful international NGOs in those same fields. For the environmental agenda, organizations such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Rainforest Action Network and etc. extend powerful partnerships to the Indonesian organizations. For the human rights agenda, Indonesian NGOs have developed coalitions with the likes of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the RFK Center for Human Rights.

All of these INGOs have a proven track record of being able to influence national government policy as well as policies of international development institutions, in their fields of expertise. Most of them are also recognized by the United Nations as competent, have consultative status with the United Nations, and are frequently employed by the United Nations or its various agencies, in carrying out their respective goals. They have also formed close working relationships with various IGOs such as the UN Commission on Human Rights, the European Commission on Human Rights, the United Nations Environmental Program, UNCTAD, and others.


Economic Progress

In recent years, Indonesia has lifted a large percentage of its population out of poverty. Indonesian advocacy NGOs have more and more focused on moving government to be more responsive to the people, a path which necessarily entails structural reform of government. The advocacy NGOs such as WALHI, ELSAM (Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy) and INFID (International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development) have been very aggressive in challenging government policy on human rights, environmental, and indigenous peoples issues. These NGOs have established links with a variety of foreign governments. WALHI, for instance, is known to have received significant sums of money from the U.S. Agency for International Development 11 , the Canadian, Dutch, Swedish and Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 12

In addition, the WALHI senior staff have been invited to visit those same countries, all expenses paid, on trips similar to those offered by the U.S. State Department for senior foreign government officials (executive or special observation programs). These type of programs enable the NGOs to form solid links with western governments and thusly place themselves in a position to influence those governments in their relations with the Government of Indonesia.

In early 1998, the advocacy NGOs in Indonesia increasingly challenged the government on a variety of human rights issues in Aceh, E. Timor, and Irian Jaya. They also pushed to strengthen environmental laws. Drawing upon a long-standing relationship with student activists, certain NGOs entered into colloquial relationships with IGOs, INGOs, student activists and student organizations to pursue the goal, via a furtive movement, of a more responsive government. This domestic coalition of NGOs and student activists with INGOs and IGOs proved most productive.

WALHI, foremost in prominence among Indonesian NGOs, by virture of its direct contacts with foreign governments, INGOs, IGOs, and international philanthropic organizations, has formed a world-wide web of influential contacts in supporting its environmental, human rights, and political agenda making it a force of which to contend. (See following map).

The movement was but a convergence of the various human rights and environmental protectionism initiatives, such initiatives resulting in the conclusion that the present government would not or could not respond to these problems in its present structure. The movement to achieve government reformation was significantly enhanced by the weakness of the government in responding to the economic crisis which swept throughout Asia beginning in July of 1997. As a result, NGOs all across the country held numerous meetings and demonstrations in late 1997 and early 1998 continually attacking the government.

WALHI (Indonesia Forum for the Environment) was among the NGO leaders in the campaign against the government, attacking on a variety of fronts, attempting to weaken it in the international community by discouraging international lending and the intent of making it a pariah for allegedly perpetrating endemic human rights abuses, and domestically, by leveling charges of corruption, collusion and nepotism. It orchestrated a letter writing campaign to various international development bodies such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the Canadian Development Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Japanese Development Bank urging them to discontinue lending moneys to the allegedly corrupt Suharto regime, one that it stated condoned human rights abuses. It spoke out against the government at various international forums including the U.S. Congress (by use of surrogates such as representatives from the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation and the RFK Center for Human Rights 13 ) and the European Commission on Human Rights. It maintained contact with the U.S. Embassy providing to the Embassy its own policy analysis of the domestic situation 14 . It continued to challenge the government in court on a variety of environmental issues and even took the government to task on environmental issues via its official position on several AMDAL 15 commissions.

Even more significantly, however, the advocacy NGOs, formed working alliances with student activists in universities all across the country and sponsored open forums on subjects such as political reform, people power, human rights, economic reform, price reduction, clean government, democracy and justice and so forth. Dialogue was maintained with IGOs such as the ILO and the UN Commission on Human Rights as well as various western governments providing these IGOs and foreign governments a real time, insiders perspective of the domestic political situation, a sense of where Indonesian society was headed. These nation-wide coalitions between student activists groups and NGOs also formed the backbone of the anti-Suharto movement which eventually led to his downfall.

In early April, 1998, WALHI facilitated the establishment process of the Indonesian Work Forum pulling together a number of prominent personages such as Dr. Amien Rais 16 , Abdurahaman Wahid 17 , Megawati Sukarnoputri 18 and Dr. Emil Salim 19 . The Forum’s agenda was to advance political education, to bridge military to student relationships and to serve as a focal point to develop new political concepts for the reformation of the Suharto authoritarian government to democracy. In addition to the above, its membership included representation from academia, societal community leaders, and NGOs.

On May 20, 1998, the New York Times ran an article stating that the United States had spent over $26 million on President Suharto’s opponents since 1995. 20 This money was the result of an Agency for International Development (USAID) program entitled “Increased Effectiveness of Selected Institutions Which Promote Democracy.” At the time the article was published, the Jakarta AID office responded “the monetary support was necessary to insure the survival of private groups that are emerging as leaders of the opposition in Indonesia . . .” 21

Two days later, on May 22, 1998, President Suharto resigned.

On June 18, 1998, members of Indonesia’s parliament, the DPR, sent an open letter to President Clinton

stating that although it appreciated contributions from the United States to NGOs to “improve the climate of democracy ... and the stepping up of human rights protection...” some of the money contributed probably had been used by NGOs to disturb the national stability. The DPR did not have a problem with NGOs contributing to the reformation of Indonesian government, however, it did have a problem with NGO participation in a change of government assisted by foreign powers. It viewed such assistance as a violation of the sovereignty of the Indonesian nation state.

Martin Feldstein (1998) argues that it is not proper for the IMF to incorporate structural and institutional reform as part of IMF programs. He avers that the IMF should only provide technical advice and financial assistance necessary to address a crisis, not to impose conditions which would result in the modification of either the economic infrastructure or the political infrastructure.. Stanley Fischer (1998) maintains that “not requiring structural or institutional reform where these structural problems are at the heart of the crisis would invite a repetition of the crisis.”





*: Joseph I. Molyneux is a Vice President of Freeport Copper and Gold. The views expressed in this paper are his own.  Back.

Note 1: It is not uncommon for Indonesians to use only one name.  Back.

Note 2: This information was received by the author from reliable government sources prior to President Suharto’s resignation  Back.

Note 3: Megawati, daughter of Indonesia’s first president, was ousted as leader of the PDI on June 21, 1996, generally thought to have been effected with the blessing of President Suharto.  Back.

Note 4: See interview of Maria Pakpakan, wife of a prominent Indonesia labor leader, in “Feminism is a Choice of Life, Interview o1f Maria Pakpahan”, Inside Indonesia , edition no. 47, July - September, 1996, pg. 10.  Back.

Note 5: Reformasi is Bahasa Indonesian for reformation.  Back.

Note 6: The Indonesian constitution provides for the vice president to become president upon a vacancy in the Office of President, however, the country’s highest representative body, the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) must confirm the vice president’s ascension into the presidency within six months. Also, the opposition have consistently maintained that President Soeharto and his entire government were illegitimate in that the President appointed most of the members of the MPR who in turn elected him.  Back.

Note 7: Many NGOs have aligned themselves with a former Soviet affiliated news service, Inter Press Service , also known as IPS. This organization has a tremendous reach and large audience with a network of journalists in over 100 countries with an additional exposure via satellite communications link to 1,200 outlets. IPS is picked up by the major wire services such as Reuters and the Associated Press. The IPS is definitely not a news organization that reports the news with impartiality, rather it is an electronic media propaganda machine reporting news events from a third world perspective. IPS is the sixth largest news agency in the world. It is noted that IPS is an NGO with category I consultative status with the United Nations.
In, 1992, the Association for Progressive Communications was instrumental in providing communication links between NGOs and UN delegates at the Rio Conference. Working as an arm of the U.S. originated Institute for Global Communications (IGC), e-mail capability was established enabling NGOs globally to establish direct and instant communications with each other. Both the IGC and the APC have category I consultative status with the United Nations as does the Inter Press Service.  Back.

Note 8: Indonesia has had unprecedented economic growth during the New Order regime of President Suharto which has directly produced a tremendously growing middle class. The middle class produced many student activists, activists who turned to NGO related activity to fill the void created by the absence of political activity.  Back.

Note 9: As an example of this boldness, Emmy Hafield, Executive Director of WALHI, filed an unprecedented law suit against President Suharto in 1996 for his use of tax moneys earned from the timber industry. President Suharto had directed the tax money, supposedly earmarked to address environmental degradation perpetrated by the timber industry, to support the development of the Indonesian aircraft industry.  Back.

Note 10: “Key Indonesia NGO attacks minister’s threat”, Jakarta, Reuters, 11/02/96.  Back.

Note 11: US AID Grant Agreement No. AID 487-0385-G-00-5015-00. “Promoting Environmental Democratic Movements”, 1995 for the sum of $250,000.  Back.

Note 12: According to very reliable GOI sources, the executive secretariat of WALHI is akin to a mini-Ministry of Foreign Affairs based upon the wide range of global contacts it maintains.  Back.

Note 13: U.S. Congress. House. Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the House International Relations Committee. Hearings on Human Rights in Indonesia . 106 th Congress. 1 st session. 7 May, 1997.  Back.

Note 14: See “U.S. Policy on Indonesia”, U.S. Department of State Dispatch , Vol.9, 4/1/98, Aurelia E. Brazeal, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affair.  Back.

Note 15: An AMDAL commission is a inter-ministerial group that approves an environmental impact assessment for proposed mining and related projects.  Back.

Note 16: Dr. Rais is a Notre Dame educated political scientists and wood-be presidential aspirant.  Back.

Note 17: Wahid is the leader of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, universally respected throughout the country, and considered politically to be in the center.  Back.

Note 18: Megawati is the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno and the former leader of the PDI, one of the three legal political parties.  Back.

Note 19: Dr. Salim is the former Minister of Environment in President Suharto’s last administration and has indicated interest as a presidential candidate.  Back.

Note 20: “Unrest in Indonesia: The Opposition; U.S. Has Spent $26 Million Since ’95 on Suharto Opponents”, Tim Weiner, The New York Times , May 20, 1998.  Back.

Note 21: ibid.  Back.