Lesson Learn from Muslim Organization Engagement

In Indonesian Reform 1998-2008[1]



1. Indonesia as 1,890,754 sq km an archipelago’s country in South East Asia within over 222,000,000 population – and about 87% of the population are muslim, suddenly popular as one of emerging democratic state in Asia after the falling down of New Order Regime (Rezim Orde Baru) in May 1998 as the impact of global economic crisis, the culmination of state repression that faced widespread reaction nationally, and people incredulity with the ability of the state to keep stand up on maintaining economic and political crisis since 1997 that followed by mass demonstration to ask General Soeharto resignation’s from his Power and emergence of new democratic atmosphere.

2. After almost 32 years struggle, the new political atmosphere is come, and many Indonesian civil society emphasizes a significant change fact in the form of the existence of a much more open public room nowadays –if compared to the New Order period—as an extraordinary ‘result’ of reformation, even recently, Indonesia still on struggle for its real reform (reformasi) and democratic transition compared to other state in transition era or more developed in its democracy.

3. Although some normative progress had been attained since the regime change post-May 1998, such as the change of a number of legislations at national and provincial levels, the formation of extra-judicial institutions to strengthen the control over the government, as well as a more open public ‘participation’ space to influence and supervise the decision making at executive, legislative and judicial levels, however the state apparently remained to be ’weak’ in implementing, supervising and evaluating the implementation of various policies.

4. One important actor of Indonesian reform in 1997-1998 is religious organization namely Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, when they involved and enforced reform directly through some their affiliated or members-politician in New Order political party such Golongan Karya, PPP and PDI, or supported and protected student organization or student movement whose actively organize massive and wide demonstration demanded Soeharto resignation, New Order political and economical ‘crimes’ accountability, and political transition that reflected democratic and more respected to human rights governance.

ROLE OF NAHDLATUL ULAMA (NU): (Always) Sailing Under the Storm

5. Establish as the associate of the Ulama (Islamic Scholars), Muslim Traders and Pesantren (Islamic Boarding School) ruler and within Jam’iyyah Diniyah (religious association) in 1926 not mean NU being far away from political practices. Some of the NU founders actively work on both politic and religious issues even in international level such the protest to new Saudi Arabian Ruler –after Ottoman Emperor fallen to countries- policies on destruction of all Islamic sites there including gravestone of Prophet Muhammad grave as one of sacred place for Indonesian Muslim and the organization of resistance of Ulama to Dutch Colonial policies such on education, economic, and politic.

6. The political role or NU coming up during and after the declaration of independence at 17 August 1945, when many of Indonesian Scholar from nationalist, socialist and religious groups are worked on consolidation and strategy of takeover of power from Japan as after their perdition on World War II, and guarded against the Dutch military and politically aggression after the declaration –Finally, in December 1949 the Dutch acknowledged Indonesia’s independence. In 1955 as a political party NU joint the general election and became one of five political parties with a greatest voters.

7. Within the one principle that famously agreed among NU Ulama’s, dar’ul-mafasid muqaddam ‘ala jalbi-l-mashalih (restraining breakage most important than bringing goodness into reality), NU supported President Soekarno when he promoted national unity through NASAKOM, an acronym for the three major ideological streams in Indonesian politics: nasionalisme (nationalism), agama (religion), and komunisme (communism). The existence of NU as the representation of ‘religion’ no more or less to keep the political balances and the citizen unity, in term of preventing state totally secularization under nationalism or communism.

8. In practice, such unity was never achieved, and Indonesian politics became more divided than ever before. Parties refusing to accept Guided Democracy of Nasakom were banned –and mostly are other Islamic party or movement whose come with other concept of Islamic State or legalization of Islamic Law under constitution, and Sukarno’s political opponents were jailed. Other reason of the existence of NU except to criticize his policies to his opponent is because the system was accepted most enthusiastically by the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) and at the same time the Indonesian Army within their dislike with PKI –event stated their loyalty to Soekarno-, slowly increased their operation to minimize space of PKI and became the only meaningful rival of the Communists.[2]

9. Under New Order Regime, the role of all Islamic political movement fully minimized and controlled by the State. All of Islamic Party including NU enforced fuse to be one at Unity’s Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, PPP) in 1977. During 10 year before and after affiliation on PPP, NU effectively criticizes Soeharto administration and finally disappointed with him. As the protest and reaction of the policy, NU decided to get out from PPP institutionally –so PPP cannot claim NU representatives anymore event some of PPP politician was NU affiliated—and back to their khittah (original role) as Jam’iyyah Diniyah even promised to keep on their critic and opposite position to New Order Regime. For many years Abdurrahman Wahid as the leader of NU together with some academia, politician and human rights activist popularly and widely amplify his strong critic to Soeharto policies with the consequences NU communities such Pesantren has very limited political and economical access to the government program. The government of Soeharto needed support from Muslim but they left NU as the greatest Muslim organization behind, and as the impact, NU silently stand up for the opposition.

10. In mid-1997 an economic crisis developed in Asia when investors lost confidence in certain debt-laden economies. As the crisis spread to Indonesia, the value of the Indonesian currency plummeted, which threatened the capacity of the government, banks, and businesses to repay their foreign debts. In October the government negotiated an aid package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The crisis deepened in 1998 when the IMF halted funds, claiming that the Suharto regime had failed to abide by IMF terms, and as social unrest began to spread. By late May 1998 the economic and social crisis had caused President Suharto to resign. At this situation, except supported student movement formally Abdurrahman Wahid and other national prominent figure –as the representation of NU- met Soeharto with some option of resignation to minimize unwanted impact in society.

11. Indonesia held elections for the 500-seat House of Representatives in June 1999. The large number of small parties, many of which disputed the vote-counting process, delayed the declaration of results. Megawati Soekarnoputri, Soekarno daughter’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) received the largest number of votes (33.7 percent), but it did not gain a majority, winning only 153 seats. Golkar, which had dominated previous elections under Suharto, followed with 22.4 percent, followed by the –NU based- National Awakening Party (12.6 percent), the PPP (10.7 percent), and the –Muhammadiyah based- National Mandate Party (7.1 percent). When the People’s Consultative Assembly convened in October to choose the next president, it unexpectedly elected Abdurrahman Wahid of the National Awakening Party. For vice president it elected Megawati Sukarnoputri. Wahid enjoyed a large and devoted following as head the NU, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization with about 40 million members.

12. Upon taking office, Wahid was faced with the dual challenge of establishing democratic rule and saving Indonesia’s failing economy. Wahid pledged to stamp out corruption and to reform the government. He also called for foreign investment to help rebuild the country’s economy, which was severely battered in the Asian currency crisis of 1997. Wahid also faced challenges posed by separatist movements within Indonesia’s regions, as East Timor moved toward independence and nationalist movements gained momentum in the province of Papua and Aceh.

13. Wahid became embroiled in two multimillion-dollar corruption scandals in mid-2000. Although an investigative inquiry did not prove any involvement by Wahid, the scandals fueled growing frustrations over his government’s failure to improve Indonesia’s social and economic problems. In 2001 the House of Representatives delivered two separate censures against Wahid alleging corruption and incompetence. It then voted to begin impeachment hearings in August. In late July Wahid attempted to hold onto power by issuing an emergency decree to dissolve the legislature, but military officials refused to enforce his decree. The People’s Consultative Assembly, Indonesia’s supreme legislative body, immediately held an emergency session and voted to remove Wahid from office. The other factor of his removal is because of his policies on effective civilian control over military and establishment of human rights court for East Timor case that conducted by military.

14. Less than 2 years, within any limitation –physically since his health not really good and politically without any serious support from most of political party- Wahid successfully conducted freedom of expression atmosphere and implemented moderate concept of Islam and NU’s concepts with the idea of cancelation of House of Representatives Decrees in 1965 on PKI’s ban –even rejected by most political party and military, rehabilitation of political prisoners, dialog with separatist groups, accommodation of minorities groups, human rights and pluralism promotion, ect. After his removal, Wahid became stronger criticizer for the policies by President Megawati Soekarnoputri and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) administration, individually or on behalf of his party, PKB as well as NU.


15. We understand that reformation is not one night jobs. Much Indonesian civil society’s say that the reformation process in general run stagnantly, even many of them had made efforts to encourage, influence and supervise reformation processes in all sectors and institutions. The strategic roles of NU and other civil society entities were quite diverse, –from the development reform discourse, the formulation and advocacy of policies, encouragement of accountability and transparency in policy process and implementation, until the supervisions to and complains about the misuse and deviation of authorities–, even in the view of them the reformation that conducted now actually not yet resulted in one real form of well and expected democratic country.

16. NU as one of civil society entity was involved coalitions with many actors and approaches, as well as entering into a problem which was not an sich in political matters, some of those proposals successful, mostly was not really satisfy in result. This dynamics was influenced by several factors like 1). The existence of ‘old elite’s’ compromise and accommodation to public demands for reform; 2). The emergence of civil politicians from old and new political parties whose were accommodative to a number of democracy transition agendas; 3). The opened public access to policy design, process and making, even though it had not been accompanied by a massive involvement in the formulation process or the substance tended to not fulfill public’s expectation yet; and 4). International community’s pressure and support to reform agendas in Indonesia.

17. In the other fact, NU’s work now does not only keep dealing with resistances from ‘anti-democracy groups’, but also collides with the state’s political behavior ambiguity and how poor the elite political support. At the governmental level, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono seems unenthusiastic to take initiative continuing totally reform processes, moreover to respond to democratization ideas continuously expressed by Wahid, after being elected as the President in 2004 election.

18. Finally, this tendency in the end encourages recent NU’s work to put forward a more realistic agenda and strategy choice according to the capacity, acceptance and direction of the organization, for instance in certain policy and case rather than to consolidate and collectively escort reform elementary issues as had been insisted during the past 1997-1998. But it not mean the willingness and ability of NU was ended to keep in its political work. As the religious organization, NU will keep on his idealism to play its role on promoting democracy as well as all of moderate values such human rights and good governance.

Kiev, 5 April 2008

* Mufti MAKARIMALAHLAQ recently is an Executive Director of the Institute for Defense Security and Peace Studies (IDSPS) based in Jakarta, Indonesia. He started his work in Civil Society Organization at the Indonesian Commission for Reconciliation and Peace, LERAI (1999) and the Commission for “the Disappeared” and Victims of Violence, KONTRAS (1999-2007) and for the last 3 years before his resignation from KONTRAS he became 1st Secretary General of the Federation of KONTRAS (2004-2007) that coordinated 5 Offices of KONTRAS around Indonesia. During his student period Mufti actively engage some democratization movement struggle under General Soeharto New Order Regime trough Islamic Indonesian Student Movement, PMII (1995-2000), became Editor of Praksis Journal, one of underground media (1997-1998), establish Forum on Interfaith Young Generation, GEMARI at 1999 and become its Coordinator of Presidium for 2002-2005 period, Working Committee Member of Lakpesdam NU Greater Jakarta (The Institute for Research and Development of Human Resources of Nahdlatul Ulama) in 2000-2001, Associate Member of Wahid Institute (Former President Abdurrahman Wahid Advocacy and Policy Institute) and any other coalition of human rights and security sector advocacy as well as promoting democracy and the moderate value of Islam. He has articles, books, translated English and Arabic books/papers, and research on human rights, Islam, politic and security sector reform published in Indonesian and English. His email address is makaarim@idsps.org

[1] This short presentation prepared for Asia Regional Workshop of World Movement for Democracy 5th Assembly organized by World Forum for Democratization in Asia, 6-9 April 2008, at Ukrainian House, Kiev, Ukraine. Any quotation and use for academic and advocacy interest is allowed. S

[2] Political tensions within Indonesia boiled over on the night of September 30, 1965, when army troops and left-wing civilians staged a coup attempt, murdering six army generals and announcing the formation of a new revolutionary government. General Suharto, head of the army’s strategic command, rallied loyalist troops to suppress the coup. Although the identity and motives of the coup’s instigators remains controversial, the army alleged that the Communist PKI was responsible. Thus, in late 1965 army units and Muslim groups including NU began to purge Communists (both real and suspected) from national life. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed or imprisoned in the crackdown. The role of NU on this being criticized by Abdurrahman Wahid when he lead NU by the idea of reconciliation, asking forgiveness from real and accused Communist family and blaming the distortion of information and mobilization of NU follower by military to arrest and kill them.