Nursyahbani Katjasungkana (centre) and members and supporters of the Indonesian Women’s Coalition for Justice and Democracy demand the resignation of President Soeharto in May 1998. Photo by Nursyahbani Katjasungkana.


Where were you and can you describe how you felt when you first heard Soeharto had resigned?
I was in front of the office of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (LIPI). I was a member of the Indonesian Women’s Coalition for Justice and Democracy (Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia untuk Keadilan dan Demokrasi) at the time, and we were preparing for our third day of marching to the legislative complex in Senayan. But before we set off, we heard the news that that Soeharto had resigned and was handing power to Vice President BJ Habibie. We reacted jubilantly to the news – jumping, hugging, laughing, and crying together. But we were not completely satisfied with the decision, because we had long been arguing for a rerun of the general election to select new legislative members and a new president.


What has been the most significant reform of the post-Soeharto era?
The amendment of the 1945 Constitution, a process in which I was personally involved. In 1999, I was selected as a member of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), which had the power to amend the Constitution. I was also the general secretary of the Indonesian Women’s Coalition (Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia, KPI), which prepared a policy brief on constitutional reform, arguing for the inclusion of a special chapter on human rights and the rights of women, including affirmative action. The new chapter on human rights became the basis for other reforms, including electoral reform, the limitation on presidential terms, and reforms related to political parties.


Freedom of the press has also been essential for our democratisation process. I will never forget when Tempo, Detik and Editor were banned in June 1994. We lost vital sources of accurate information about the situation in our country. Fortunately, Tempo and Detik were able to resume publication only four years later. I hope we will never see a situation like that again but I am worried about the government’s increasing use of the 2008 Law on Information and Electronic Transactions (as amended in 2016) to limit freedom of expression online. Another worrying sign is President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s failure to keep his campaign promise to lift restrictions on reporting in the Papuan provinces.


What has been the biggest disappointment of the post-Soeharto era?
The biggest disappointments of the past two decades have been poor development of the rule of law, the expansion in corruption, increasing inequality, weak protection of minority groups from discrimination and violence, and unresolved human rights violations. From 2012 to 2015, I coordinated the International People’s Tribunal on 1965 on genocide and crimes against humanity. This was an attempt to provide victims with a voice at the international level, because there has been no significant movement from Jokowi’s administration on addressing past violations, despite the fact that it was included in the Nawa Cita, his nine-point list of priority programs.


Do you think that the reform process has ended? If so, when?
Serious reform finished about 10 years ago. In terms of the legislative agenda and law enforcement, there has been no significant progress since then. Corruption remains widespread and there is still major work to be done in the military and in agrarian and natural resources reform. Yes, the police have been separated from the military but other priorities, such as reform of the military courts and regulation of military assistance to police, remain incomplete. I am deeply concerned about the revival of the Military  Joint Special Operations Command and the broad definition of terrorism in the revised Anti-Terrorism Law. Human rights activists are worried that this will pave the way for increased involved of the military in public life, as occurred under the New Order.


Another concerning development has been the recent efforts to promote a return to the original 1945 Constitution, including by figures within the MPR. Disappointingly, even people who campaigned for constitutional reform under Soeharto have lent their support to the campaign. I don’t know what kind of draft they are preparing but they claim to be motivated primarily by inequitable distribution of economic resources.


Indonesia is often cited as evidence that Islam and democracy can coexist. Have attacks on religious minorities, the recent assault on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Indonesians and the blasphemy conviction of former Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama undermined Indonesia’s ability to promote itself as a democratic country?
The relationship between Islam and the state has been a constant source of tension in Indonesian history, extending back to our independence. The attacks on LGBT people are part of a growing trend that has seen a particularly narrow interpretation of Islam butting up against more tolerant ways of being Muslim. As a result, Indonesia now is moving from being a moderate Muslim nation to a more intolerant one. I have written about this criminalisation of LGBT Indonesians in a report co-authored with Professor Saskia Wieringa from Amsterdam University. Over the coming years, we are going to see greater contestation between our Constitution and Pancasila – which provide the foundation for our democracy – and the conservative ideology of Islamic hard-liners.


To what degree does rising Islamic conservatism pose a threat to Indonesian democracy and the rights of women?
Growing Islamic conservatism is already threatening the rights of women and minority groups, particularly at the regional level. Conservative groups have their own ideas about how women should live in Indonesia, arguing that the primary roles of women are as wives and mothers. These ideas were also promoted by the New Order, through the 1974 Marriage Law, and its support for women’s organisations like Dharma Wanita and the Family Welfare Movement (PKK).


Despite this growing conservatism, between 2009 and 2014, we managed to reform or enact 14 regulations with a strong gender perspective – the most significant being Law 23 of 2004 on Domestic Violence, Law 12 of 2006 on Citizenship, and Law 21 of 2007 on Human Trafficking. But we failed to amend the 1974 Marriage Law, which discriminates against women and contributes to child marriage, polygamy, and violence against women and children. In 2013, my organisation, the Legal Aid Institute for Women (LBH Apik), submitted a bill to amend the Marriage Law but the legislature has refused to discuss it. Some women’s groups have even encouraged us not to conduct advocacy activities, as they are worried about a backlash from emboldened conservative groups.


Is the average Indonesian woman better off now compared to under Soeharto?
In the years since the fall of Soeharto, there has not been much progress in addressing maternal mortality, violence against women or discrimination. Growing conservatism has affected women’s lives, for example, according to the 2012 Indonesian Health and Demographic Survey, the average age of first marriage has declined to 22. This is a result of campaigns by preachers, including women preachers, that state the main duty of women is to be wives and mothers.


On the positive side, women’s activists have at least been successful in enshrining affirmative action policies in the General Elections Law and the Law on Political Parties. As a result of these policies we now have 19.8 per cent women’s representation in the national legislature (DPR) and 25.8 per cent in Regional Representative Councils (DPRD).


In 2004, I was elected as a member of the national legislature, and was able to promote the ratification of all the important international conventions on human rights (such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). Sadly, however, passing human rights laws does not necessarily guarantee strengthened protection of rights or improvements in the citizens’ everyday lives.


Law enforcement and political will is vital to prevent Indonesia returning to the dark period of 1966 to 1998.


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