Human Rights and Freedom from State Tyranny: Country Studies — Indonesia

 Indonesia Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status:  Partly Free; Freedom Ranking: 3; Political Rights: 2; Civil Liberties: 4. 

Note: Indonesia was previously categorized as “free” from 2006 to 2013, but its status was downgraded to “partly free” in Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom in the World Report due to the adoption of a restrictive law on non-governmental organizations. While it's political rights ranking remained at 2, reflecting Indonesia's advance as an electoral democracy, the drop in its Civil Liberties score to 4 put its overall Freedom Ranking at 3 and thus partly free." For purposes of Democracy Web’s Comparative Studies in Freedom, Indonesia counts as an electoral democracy (it had free parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014). Indonesia is thus an excellent example of a country bordering between "free" and "partly free" and demonstrates the continuing challenges for countries attempting a transition to democracy. 



Indonesia declared independence in 1945 after centuries of colonial rule, mostly under the Netherlands. Indonesia was ruled by authoritarian regimes from independence until 1998, when democracy protests sparked by a financial crisis forced the long-standing dictator, Suharto, to resign. Since then, Indonesia has held numerous democratic elections, experienced peaceful transfers of power, and addressed a number of human rights concerns. Still, corruption, police and military abuses, and violations of civil liberties have held back political progress. One rebellious region, East Timor, achieved independence in 2002 following a referendum held under U.N. auspices. Despite resolving one other regional insurgencies, Indonesia, like the Philippines (see Country Study), continues to face significant violence from terrorist and separatist movements active over many years. In 2014, Joko Widodo was elected president, thwarting the bid of an ex-security officer under Suharto. 

Indonesia is an archipelago nation made up of more than 17,500 islands, 6,000 of which are populated, lying between the Asian and Australian continents and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Its only land border is with Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country and the 4th largest overall (259 million inhabitants as of 2016). The Economist writes that Indonesia is among the fastest growing economies in the world over the last decade. In 2014, it boasted the world’s 16th largest economy, with a nominal Gross Domestic Product of $888 billion. Nominal per capita Gross National Income, however, ranked only 118th in the world, at around $3,500 per year, lagging far behind neighboring Malaysia and Singapore (see Country Studies). Corruption is a major problem, but under President Wikodo Indonesia’s ranking in the 2016 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index improved to 90th out of 176 countries from 106th in 2014. 


Early History and Kingdoms 

Fossil records indicate that human ancestors inhabited the Indonesian archipelago as far back as 700,000 years ago. The recorded history of modern inhabitation dates to 4000 BC. After several alliances of seafaring city-states, Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms established their dominance over the archipelago in the first millennium. The Srivijaya Kingdom, which ruled on the principal island of Sumatra from the 6th to the 15th centuries AD, introduced Hinduism. Buddhism was introduced to western Java, western Borneo, and the southern Malay Peninsula. As in Malaysia, Arab traders arriving in the 11th century introduced Islam to the islands. The last prince of the Srivijaya Kingdom adopted Islam in 1414 and began a new kingdom on the Malay Peninsula called the Sultanate of Malacca. Several kingdoms developed on Java, the other main Indonesian island. The Majapahit ruled from 1293 to 1500 but was driven to the outpost of Bali by the Sultanate of Malacca. The Mataram Sultanate succeeded the Majapahit in Java in 1570. 

European Colonization: Levels of Brutality 

The Portuguese established the first European foothold on the islands, but the Dutch took control starting in 1602 (Portugal kept the island of East Timor). The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was granted a full monopoly over Indonesian trade by the Dutch parliament and quickly seized key ports to establish a monopoly on the lucrative spice trade. The islands became known as the Dutch East Indies. Dutch rule was marked by brutality. In 1619, the Dutch took Yagakarta (the capital of the Mataram Sultanate), razed it to the ground, and then rebuilt it as present-day Jakarta on the model of Amsterdam. Another example of its rule was the order to slaughter or deport the entire population of the Banda Islands for continuing to trade nutmeg with the English. The islands were repopulated by indentured servants and slaves. 

The VOC went bankrupt in 1799 during the Napoleonic wars. When a reconstituted United Kingdom of the Netherlands reasserted control over the archipelago in 1816, the Dutch moved to a system of plantation farming that relied on forced labor. Rubber, spices, and coffee were the main crops (Indonesia supplied three-quarters of the world's coffee for a time).  During the 19th century, Dutch rulers denied indigenous Indonesians any voice or representation in the administration of the island. An "Ethical Policy" adopted in 1901 led to a greater investment in local education but left demands for political representation unsatisfied. Two leaders, Sukarno and Muhammad Hatta, emerged to organize respective secular and Islamist groups demanding national independence. In the 1920s, the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) also became a strong political force. 

Japanese Invasion and the War for Indonesian Independence 

During World War II, the Japanese invaded Indonesia in early 1942. To forestall local resistance, the Japanese convinced Sukarno and Hatta to take over the system of local administration, from which posts they pushed a unifying theme of nationalism. Japanese occupation was severe — the UN estimated that four million people died from all causes under Japanese rule, many due to forced labor and starvation. Still, the wartime collaboration of both leaders was not considered a contradiction in the struggle for Indonesian independence. 

On August 17, 1945, after Japan's military withdrawal, Sukarno issued a declaration of Indonesia's independence and gave himself executive authority under a provisional constitution. Using Japanese-trained soldiers, the nationalist movement fought a British force ordered to prevent postwar chaos and then the Dutch, who regained control over the islands after fierce fighting. The resilience of the nationalist movement and the Dutch public’s unwillingness to accept the cost of a continued empire led Queen Julianna’s to recognize Indonesia's independence on December 27, 1949. The cost of independence, however, had been high: 6,000 Dutch and 150,000 Indonesians lost their lives during the fighting. 


Sukarno: "President for Life" 

Sukarno assumed the dominant political position in Indonesia as head of state. A new constitution instituted a state ideology based on five principles (Pancasila): “belief in the One and Only God; just and civilized humanity; the unity of Indonesia; democracy guided by the inner wisdom of deliberations of representatives; and social justice for all the Indonesian people.” The new constitution also provided for parliamentary democracy, with the president chosen by parliament. In national elections that were not held until 1955, approximately 60 parties won representation to parliament, creating such a fractious political environment that a stable government could not be formed.  In 1959, President Sukarno re-validated the 1945 provisional constitution, which had granted him executive power, and proclaimed a period of “Guided Democracy.” He formed a coalition among the country three key political forces to rule the country: himself as president, the armed forces, and the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). In 1963, Sukarno declared himself “president for life.” 

Suharto: A Violent Counterinsurgency and the Era of the New Order

Sukarno was concerned by the growing influence of the military, which he himself had strengthened with his aggressive foreign policy to take military control over the western half of Papua New Guinea (which had remained under Dutch control) and to provoke a major confrontation with Malaysia over contested territories. He thus allowed the PKI to arm peasants and other loyal social groups as a counterforce to a potential military takeover. In 1965, when six army generals visiting Sukarno were shot and killed by pro-PKI palace guards, the head of the Army Strategic Command, General Suharto, took charge of the government and launched a military campaign against what many believed to be an attempted Communist coup. Suharto’s counter-insurgency campaign was one of the worst episodes of government-sponsored bloodshed in global postwar history: from 500,000 to 1 million Communists and suspected Communists were killed. A similar number were imprisoned. Sukarno remained president until March 1966, but without power. In 1967, Suharto had himself appointed to a full five-year term as president by a Provisional People's Consultative Assembly. Sukarno was placed under house arrest (he died in 1970). Meanwhile Suharto instituted a systematic dictatorship marked by a much higher degree of political control than previously. The “New Order” movement, comprised of a pro-government political party, Golkar, and three satellite parties, dominated the legislature. Other political parties were banned. The People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the congress of both legislative houses, elected Suharto to seven successive five-year terms as president. During his 31-year regime, security forces responded to insurrections, terrorist activity, and political opposition with force and repression, while the government exercised control over the media, judiciary and many social organizations.

Throughout Suharto's reign, many individuals braved imprisonment and death to stand up for human and labor rights.

The Victory of Democracy

Throughout Suharto's reign, many individuals braved imprisonment and death to stand up for human and labor rights. But, while opposition parties existed, they faced restrictions. Only political parties that were part of “the New Order” could run candidates for office. A split in one of the New Order satellite parties, the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), helped bring down the Suharto regime. 

The PDI was the party of Sukarno, for whom there remained a high degree of nostalgia as Indonesia’s first leader. Suharto allowed the PDI to remain active within the “New Order” movement in order to give himself greater legitimacy. To keep this veneer, he asked Sukarno's daughter, Megawati Sukarnopoutri, a housewife without political experience, to join the PDI in the mid-1980s and she was elected on the PDI’s slate to the rubber-stamp House of Representatives (DPR), the main legislative chamber. By the early 1990s, Megawati, wishing to restore her father’s legacy, distanced herself from Suharto and gained support to head the PDI. When police intervened to block the party congress from meeting in December 1993, she declared herself chairwoman and later was elected at a party assembly hidden from police. The government rejected Megawati’s election, recognized Suharto loyalists to lead the PDI, and seized the party offices from Megawati. Supporters tried to reclaim the offices, but were violently suppressed by police. . Five people were killed and 23 went missing. The event became known as "Black Saturday" and was a rallying cry for the growing opposition. When Megawati’s PDI faction was banned from the 1997 elections, she organized mass anti-government protests. 

Two events propelled Suharto’s departure. During the East Asian financial crisis in 1998, Suharto forced the legislature to adopt a highly criticized austerity plan required by the IMF in exchange for a bailout fund to stabilize a plummeting currency. Later that year, Suharto insisted on being elected to a seventh term in office. Mass protests erupted that revealed the enormous dissatisfaction with Suharto’s long rule. Megawati’s party, renamed the Indonesian Democratic Party–Struggle (PDI–P), joined forces with two outlawed Islamist parties — the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN) — to demand Suharto's ouster. In the face of domestic opposition and international pressure, Suharto resigned in favor of his vice president, who ended the repression of opposition parties and scheduled new parliamentary elections. Elections were held in 1999 under the old system, however. The PDI-P won a plurality to the House of Representatives, but the Islamist vote split to leave Golkar, which also retained a large number appointed seats, the second largest bloc. Initially, the Islamist leader of PANopposed women in public office and teamed up with Golkar to elect as president Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of the more moderate Islamist party, PKB. But Megawati, who was elected vice president, ended up succeeding Wahid the next year when he was impeached for incompetence and corruption. 

In three years, Megawati achieved significant democratic reform, including constitutional amendments to eliminate appointed seats for the military in the legislature, to establish direct national elections for president and vice president, and to adopt a federal system that decentralized political power. The latter reform allowed Megawati to negotiate an end to the Free Aceh guerilla movement’s 30-year-long regional rebellion in 2004, after that year’s devastating tsunami, by granting the province greater autonomy. Despite these achievements, Megawati’s popularity waned and she lost the country's first free election for president in 2004 to a former general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The parliamentary elections held at the same time resulted in the restoration of Golkar, the party of power under Suharto, as the main party. Yudhoyono’s newly formed Democratic Party came in second and Megawati’s PDI-P was only a distant third. After a term of fitful reform combined with economic growth, President Yudhoyono won re-election in 2009 and his Democratic Party supplanted Golkar as the largest party in the legislature. The PDI-P remained in opposition until winning elections again in 2014 (see Current Issues). 

Human Rights

Since Suharto was forced to resign in 1998 as a result of a peaceful popular rebellion, democratic politics have taken root in Indonesia, the world's most populour Muslim country.

For much of Indonesia's history, its citizens lived under repressive authoritarian or colonial political systems that had little regard for human rights and denied political representation to the population. When Indonesia gained independence, it was governed under an authoritarian ruler who was then supplanted by a much more repressive dictator, Suharto, whose initial years in power were spent in the brutal suppression of a communist insurgency. Since Suharto was forced to resign in 1998 as a result of a peaceful popular rebellion, democratic politics have taken root in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, and the government has pledged to ensure the human rights of its citizens. Indonesia’s democratic governments, however, have not similarly rooted respect for human rights in government practices. Military and police services continue to commit transgressions with impunity and civil society is now restricted by a repressive law. Corruption is still pervasive and thwarts democratic governance.  


Since the 1999 parliamentary election that instituted democratic rule, three subsequent national elections for parliament and president have been held under new constitutional provisions that eliminated previous anti-democratic features (such as mandatory appointed seats for the military) and made the offices of president and vice president subject to a direct national ballot. The changes also established direct elections for regional and local leadership positions for governors and mayors. Although violence has marred balloting in some regions and there remain questionable ballot practices in others, the parliamentary elections held in 2004, 2009, and 2014 have been deemed free and fair by international and domestic observers, as were separate direct presidential elections held in the same years.

Parliamentary elections in 2004 resulted in a victory by the former governing party, Golkar, and the defeat of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), which had led the reformasi movement that ousted the Suharto dictatorship. A new Democratic Party, formed around the successful presidential campaign of a former general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, came in second. The 2004 presidential election resulted in the first peaceful transfer of executive authority in the country's history through elections, as Megawati Sukarnoputri ceded power as president to Yudhoyono. The new president presided over rapid economic growth and won re-election in 2009 and his Democratic Party won a decisive plurality in the legislative elections over Golkar, the PDI-P, and a new nationalist party, Gerindra (Greater Indonesia Party), led by a former high-ranking security officer form the Suharto regime. Yudhoyono, constitutionally limited to two terms, was succeeded by Joko Widodo, who won elections in July 2014 as the candidate of the PDI-P. A second transfer of executive power through elections was achieved (see Current Issues below). 

Adopting Universal Standards 

In 2005, Indonesia ratified the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Since 1999, Indonesia has also ratified all eight of the core ILO conventions (see Freedom of Association), one of the few countries in the Asia-Pacific region to do so. In addition, the government's new human rights office adopted the Indonesian National Plan of Action on Human Rights, which was tasked with making sure Indonesia was in compliance with the new conventions. Its formal aim is “invigorating the Indonesian effort to promote and protect the human rights of the Indonesian people, in particular the segments of the community that are most vulnerable to human rights violation." The plan also seeks to improve the quality of life and to reduce poverty. 

Indonesia’s human rights record is mixed. Military and police forces still act with impunity and have not fully accepted demo-cratic controls on their behavior. New legal restrictions have been placed on civil society.

Human Rights Practices

Certainly, human rights are much more respected in Indonesia today in contrast to the Suharto era, when political repression was pervasive, civil liberties were routinely trampled, and the security forces regularly suppressed dissent with violence. (In the Suharto era, Freedom House ratings were routinely 6 for political rights and 4 or 5 for civil liberties, placing Indonesia in the “not free” or low end of the “partly free” categories. Since 1999, Indonesia has been in the “free” or upper end of the “partly free” categories, with freedom rankings of 2.5 or 3).  Still, Indonesia’s human rights record is mixed. Military and police forces still act with impunity and have not fully accepted democratic controls on their behavior. New legal restrictions have been placed on civil society. And the brutal legacy of dictatorship remains unexamined. 

Freedoms of speech, association and religion are generally respected, but there are significant problems in each area. Media is now free and independent with open and frequent criticism of the government and regular reporting on corruption, abuses by security forces, and other issues. Regulatory restrictions, however, force many broadcast media (up to 1,000 radio and television stations) to operate outside legal protection. Defamation laws are used frequently to protect vested interests, resulting in self-censorship by journalists. Transparency laws provide for full freedom of information, but the government continues to shield the security services and corrupt agencies. Violence against journalists, especially in regions affected by separatist and terrorist groups, is ongoing. Overall, Indonesia’s media has been considered only “partly free” in Freedom House’s Freedom of Media Reports. 

Independent trade unions represent 10 percent of the registered workforce and have the right to strike, except for public sector employees. Indonesia’s recent adoption of ILO conventions means that foreign investors are subject to international labor standards. Still, many worker rights abuses at foreign-owned firms go unchallenged and there is weak enforcement of child labor and minimum wage laws. There is an active civil society, with around 28,000 registered non-governmental organizations. Citizens’ groups petition the government on significant issues and many monitor human rights and report violations to the government’s human rights office. A new law adopted in 2013, however, placed new restrictions and government oversight on NGOs (see Current Issues below). 

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the constitution for the six recognized religions (Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism). But Human Rights Watch documents frequent discrimination, harassment, and violence at the regional and local level against both recognized religious groups and minority religious sects. Freedom of worship is often restricted by the denial of permits to build churches and mosques. There is a general lack of protection for non-Sunni religious worshipers who are the objects of mob attacks and local discrimination by authorities, especially followers of Ahmadiyya, a heterodox Shi’ite sect with 400,000 followers. Muslims who do not submit to Shari’a courts or who publicly reject the belief in God are subject to court action.  Atheism is not recognized as a legitimate belief and blasphemy is outlawed, with a number of cases of convictions for blasphemy in recent years. 

Abuses by police and military forces have been ongoing sources of concern for human rights advocates. Counterinsurgency forces in Aceh province tried to undermine the peace agreement reached between President Megawati and the GAM separatist movement in 2004. In other regions where there have been autonomy and separatist movements, such as Papua and West Papua, security forces have carried out extra-judicial killings, other violence, warrantless arrests, and torture, all with relative impunity.  Torture of criminal suspects is still common. On the other hand, the special anti-terrorist security force has been praised for effectively preventing terrorist bombings and pursuing a number of cases against groups associated with al Qaeda and Islamic State, both of which have carried out several gruesome attacks.

Indonesia has emerged from fifty years of authoritar-ianism and hundreds of years of colonialism to join the world’s community of democracies through regular, free and fair elections. . . .[But] there are continuing problems in the area of human rights.. . . 

Current Issues

In April 2014, Indonesia held its third national parliamentary election under constitutional provisions that made all 560 seats in the House of Representatives and 132 seats in the Senate directly elected by party list and single district elections. In addition, Indonesia’s voters elected 2,112 assemblymen in 33 regions and almost 17,000 legislators at the district level. Turnout of the country’s 190 million registered voters was estimated at 70 percent. Despite the threat of violence by Islamic extremists and separatist groups in certain regions, the balloting at 550,000 polling stations was generally peaceful, free and fair according to both international and domestic observers. The legislative elections were contested by 12 national parties that met significant requirements for registration on a national and regional level. 

In the parliamentary elections, the Democratic Party of Indonesia-Struggle (PDI-P), still led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, won a plurality to return to power for the first time since 2004. But its 20 percent of the vote was less than expected. Golkar, the former government party under Suharto now led by the billionaire Aburizal Bakrie, came in a distant second with 12 percent of the vote. Third place, at 11.5 percent, went to the Greater Indonesia Party, or Gerindra, which is headed by a former general who has been accused of serious human rights abuses during Suharto’s rule. The Democrat Party of outgoing President Yudhoyono dropped to fourth from its leading position in 2009 with 9 percent, the probable result of numerous corruption scandals during his administration. Two Islamic parties and several other regionally based parties retained their positions in parliament. 

Presidential elections held in July 2014 were won by Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, a popular governor of Jakarta known for walking the streets and talking directly with citizens. He received 53 percent of the vote, but his mandate, like that of his party, PDI-P, was less than expected against Gerindra’s leader, the former general Prabowo Subianto. Since taking office, Jokowi has adopted major economic reforms (such as getting rid of fuel subsidies) but disappointed his followers with the appointment of a Megawati advisor under investigation for corruption as head of the police. As well, Jokowi allowed the executions of eight foreign nationals convicted of drug trafficking, causing several countries to suspend diplomatic relations. 

In a major setback for human rights, a new law adopted in 2013, before the elecitons, placed additional restrictions and government oversight on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and imposed a new requirement that NGOs adhere to the national ideology of Pancasila. This is a set of five principles adopted as part of the 1945 Constitution written by Sukarno to serve as the founding ideology of Indonesia. The principles are both specific and vague: monotheism, a just and civilized humanity, national unity, democracy, and social justice for all Indonesians. Under the law, the government has the authority to dissolve organizations that commit blasphemy or advocate non-Pancasila ideologies, including atheism and communism, which are banned. Even before the new law, individual atheists were imprisoned under separate blasphemy laws (see New York Times article in Resources). Due to the adoption of the new law, Freedom House changed Indonesia’s status from “free” to “partly free” in 2014.

In the last three years, campaigns of intimidation and violence have been organized by religious authorities and groups against religious sects and to prevent blasphemous public events, such as a book signing by a well-known LGBTI rights activist and a concert by Lady Gaga (both events, among others, had to be cancelled). The Islamic Defenders Front forced organizers of the Miss World beauty pageant to move the event from Jakarta to the more liberal Bali region. In early 2016, government officials and members of parliament also began publicly calling for bans of gay organizations at universities and the banning of “pro-gay emojis” appearing on Twitter and other social media. At the same time, there are currently proposals to ban the Islamic Defenders Front for its use of violence against “blasphemers.”

In general, Indonesia has emerged from fifty years of authoritarianism and hundreds of years of colonialism to join the world’s community of democracies through regular, free and fair elections. Indonesia is the world’s largest predominantly Muslim country to successfully transition from dictatorship to self-government based on equal citizenship of all faiths. While former officials from the Suharto dictatorship continue to play prominent roles in Indonesia, democratic politics has been firmly planted in Indonesian society. There are continuing problems in the area of human rights and the problem of corruption remains prevalent — in one recent example, the speaker of the House of Representatives was forced to resign in early 2016 after it was revealed he took kickbacks from a foreign mining company. In the first year of Jokowi’s administration, however, overall human rights practices have improved according to both Human Rights Watch and Freedom House. Still, due to the application of the new law on NGOs, it remains in the partly free category.