by Andreas Harsono
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- On Friday night I visited the office once again. It was more like a devotional visit to a sacred place than a mere reporting assignment. The compound was like the one I remembered, and it was pretty crowded. About 500 to 700 people, mostly clad in red or black, the traditional color of nationalist activists in Indonesia, were watching a documentary movie showing on the screen there.
A stage stood at the center of the compound with a long red banner which read "People's Stage." The atmosphere was rather quiet but relaxed. They sat on newspapers, men and women watching the movie and whispering, as if trying not to disturb others.
The documentary was entitled "Upeti Untuk Penguasa, Nasi Basi Untuk Rakyat," which literally translated means "A Bribe for the Rulers, Spoiled Rice for the People." It was directed by Lexy Rambadeta, a former student activist, who has made an impressive documentary about corruption in Indonesia.
I also saw street vendors selling "kacang rebus" (steamed peanuts) or "siomai" in the compound. Siomai is rather similar to the Chinese dish dim sum. It is popular throughout Jakarta but usually without pork, to cater to its many Muslim consumers, and has a lot of cabbages. The kacang rebus seller used a kerosene light and hot steam billowed out of his mountain of peanuts.
This office is the former headquarters of President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party. My last visit here took place six years ago, when Megawati was still an opposition leader then pushed into a corner by President Suharto's authoritarian regime.
Unlike in a genuine democracy, in which anyone can challenge the ruling politicians, Suharto never tolerated opposition. In a complicated but brutal political maneuver, Suharto ordered his men to topple Megawati as party chairwoman at a government-backed party congress in June 1996.
In an obvious bid to divide and rule, Suharto appointed Soerjadi, an old nationalist politician - and, ironically, Megawati's mentor - to replace her in the sham congress. Soerjadi happily took the offer. But Megawati and her loyal supporters challenged Soerjadi and fierce political tug of war took place. This office I am in became the symbol of who the real chairman was.
The office is actually in a dilapidated colonial building. It is located on Jalan Diponegoro in the elite Menteng area of Jakarta. It is a one-story and white-painted house that was cheaply renovated a number of times to create more rooms. It has some very small toilets, a rather spacious public kitchen, a spartan meeting room, and a rather gloomy atmosphere.
Many grassroots activists immediately made the office a symbol of resistance. Between June and July 1996, they held daily open forums here with anti-Soerjadi, anti-military and anti-Suharto speeches, mixed with music, dancing, and other forms of arts.
A little known but radical student group, the People's Democratic Party, joined forces with Megawati and spearheaded the campaign. These young people were mostly very bright. They knew how to formulate campaign materials and to publish leaflets. They also used Marxist analysis of comprehensive length to view social and political events.
Like many other journalists, I was covering the event with great enthusiasm. I came to their gatherings almost every other day and soon became familiar with this office. Reporters easily sauntered in and out. I once peeped into the kitchen and was surprised to see the amount of food they prepared every day. I interviewed Megawati and her lieutenants, like economist Kwik Kian Gie, Laksamana Sukardi, Sutardjo Surjoguritno, and Sutjipto, several times. They became the darlings of the media, both foreign and local.
Suharto would not tolerate such open opposition and ordered his military men to take over the building. In the wee hours of July 27, 1996, when it was still dark, thugs and police officers clad in red shirts stormed the building and tried to get rid of the activists, who fiercely defended their headquarters. A stone-throwing battle began and after more than eight hours of fighting, the police managed to take over the office.
On July 28, at midday, thousands and thousands of activists arrived at the scene and confronted the police, unwilling to accept the fact that a peaceful rally was suppressed violently. The police used tear gas to disperse them. People grew more angry. Several government buildings were burned down. Jakarta descened into chaos. Data from Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights shows that five people were killed, 149 people were injured, and 23 people went missing during the attack.
I happened to be at the scene that day. I watched as Megawati and her lieutenants encouraged their supporters to file a lawsuit against the Suharto government and Soerjadi. Soerjadi, and also Jakarta's military commander, Sutiyoso, were named as suspects in the case.
The all-powerful Suharto did not take it seriously. He showered both men with gifts and promotions, appointing Sutiyoso the governor of Jakarta in late 1997. The legal process slowly ground away for months, until May 1998, when Suharto was forced to step down amid the Asian economic crisis.
Megawati's fate was drastically altered. She became the ruling elite. Last year she was appointed president to replace President Abdurrahman Wahid who was impeached by the parliament. Her aides like Kwik, Sukardi, Surjoguritno, Sutjipto and many others are now VIPs. Kwik and Sukardi are cabinet members. Sutjipto and Surjoguritno are in the parliament.
Despite the fact that most of those Megawati supporters are members of the ruling elite, the legal process itself is still in limbo. Hundreds of party workers found that their request for justice was not fulfilled. Backroom deals, compromises with the military, and money in politics are speculated to be the reasons.
With the legal process still incomplete, Megawati declared the party's support for the nomination of Sutiyoso in the next gubernatorial election. She ordered her people to vote for Sutiyoso and threatened to take "disciplinary action" against those who vote democratically in accordance to their conscience.
On Saturday morning, apparently trying to question her rule, thousands of people turned up at the office. Just like six years ago, they held a forum here with anti-military and anti-Suharto speeches, mixed with music, dancing, and other forms of art.
Those participating in the event included those injured in the attack, as well as the families of those killed. Also present were families and victims of other similar tragedies such as the May 1998 violence, the Semanggi incidents in 1998 and 1999, and various student organizations.
"Megawati had made a mistake. She does not follow the ruling of the party that it is going to seek justice over the July 27 incident," said party activist Thomas Resmol, who helped guarded this office six years ago until the very last minute.
"The nomination of Sutiyoso hurts the victims of the July 27 incident. We are all disappointed about the emergence of authoritarianism within the party's central board," said a party legislator, Hariyanto Taslam.
Interestingly, speaker after speaker blamed the party central board but stopped short of condemning Megawati herself. In fact, a fight almost took place Saturday when student activists, who were an important of the anti-Suharto protest six years ago, brought in posters of Megawati and Vice President Hamzah Haz crossed with thick red lines in the middle. Some students also changed her name, from Megawati Sukarnoputri or Megawati the daughter of Sukarno, into "Megawati Suhartoputri."
Ultimately, the student activists decided to back off. They may be disappointed with the strange reception that they received in the compound this Saturday. It demonstrated only the fact that on the grassroots level, Megawati still has her popularity. People blame her liutenants instead of her. The students believe that Megawati is now being corrupted as well.
The smell of steamed peanuts and Indonesian dim sum was the same. The office is also the same, but the political circumstances have changed. It is up to Megawati now to make policy corrections regarding Sutiyoso and other corruption-prone politicians.
If she does not, I am afraid, it is only a matter of time prior to Megawati finding herself in the same place as Suharto six years ago.
During the early, tumultuous days of the Indonesian "People's Revolution," American Reporter Correspondent Andreas Harsono reported exclusively in The American Reporter that the Suharto government planned to oust pro-democracy leader Megawati Sukarnoputri from her PDI post, and for three weeks afterwards was forced into hiding as security police searched his home and offices. He was honored in 1999 as a Neiman International Fellow, and after a year of study at Harvard returned to Indonesia to continue his career in journalism. In the interim, Megawati became president of the world's fourth largest nation. This is his memoir of those heady days.