Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Rocky Road to Press Freedom in South East Asia

By Andreas Harsono

A member of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines protests outside the presidential palace in Metro Manila, Philippines, January 17, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”
                                                                                                                                     Albert Camus

JAKARTA – In June 1994, the Indonesian government banned three news weeklies --Detik, Editor and Tempo -- triggering a nationwide protest against the government’s repressive regulations against newspapers. Hundreds of young reporters protested against the closures, demanding that the state-sanctioned Indonesian Journalist Association (Persatuan Wartawan Indonesia) should ask President Soeharto to revoke the ban. Being a politically captured group, the PWI instead issued a news release saying that it “understood” Soeharto’s decision.

More than 100 angry journalists, including some senior journalists and columnists, decided to challenge the repressive state by setting up a new union, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen). I was one of the group who gathered in August 1994, in a villa in Sirnagalih village, outside Jakarta, where we declared that we wanted to promote press freedom and to fight for the welfare of media workers.

We were not naïve. We knew it was an illegal move because at that time the Indonesian government only permitted a single organization for journalists. We knew that the Information Ministry, the police, the military, as well as the Indonesian Journalists Association would act against us. A few months later, many of these signatories, me among them, lost their jobs or were banned from working for any Indonesian media outlet. The authorities even arrested several journalists and sentenced them to prison terms. Others moved away from Indonesia.

But it was the opening of a new chapter, at least for me, and compelled me to learn about the situation state of media freedom in Asia. I learned about the needs to have readers’ representatives or ombudspersons in each newsroom. Journalists should be transparent about their motives and methods in covering and writing their stories. If they make mistakes, they should make the correction and apologize. Like what Albert Camus, the French author wrote, “A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”

In January 1995, the new union got an invitation to attend a Hong Kong conference to speak about how media had been banned in Indonesia. In Hong Kong, I met many other Asian journalists, including Jimmy Lai, a media mogul of the Apple Daily in Hong Kong.

Pana Janviroj, then chief editor of The Nation daily in Bangkok, also spoke at the conference. He later asked me to join his newspaper. It was just part of a conversation inside a car that the Freedom Forum, the American group which that the conference, had arranged for us to travel from the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Wanchai to a fancy dinner with the Foreign Correspondents' Club.

After making his offer, Pana asked, “Is that okay?”

The monthly retainer was almost five times my previous salary, plus I could still work for other newspapers. Of course, I said okay. No application letter. No contract. Just a handshake.

He asked me to fly to Bangkok. He introduced me to some of his editors: Kavi Chongkittavorn, Sonny Inbaraj, Steven Gan, Yindee Lertcharoenchok as well as their television broadcaster Thepchai Yong. I began to file my stories in March 1995, working from Jakarta, and later also from Phnom Penh, Yangon and Kuala Lumpur. I covered all sorts of stories, such as Hun Sen ousting Norodom Ranariddh in Cambodia, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, the Asian economic crisis, as well as the tension in East Timor. Aung Zaw, a Burmese journalist, also joined us from Chiang Mai, writing mostly about the military junta inside Myanmar.

In Jakarta, I got to know the CNN correspondent Maria Ressa, who covered the 1996 riots when the Soeharto government orchestrated a political attack against an opposition party boss, Megawati Soekarnopoetri.

I began to meet many passionate champions of journalism in South East Asia. Sheila Coronel, who helped set up the Philippines Centre for Investigative Journalism, agreed to train Indonesian journalists in Medan, Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, and Makassar in 1997-1998. I also enjoyed the friendship of many Far Eastern Economic Review journalists in Hong Kong.

I then helped establish a number of media rights advocacy groups, including the Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information with Goenawan Mohamad, Isaac Santoso, Yosep Adi Prasetyo and others. In Bangkok, Coronel, Chongkittavorn and other journalists set up the South East Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA) in 1997, promoting press freedom in the region.

The Asian economic crisis that started in mid-1997 triggered political instability, and later ethnic and religious violence in Indonesia, and led directly to the fall of the authoritarian President Soeharto in May 1998. Thailand, where the crisis kicked off in July 1997, faced massive economic dislocation that heavily impacted politics and the media. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir, surprisingly, survived the crisis, but ended up putting his deputy Anwar Ibrahim in prison on bogus charges.

The BBC correspondent Jonathan Head broke the news that the new Indonesia president, B.J. Habibie, had agreed, in an interview with him, to hold a referendum in 1999 on the political status of East Timor. But many journalists in Indonesia have borne witness to large-scale sectarian and communal violence in which a total of about 90,000 people have been killed, ranging from sectarian violence in the Moluccas islands to the turmoil in East Timor after the United Nations-organized referendum.

Nascent, independent media faced a lot of challenges because of the Southeast Asian economic crisis, losing advertisement income, cutting their newsroom budgets, and dealing with more complicated political situations, both in their capitals and their many diverse provinces, like Papua in Indonesia, where an independence movement led to a violent crackdown. The media, like many other businesses, were overextended. But my media friends, who were pioneers for media freedom in the region, persisted and ultimately prospered.

Twenty years later

Over these past two decades, those friends went their separate ways. Steven Gan returned to Kuala Lumpur, setting up Malaysiakini. Santoso set up the KBR radio network, sharing his network’s news content with more than 700 radio stations throughout Indonesia. Maria Ressa wrote a book on the Jemaah Islamiyah terror network in South East Asia while staying in Singapore with a fellowship. She later set up Rappler news website in the Philippines, and of course, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her courage in standing up for press freedom. Aung Zaw moved his Irrawaddy magazine operation from Chiang Mai to Yangon, and then after the Myanmar military’s coup in February 2021, moved it back into exile. In Jakarta, Goenawan Mohamad republished his Tempo magazine. These news organizations produced quality journalism. And my friends became award-winning journalists.

Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her house arrest in Myanmar, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to visit Yangon in November 2012, praising the reform that was taking place in Myanmar. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the 2015 election.

But starting in 2012, the older sectarian and racist instincts arose in Myanmar, with anti-Muslim hate speeches spreading especially in Rakhine State, targeting Rohingya and other Muslim minorities. Hate speech on social media stirred attacks against other Muslims in central and northern Myanmar in 2013. This culminated in August 2017 in massive crimes against humanity and acts of genocide by government forces against the Rohingya.

These developments pointed to a new way to share information. In Myanmar, the main platform was and remains Facebook. Changes in the way that people seek and receive information are challenging the Southeast Asia news media too.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and other social media companies now pose a serious challenge to the popularity and the influence of traditional media. These companies have changed how Indonesians, Filipinos, Thais, Cambodians, and others in Southeast Asia and around the world consume information. Many of these consumers are still learning the difference between real news reporting versus propaganda from an interested party, and don’t fully understand the research, fact checking, writing and editorial review processes that distinguishes solid journalism.

The reality is that journalists are no longer gatekeepers of the news. They have lost the role of helping to determine what information and accounts of events should reach the public, and what doesn’t. With the internet and social media, everyone is now their own circulation manager and editor. Indonesia’s Press Council calculated that Indonesia has now 47,000 “media organizations”, mostly “citizen journalist” website only operations, a massive rise from the only 1,000 or so more formal media organizations that existed in 1998.

In Indonesia, social media has helped fan the flames of division. Religious intolerance plagues Indonesia. Minorities including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Ahmadiyah, and Shia Muslims, as well as native faith believers and followers of new religions like Millah Abraham, face discrimination, intimidation, and violence. There is also widespread discrimination against women and LGBT people.

In May 2017, a Jakarta court sentenced a former Jakarta governor, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, a Christian, to two years in prison for blasphemy against Islam. Ahok was accused of defaming Islam during the Jakarta election. More than 150 people have been sent to prison for blasphemy in post-Suharto Indonesia, a huge increase from only 10 cases previously.

Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organization based in Paris, France, published the first worldwide press freedom index in October 2002, and over the last two decades, it annually recorded the slow decline of press freedom in South East Asia.

In 2022, the situation became worse in most countries in South East Asia. Myanmar remained the worst among these 11 countries. Newly independent East Timor became the freest, having no criminal defamation law, though, as President Jose Ramos-Horta has repeatedly complained, it is still facing resistance to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In general, the other 10 countries get worse – and in this analysis, we can certainly include the single party dictatorship Laos, which the French organization inexplicably didn’t calculate.

Thailand, which unlike other countries in the region, has never been colonized, dropped from the 66th on the chart in 2002 to the 115th in 2022. It shows that Thailand does not necessarily have a better legal infrastructure than the former European colonies like Malaysia, the Philippines, or Vietnam with a Soviet-style legal system. Thailand still maintains the lese majeste law “to protect” the monarchy, including the king, the queen, the heir and the regent-- from defamation. The penalty is 3 to 15 years in prison for each violation, and those charged invariably spend long periods in pretrial detention.

Ranking of press freedom in South East Asia in 2002 and 2022


Ranking in 2002 of 139 countries

Ranking in 2022 of 180 countries

Timor Leste





















The Philippines









Sources: Reporters Without Borders survey in 2002 and 2022

So why does press freedom, and also democracy, not perform better in economically strong South East Asia?

The Philippines’ ranking has dropped significantly from the 90th in 2002 to the 147th in 2022. Indonesia was once among the best in the world during the rule of President Abdurrahman Wahid, himself a progressive Muslim cleric, with the ranking of the 57th in 2002. Now it is the 117th, among the worst.

Political context and the ‘winner take all’ politics prevalent in the region is obviously a factor. Thailand has had a so-called red shirts versus yellow shirts rivalry since 2006, which includes spates of violence. In 2014, Army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha staged a coup after a decade of this rivalry.

In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party, which has ruled the city-state continuously since its bitter separation from Malaysia in 1965, has a regulatory arsenal that allows the government to directly appoint members of the boards and the editors of the leading media outlets. In Malaysia, the status and activities of the nine Malay monarchies are sacrosanct, extremely sensitive subjects. Any form of commentary or reporting deemed critical of the monarchies can result in prosecution and heavy penalties, leading to self-censorship. Political leaders also use onerous laws and regulations to restrict the press.

The Cambodia democratic transition that started in 1992 with the assistance of the United Nations allowed the emergence of a press that flourished until Prime Minister Hun Sen opened a campaign against independent journalism. Cambodia’s ranking has dropped from the 71 in 2002 to the 142 in 2022.

But coups have proven the most disruptive to the development of a free media. Many countries in the region are familiar with coups. The Myanmar military staged a coup in February 2021, resulting in a broad crackdown against anti-coup protesters that amounted to crimes against humanity, along with massive pressure on journalists.

“When the coup happened, Myanmar’s media industry fell into the darkness,” said an anonymous journalist in the opening of the 20-minute documentary, “Walking Through the Darkness" on how Myanmar journalists fled the cities after the coup and were forced to work in ethnic-controlled areas and in exile in Thailand to keep their news reports coming out.

“Whether the military like us or not, journalism has an important role,” said another Myanmar journalist. “Journalists must be able to do their work.”

Quite clearly, some world leaders were far too optimistic about the path forward for Myanmar, and the durability of democratic rule and a free press in that country when faced with a rights abusing military that believed it was destined to always hold power.

But other countries have shown some progress. Malaysia elected a reformist government for a brief two year period and eventually sent their former prime minister Najib Razak to prison for corruption.

South East Asia, for centuries, has always been a region where global rivalries take place, with bigger power asserting their influence, from Islamic rulers in the Middle East to Chinese kingdoms, from European powers to Indian influence, and now pitting the world’s two largest economies: the United States and China. The South China Sea is a now a hotspot for competition between China and the U.S.

But China scares Hong Kong journalists with its repressive actions. It should not be a surprise that the Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of Hong Kong as the 18th best performing country in 2002 is now down to 148th of 180 countries. The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, apparently has not learned that over the long term, press freedom is related to economic development and political stability.

The authorities arrested Jimmy Lai last December, symbolizing the drastic decline of media freedom in Hong Kong. in 2020. This is the man who shook my hand at the 1995 conference, sending his regards to my friends back home who were fighting for media freedom in Indonesia.

Legal frameworks are playing an important part in restricting press freedom in the region. In Indonesia, harassment, discrimination, and violence directed at religious minorities are facilitated by a legal architecture, introduced in 2006, that purports to maintain “religious harmony.” In practice, it undermines religious freedom. As in Myanmar, some Indonesian journalists find it difficult to separate their religions and their profession.

In Vietnam, the Communist Party maintains a monopoly on political power and allows no challenge to its leadership. Basic rights, including freedom of speech, opinion, press, association, and religion, are restricted. Rights activists and bloggers face harassment, intimidation, physical assault, and imprisonment. The Vietnam state controls all media outlets. The Communist Party demands that they serve as “the voice of party organisations, state organs and social organisations”. The party’s central propaganda department meets weekly in Hanoi to ensure that nothing objectionable is published in media outlets. Party-controlled courts have convicted and sentenced many independent journalists to prison, including Pham Doan Trang, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and others.

Similarly, in communist-controlled Laos, it is absolutely impossible to operate an independent news outlet, and the authorities crack down harshly on groups, organizations or individuals who dare criticize the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, or the government. Migrant workers who criticized the Lao government while they were working in Thailand were subsequently arrested and sentenced to between 15-20 years when they returned to Laos.

In Singapore, two large media groups own all of the major print, radio and broadcast media. MediaCorp is owned by a state investment company. The other, Singapore Press Holdings, is supposed to be privately owned but its directors are appointed by the government. We’re now seeing the New Naratif, an alternative outlet, emerging from Singapore but it is already facing harassment. Meanwhile, The Online Citizen, which played a critical role in independent media in Singapore, has been shut down through harassing lawsuits and regulatory interference, moving their legal entity in Taiwan.

In Manila, President Rodrigo Duterte stripped the ABS-CBN network, the second largest television network in the Philippines, of its franchise in 2020. Luckily, it continues to broadcast online. Multiple harassing legal cases against Maria Ressa and her colleagues at Rappler apparently aim to ultimately shut down the news site. There are no signs so far that things will get better under the new president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator.

Sociocultural context poses many handicaps. In Malaysia, Malay-language media outlets, which are read by the majority of the population, are sometimes subject to more censorship than their counterparts in English, Chinese or Tamil. In Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, Islam-related issues such as conversion, mandatory hijab, child marriages and apostasy were taboo until recently. However, Indonesian media are increasingly active in covering sexual violence and other crimes in Islamic boarding schools.

Sadly, many Indonesian media outlets also provide too much leeway by failing to regularly report on how local jurisdictions abridge rights. Indonesia has more than 700 regulations and local ordinances, made in the name of Sharia, or Islamic law, that include regulations discriminating against non-Muslim minorities to making mandatory hijab rules.

What Indonesian journalists should use as their guiding reference is the 1945 Constitution, which explicitly guarantees religious freedom and the rights of assembly, association, and expression of opinion. Indonesia, and other countries in the region, should get rid of criminal defamation laws, learning from East Timor.

More countries in South East Asia, should, like Indonesia, ratify core international conventions on human rights. These provide even stronger standards that journalists should follow in pursuing the functional truth in their reporting rather than kowtowing to their countries’ toxic defamation laws.

I understand very well, after working in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh and Jakarta, that South East Asia is a complicated region that is very diverse linguistically, racially, culturally and historically. It has Muslim-majority countries like Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It also has Buddhist-majority countries like Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. The Philippines and East Timor are predominantly Christian countries. Then there are communist countries like Laos and Vietnam. Unlike Africa and Latin America, this region traditionally has had no colonial languages that these countries could use to communicate with each other.

In December 2021, I was very proud when Maria Ressa got the Novel Peace Prize in Oslo, along with the Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.

These two veteran journalists are not naïve, understanding very well that the prize will not change the situations in their countries. Muratov closed down his Novaya Gazeta newspaper after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Ressa is still facing the legal problems from cases that President Duterte and his government manufactured against her.

When receiving the prize, Maria Ressa said in her speech in Oslo that, “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with the existential problems of our times: climate, coronavirus, now, the battle for truth.”

Ressa called for greater support for independent journalism, for protection of journalists, and to hold accountable those states that target journalists.

In Bahasa Indonesia, we like to say, “Makin bermutu jurnalisme, makin bermutu masyarakat. Makin tidak bermutu jurnalisme, makin tidak bermutu masyarakat.” The more qualified the journalism, the better the quality of the society that it serves. On the other hand, the lower the quality of journalism, the lower the quality of that society.

It is a very clear message indeed. Monarchies, clerics, ethnic leaders, government officials, and the people in South East Asia should understand that message. It’s been two decades, and those messages in support of media freedom are becoming clearer and clearer. South East Asia should promote press freedom and get rid of toxic criminal defamation laws.

It is the only way forward.

Andreas Harsono works for Human Rights Watch in Jakarta. He helped found the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists in 1994, and in 2003 he helped create the Pantau Foundation, a journalist training organization also in Jakarta. He presented this paper at the 34th Deutscher Orientalistentag held at Free University Berlin on September 15, 2022.

It will published under the title "Pioniere der Pressefreiheit. Wie ich vom Reporter zum Medienaktivisten wurde" in the (bi-annual) edition Le Monde diplomatique No 33: "Süd.Ost.Asien - Putsche, Palmen, People Power (South East Asia - Coups, Palmtrees, People Power), edited by Sven Hansen and Dorothee d'Aprile for the German edition of Le Monde diplomatique, Berlin May 2023.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Senam Pagi di Penjara Tangerang

Putu Oka Sukanta

Pagi ini di depan rumah,
Jalan kaki santai santai
Di Rawamangun setiap hari
Melatih langkah dan otot kaki

Meniti garis dalam bayangan
Mencegah oleng ke kiri ke kanan
Melatih napas mengolah gerakan

Bak dayung perahu menyimak gelombang

Tiba tiba entah langit cerah awan beriringan
Tiba tiba entah suara pintu pagar besi
Tiba tiba entah rasa haus,
Mengingatkan suatu pagi di Tangerang
(Penjara Tangerang, maksudku)
Tahanan senam pagi,
Inisiatip sendiri,
Melawan penyakit,melawan sunyi hati.

"Senam pagi,
Lari lari,
Agar kuat
Otot kaki"
Suara telapak kaki lari lari di tempat, sambil bernyanyi.

Maka pada suatu pagi
Komandan bui,
Berdiri di hadapan kami
Berteriak lantang penuh ancaman:
"Kamu melatih kaki
Untuk lari dari bui,
Kamu Setan pelatih senam,
Masukkan ke sel isolasi,
Untung saja tidak kutembak mati."

Pelatih senam kena tinju
Diseret ke sel isolasi

"Jatah makan hanya sekali sehari."

Sejak pagi itu
Senam pagi jadi kegiatan suci,
Hanya dilakukan pemberani,
Sembunyi sembunyi,
Sendiri sendiri.

"Lari lari,
Senam pagi,
Agar kuat otot kaki"

Masih sayup sayup di telinga.

Rawamangun, 18.02.23

Thursday, February 16, 2023

President Soeharto sold out Javanese spiritualism for the support of Islamists, and how that affected religious freedom in Indonesia

By Andreas Harsono

If you drive from Cilacap, a port and trading city on the southern coast of Java Island, and head east for 45 minutes, you may spot a sign pointing to Gunung Srandil. The mountain’s name is a combination of the Javanese words “sranane” (must be) and “adil” (just).

Mount Srandil is no ordinary hill with a view of the Indian Ocean. It is also an ancient mystical complex that houses multiple shrines dedicated to Javanese saints and Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as a Buddhist temple and an Islamic mosque. 

I visited the compound on a very dark evening in October 2021, with a Javanese guru accompanying me with his flashlight as well as incense and flowers. 

His name is Mbah Salio, a caretaker at Mount Srandil. 

Mbah Salio told me that the compound is legally the property of the Central Java army command. A notice board says the area is under the supervision of the command’s detachment on arts and property

“President Soeharto used to be the commander,” he said. 

“He often came here to meditate, not only during his [military] service, but also during his presidency.”

We walked around the vast compound, peering into each shrine. 

Mbah Salio even urged me to drive to a more remote shrine. Through the dark forest, about 30 minutes from the compound, we reached the Pertapaan Cemara Putih (White Pine Hermitage) in Mount Selok. My car was the only vehicle on that village road. 

Mbah Salio asked a guard, who lives nearby, for a key to open the shrine. 

Inside the shrine were three cemeteries and a huge painting of the Queen of the South Coast – popularly known as the mystical goddess Nyi Roro Kidul. Mbah Salio lit incense again, saying a prayer in Javanese amid the dead quiet.

He asked me to make a wish. 

I said, “Religious freedom and belief in Indonesia.”

He returned to his prayer. 

We later drank tea and smoked cigarettes in the guard’s post. 

“President Soeharto, when he was still in power, used to have a helipad there,” Mbah Salio said, pointing to an open field. A Buddhist temple stands near the former helipad.  

Mbah Salio said he met Soeharto there when he was younger. 

I asked him how he would describe Soeharto’s beliefs. 

“He’s a Kejawen but he’s also a Muslim, like me,” he said. “I am a member of the Nadhlatul Ulama. I am a card-carrying member.” 

Young Soeharto’s Spiritualism

Soeharto was indeed a Kejawen; a practitioner of the Javanese folk religion that marries animism, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. Though Islam has become the dominant religion on the island since it arrived in the 1500s, traces of Kejawen are still commonly found in the beliefs and practices of modern-day Javanese Muslims.

In 1935, when he was 14 years old, Soeharto moved to Wonogiri, an agricultural town in Central Java, and got to know Romo Daryatmo, a Javanese mystic and faith healer, through his new foster father. 

In Wonogiri, a young Soeharto not only enjoyed agricultural life – bathing water buffalos and working on rice fields – but also learned about Daryatmo’s spiritual life.  

Daryatmo was a nominal Muslim. He knew the Koran, but more in a Javanese sense than in a conventional Islamic one. As a Kejawen practitioner, he would recite Islamic phrases but did so mostly in Javanese. 

Many people in Wonogiri viewed Daryatmo as a man who had mastered arcane disciplines to establish a harmonious relationship with God and someone who was able to draw from his spiritual powers to cure the sick. 

Soeharto also found in Daryatmo a missing father figure. He soon became Daryatmo’s disciple, moving into the guru’s house, where he worked as a part-time assistant, preparing his morning coffee and assisting him in writing prescriptions for herbal medication. It was a formative period that gave Soeharto valuable insight into Javanese philosophy and shaped his world view.

David Jenkins’ new book, Young Soeharto: The Making of a Soldier, 1921-1945, delves into the early life of Indonesia’s authoritarian ruler, who stayed in power for 33 years, also arguably the strongest. What emerges from the details is the story of the man who was not just a Muslim but also an ardent adherent to Kejawen in a country that has become increasingly Islamized over the last three centuries. 

In his 1989 autobiography, Soeharto: My Thoughts, Words, and Deeds, written by G. Dwipayana and Ramadhan K.H, Soeharto refers to Daryatmo as a kiai, an old Javanese word for a spiritual man. When Soeharto was in power, between 1965 and 1998, he called Daryatmo at least once a week and practiced Kejawen himself. 

Jenkins’ book is essential because it details Soeharto’s Kejawen upbringing and his Japanese military training during their occupation on Indonesia from 1942 to 1945.  

Major General Soeharto rose to power in 1965 during a period of mass killings by the military, paramilitary groups, and Muslim militias. US diplomatic cables from Jakarta documented tens of thousands of killings of suspected Communist Party members, ethnic Chinese, as well as trade unionists, teachers, activists, and artists. Soeharto ruled Indonesia with the military’s backing, repressing opponents, seizing naturally rich lands, and abusing people’s rights

In 1975, when President Soeharto was considering an invasion of Portuguese Timor, he flew from Jakarta to the Dieng Plateau, another mystical site for ancient Javanese rituals. 

He brought his guest, Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, to a secret cave where Soeharto sought to receive spiritual wisdom. 

He decided to invade Portuguese Timor after receiving support from Whitlam, as well as US President Gerald Ford, who he met in Jakarta. The invasion had well-known, tragic human rights consequences for the Timorese people. 

Giving in to Islamists

David Jenkins’ book also reveals an important aspect of Soeharto’s view of Islamists. During the 1977 general election, President Soeharto held a meeting with several Catholic leaders, including Ignatius Joseph Kasimo and Frans Seda. Even before they were seated, Soeharto reportedly told the men, “Our common enemy is Islam.” 

Soeharto was clearly determined to curb the power of Indonesia’s Islamists. In 1978, he created a directorate within the Ministry of Education to service traditional religions, including Kejawen, telling the Indonesian parliament, “These beliefs are part of our national tradition, and need not to be opposed to [established] religions.” 

It was a clever move against the discriminatory regulations against religious minorities that were in place when Soeharto took power. Going back to January 1946, Indonesia had established the Ministry of Religious Affairs, a government body that facilitated discrimination against religious minorities and refused to recognize or serve the country’s traditional, local religions like Kejawen. The ministry produced a narrow definition of religions in 1952, favoring only monotheistic religions including Islam and Christianity, and drafted the 1965 blasphemy law, which has been repeatedly used with deleterious effects against followers of local religions. 

Soeharto did not push the Ministry of Religious Affairs to serve local religions like Kejawen, but instead put the mandate under the Ministry of Education, changing its name to the Ministry of Education and Culture

He supported his education minister, Daoed Joesoef, himself a devout Muslim, to issue a regulation on state school uniforms that banned the jilbab, the Indonesian name for the head, neck, and chest covering worn by women and girls to promote Islamic beliefs.

Significant tensions arose between Soeharto and the military in 1988 after a close aide, General Benny Moerdani, himself a Catholic, advised Soeharto to differentiate between his official duty and his children’s business interests, which were widely alleged to be connected to corruption. Soeharto recognized that maintaining his grip on power would require eliciting support from other, opposing groups, especially the Islamists. 

So in 1991, Soeharto reversed his approach toward them. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca, promoted his Islamic credentials, embraced political Islam, and extended his support for the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals, where many Islamists channel their political aspirations. The Ministry of Education and Culture issued new guidelines on school uniforms that allowed “special clothing,” which gave birth to policies allowing state schools to allow their female teachers and students to wear the jilbab. 

This was the beginning of the slippery slope towards greater introduction of the Islamization in Indonesia, all for the sake of Soeharto’s continued political power. But even that power was not to last. 

In 1998, after more than three decades in power, Soeharto was forced to step down in the face of massive public protests at the height of the Asian economic crisis. 

The reversal of Soeharto’s efforts to support religious freedom reopened the door to establishing Sharia, or Islamic law, which was previously frowned upon under his administration. This prompted Muslim politicians in predominantly Muslim provinces to draft ordinances that reflected “Islamic values.”

“What kind of Islam is this?”

When Soeharto’s wife, Siti Hartinah, died in April 1996, the Soehartos organized the funeral like a Kejawen family. Her body was placed inside a coffin – not wrapped in white muslin in accordance with Islamic rites. There was no imam reciting the Islamic confession of faith into the ear of the deceased. 

Then-Vice President B.J. Habibie visited the house with his wife and two sons. At one stage, Habibie’s 32-year-old elder son, Ilham Akbar Habibie, remarked, just a little too loudly, “What kind of Islam is this?” 

On things that mattered most, Soeharto revealed that spiritually he was really a Kejawen believer, in line with the teachings of Daryatmo, who had inspired him as a youth. But his use of his Islamic credentials to maintain power backfired on him – and on Indonesia. 

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who ruled between 2004 and 2014, accommodated the demands to promote Islamic Sharia. His administration strengthened the blasphemy law, leading to the prosecution and imprisonment of 125 people in a decade – a steep rise from only eight cases in the three decades during Soeharto’s rule.

The blasphemy law recognizes only six religions in Indonesia: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Under the Yudhoyono administration, the blasphemy law was also expanded to discriminate against smaller non-Sunni Islamic minorities, such as the Ahmadiyah and Shia sects. 

The blasphemy law became a political weapon to mobilize Muslims against adherents of other religions. The prime example was the move to unseat Jakarta Governor Basuki Purnama, a Christian, who lost the 2017 local election after 500,000 Muslim protesters mobilized to demand that he should be prosecuted for defaming Islam in a public speech. Purnama also lost his freedom, ending up in prison for two years on bogus charges.

So Soeharto, a true Kejawen believer, who often visited Javanese shrines like Mount Srandil and Dieng Plateau, failed to use his perspective, knowledge, and power to promote religious freedom and belief in Indonesia. Indonesia is far worse off today because of the path Soeharto took to employ Islam to bolster his political power, and followers of local religions like Kejawen face a grave reckoning.

Mbah Salio nodded, repeatedly, when I wished for religious freedom and belief in Indonesia. 

“That is also my prayer,” he whispered. 

Andreas Harsono is a researcher for Human Rights Watch.