Nongovernment Organizations (NGOs)

Indonesia Table of Contents

The central concerns of establishment politics under the New Order in the early 1990s were stability and development. A broad array of other issues, reflecting both the changes brought about in the society by development and the penetration of the political culture by issues of global concern, set the agenda of a growing number of Indonesian private voluntary associations. These associations articulated interests ranging from human rights and the rule of law to issues of corruption and environmental degradation. The proliferation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the late 1970s and 1980s was an indicator of both the increased diversity of society and the growth of a modern middle class. It was precisely these middle-class-inspired groups that represented most vocally the grievances of Indonesia's "floating masses." NGOs were independent of government and political parties. Within the framework of Pancasila democracy, the NGOs had to be nonpolitical, but their activities had political impact. To avoid the issue of confusing nongovernment with antigovernment organizations and repoliticization of the depoliticized masses, the term NGO was replaced by other rubrics, such as community Self-Reliance Groups (LSM).

The government's attitude toward the NGOs in the early 1990s was ambivalent. The government welcomed the work of NGOs involved in community self-help projects, rice-roots mobilization for socially or economically useful purposes, and as alternative structures for small development programs. However, the independence of NGOs from the government had the potential for opposition, especially where the NGOs were aggressively intervening in areas of agrarian rights or fundamental human rights. For example, there was a marked increase in the number of conflicts between settled communities and state developmental or commercial ventures. Many of these conflicts involved land use that would alter established proprietary or utilization rights without reference to the community's wishes and without adequate compensation. In circumstances where government agencies acted to support land seizures opposed by local communities, rights questions were taken up by activist groups, students, the press, and networks of interested NGOs. That well-publicized actions at the local level could be translated into national issues was demonstrated in 1989, when protests over the forced relocation of villagers for a World Bank -assisted dam project at Kedung Ombo, Jawa Tengah Province, forced the government to modify its plans. The Kedung Ombo case and other agrarian and ecologically related protests also rekindled student activism, confined since the 1970s to nonpolitical behavior. University students found both a cause and a vehicle for renewed social involvement in the defense of the "little people."

Not only were the Indonesian NGOs/LSMs networked internally, they were networked through the International Nongovernmental Group on Indonesia (INGI) with corresponding groups abroad and were, to the discomfiture of the government, able to bring pressure on foreign-aid donors. The Kedung Ombo affair united the LSMs with human rights and legal groups such as the Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), perhaps the best known of the NGOs and a constant thorn in the state's legal flesh through its interventions in defense of the rule of law. The government's tolerance for the activities of NGOs became increasingly limited as the NGOs' activities moved into areas of sensitive state concerns and reached out to influence external aid givers. After the passage of the Mass Organizations Law in 1985, NGOs were required to file reports to allow the government to monitor their activities. According to Coordinating Minister of Political Affairs and Security Admiral (retired) Sudomo, there were three justifications for disbanding an organization: disturbing national stability, receiving unreported foreign funds, or being directed by a foreigner. The first criterion was very subjective. Criticism of government policy by a domestic NGO could lead to the charge of subversion. At least three human rights NGOs were banned as a result of their unauthorized activities in supplying information to the international community in the wake of the November 1991 Dili incident.

The challenge for the NGOs in the early 1990s was not only their taking up real issues in the political economy, but having to do so when more traditional organizations, such as the established bureaucratic and party institutions, seemed unable or unwilling to perform this function. Keterbukaan was a promise of a more liberal climate for dialogue. Keterbukaan was yet to be accompanied by structural change, however. In 1990 the Institute for the Defense of Human Rights (LPHAM, which itself was banned after the Dili affair) attempted to set up a free trade union that was immediately declared illegal. Working outside the system became almost part of the system. This seeming paradox may have been partly explained by the fact that in this aspect of Indonesian politics, as in so many others, overt change, adaptation, and accommodation awaited the settlement of the succession issue.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress