TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The January 15, 1974, incident was the milestone that accelerated the centralization of Suharto's power. Immediately after the destruction and burnings that killed several people, the New Order regime clamped down on people viewed as the opposition.
When the students took to the streets during the day the Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka came to town, they shouted their opposition to the presence of foreign capital. But together with other groups, they were actually angered at Suharto becoming authoritarian and repressive. The relatively young New Order regime slowly began to show a less friendly face, especially through intelligence activities known as Special Operations, or Opsus.
Groups critical of Suharto joined forces with the students at the beginning of 1974. The movement was encouraged by one faction within the military. But at the same time, other factions within the armed forces set a trap to finish off the first movement. This, at least, is the version believed by Gen. Sumitro, who led the Command for the Restoration of Security and Order, in his biography published after he retired.
The January 15, 1974, student protests ended in tragedy. Before the actions ended, another group started burning stores at several locations in the capital. A total of 144 buildings, 807 automobiles and 187 motorbikes were set on fire. Eleven people died, 17 were seriously hurt and 120 received minor injuries.
Time has revealed many secrets surrounding the disturbances subsequently dubbed the January 15 Catastrophe, known by the Indonesian acronym Malari. For example, it later came to light that Ali Murtopo's Special Operations mobilized crowds at the same time as the students were demonstrating. A conspiracy, which was part of the rivalry between elite groups within the military, was revealed. But for Suharto, Malari was an opportunity to strengthen his grip on power.
Suharto did not wait long to make use of this opportunity. He detained everyone he believed opposed him-both those involved in the incident and those who were not. Using the Special Operations network of Ali Murtopo, Suharto accused the Indonesian Socialist Party and Masyumi, an Islamist party, of triggering Malari. Several people seen to have links to the two parties were arrested.
These repressive actions were then institutionalized in the form of regulations and laws. The press was shackled and watched closely. Political activity on campuses was banned. Political parties were reduced to being partners of Golkar, the government's political vehicle. In the name of stability, repression was used to prop up Suharto in power for the next 24 years.
But even authoritarianism comes to an end. The 1997 global economic crisis brought an end to the regime, which turned out to be less than solid anyway. The fall of the New Order in 1998 was also marked by a bloody tragedy that resulted in deaths.
Malari, the first political disturbance under the New Order era, should have been an early warning to a government that shuts its ears to the voice of the people. Blocking political channels only makes aspirations overflow into other forms: riots, disturbances and anger. Political intrigues that are not resolved openly and transparently, give rise to violence.
Therefore, the political reforms of 1998 are a blessing we must not negate. Political and economic chaos will not vanish by themselves after we abandon this repressive regime. But with democracy, problems can be overcome through a mechanism that is transparent and just. In a democracy, the freedom of expression and opinion should not be used as a means to restrict, but as a balance and a way to improve. (*)