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Indonesia Votes to Maintain Ban on Communist Party - 2003-08-04

Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly Monday rejected a proposal to lift the ban on the Communist Party. The ban was put in place in the 1960s after Indonesian Communists allegedly tried to overthrow the government.

Indonesia's ruling party, the People's Democratic Party of Struggle, sponsored the proposal to repeal the ban on the Communist Party. But it withdrew its appeal Monday after a coalition of parties opposed it, including Golkar, the party of former president Suharto.

The debate about the continuing ban on the Communist Party took place during the annual session of the People's Consultative Assembly, Indonesia's highest legislative body, which opened Friday.

The Communist Party was declared illegal in 1967 after years of rivalry between Muslim groups, the Armed Forces and the Communist Party for control over the government. At that time, the president was Sukarno, Indonesia's founder.

Rizal Mallarengeng, with the Jakarta-based policy forum the Freedom Institute, said the trauma of the 1960's still resonates today. "Old people can still remember how painful it was in 1965, '64, '63 - the experience of the country. And I think the Muslim majority and the military are not yet prepared to accept that you can legalize the Communist party," he said.

In recent years, many people worried that the ban indicated that Indonesia's democracy was falling short. But Mr. Mallarengeng dismisses that criticism. "By not legalizing the communist party, our democracy is a little bit imperfect. But it doesn't mean that we can't go on with reforming our country and democratizing it. A good comparison is Germany. It's still banning the Nazi party, but it is still a democratic country," he said.

The Communists are blamed for an attempted coup d'etat in September 1965, which was thwarted by a young general named Suharto. Half a million people - many of them suspected communists - were then killed in purges across the country in one of the bloodiest episodes of the 20th century.

The following year, Mr. Suharto assumed power and ruled the country with the support of the military for the next 32 years.

Until recently, it was the Assembly that chose the country's president and vice-president - making the annual session important for political bargaining and deal making.

Next year, Indonesia will hold its first direct presidential elections.