Opposition groups and movements began to challenge the legitimacy of the New Order, despite the risks of opposing the authoritarian regime. Democratic, Islamist and progressive groups and parties led the resistance nationally. The student movement, trade unions and non-government organisations were the staunchest advocates for reform in Java. In Timor Leste, Aceh and Papua, opposition took the form of armed struggle led by local nationalist leaders fighting for autonomy or independence.
Early mobilisation for reform of the New Order came from inside the system. Some within the regime began to look for ways to advance gradual change as it became increasingly apparent that the New Order was becoming more and more authoritarian. In 1980 some prominent Indonesians, including former prime ministers and military generals, issued the “petition of fifty”. They objected to Suharto’s abusive co-option of Indonesia’s Pancasila national ideology of faith, humanity, national unity, democracy and social justice, which he had personlised to the extent that any to challenge his person was a challenge to Indonesia itself.
However, the pace of reform was too slow for Indonesia’s youth and student movements who were agitating for much more rapid and radical change. Momentum for reform gathered speed in the mid-1990s as various groups mobilised to demand the end of military interference in politics and reform of the state. Dissenting groups took various forms, including national movements for reform and social change led by students and progressive intellectuals, political and human rights movements led by NGOs, and nationalist groups in the peripheries challenging their relationships with the centre. In the early 1990s the labour movement also became a key force for change, and it grew through the decade, gathering, expanding and consolidating public support.
Relative economic success mitigated the political frustration of many middle class Indonesians, who might otherwise have reacted more strongly to political oppression. For some, economic gain seemed more important than liberal democracy or political freedom. Indonesia was an emerging economy and the epitome of an autocratic state with strong growth and a liberal economic system.
But things changed dramatically when the Asian economic crisis struck Indonesia in 1997. Indonesia was the hardest-hit Asian country. The Rupiah fell by 83 per cent in one year (July 1997–June 1998). Many businesses collapsed and millions of Indonesians were plunged beneath the poverty line. The legitimacy of the state disintegrated along with the currency. The rapidity of economic decline provoked middle class Indonesians to become some of the most vociferous advocates of reform.
Protests gathered pace, especially in urban areas, as students and intellectuals swelled the ranks of demonstrators. The regime responded by dramatically scaling up its efforts to suppress dissent. The killing of students by security officers in May 1998 proved a pivotal moment. The eyes of the public were on the military – would it side with the protesters or the regime?
The overwhelming unpopularity of Suharto, the depth of the economic crisis and the breadth of demonstrations across the country convinced the military to back the reform movement, if only to ensure its own survival. Faced with no option but to resign or risk a bloodbath, Suharto conceded office on 21 May.
From the outside, the collapse of the New Order regime looked like the explosive result of economic collapse. In reality it was the culmination of a long evolutionary process of pressure for reform – although the economic crisis was a decisive trigger. The end of Suharto sparked an Indonesian perestroika led by the transition government of acting President Habibie who began to lay the foundations for press freedom, free elections, military reform and political decentralisation.
The success of the reform movement spurred existing armed resistance movements in Indonesia’s periphery: in Timor Leste, where people were demanding an end to illegal annexation; and in Papua and Aceh, where people were challenging not only the brutal and exploitative policies of central government, but also its legitimacy to rule per se.