Despite political reform, Indonesia abuses persist

Despite democratization since Suharto, Indonesia has ‘dirty little secret’

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PAPUA, INDONESIAIndonesia, hosting President Obama and other world leaders this week, has earned praise for democratic reforms achieved since longtime dictator Suharto was ousted a decade ago.

However, a man serving 15 years in prison for raising a flag wants the dignitaries to know that “democracy is a lie” in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

In remote corners of the archipelago, dozens of demonstrators have been killed in recent months, and anti-government activists are thrown in jail for peacefully expressing their views.

There are at least 100 political prisoners, most in Papua province and the Molucca islands, many of whom complain of being tortured or psychologically abused by guards.

Indonesia says, ‘We’re brothers. We’re equal,’ But you see? It’s meaningless,” said Filep Karma, a prominent political prisoner with nine years left on his sentence. “Our democracy is a lie.”

The 52-year-old father of two spoke to the Associated Press late last month from a location he insisted remain secret, after being granted a brief release from prison to get medical attention.

Outside the building where he spoke, convoys of troops rumbled down the road and soldiers stood on street corners with rifles hanging from their shoulders. Inside, others in the room nervously checked doors and windows.

Overall, the nation of 240 million has made great strides since Suharto’s day, with a vibrant free press, a much improved human rights record and direct elections of its leaders.

For Mr. Obama, who arrives Thursday for the East Asia Summit, the country he once called home is also potentially a counterweight to China’s growing military and economic influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Washington has been aggressively wooing Indonesia. Last year, the Obama administration ended restrictions last year on working with an Indonesian special-forces unit accused of some of the worst atrocities during East Timor’s independence struggle in the 1990s.

The ban, hugely embarrassing to Jakarta, was the final obstacle to normalizing military ties.

Abuses continue, however, in areas including Papua, where the government has struggled to put down a low-level insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, most at the hands of the military, according to civil rights workers.

“It’s Indonesia’s dirty little secret that they still put people like Filep Karma behind bars,” said Elaine Pearson of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Mob violence against religious minorities is also on the rise.

The international community shares some of the blame because of eagerness to present the nation as a democratic success story, Ms. Pearson said.

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