After organizing a campaign for Golkar in the first general election held under president Soeharto in mid-1971, I was wondering with Harry Tjan, my closest friend and compatriot in politics, what more important things we activists should do for the new Cabinet that Soeharto was composing at that time.
We discussed long-term planning and non-governmental input and advice for the new Soeharto administration. Both were important for a new political era. Every new administration must have its hands full of immediate and urgent problems, and would need a lot of help and support to think long term. Such a commitment was important as we were to know where we were going and where we were able to define policies for the short- and medium-term.
It could be critical for a new administration to get fresh ideas from outside the government, which had just overcome changes and a transition. We thought we were in a perfect condition to embark on this vision and idea since we just had Daoed Joesoef and Hadi Soesastro return from their studies in Europe.
We also had the backing of generals Ali Moertopo and Soedjono Hoemardani, two of the personal assistants of president Soeharto, and that was critically important because in those days it was not common for non-governmental institution to “dabble” in strategic and security issues. Soeharto accepted our proposal and even asked the CSIS to become a presidential think tank. We declined and told him we would be more credible in the eyes of the international community to stay outside the government.
Thus, the CSIS was born on Sept. 1, 1971 with a small number of staff led by Hadi Soesastro and Clara
From the beginning, we had a two-pronged approach, first, to give advice, ideas and support to government and other stakeholders such as parliament, political parties ( mainly Golkar ), businesses and NGOs, requested or not.
Second, we reached out to the regional and international communities to inform them about Indonesia and its policies or state of development, while giving feedback to our government and public about development policies and the state of affairs of other important countries in the region and beyond.
We felt quite “useful” in giving our contributions, because we could provide information on new ideas and developments to many others who may not otherwise have had access to this information. We disseminated this information through our seminars, workshops, public and private lectures and publications.
We were also open to “opposition” personalities participating in our activities, although not the most anti-government ones. Our library and the academic assistance provided by our staff to students was also a useful channel to pass on some of our acquired information and wisdom.
However, our efforts were somewhat limited to helping speed up or broaden the process of liberalization and democratization, although we tried quite hard by assisting Golkar, and some of us even worked full time there. The main reason was that president Soeharto did not want Golkar to become a fully fledged party because he only needed it as a vehicle to win elections for him.
However, we were successful in the implementation of human rights and our humanitarian efforts. Since 1972, we had argued, especially through Adm. Soedomo, then deputy commander of the Restoration of Order and Security Command ( Kopkamtib ), to release PKI prisoners, starting with those in Category C who were never involved in the alleged abortive coup of September 1965, nor were they PKI members. There were more than 500,000 of them, many of whom had been imprisoned since 1965. Backed by L.B. Moerdani and Ali Moertopo, we got them released in 1974.
Then there were those of Category B; PKI members with no evidences of involvement in the coup, who have been visited by the International Committee of the Red Cross ( ICRC ) since 1978. There was a total of 32,000 of them, including approiximately 12,000 on Buru Island.
In one year the ICRC visited more than 110 prisons and detention centers and interviewed them without witnesses. The visits were reported only to the Indonesian government, and PMI ( Indonesian Red Cross ) provided necessary assistance. Its reports were so good that the Soeharto government later agreed to release those prisoners too, all between 1979 and 1980. That left less than 2,000 people who were PKI members, supposedly with evidence that they had taken part in the 1965 coup. Many were still detained until Soeharto was forced to step down in 1998.
In Timor Leste, the CSIS also helped approximately 120,000 Timorese refugees who emerged in 1978 after Lobato, the Fretilin leader, was killed — in particular 15-20 thousand small children who literally looked like the Biafra children during the Nigerian civil war: big bellies, sunken eyes, big heads and dehydrated. We managed to convince the ICRC to provide humanitarian aid first before its family reunion and prisoner visiting activities, because this was an emergency. ICRC did a great job by creating field hospitals, saved the small children, and provided healthcare for the deprived. The ICRC even brought in three helicopters and stayed there for more than two years with a budget of more than US$30 million. The family reunions and prisoner visits were conducted later. We still have a soft spot for Timor Leste.
Another limitation was a certain “stigma” the CSIS faced as being true believers and advocates of Soeharto or the military. And since some of the founders were Catholics of Chinese extraction, the CSIS was also labeled a Catholic- or Chinese-run institution. These allegation and even prejudice limited our capacity to reach out to many Muslim leaders. However, we were able to change this by reaching out more widely, especially in the last 12 years of the Soeharto presidency. Then president Soeharto distanced himself from the CSIS and cut off our access to him.
That happened after the general elections of 1987, and in anticipation of his reelection in 1988, I wrote a memo to president Soeharto that was delivered personally by his ADC, a privilege he had given us since 1971. In the memo I stated two points that unintentionally made him angry. The memo was well intended but he did not appreciate it as such.
First, I wrote that he had really achieved a lot during his 20 years of presidency ( 1967 to 1987 ), and had changed Indonesian society tremendously, mostly for the good. But the society had become so complex that he needed to prepare a new generation of leaders to be able to manage it. A rising hero as he was could no longer take care of Indonesia without good preparations, and only he himself could do that.
Second, since he had been president for 20 years, he should now look to the future and prepare Indonesia for the next generation. Day-to-day work could be conducted by his coordinating ministers.
But he was not amused, and he assumed this meant the CSIS wanted to get rid of him. The second point was also received less than favorably because, as it turned out, he wanted to get involved in everything so he could decide which government projects to give to his family and which to his cronies.
From then on, president Soeharto severed our relationship, and advised members of Cabinet to follow suit. But we survived, and the CSIS came full circle in its existence. First, it was very close to government, but not completely trusted by others, and then distant from the government, but trusted by many more people, and since then has been widely regarded as a national asset.
In reality, CSIS’ relations with Cabinet ministers and others in government were not completely cut off and we still maintained cooperation. Since that time, the CSIS has been consolidating, and now we can do what is really most important for the nation and the country. Our main asset is our human resources.
It is incumbent upon the older generation of CSIS staff to show the younger ones how to influence the national debate on democracy and development as well as international and regional relations. We have a certain edge and advantage in external affairs and foreign policy matters and should capitalize on these assets without ignoring the national and domestic developments on which all foreign relations must be based.
Rizal Sukma, who belongs to the third generation of scholars at CSIS, set an example of how much we can achieve when advising then foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda on the concept of the ASEAN political and security community during Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2003.
We have trained a fourth generation of scholars and analysts and they should also be exposed to the internal and external aspects of CSIS work and achievements. In the end, it is the same openness and hard work that we should instill in them: how to help build a society that is plural, open and democratic with social justice.
The future of the CSIS is now in their hands and we trust that they are able to continue this mission.
The writer is the deputy chairman of the CSIS Foundation Board of Trustees.