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Today I work at USAID/Indonesia as a development specialist in the Office of Democratic Governance. But during the popular uprising that led to the downfall of Suharto and the return of democratic government to Indonesia I was a student activist.

After the popular, student led uprising in Indonesia – similar to what recently occurred in Cairo, Egypt — the government agreed to early elections in 1999. I joined the Indonesian Rectors Forum (Forum Rektor), an NGO that was formed in support of democratic elections, and organized a group of individuals to develop manuals and forms for election monitoring. I was subsequently trained as a national trainer for voter education by the American Center for Labor Solidarity (funded by USAID) and as a national trainer for elections monitoring. I was also the head of division for election monitoring training in the Bandung office of Forum Rektor. This led to a position at the national office in which I managed about 300,000 volunteers for voter education, vote monitoring, and parallel vote tabulation, and eventually to a position in the Executive Office.

I knew USAID/Indonesia FSN Mimi Santika (who continues to work at the Mission today) as the Forum Rektor contact at USAID and met her several times in 1999. My first contact with the American Embassy was actually in 1998 with Ining Nurani. Today she is a colleague in the Democratic Governance Office at USAID, but then she was with the Political Section of the Embassy. I met with Ining because the Embassy wanted to know more about the student movement in Indonesia. We talked about the Forum Rektor Task Force strategy on fighting the New Order regime of President Sukharto. We, in turn, were curious about the US perspective.

In 1999 USAID worked closely with other international donor agencies in promoting what would turn out to be the first ever free and fair elections in Indonesia. It collaborated with the Indonesian Election Commissions (KPU) at both the central and local levels to implement election activities. It also extended technical advice to the election commissions and election supervision committee (Panwaslu), and provided voter education to Indonesian local civil society organizations, including the mass media, and training in election monitoring to Indonesian local observers throughout the archipelago. In addition, USAID supported regular opinion surveys on voter registration and the political climate, and conducted parallel vote tabulation on Election Day. It was the first time that Indonesians received regular updates and analysis on the country’s political situation.

The General Election of 1999 was considered the first democratic election in Indonesia after more than 30 years of authoritarian rule in Indonesia. Student organizations such as UNFREL (University Network for Free Elections) and FORUM REKTOR carried on the work of the first university students who sparked the “Reformasi” process in Indonesia in May 1998. Mass religious youth organizations came together to ensure the implementation of free and fair elections by providing voter education to their members and positioning themselves at most all polling stations on the day of the vote to monitor the election process.

USAID also provided assistance to political parties, strengthening platforms and showing candidates how to run clean campaigns and draw women into the electoral process. USAID was the only donor agency that worked to promote the political rights of people with special needs, advocating for ballots for blind voters and access to polling stations for those in wheelchairs.

USAID continued to partner with Indonesian NGOs in the 2004 election with support for political party development, election administration, voter education, election monitoring and oversight. The 2004 election was the first direct election in Indonesia during which a president and vice president along with the Parliament were elected through a direct vote.

Over a decade later, I consider myself lucky to have been part of such a historical movement and fortunate in being able to continue to help Indonesia develop through my work at USAID.