The past two days have seen paranoia about communism result in unprecedented attacks on one of the oldest and most influential civil society organisations in Indonesia, the Legal Aid Foundation (LBH).
The drama began on 16 September, when police broke up an academic discussion on the 1965-1966 violence at the offices of the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Jakarta) and its national umbrella body, the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI). Protesters gathered outside, demanding that the event be cancelled.
The police caved in and said that LBH did not hold the correct permit, even though permits are not required by law for gatherings in a private space like the LBH office. Police prevented elderly victims of the 1965 massacre from entering the building, and later forced their way inside, tearing down a banner for the discussion.
The following day, LBH planned an artistic event as a show of resistance. But rumours spread on social media that LBH was holding a congress of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Despite police trying to convince the masses that it was simply an artistic event, the protesters refused to believe them and tried to enter the building. With the national media watching, police were forced to hold the protesters off, but LBH activists remained trapped inside. We were evacuated to the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and were finally able to return to our homes at 5:30am this morning.
Attacks on and disbandment of discussions on 1965 are nothing new – similar incidents occur almost every year in cities across Indonesia. Police have also set upon the LBH office on several previous occasions. Police were involved in a violent clash at the LBH Jakarta office when I served as chair.
But the events of the past two days represent a deeply troubling new low. Never before has a discussion – on any theme – at LBH been broken up by state authorities. Even when a group of activists declared the formation of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) at the LBH office, the authoritarian Soeharto regime allowed it to occur (although dozens of intelligence officials were there to keep watch).
Protests against LBH are not the problem. LBH and its partners in civil society are firmly committed to freedom of expression – if any organisation wants to protest about LBH or its activities they are more than welcome. But when police fail to protect the rights of citizens to gather and hold a discussion, and instead yield to the demands of demonstrators, then we have a problem. In doing so, police are ignoring their responsibilities and violating the Constitution.
Why would Indonesian National Police Chief General Tito Karnavian, an ally of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, agree to disband the discussion based on pressure from an angry mob and a few retired national figures known to be vocal critics of the president, such as Kivlan Zen?
After all, Tito has shown on many occasions that he is not afraid to pursue government opponents, arresting key agitators in the protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama under charges of treason, naming Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab a suspect for pornography, and recently uncovering the Saracen “fake news syndicate”.
Tito admitted to some activists that police faced a dilemma in dealing with the demonstrators, especially when they had the backing of retired military officials, such as Kivlan and his associates. This may be true, but it is important to recognise that police share some goals with those that called for the discussion to be disbanded.
Accusations of communism are a convenient tool to smother and pressure civil society. Despite nearly 20 years of democracy, there are many elements within the police deeply hostile to criticism from civil society, viewing the civil society movement as a ‘threat’ to the state and themselves. While Tito has shown a willingness to partner with civil society in the past, his apparent lack of ability to control the actions of police raises questions about the motives behind his behaviour.
But was the disbandment of the discussion on Saturday in line with the wishes of the ruling regime? It is possible. Jokowi is in a difficult position, but in many ways he brought it on himself. Jokowi has allowed conservative figures such as Wiranto, Ryamizard Ryacudu, and new faces such as Gatot Nurmantyo back into the ruling regime. Many appear to take some delight in whipping up paranoia about the rise of communism.
Seemingly tired of being accused of connections to communism himself, in May, Jokowi called for communism to be crushed if it rose again. This basically endorsed the violent behaviour seen over the past two days. It is true that if Jokowi defended LBH he would likely again be accused of backing communism. But the lack of any statement from Jokowi over the past two days, and following previous similar incidents, certainly gives the impression – whether intentional or not – that the government condones the action of protesters.
Jokowi seems willing to take another hit from his critics in civil society and contribute further to the shrinking freedom of expression rather than stand up to Islamic vigilantes and conservative military figures.
While Jokowi has his share of enemies in the House of Representatives (DPR), civil society has not been blindly supportive of government policy either. Human rights and anti-corruption activists have been highly critical of Jokowi, and have not bitten their tongues, despite backing him in 2014. While their numbers might not be as great as Jokowi’s Islamist opponents, human rights activists have been especially critical of Jokowi. And they have much more varied list of complaints, rather than simply accusing him of being anti-Islam.
The Presidential Palace has come under fire for its lack of action on resolving the murder of rights activist Munir Said Thalib, the criminalisation of activists, its support for the reclamation project in Jakarta Bay, evictions of poor urban residents in Jakarta, failing to stop the Rembang cement factory from going ahead, ongoing repression of freedom of expression and association in Papua, extrajudicial killings of drug suspects, and most recently, the controversial Regulation in Lieu of Law (Perppu) on Mass Organisations that will allow the government to ban civil society groups without going through the courts. The government appears increasingly sensitive to this kind of criticism.
In light of these developments it is not surprising that LBH and other civil society activists are beginning to sound the alarm about a democratic emergency in Indonesia.
As democracy activists say, the more authoritarian a regime becomes, the quicker it digs its own grave.