Joko Widodo watches Soeharto-era anti-communist film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI with senior military and police figures on 29 September. Photo by Laily Rachev for Antara.


On 16 September, police broke up an academic discussion at the offices of renowned activist NGO the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation (LBH). The topic was the killings of alleged leftists in 1965 and 1966 in the wake of the failed coup that brought former president Soeharto to power, public discussion of which has often raised the ire of anti-communist mobs.


This event was more significant than it seems at first glance. LBH has always been critical of government and unafraid to address highly controversial issues. Despite this, security forces have never before broken up a meeting at its offices – not even under Soeharto’s authoritarian New Order, when LBH was often the most vocal opposition voice in the country.


The trouble started when protesters gathered outside LBH, claiming the meeting supported communism. They included prominent Islamist ginger groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and others involved in recent mass rallies against former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. As is so often the case, the police gave in to the mob. They surrounded LBH, forced their way in and closed the event down.


Discussion of the mass killing or imprisonment in 1965 and 1966 of Indonesians supposedly associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) may still be controversial in Indonesia but it is hardly novel. There have been many similar events in recent years (including at LBH) and even public conferences, some endorsed by the government. Likewise, Joshua Oppenheimer’s dramatic documentary about the killings, “The Act of Killing” has been screened in Indonesia and covered widely in the media. Every Thursday, survivors and supporters protest outside the palace to remind President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) of his broken election promise to resolve past violations of human rights, including the massacres of 1965/6.


In this context, having police break into LBH to halt a private meeting seemed extreme and heavy-handed, so LBH organised an artistic event the next day to protest. The mob gathered again, using social media to spread rumours it was a secret congress of the PKI, and pelted those trying to enter with stones. This time, police held protesters off but activists were trapped inside LBH for hours before being evacuated to the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM).


The idea that communism might be resurgent is ridiculous in a country that doesn’t even have a leftist political party. Although the PKI was violently obliterated in the mid-sixties, and communism is a dead letter globally with has no popular support in Indonesia, it is alive and well as Indonesia’s No. 1 bogeyman. Jokowi helped legitimise this in May, responding to claims that he is from a former PKI family by calling for communism to be “crushed” if it rose again. Communism remains the label of choice to smear progressive opponents, as Islamist groups showed in their highly effective attack on LBH.


Civil society leaders like those at LBH are, in fact, the intellectual engine of the reform movement that delivered democratisation in the years immediately following Soeharto’s fall in 1998. For them, the attacks on LBH are another marker of what they see as Indonesia’s slow slide away from liberal democratic reform, towards what they are now calling the “Neo-New Order”.


Civil society figures like Nurkholis Hidayat, the former director of LBH Jakarta, point to a series of disturbing events suggesting a trend towards authoritarianism or, as they call it with a heavy dose of hyperbole, a “democratic emergency”. Typical examples are: the government’s continuing failure to resolve past human rights abuses, including state-led massacres and assassinations, despite Jokowi’s promises to do so; increasing use of bogus criminal charges to silence critics of the government and anti-corruption activists; growing self-censorship in the media; increasing extra-judicial killings of drug suspects; and, more recently, the controversial emergency law (Perppu) on mass organisations that will allow the government to ban civil society groups (like LBH) without going through the courts.


They also point to an increasing number of military tough guys in the Jokowi administration, including Wiranto, Ryamizard Ryacudu and Gatot Nurmantyo, who feed paranoia about the rise of communism using rhetoric borrowed from the Soeharto era.


In short, civil society is losing faith in Jokowi as he follows global politics further to the right. He is probably not greatly troubled by this, however, as there is no progressive alternative for them to support.


In fact, Jokowi’s position is not an enviable one. He is an outsider and a weak president, who has less institutional support than most of his predecessors. He is not a former general like Soeharto or Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or the head of his party, like Megawati Soekarnoputri or B J Habibie. He does not even have a major popular organisation behind him, as did Abdurrahman Wahid. And he faces an array of wicked problems.


One the one hand, he is under great pressure from the emergence of aggressive Islamist politics of the kind that targeted LBH. Earlier this year, they forced the jailing of his close friend Ahok, the former governor of Jakarta, and they clearly have Jokowi in their sights too, trying to smear him as a closet Christian as well as a covert communist.


On the other hand, Jokowi also has to deal with the continued dominance of powerful oligarchs, who control political parties, most of the media and, some claim, more than 60 per cent of the economy. He cannot afford to have too many of these among his enemies, and that means there is not much Jokowi can do about Indonesia’s a poorly-regulated political system, which favours the wealthy and drives candidates to illegally recoup the high costs of getting elected once they are in office. This system has entrenched corruption among the political elite and is a key reason for their predatory approach to public procurement.


All this feeds Indonesia’s continuing poor reputation for transparency, which, in turn, keeps foreign investment away, notwithstanding Jokowi’s constant rhetoric that Indonesia is “open for business”. That, combined with persistent low tax revenues and red tape, has seen economic growth stagnate at 5.2 per cent, well below what is needed. The resulting high prices and lack of new jobs feed discontent.


With elections ahead in 2019, Jokowi knows he has to cater to Islamist rabble rousing and keep the oligarchs happy in order to convince the public that he should be re-elected – all while somehow keeping the police, army and Megawati’s conservative nationalist political party (the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, PDI-P) on side.


In these circumstances, Jokowi probably feels he has little choice but to dump many of his promises to civil society, which is increasing marginalised in any case. After all, if former general Prabowo Subianto runs again against him, most of civil society will have little chance but to stick with Jokowi, even if they think he has betrayed them.


This all suggests the next two years will likely be marked by continued pressure on civil society groups and, just as they say, a continued slide away from the liberal democracy they thought they had won at the turn of the century.


This piece was also published on John Menadue’s blog.


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