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Indonesia loses its bragging rights

Foreign Policy Magazine - January 12, 2012

Endy Bayuni For years now, Indonesia has been basking in its status as the world's third-largest democracy after India and the United States. Indonesian officials never miss a chance to cite it in speeches at home and abroad, and it is not a claim that they make arbitrarily.

This description of Indonesia is one that you can often find today in international news reports and literature. It is an honor given in recognition of the country's success in making the transition to democracy over the last decade or so, since the country began its political reforms in 1998 after more than three decades of authoritarian rule under President Suharto.

Indonesia should rightly take pride in making the grade in such a short time. In the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, many have even pointed to Indonesia as a model for building democracy in predominantly Muslim nations in the Middle East and North Africa. Indonesia is showing at least that Islam and democracy can be compatible.

After four presidents and three general elections, this country with more than 240 million people today has a functioning democracy. In Freedom House's Map of Freedom 2010, Indonesia is the only Southeast Asian country assigned the color of green (signifying free), along with other countries in the region including Australia, India, Japan and South Korea, and in contrast to the yellow (partly free) and blue (not free) that color much of Asia. That claim to a functioning democracy, however, may soon no longer be apt.

That is not, of course, because China is about to enter the rank of world's largest democracies, which would automatically downgrade Indonesia into fourth position. (Though wouldn't that be something?) Nor it is because the country with the world's largest Muslim population is about to become a theocratic Sharia state governed by a bunch of mullahs. (That's not going to happen, either.) The point is that Indonesia is failing to live up to some of the basic ideals that make a democracy.

While free speech is still kicking and very much alive (officials would often describe Indonesia to visitors as a very noisy democracy), and free and fair elections at national and local levels are now regular features of the political agenda, Indonesia is backsliding on its democratic commitment and coming up short in two aspects that are essential to democracy: law enforcement and religious freedom.

The death of three protesters in Bima on Sumbawa Island in clashes with police during a demonstration against the operation of an Australian mining company in December came as something of a shock to a nation that had assumed that such fatalities only happened under Suharto, certainly not in a democracy where free speech is guaranteed. What was even more shocking was the swift government response in defending the police action (in the name of enforcing the law, ironically enough), even before any independent investigation was launched.

The rulers' old mindset of dealing with protesters from the bygone Suharto era is apparently back. Some would argue that it never left in the first place. The use of live ammunition instead of rubber bullets and other less deadly methods in dealing with protesters appears to be part of the police's standard operating procedures once again.

The Bima tragedy came on the heels of a report of scores of fatalities in clashes over a land dispute between villagers and a plantation company in southern Sumatra. The police also came under strong criticisms because officers deployed to keep the two conflicting sides apart were held directly responsible for some of the deaths among the villagers.

In the easternmost province of Papua, police violently broke up a peaceful gathering of about 5,000 Papuans the moment they declared independence from the Republic and raised Papua'sMorning Star flag, a nationalist symbol, in October. At least five Papuans were killed in the province's capital of Jayapura, but in the absence of any independent investigation the circumstances of their deaths can only be the subject of speculation. The government has defended the police action against what it saw as an act of treason.

Free speech for Papuans apparently does not go as far as expressing their wishes for an independent state, although such sentiments have been openly expressed by people in other parts of the country without inviting swift police reprisals. In 2010, for example, the people of the province of Yogyakarta in Central Java loudly demanded that the central government maintain their special status as the only sultanate in the republic. Predominantly Hindu Bali also once openly threatened to leave the Republic when conservative Muslims tried to force through an anti-pornography law that would have effectively barred forms the use of bathing suits for tourists visiting the island as well as a variety of forms of artistic expression, including paintings, sculpture and dance.

One would have wished that police could have been as firm and swift in dealing with the radical Islamic groups that have been taunting religious minorities. Instead, we increasingly find that law enforcement is sorely lacking or ineffective when it comes to protecting freedom of religion, a basic right guaranteed by the constitution.

Official statistics show that 88 percent of the people are Muslims, mostly of the moderate and tolerant Sunni brand, while the rest is made up of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and followers of indigenous faiths. Peaceful coexistence between followers of these different faiths is therefore important to keep the nation together. This state of affairs, however, is increasingly undermined by the action of radical Islamic groups, while the state has been doing very little to protect the religious minorities.

In late December, the tiny Indonesian Shiite community became the latest victim when its school complex on Madura Island, east of Java, was vandalized. Typically enough, the police intervention consisted mainly of escorting the Shiites out to safety, giving the crowd of hooligans who had massed outside a free hand to raze the property.

To be sure, no casualties resulted, but the police failure to protect the property left a sour taste in the mouths of Shiite followers. It also fueled anxiety among other religious minorities about the kind of protection they can count on from the state.

What happened on Madura appears to have become police standard procedure in dealing with mobs of radical Islamic groups bent on harassing religious minorities. It had happened before with the Ahmadis, and it had happened with Christians, the largest among the religious minorities. The one time the Ahmadis refused to leave the compound in Cikeusik in West Java in February last year, three of its followers were bludgeoned to death by the mob. When the case was brought to trial, one of the Ahmadis was given a six-month jail term for not cooperating with the police and therefore "inciting" the violence against the mob in the first place. Six of the attackers, by contrast, received three-month jail terms, mostly for possession of sharp weapons.

Not surprisingly, given the state's action, or inaction, the radical Islamic groups have become even more emboldened in recent years. If they got away once, they rightly assume they would get away again, and again, and again. Each attack becomes even more daring and violent than the last one.

Where Indonesia is heading, given the ineffective law enforcement and the lack of protection for religious minorities, only God knows (excuse the pun). One thing for sure is that its claim as one of the freest and democratic nations in Asia, as so often painted by Freedom House and others, is no longer tenable unless it resolves these basic issues of more effective law enforcement and protection of religious minorities.

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